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Although Marcel Breuer's is most famous for designing the UNESCO Building in Paris and the Met Breuer (the former Whitney), the architect also designed a monumental public library in Atlanta. The future of that building, like so many Brutalist structures, is now in jeopardy.
It wasn't always this way. In the mid-1960s, attitudes towards the architect and his future building were solicitous: The then-director of the Atlanta library system was so impressed by the Whitney (completed in 1966) he urged the library board to invite Breuer to design the Central Library. After negotiating a 275-page program, and significant delays in funding, the project was completed in 1980. The six-story, 265,000-square-foot library featured a 300-seat theater, a restaurant, with space for more than 1,000 patrons and one million books. On the exterior, precast concrete panels are bush-hammered for texture, while inside, floors two through four are connected by a massive concrete staircase.
During the 2008 recession, the city asked voters to approve a $275 million bond referendum to expand two library branches, build eight new ones, and renovate others. If the county could come up with $50 million, over 30 percent of the bond could go towards…replacing the Breuer–designed library with another library.
Although critics like Barry Bergdoll have praised the structure as a perfect example of the "heavy lightness" that characterizes Breuer’s Bauhaus–influenced forms, the Brutalist aesthetic did not play well in Atlanta. Whether this indifference expressed itself through lack maintenance is difficult to determine, but the building has deteriorated, and programs have shrunk: In the mid-1990s, the theater closed after part of its ceiling collapsed while the restaurant was shuttered at the end of that decade. In 2002, the city spent $5 million to renovate the building, adding colorful walls and carpeting to improve its public perception.
As preservation petitions from groups like Docomomo attest, many municipalities struggle to preserve modern architecture, especially buildings that are seen as not user-friendly, or those that are "aesthetically challenging." Stephanie Moody, the chair of Atlanta’s library board, has asked the county to consider reallocating the funds for the central library for use at other, more popular branches. The remaining cash would be used to buy land and build a new library to replace the main branch.
Moody told local blog Creative Loafing that downtown doesn’t need a library the size of Central. County commissioner Robb Pitts framed the situation bluntly: “[Funding] would be for some renovations plus the construction of a brand new Central Library to be located in Downtown Atlanta. Period,” he said. “They’re not renovating the existing one. It’s very clear that the construction [of a new one] is what the voters called for.”
Although the building is listed on the 2010 World Monuments Watch List of Most Endangered Sites, its fate remains undecided, for now.
- Ken Bernstein, Manager, Office of Historic Resources, City of Los Angeles
- David Myers, Senior Project Specialist, The Getty Conservation Institute
- Trudi Sandmeier, Director, Graduate Programs in Heritage Conservation, University of Southern California; Member, SurveyLA Review Committee
- Maristella Casciato, Senior Curator of Architectural Collections, The Getty Research Institute; Former President of Docomomo International
- Timothy Hyde, Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Planning, MIT
The UN Plaza Hotel Ambassador Grill and Lounge, designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo and completed in 1975, cleverly uses mirrors and lighting to create faux skylights that help transform the basement space into a theatrical yet tasteful dining room that feels surprisingly spacious. If Mad Men aired for another few seasons, we surely would have seen Don Draper brokering international ad deals in its velvet banquettes. Maybe that would’ve helped cultivate some romantic attachment to the spaces, which are now under threat.
The hotel was renovated and rebranded as One UN New York in 2012 by owners Millennium Hotels and Resorts, who announced the second phase of their renovation last November, promising “the debut of a new restaurant and bar concept.” It was a call to arms for preservationists, who were further alarmed by reports that exploratory demolition was underway in the Ambassador Grill despite a lack of permits. The reports were disputed by Millennium, who closed the restaurant last year and said that no decisions have been made.
