New York, New York

Withering Heights

Great buildings deserve strong guardians and even stronger PR, and so do bad buildings apparently, as shown in the case of 2 Columbus Circle.

Ever since 1961, when Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities—which, in part, called on Americans to cherish the old rather than demolish it—the preservationist movement has been one of the driving forces in urban evolution. And thank God—because of it, countless beautiful buildings by great architects have been saved. But every movement has its excesses. People easily forget even great architects can turn out crap, and they sometimes rally behind that crap at the expense of better architecture. Such is the lesson of the Battle of Columbus Circle.

The building in question, 2 Columbus Circle, was built by Edward Durell Stone in 1964 to house the Gallery of Modern Art. Stone was one of the first architects to rebel against high modernism, and he decorated his museum with “Islamic”-inspired columns (details famously derided by the critic Ada Louise Huxtable as “lollipops.”) But though the gallery shuttered in 1969 and the building has sat unoccupied for the last six years, over time it has developed a cult following among people who see Stone as an early prophet of post-modernist rebellion. So it was only to be expected that when the Museum of Arts and Design proposed to buy, renovate, and occupy the building in 2003, Stone’s admirers would turn out in force to block it.

Soon after MAD’s announcement, the pro-Stone forces appealed to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to protect the building; after the Commission denied their request, they sued the city, saying the Commission’s review was inadequate. When, in April, a judge dismissed the suit, they appealed. All the while, the bolder-faced names among them have waged a media campaign against MAD and its architect, Brad Cloepfil. Tom Wolfe penned a two-part defense of Stone’s work on the Times’s op-ed page, calling it a “historic masterpiece,” and Robert Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, called it “a landmark in the history of architectural taste.”

Indeed, despite the ruling it is still far from clear that MAD’s plans will go ahead—the museum has yet to purchase the building, and thanks in part to the preservationists’ PR campaign, its representatives concede that fundraising has ground to a halt. Last month the National Trust for Historic Preservation named 2 Columbus Circle one of 11 endangered sites around the country, a move that could give steam to the preservationists’ appeal. And while MAD has its own vociferous defenders, rumors are circulating that a wealthy investor (some have fingered Susan Weber Soros, wife of billionaire George Soros) is considering buying the building, a move that would bring the Battle of Columbus Circle to a grinding halt.

What is missing in all of this, though, is any appreciation of what MAD would do with the site. Preservationists want the public to believe that MAD plans to destroy the building, while MAD advocates focus on the site’s aesthetic and structural shortcomings. But the preservationists are wrong and, while not incorrect, their opponents are taking the wrong tack. True, the building is in an advanced state of degradation—significant leaks, large cracks, and poor ventilation are only the most obvious problems. But they’d get much further by pushing the positive—namely, that Cloepfil’s renovation plan is one of the best projects to hit New York in years.

Cloepfil, a Portland, Ore., native who studied architecture at Columbia University in the 1980s, has been slowly making his way back to New York since founding his practice back home in the early 1990s. After his first project, an office for the ad firm Wieden + Kennedy, won critical acclaim in 1996, he marched up and down the West Coast, installing offices and private homes; recently, he has moved inland, with museum projects in Michigan, St. Louis, and Dallas. His work is simple yet warm, characteristics he picked up while working for Swiss modernist Mario Botta in the 1980s. His buildings equally echo those of Japanese architect Tadao Ando, whose signature austerity has made him a paragon of late-century modernism (coincidentally, Cloepfil’s Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis sits next to Ando’s Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts).

Two Columbus Circle is Cloepfil’s first project on the East Coast, and even on paper it’s a stunning star turn for a man already considered one of the best architects of his generation. The most striking move will be to strip the building’s marble façade and replace it with terra cotta, which will be custom glazed and finished to give it a slight glitter and, claims Cloepfil, subtly alter the building’s color through the day, according to the sun’s position. At the same time, Cloepfil will keep the building’s distinctive concave curve, which echoes Columbus Circle and continues the curve initiated by its new, hulking neighbor, the Time Warner Center.

While Wolfe and others praise Stone for his supposed willingness to break out of the high modernist mode, in his denial of the urban context Stone committed what we have come to see as mid-century modernism?s original sin

From the outside, the building is almost a sheer white block, windowless save for lines of portholes running up the corners. Inside, it is dreary and dark, making new windows a priority. But Stone, perhaps in anticipation of a radical revision, booby-trapped his building by making the walls both shear and load-bearing, in contrast with the steel skeletons and glass curtains that dominated post-war architecture. Cloepfil, however, is undaunted. His plan calls for incising 30-inch cuts back and forth up the building’s four sides, creating four separate, precisely cantilevered planks. The planks will retain the wall’s strength, while the cuts will allow light into, and views out of, the building’s galleries. It’s a brilliant technical solution that provides a stunning aesthetic result.

Cloepfil faces a different problem regarding the infrastructure. After the Gallery of Modern Art closed in 1969, the building was used by first Fairleigh Dickinson University, then by New York’s Cultural Affairs Department. But for the last six years it has sat empty, largely because no one wanted to work in its oddly shaped, rapidly deteriorating interior. Leaks and warped floors are common, and the building’s ventilation system—or lack thereof—is insufficient for presenting delicate works of art, as MAD plans to do.

In addition to replacing the building’s flooring and updating its ventilation, Cloepfil will regularize the floor plans for the four levels of display space. As Stone designed it, the levels meld into one another, like an irregular spiral, which works in theory but proved confusing and inefficient for museum space. Instead, the renovation plans an open staircase to carry visitors, and light, from the lobby up through the galleries, above which will be located classrooms, artists’ studios, and administrative offices.

Stone was never a top-flight designer. His most famous work, the Kennedy Center in Washington, is an anti-urban monster that is meant to be viewed only from Northern Virginia and approached only by car. Two Columbus Circle is similarly reactionary—on the outside, it refuses to work with its surroundings while inside it forbids views of the city around it. Ironically, while Wolfe and others praise Stone for his supposed willingness to break out of the high modernist mode, in his denial of the urban context Stone committed what we have come to see as mid-century modernism’s original sin.

It would be a shame if New York lost this opportunity to bring Cloepfil’s brilliance to a site so in need of a radical makeover, especially when the opposing argument—that the building needs to be preserved as is—makes so little sense. As is, the building is unusable. True, there are some wonderful spaces inside—a vast auditorium in the basement, a stunning Polynesian-themed lounge at the top. But Cloepfil wouldn’t change these things. He proposes, instead, to take what is already there and correct it.

What the debate ultimately proves, regardless of whether MAD gets the building or not, is how easily preservation can become a self-defeating ideology. Prizing mediocre architecture simply because it is controversial doesn’t just prevent urban growth and renewal—it also retards the development of great architecture.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen