November 15, 2012

“Firestorm on Fifth Avenue”: Vanity Fair on the NYPL renovation


Finally a new voice in the controversy surrounding the New York Public Library’s “Central Library Plan”: Vanity Fair architecture critic Paul Goldberger.

In a nine-page feature for Vanity Fair, “Firestorm on Fifth Avenue,” Goldberger takes an in-depth look at the library’s $300 million renovation plan, which calls for the NYPL to sell off two major library facilities in Midtown Manhattan and replace them with a circulating library to be constructed within the stacks that presently hold the humanities research collection in the NYPL’s iconic 42nd Street library.

It’s a balanced piece, which ticks through the odd history of the renovation plan and the important role that critics of the library’s process have had in drawing attention to it.

But unlike previous reports in The Nation  (by Scott Sherman),  n+1  (by Charles Petersen), and by Caleb Crain, Goldberger is clearly in favor of the library’s plan. As he writes,

Not one of New York’s great cultural institutions looks today the way it did half a  century ago. Since the 1970s the Metropolitan Museum has been pushing its galleries into Central Park with new glass façades; the Museum of Modern Art seems in a state of constant construction, with two towers added to West 53rd Street and another on tap; the Morgan Library gave itself a new front door into a glass atrium; and Lincoln Center has just finished a thorough makeover and expansion. Every one of these transformations has come in the name of accommodating crowds that seem to grow ever bigger, and while most of these new buildings and additions are visually spectacular, each of these institutions has been accused at one time or another, sometimes justifiably, of selling its soul for a mess of architectural pottage. The one exception to the architectural feeding frenzy has long seemed to be the New York Public Library.

Goldberger’s position, to summarize my impression of his essay, is that the library should indeed be modernized, as most Midtown cultural institutions have been, to keep it relevant.

It’s also notable that Goldberger likes the architect who signed on to design the library’s addition: Norman Foster. Indeed, as Goldberger discloses in the piece, “I assisted the library in 2007 in putting together a preliminary list of architects that included Foster, although I played no role in the final selection.”

It’s a good bit easier to feel warmly toward the library’s plans these days. In September, as Goldberger reports, the library revised the most controversial and criticized aspect of the Central Library Plan: to move some 3 million books to off-site storage in Princeton. (A move that would have cleared the space needed to build a new circulating library in the 42nd Street library.)

As the New York Times reported, a gift from “Abby S. Milstein, a lawyer and trustee, and her husband, Howard P. Milstein, a banker,” will now allow the library to renovate unused storage space under Bryant Park and thus keep 1.5 million books from the research collection on site.

The gift, and presumptively its solicitation from the Milsteins, followed months of criticism from writers and scholars. “I think they are shocked at how responsive we’ve been,” Anthony Marx, NYPL’s president, tells Goldberger, about petitioning writers and the NYPL’s modification of the Central Library Plan.

But even with this significant modification, I was surprised — as a skeptic of the Central Library Plan — not to see Goldberger write critically about two major and unresolved issues.

First, is a $300 million investment in construction and architecture the best way to spend the library’s resources, or to modernize the library and its 87 branch libraries? As Caleb Crain noted in April, it would likely be much cheaper to renovate the Mid-Manhattan branch library — a move that would keep two major library facilities in Midtown and also allow the NYPL to cut costs.

Second, what about the the arguments of preservationist Mark Alan Hewitt, who says that destroying the stacks would be a major blow to the architectural vision of Carrere and Hastings, who designed what’s now called the 42nd Street library?

Goldberger does make reference to the stacks, saying “there is no doubt of” their “historical importance.” But he also writes that:

The bookstack, unlike the frumpy Mid-Manhattan Library, is a magnificent artifact, an elaborate structure of steel and iron designed for rapid retrieval and delivery of books to readers waiting in the monumental reading room above. But it is neither well air-conditioned nor humidity-controlled, and its conditions are more conducive to the destruction of old books than to the preservation of them. (Paper deteriorates more rapidly in fluctuating temperatures and high humidity.) With low ceilings, open space between floor levels, and almost no room for ductwork, the bookstack would be difficult, if not impossible, to turn into the kind of controlled environment the library has in New Jersey—or, for that matter, underneath Bryant Park.

It’s an interesting position for an architecture critic. Norman Foster can accomplish the $300 million feat of building a library inside a historic building — presumably with air conditioning — but these old, “magnificent” stacks, central to Carrere and Hastings’ original design, can’t be saved.

No, the stacks can’t be saved, he says: it’s too difficult, maybe even “impossible.”



Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.