The way(s) forward for urbanism, part IV

Welcome to round four! You can find part one here, part two here and part three here.

In this round, I’m going to explore the role of the preservation movement in the future of cities. Now I, along with many academics and critics, am often quick to decry preservationists as simpleminded and focused on preserving the past at the expense of reality. And that is often true. The requirements for building a skyscraper in New York City are rather ridiculous — Jean Nouvel’s new tower next to the Museum of Modern Art recently had its top 200 feet chopped off, because it top apparently wasn’t good enough to be up there with the Empire State Building. That argument is, of course, silly. And dangerous. The idea that what we create now cannot match or surpass what we have done in the past is one I have sharply criticized repeatedly on the blog.

But the truth is that not all preservationists are that simple. Read on past the break for more.

Included here is a piece by Leo Jackman, president of New York City’s Historic Districts Council, in response to a New York Times article by Nicolai Ouroussoff.

Jackman makes the good point that there are many preservationists who do have a nuanced view of the past and its relationship to the present. And the truth is that the idea of preservation is not a bad one — so long as it doesn’t trump plans for a better future. The lesson here is that entire movement’s shouldn’t be written off so easily, by me or anyone else.

The letter is available online here, and reproduced below:

Reading Nicolai Ouroussoff ‘s recent  review of Rem Koolhaas’s exhibit in The New York Times (“ An Architect’s Fear That Preservation Distorts”, NYT, 5/23/11), this preservation architect is struck by the ability of one well-meaning but clueless critic to so totally distort the reality of preservation activity in New York City. Ouroussoff implies that the Bowery has been “repackaged for tourists” by “an army of well-meaning but clueless preservationists who (create)  tasteful scenery for docile consumers while airbrushing out the most difficult chapters of history.”  This is his takeaway from the Koolhaas exhibit, housed in intentional irony in a former restaurant-supply store next to the New Museum on the Bowery, “a neighborhood where the threats to urban diversity include culture as well as tourism”.

The Historic Districts Council (of which I am President), the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, and other groups have been working for years to protect the gritty reality of the Bowery from obliteration. There are few places in the city with a deeper or more varied history, from gentlemen farmers to vaudeville shows to desperate drunks to restaurant supply to punk rock. Yet the City Planning Commission and Landmarks Commission have adamantly refused to take action. The administration clearly has plans for high rise development along this corridor. For-profit development, most of it out of scale and banal in design preceded the displacement of CBGBs – our hands are clean!

Last  week I attended, mere blocks north of Koolhaas’ exhibition space, a mock funeral for 35 Cooper Square, one of the oldest structures on the Bowery. This 1825 Federal was leveled for yet another luxury high rise. I was reminded that while the Mayor’s directives have made the Lower East Side safe for hip tourists, baby strollers & real estate speculation, it is decidedly unwelcoming to immigrants, artists and working people – the very souls who provide authenticity, culture and interest. Preservationists have been trying, without success, to save the affordable tenement housing and some vestige of the neighborhood’s weird charm before Mr Koolhaas and his developer chums flatten it.

And for what? I am old enough to remember Koolhaas’ arrival on the deign [sic] scene. His publication celebrated Manhattan icons, but his built work always seemed to pride itself on a generic sort of form-making. He cleverly invoked the big glass boxes and empty plazas of second phase modernism, adding an occasional tilted floor plate or bright colored wall to confirm his ironic intent. This is no recipe for urban place-making. Ouroussoff enthuses that the storefront gallery looks “vibrant and alive” in the untouched half, but sterile where painted white. That is exactly why some of us wish to maintain some areas of this complicated messy city intact, rather than allow it to be replaced with the shiny undifferentiated super-scaled construction that Koolhaas has realized elsewhere, and our critic seems to favor.

The recently cleaned monuments of Paris or Angkor Wat will get dirty soon enough. Isn’t the 88% of the earth’s surface covered with soul-crushing new suburbs, vapid office parks or dehumanizing favellas a more deserving target of his wrath than the few city centers, historic sites and national parks that are protected from random pillage? Ouroussoff warns in one breath of the large number of recent structures eligible for Landmarking, and in the next of the exemplary modern buildings neglected or recently lost. He cites the Palast der Republik in Berlin, but what of the New York State Pavilion or the Patterson Silk Building closer to home?  Ouroussoff had not deigned to acknowledge efforts by HDC and others to preserve the Jamaica Savings Bank in Queens, the O’Toole Building in the Village, and other post-war icons. Is he aware of the existence of DOCOMOMO – an international group with a New York chapter whose only mission is to save modern architecture? Preservationists have been working for little pay and even less respect to prevent the wholesale loss of our built memory, while Koolhaas and his collaborators seek to wipe it out.

HDC receives regular requests from local groups desperate to keep their neighborhoods safe from the intrusion of fakery. We have succeeded in getting LPC recognition for an Addisleigh Park Historic District in Queens, which includes the homes of many African American jazz greats excluded from other precincts. HDC is currently assisting neighbors in Bedford Stuyvesant, Gowanus and the Grand Concourse to hold onto the character of those places. Koolhaas builds the opposite of what he claims. He is no prophet, and Ouroussoff is sadly ill-informed. Both should climb down from their white towers.

Leo J. Blackman, RA

President Historic Districts Council

So there you have it. Some excellent points made, though I do not think that Rem Koolhaas’s design methodology is “a generic sort of form-making” and I do not think that Ouroussoff is “sadly ill-informed.” The truth is that both Ouroussoff and Koolhaas have a legitimate point; it just shouldn’t be used to pigeonhole all preservationists.

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3 thoughts on “The way(s) forward for urbanism, part IV

  1. […] not the case at all. Time for round five! You can find the first four parts here, here, here and here. The new West Hollywood Library. Photo courtesy LA […]

  2. […] can find the first five parts here, here, here, here and here. Photo courtesy […]

  3. […] discussing his ideas; a piece advocating for more government money spent on high-speed rail; a piece about those instances when preservationists are in the right; and much more. You can explore the […]

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