Home > Architecture, Libraries > Huxtable on the New York Public Library

Huxtable on the New York Public Library

December 4, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments
The stacks below the New York Public Library's reading room.

The stacks below the New York Public Library’s reading room.

[A NYPL vintage illustration, from today’s WSJ]

Ada Louise Huxtable, famed architecture writer still at it at 91 as a critic for the Wall Street Journal, has a must-read piece today on renovation plans for the New York Public Library. The library’s “reimagining” of the main library at 5th and 42nd is described here, where we learn that they

aim to open this iconic building to millions more users — scholars, students, families, job seekers and more — offering them the collections, services, and programs they need, in double the amount of public space. For writers, researchers, and all patrons who need these resources after work, we plan to keep the Library open until 11 p.m. on the busiest evenings. This enlivened, democratic hub of learning and creativity would be a symbol of rebirth across the Library’s 91 locations.

Robin Pogrebin covered the ensuing controversy in a NYT article last April:

The New York Public Library is engaged in a public-relations blitz to address criticism from scholars and writers who object to the library’s plan to reimagine its Fifth Avenue flagship building at an estimated cost of $300 million.

In the past few weeks the library’s president, Anthony W. Marx, has written articles for The Huffington Post and Inside Higher Ed, appeared on radio and television and assembled an advisory panel that includes people skeptical of the plan.

The library’s efforts are the sort of salesmanship that traditionally accompanies any new ambitious undertaking. But they are also an acknowledgment that the plan, which includes the sale of two prominent Manhattan branches, is a dramatic reshaping that has, at the very least, upset library traditionalists.

Several scholars have published criticisms of the project, known as the Central Library Plan. On Friday others began circulating a letter of protest among academics; more than 200 have signed so far, including Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, and Lorin Stein, the editor of the Paris Review. “We are alarmed by the Central Library Plan, which seems to us to be a misplaced use of funds in a time of great scarcity,” the letter says. “We think the money raised can be better used to preserve and extend what already exists at 42nd Street.” Mr. Marx said the issues raised by critics would be considered. “The scholarly community is concerned and we are concerned,” he said.

The project would convert the main library, now strictly a reference operation, into a hybrid that would also contain a circulating library, many computer terminals and possibly a cafe. The Mid-Manhattan branch and the Science, Industry and Business Library would be sold and their operations folded into the main building. To accommodate the new services, up to half of the three million volumes in the stacks under the main reading room would be moved into storage in New Jersey.

Critics say that the money would be better spent refurbishing deteriorating branch libraries, and that the changes will diminish the library’s role as a leading reference center, essentially turning it into a glorified Starbucks. Of particular concern: how long it will take the library to retrieve books from storage.

“The library is being repositioned less as an institution that thinks of research and scholarship than as a kind of fashionable place for intellectuals that is more about entertainment than depth of knowledge,” said Ilan Stavans, a professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College, where Mr. Marx was formerly president.

In September, Pogrebin provided an update:

Responding to objections raised by scholars, writers, artists and others, the New York Public Library has revised its plan to remove most of the books from its flagship Fifth Avenue research center to make room for a circulating library. Library officials said that an $8 million donation would help pay for enough new storage space to keep 3.3 million of its 4.5 volumes at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, at 42nd Street.

The change, approved by the library board on Wednesday, marks a significant shift in the Central Library Plan, a $300 million proposal to turn the historic building into the world’s largest combined research and circulating library.

“I’m very pleased both by the outcome but also by the process,” said Anthony T. Grafton, a Princeton University history professor who serves on the plan’s advisory panel. “It seems to me we saw a great public institution and its leader actually listening to the response of its public.”

The gift, from Abby S. Milstein, a lawyer and trustee, and her husband, Howard P. Milstein, a banker, will cover the cost of building 30,000 square feet of storage space to keep 1.5 million books that would otherwise have been sent to a warehouse in New Jersey. Scholars and others have protested plans to send the books away, arguing that research would be inhibited by the inevitable resulting delays in retrieving books, and that the changes would diminish the library’s role as a leading reference center.

Not impressed, Huxtable observes in her article today that “this is clearly meant to mollify critics. But it is also a red herring. The stacks will still be demolished.”

