Michael Kimmelman and Norman Foster Duke it Out Over Library Renovation

A most exciting drama recently unfolded on the New York Times, and believe it or not, it involved architecture. Last week, Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman finally weighed in on the New York Public Library’s Central Library Plan (CLP), the scheme to renovate the iconic Beaux-Arts Schwarzman Library by gutting seven floors of stacks and inserting a Norman Foster-designed circulating library in their place. The drastic $300-million initiative to cut costs has received a welter of criticism from every angle (it was the last urban scheme to be denounced by the late Ada Louise Huxtable), while library officials continue to aver that no alternative options exist.

Here is where Kimmelman swoops in, sifting through months of disputes between proponents and opponents of the plan and ultimately castigating the project with enough gusto to warrant a mention on Gawker. Two days after Kimmelman ”declared war” on the library, an incensed Norman Foster penned a letter to the editor with just barely enough restraint to sustain his aura of British nobility.  And though one text followed the other, we have outlined a point-for-point exchange of blows between Kimmelman and Foster to turn up the heat even more, because this is really as close as the architecture world gets to the melodrama of Downton Abbey.

Kimmelman: “I’m not buying it.”

Kimmelman acknowledges early on that the library needs money, and with its nifty consolidation of three libraries into one and its appeal to the city’s deep-pocketed, investment-minded donors, the CLP will accumulate a healthy endowment of $7 million to $15 million a year. With these projections, NYPL officials have quickly convinced themselves and others that this plan is not only a panacea but also the only solution to the library’s financial and operative problems, and any attempt to formulate another solution — after five years of planning, as NYPL president Tony Marx pointed out — would be irresponsible.

Kimmelman labels this series of events a case of “architectural Stockholm syndrome” and asserts that “[e]ven after all these years, more time is needed to figure this thing out.” Not only could the renovation result in unpleasant architecture, but Kimmelman also believes the actual removal of the 1,300 steel columns that make up the stacks will be a potentially dangerous “engineering hurdle” that is equivalent to — as he quotes an engineer as saying — “cutting the legs off a table while dinner is being served.”

Foster: “The option of doing nothing…does not exist.”

Clearly offended, Foster responds to the critique by subtly undermining Kimmelman’s authority, claiming that not only will the stack removal be structurally safe thanks to “tried-and-tested techniques,” but removal of the stacks is practically mandatory, as they currently do not comply with safety codes or book conservation standards, and they “cannot be adapted to comply.” In other words, time is of the essence, and objectively speaking, the library’s collections are endangered and deteriorating as we speak. Foster follows exactly the logic that Kimmelman claims is faulty.

Switching from his bristled tone to a positive one, Foster adds that the exigent need for renovation has brought forth an opportunity to “create a major public space for New Yorkers,” summoning the argument that compulsory restorations aside, the Central Library Plan is big step toward a more democratic library.

The facade of the Schwarzman Library, via Amal Chen/The Epoch Times

Kimmelman: “[T]he library…is already an exemplar of democracy at its healthiest and best.”

For some time now, the Central Library Plan has incited “snobbish-sounding objections” about how the building will be debased into a glorified Starbucks once it welcomes the masses with new circulating collections. Kimmelman asks readers to set these objections aside and consider how the extraordinary Carrère and Hastings Beaux-Arts building “enshrines, architecturally, the pursuit of enlightenment” and inspires “more people to reach those heights.” With that he declares that the value of a public institution “isn’t measured in public square feet” and supports this point by divulging how The Metropolitan Museum and The American Museum of Natural History make only fractions of their respective spaces accessible to the public. You’ll have to read the original article for a jabbing reference to the “democracy” of American Idol, one of several acerbic allusions sprinkled into Kimmelman’s piece.

Foster: “We seek to protect the library’s historic legacy” and equip the building “for the digital age.”

Foster’s pithy response hits all of the Central Library Plan’s main talking points, assuaging readers that the renovation will not only keep the essential grandeur of the original building in tact but also “create additional spaces” for the public, including the academics who consider the library to be a researchers’ haven. Thus, according to Foster, the scheme will both preserve the library that we have come to love and improve upon it to meet the new needs of our contemporary age. Through innovative design, the institution will gain the best of both worlds, the old and new.

A rendering of the Foster + Partners-designed atrium, courtesy dbox/Foster + Partners

Kimmelman: “The designs have all the elegance and distinction of a suburban mall.”

Here is where Kimmelman really gets his critic on. His detailed analysis of Foster’s plans arrives at a single point: The design is inadequate. He claims that Foster misinterprets the vertical slots of windows — originally intended to minimize the entry of daylight into the stacks — as a defining feature of the proposed new space, creating an “awkward, cramped, banal pastiche of tiers facing claustrophobia-inducing windows, built around a space-wasting atrium with a curved staircase more suited to a Las Vegas hotel.” If a renovation has to happen, Kimmelman says, it should at least “require Mr. Foster’s full attention, or the attention of another architect, one with a genius for devising a pleasing and functional place deserving of this building in a vault never intended for the public.” This plan is lacking in said genius.

Foster: Kimmelman’s “diatribe about our design is both offensive and premature.”

Hey, nobody’s perfect, not even an architect. Foster asserts that designs have not been finalized, and he and his team will continue “to work closely with the library, and the scheme will develop significantly over the coming months.” Foster makes a valid point: When it comes to architecture, an art based on speculations and projections, no one can really anticipate the results of a proposed scheme before actual construction takes place. So do these preliminary designs deserve a reprieve from this sort of epic-fail criticism? That’s for you to decide, but we’re guessing Kimmelman says no.

Kimmelman: “What do New Yorkers actually want from the library system today?”

Foster’s plans aside, Kimmelman asks readers to “take a step back” and consider what issues the library can and should address. For him, the drummed-up fervor for a more “democratic” New York Public Library can translate to more neighborhood branches instead of having donor wealth concentrated into a single prestigious location. And if the library wants to persuade disbelievers of its apparent dearth of alternative (and perhaps less divisive) plans, it should publicize “a detailed cost analysis by at least one independent party — not one of the firms the library has already hired,” says Kimmelman. He adds his own suggestion, proposing that the Mid-Manhattan branch (one of two that would be consolidated into the renovated Schwarzman branch) bring in revenue by selling only portions of its real estate and undergo a renovation that would “cost a fraction of gutting the [Schwarzman Library] stacks and could produce much better architecture.”

The final words of an exasperated critic? “Patience and fortitude.”

- Kelly Chan