20 Critics and Historians Join Forces to Protest Norman Foster’s Library Renovation

What happens when a bunch of architecture critics and historians join forces to accomplish one goal? Sometimes you get a huge book. But you also might get a letter, in one case, a missive addressed from 20 of architecture’s finest thinkers and writers to the Board of Trustees of the New York Public Library (NYPL), imploring that they reconsider their mission to send architect Norman Foster barreling into the library’s historic main branch.

A group including Thomas Bender, Mary McLeod, and Joan Ockman signed a letter earlier this month, quoting recent articles by Wall Street Journal critic Ada Louise Huxtable and New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman, which criticized the current plan for renovating the NYPL’s Carrère and Hastings building. “The library’s lack of transparency in involving the public in its planning process angered Huxtable, as it has us,” reads the letter. “We, like Kimmelman, are convinced the proposed intervention would do much to damage the architectural character and experience of Carrère and Hastings’ magnificent Beaux Arts landmark.”

The authors were also careful to clarify what was a tenuous argument suggesting that Norman Foster’s renovation would compromise the library’s current status as a haven for serious academics and researchers. “The scholars among us do not object to the public or to teenagers sharing this space. But considering all the trade-offs, the library should seriously reconsider renovating the 40th Street branch [the Mid-Manhattan Library] for a circulating library where Foster’s talents could be used more appropriately.” The proposed alternative echoes Kimmelman’s own suggestion, but above all, the letter beseeches more discussion “[b]efore such an irreversible decision is made.”

Can an ever-growing artillery of words stop this brick-and-mortar intervention? Only time will tell. But library officials have responded with a few words of their own. “All large public projects get stronger as they receive feedback—which has certainly been the case for this plan,” said NYPL’s vice president of communications Ken Weine, who makes a valid point: architecture is very much an art of consensus. Weine added that, in the past five years, the library has welcomed “a wide variety of public discussions on the library renovation—including with a range of architecture and preservation groups and most recently preceding the votes of New York City Community Board 5 and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, both of which approved the plan. Our conversations will continue and we look forward to talking with this group and many others as our planning proceeds.”

Read the full text of the letter to the library here.

Image: A rendering of the Norman Foster + Partners-designed atrium for the NYPL / courtesy the architects

- Kelly Chan