There’s the “research library versus internet café” issue, but Huxtable has a more fundamental concern (emphasis mine):

After extensive study of the library’s conception and construction I have become convinced that irreversible changes of this magnitude should not be made in this landmark building. I am not going to rehearse the intellectual, literary and sentimental arguments already on the record. This is all about the building, a subject that has not been adequately addressed.

She proceeds to make a forceful, eloquent case for preservation on architectural grounds. Here are excerpts:

No wonder the stacks seem like fair prey; they occupy 38% of the library’s gross area. The buzzwords are “outmoded” and “obsolete.” The fact is that they require substantial upgrading of climate control systems for proper preservation. But what no one seems to have noticed, or mentioned, is that the stacks are the structural support of the reading room. They literally hold it up.

An end section through the building shows the stacks and reading room as a structurally inseparable unit. A longitudinal section reveals their full extent, from end to end and side to side, under the 297 foot long, 78 foot wide and 51 foot high reading room. They are a supporting steel cage, with infills of iron shelving, end pieces and dividers detailed by Carrère and Hastings. There is a different structural system for the rest of the building. Each of the seven stack levels is 7 feet 6 inches high, an extremely compact use of the space.

The stacks are an engineering landmark, but they cannot be designated because they are not open to the public. Incredibly, the Rose Reading Room has not been designated either, although it is eligible. Landmark protection covers the building’s exterior and entrance and exhibition hall.

Bernard Green, who devised the system for the Library of Congress that was built a few years earlier than the New York Public Library, was hired as the engineering consultant for the New York stacks. A contact at the engineering firm that upgraded the Massachusetts State House Library believes that the space freed by moving some books under Bryant Park, along with the existing subbasement below the stacks, could accommodate the necessary mechanical equipment. Restoration and retrofitting would be easier and cheaper than supporting the reading room with the enormously complex and expensive engineering needed during demolition and reconstruction.

The location of the stacks under the reading room was the concept of the first librarian, John Shaw Billings. His rough sketch for the building was developed with the help of William R. Ware, the founder of the Columbia School of Architecture, and incorporated into the competition to design the library. No one was allowed to deviate from it. When the distinguished firm of McKim, Mead & White had the hubris to go its own way, it lost to Carrère and Hastings—architects who realized Billings’s scheme for an enormous, daylit top-floor reading room, directly over the stacks for the most efficient delivery of books to readers. They made brilliant use of a favorite Beaux Arts theme—a processional path from the Fifth Avenue entrance to the climactic experience of the grand reading room at the top. But all of Carrère and Hastings’ elegant classicism is not just window dressing. Their wonderful spatial relationships and rich detail are intimately tied to the building’s remarkable functional rationale.

The current Central Library Plan was conceived internally, using commercial consultants known for doing the numbers and moving the pieces around for organizational change and the best bottom line. It has the approval of Mr. Marx and his predecessor, Paul LeClerc, under whom it took shape, and a 60-member board of successful business leaders with a few writers and scholars for literary embellishment. Commercial consultants are generally clueless about nonquantifiable architectural and cultural values. And so, apparently, are most of the 60 trustees. There is an obvious paucity of architectural historians and structural experts among them.

This is a plan devised out of a profound ignorance of or willful disregard for not only the library’s original concept and design, but also the folly of altering its meaning and mission and compromising its historical and architectural integrity. You don’t “update” a masterpiece. “Modernization” may be the most dangerously misused word in the English language.

Pogrebin’s April article referred to an Inside Higher Ed piece in which Anthony Marx argued for the Central Library Plan. You can find it here. Whatever one’s view on the importance of keeping research materials on site, he doesn’t address the question of architectural integrity that Huxtable raises. I’m no expert, but I found her argument convincing, all the more because she offers an alternative approach:

There are better options than turning the library into a hollowed-out hybrid of new and old. The radically different 21st-century model deserves a radically different style of its own, dramatically contemporary and flexible enough to accommodate rapid technological change. Sell the surplus Fifth Avenue property at 34th Street. Keep the Mid-Manhattan building; the location is perfect. Let Foster+Partners loose on the Mid-Manhattan building; the results will be spectacular, and probably no more costly than the extravagant and destructive plan the library has chosen.

By the way, that illustration of the stacks is amazing, isn’t it?

Categories: Architecture, Libraries
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