The Beautifully Un-Beautiful Backside of the New York Public Library

A recent article in the New York Times brings attention to a side of the New York Public Library (NYPL) debate that the media hasn’t ravenously picked apart yet: the backside. Yes, locals, critics, scholars, architects, and officials have argued relentlessly over the Norman Foster renovation that would turn the Bryant Park side of the Carrère and Hastings building into a publicly accessible atrium. But as for the park-facing exterior, changes to which were approved last month, few have come to the defense of its utilitarian appearance, its reserved aesthetic deliberately downplayed to exclaim its subservience to the Beaux-Arts ornamentation of the frontal, 5th Avenue entrance. In the wake of the hubbub surrounding Foster’s renovation, which will doubtlessly bring new attention to the library’s backside, Times writer Christopher Gray asks: “Can a building’s rear end be better than its front?”

Though the conception of a building as a structure with a distinctive front and back seems rather two-dimensional — a regressive refusal to design in the round — Gray argues that this may not be the case. In fact, he insinuates the opposite: the architects of NYPL’s main branch were among the first to both acknowledge the distinction between the front and the back of a building and answer to the then mounting criticism of this practice without disturbing the rather logical rationale behind the phenomenon: It was simply too expensive to equip all sides of one building with the lush stone decor that was demanded from institutional architecture at the time. Interestingly enough, the rear facade, erected out of carved Italianate brownstone, has been hailed as “protomodern” for its simplified yet indisputably designed appearance. Read more about this famous backside on The New York Times website.

Photo: The rear facade of the New York Public Library / courtesy NYPL

- Kelly Chan