A Halfhearted Fare-Thee-Well to a Middling Design
Sunday, September 28, 2008
NEW YORK -- For some reason, my life has intersected with the work of Edward Durrell Stone, the architect who broke with orthodox modernism in the 1950s and created such landmarks as Washington's Kennedy Center. Stone designed the Unitarian church my family attended in Schenectady -- with its cool, sunken circular main hall, like a giant conversation pit for talking with God. Alas, the flock was a little too handsy and dope-smoking for my Ayn Randian parents.
I'm not sure we ever made the connection -- that's part of the problem with Stone's often bland but eclectic architecture -- but when my mother went back to school, she often complained bitterly about another Stone project, the chillingly overscale campus he produced for the University of New York, in Albany.
And later, while working at my first publishing job in New York City, I emerged daily from the subway at Columbus Circle, where a Stone building, silent as a haunted house and clad in white marble with funny porthole windows, housed the city's Department of Cultural Affairs. I remember thinking of it as a grim harem guard, defending the happy precincts of the Upper West Side from the fleshpots of Midtown, Hell's Kitchen and Times Square. But that was before Rudolph Giuliani scrubbed all the sex out of the city.
After years of neglect and a bitter dispute with historic preservationists, 2 Columbus Cir. reopened yesterday as the home of the Museum of Arts and Design. It is completely renovated inside and so transformed by its new skin of fritted glass and ceramic tiles that there is little to remind anyone of Stone's original design. A building that was hard to love has been turned into a building that is hard to hate.
The defense of 2 Columbus Cir. might not have been so passionate -- Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, declared it one of 35 "modern landmarks-in-waiting" -- if Stone's work wasn't under general assault around the country. I remember a vain attempt, when I was an editorial writer working in St. Louis, to save Stone's old Busch Stadium, the distinctive, low-rise, arched home for the Cardinals. But it was torn down in 2005 and replaced by a generic money-printer of a modern ballpark, complete with high-price skyboxes. It wasn't an epic loss for architecture, just another example of a decent building with integrity being replaced by a shameless exercise in commerce.
The progress of Stone to rubble continues around the country, including in Fayetteville, where housing he built for the University of Arkansas has been torn down. In Washington, where some people, perhaps by force of habit or local loyalty, actually love his Kennedy Center, there have been Stone losses. His building for the Transportation Department at L'Enfant Plaza has been completely covered in glass, making it, too, unrecognizable as his work.
But it was 2 Columbus Cir. -- one of his more interesting designs, but the wrong building for its prominent site -- that became the line in the sand for preservationists. Opened in 1964 as a private art museum for Huntington Hartford, the eccentric and extraordinarily rich heir to the A&P supermarket fortune, it was an inward-looking marble tower, with a bent facade, marooned on a little patch of land near the busy intersection of Broadway and Eighth Avenue.
It was an uncanny architectural echo of a classic decadent French novel, "A Rebours," by Joris-Karl Huysmans, in which a wealthy aristocrat turns his back on all canons of established taste and retreats to an inner sanctum filled with strange and lurid art. Like the hero of "A Rebours," Hartford was working "against the grain" of contemporary taste; and like the home into which Huysmans's hero retreats, Hartford's museum had "useless" porthole windows.
From the outside, the building was a modernist take on "Venetian" style, with an arcade of odd-shaped arches at street level that created the unfortunate impression of a line of lollipops. High above the city, an arched "loggia" offered stunning views of Central Park. Inside, it was a dark, wood-paneled fantasy of private pleasure and contemplation, with a sumptuous penthouse club covered in tapestries where you could look out on Gotham like some villain from a Batman movie.
Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architects in Portland, Ore., redesigned the building for the Museum of Arts and Design, which wanted galleries, offices, classrooms, a gift shop and restaurant. Except for the basement auditorium, where Stone's interior is preserved, the building is a white box for art, with a zigzag line of windows that cuts up from the base of the building, bringing light into its once-tenebrous interior.
"We did not tear the building down," says Cloepfil. Certain details, such as the lollipop arches, were preserved to "carry forward memory," while the whole space was made more congenial for visitors. "It offers much more to the city than the previous building did."
Stone is often praised for breaking with the rigid, anti-historical dogmas of modernism, which eschewed ornament and historical references. Cloepfil argues that Stone was essentially a very good corporate architect and that what is now championed as a courageous break with dogmatic modernism was really all about appealing to such elite clients as Hartford, who enjoyed the "Mediterranean" references.
That seems about right. Over time, the austerity of pure modernism outstayed its welcome, and any break with glass-box conformity was relished as transgressive. In an odd and exuberant paean to the building published in the New York Times in 2006, former architecture critic Herbert Muschamp defended it as . . . a gay icon. "No other building more fully embodied the emerging value of queerness in the New York of its day," he wrote, about a space built for a man who dated Marilyn Monroe and had four wives.
But a strong personal affection isn't enough to keep such a useless building in such a prominent place. The arguments of its defenders -- it was a repository for memory, a monument to idiosyncrasy, a gay icon -- are all good but unwisely mustered in the case of this particular pile.
I feel like I should have liked this building more, but I can't say I'll miss it. Perversity in architecture is a good thing. Cities need places that are strange and hard to decipher. There is too much conformity in New York, and Columbus Circle, which has become a vibrant space, is hopping mainly because it has a new shopping center -- with all the usual brand names you can find in any city in the world. Stone's Venetian tower stood athwart that kind of pseudoprogress like a white elephant on the road to banality.
But I won't miss it. If there's a battle to be had about the value of mid-century architecture, it shouldn't be fought on behalf of Edward Durrell Stone, whose work is being dismantled for a very simple reason: It isn't very compelling. Often it was weirdly out of place: a dour, Venetian building at a busy crossroads of Manhattan; a sunny white plaza with open courtyards and arcades on an often freezing and rainy Upstate New York campus. Or monumentally pretentious, such as the Kennedy Center, a building that would be much better if you could dismantle the big white box it sits in, open up its huge, Stalinist corridors, whack off its ridiculous and spindly columns, and scrub it free of all the red and gold trappings of luxury that are so dated and oppressive.
Some structures should be preserved based on longevity alone. But it dishonors the practice of architecture to preserve buildings in the middle ground of history, where Stone's work falls, that aren't otherwise great architecture. And while 2 Columbus Cir. was one of Stone's most curious and eccentric spaces, and while there are domestic projects and smaller works such as the Unitarian church that have real merit, quirkiness is not alone an argument for preservation. Even the hero of "A Rebours" had the good sense to locate his private, inward-looking pleasure palace in the suburbs, "twenty minutes' walk from the station." Not over the crossing of the One, A, B, C and D trains.