Opponents of the presumed renovation are seeking to protect the restaurant, as well as the hotel lobby—a decidedly postmodern hive of reflective glass and marble completed in 1983—by having them designated interior landmarks. In early January architecture advocacy group Docomomo US filed a Request for Evaluation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission and have created a petition to raise support for an expedited public hearing. To qualify as a landmark, an interior must be 30 years old, publicly accessible, and have a “special character” or historical import that gives it cultural value. Those against landmarking call the spaces ugly and dated; those in favor argue that they are some of the most intact and significant late-modern spaces in the city and an exemplar of Roche’s use of mirrored glass, which he pioneered in 1962 while working on Bell Laboratories for Eero Saarinen.
Of the 117 interior spaces that have earned the landmark designation since it was initiated in 1973, only four are restaurants, including the Four Seasons, which has been threatened despite its status. Currently, the “youngest” interior landmark is Roche and Dinkeloo’s 1967 Ford Foundation, so the actions of the commission are particularly important because they’ll set a precedent for the preservation of late-modern and postmodern architecture in New York.
In lieu of a Draper-esque pitch to inspire careful action moving forward, the comments from the 1982 Pritzker jury seem apt: “In this mercurial age, when our fashions swing overnight from the severe to the ornate, from contempt for the past to nostalgia for imagined times that never were, Kevin Roche’s formidable body of work sometimes intersects fashion, sometimes lags fashion, and more often makes fashion.”
Roche’s declared design intention was to create an open urban plaza that defers to and displays the monumental Beaux-Arts façade of the museum. He wanted to distinguish the urban face …on Fifth Avenue from the park portions of the other three sides... (The Chapter) is hopeful that any modifications to the present plaza, to the extent that they are necessary, conform to the underlying principles of the Kevin Roche design-preserving an open urban plaza with unimpeded access to (his ingeniously three –sided) entrance stairway and unobstructed visibility of the stairs, adjacent facades and ground level entrances.And with the results now plain, how right they were. With the exception of a masterwork of exterior nighttime illumination by Hervé Descottes and his L’Observatoire International that subtly responds to the architecture’s classical hierarchies and the replenishment of the subsoil, it is only now that the relative dignity of this earlier renovation is fully evident. Restoration of the restoration was a worthy option after all. Apologies are due them. Despite some working drawings from McKim, Mead, & White in which the option of flower and shrub beds appeared alongside the façade elevation, their final intent was clear with the dignified built encounter of limestone and pavers accentuated further by the pedestrian-scaled Roman grills that inform urban places of majesty and safe-keeping. OLIN’s decision to place such beds there seems a pallid suburbanization vying to extend the park setting instead of contrasting it. Imagine flowers alongside the Pantheon or its Renaissance-descended Palazzo Farnese? Meanwhile, the new fountains, while retaining a classical symmetry, end up compromising the pomp and circumstance of the Roche-thrusting and much expanded grand stairs with a tight perplexing proximity. The visitor today cannot help but wonder if it is some disguised stab at crowd control. And while their new placement was meant in part to make more legible the secondary street-grade entrance at 81st Street, the trade-off is untested and dubious; who can resist mounting those stairs? This is a classical threshold at its iconic best. The waterworks vary in height and rhythm in a mannered echo of WET Design’s signature creations yet at low height the sprouts seem more than a tinkle. The previous fountains recalled the classical rigor that informed so much of high Modernism. This was never meant as a playful place. Instead it was always meant for unencumbered dignity; all who enter should arrive as big shots knowing that they each held a key to this great repository of beauty and truth. Likewise the addition of dozens of trees even as now young and leafless obscures the architecture. What about in 20 years? It is hard to object to more trees in this warned up day and age but here is one place where the sum is less than the design parts. Finally and through no fault of either client or landscape architect there is a the all too frequent New York curse of visual pollution as arises in public places, where governing statures collide and, in turn, destroy the clarity of the guiding design blueprint. Here at the Met plaza, it is the curbside licensed food vendors. Ironically the spot-on instinct on the Museum’s part to include in its initial plan outdoor kiosks for such inevitable trade was denied by the oversight Landmarks and Public Design Commissions in convenient disregard for the ultimate reality of the streets. With the present redesign, Mr. Koch might well wish that for now at least his name not be its site label after all. He seems shortchanged as much as those he generously aims to benefit.