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A halfhearted fare-thee-wel.A Halfhearted Fare-Thee-Well to a Middling Design - washingtonpost.com http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/26/AR.
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A Halfhearted Fare-Thee-Well to a Middling Design
Washington Post Staff WriterSunday, September 28, 2008; PageM03 NEW YORK -- For some reason,my life has intersected with thework of Edward Durrell Stone, thearchitect who broke with orthodoxmodernism in the 1950s andcreated such landmarks asWashington's Kennedy Center.
Stone designed the Unitarianchurch my family attended inSchenectady -- with its cool,sunken circular main hall, like agiant conversation pit for talking Edward Durrell Stone's original design for the building at Columbus Circle.
(AP Photo/Ed Bailey) (Ed Bailey - Associated Press) with God. Alas, the flock was alittle too handsy and dope-smoking I'm not sure we ever made the connection -- that's part Yahoo! Buzz
of the problem with Stone's often bland but eclectic architecture -- but when my mother went back to school, she often complained bitterly about another Stone project, the chillingly overscale campus heproduced for the University of New York, in Albany.
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Columbus Circle, where a Stone building, silent as ahaunted house and clad in white marble with funnyporthole windows, housed the city's Department of Cultural Affairs. I remember thinking of FEATURED ADVERTISER LINKS
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After years of neglect and a bitter dispute with historic preservationists, 2 Columbus Cir.
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not have been so passionate -- RobertA.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School ofArchitecture, declared it one of 35 A Halfhearted Fare-Thee-Well to a Middling Design - washingtonpost.com http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/26/AR.
"modern landmarks-in-waiting" -- if Ads by Google
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Compare prices and features of different Metal and Steel Buildingswww.HelloMetro.com 2005 and replaced by a generic money-printer of a modern ballpark, completewith high-price skyboxes. It wasn't anepic loss for architecture, just anotherexample of a decent building withintegrity being replaced by a shamelessexercise in commerce.
The progress of Stone to rubble continues around the country, including in Fayetteville,where housing he built for the University of Arkansas has been torn down. In Washington,where some people, perhaps by force of habit or local loyalty, actually love his KennedyCenter, there have been Stone losses. His building for the Transportation Department atL'Enfant Plaza has been completely covered in glass, making it, too, unrecognizable as hiswork.
But it was 2 Columbus Cir. -- one of his more interesting designs, but the wrong buildingfor its prominent site -- that became the line in the sand for preservationists. Opened in 1964as a private art museum for Huntington Hartford, the eccentric and extraordinarily rich heirto the A&P supermarket fortune, it was an inward-looking marble tower, with a bentfacade, marooned on a little patch of land near the busy intersection of Broadway andEighth Avenue.
It was an uncanny architectural echo of a classic decadent French novel, "A Rebours," byJoris-Karl Huysmans, in which a wealthy aristocrat turns his back on all canons ofestablished taste and retreats to an inner sanctum filled with strange and lurid art. Like thehero of "A Rebours," Hartford was working "against the grain" of contemporary taste; andlike the home into which Huysmans's hero retreats, Hartford's museum had "useless"porthole windows.
From the outside, the building was a modernist take on "Venetian" style, with an arcade ofodd-shaped arches at street level that created the unfortunate impression of a line oflollipops. High above the city, an arched "loggia" offered stunning views of Central Park.
Inside, it was a dark, wood-paneled fantasy of private pleasure and contemplation, with asumptuous penthouse club covered in tapestries where you could look out on Gotham likesome villain from a Batman movie.
Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architects in Portland, Ore., redesigned the building for theMuseum of Arts and Design, which wanted galleries, offices, classrooms, a gift shop andrestaurant. Except for the basement auditorium, where Stone's interior is preserved, thebuilding is a white box for art, with a zigzag line of windows that cuts up from the base ofthe building, bringing light into its once-tenebrous interior.
"We did not tear the building down," says Cloepfil. Certain details, such as the lollipoparches, were preserved to "carry forward memory," while the whole space was made morecongenial for visitors. "It offers much more to the city than the previous building did." Stone is often praised for breaking with the rigid, anti-historical dogmas of modernism,which eschewed ornament and historical references. Cloepfil argues that Stone wasessentially a very good corporate architect and that what is now championed as acourageous break with dogmatic modernism was really all about appealing to such eliteclients as Hartford, who enjoyed the "Mediterranean" references.
That seems about right. Over time, the austerity of pure modernism outstayed its welcome,and any break with glass-box conformity was relished as transgressive. In an odd andexuberant paean to the building published in the New York Times in 2006, former A Halfhearted Fare-Thee-Well to a Middling Design - washingtonpost.com http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/26/AR.
architecture critic Herbert Muschamp defended it as . . . a gay icon. "No other building morefully embodied the emerging value of queerness in the New York of its day," he wrote,about a space built for a man who dated Marilyn Monroe and had four wives.
But a strong personal affection isn't enough to keep such a useless building in such aprominent place. The arguments of its defenders -- it was a repository for memory, amonument to idiosyncrasy, a gay icon -- are all good but unwisely mustered in the case ofthis particular pile.
I feel like I should have liked this building more, but I can't say I'll miss it. Perversity inarchitecture is a good thing. Cities need places that are strange and hard to decipher. Thereis too much conformity in New York, and Columbus Circle, which has become a vibrantspace, is hopping mainly because it has a new shopping center -- with all the usual brandnames you can find in any city in the world. Stone's Venetian tower stood athwart that kindof pseudoprogress like a white elephant on the road to banality.
But I won't miss it. If there's a battle to be had about the value of mid-century architecture, itshouldn't be fought on behalf of Edward Durrell Stone, whose work is being dismantled fora very simple reason: It isn't very compelling. Often it was weirdly out of place: a dour,Venetian building at a busy crossroads of Manhattan; a sunny white plaza with opencourtyards and arcades on an often freezing and rainy Upstate New York campus. Ormonumentally pretentious, such as the Kennedy Center, a building that would be muchbetter if you could dismantle the big white box it sits in, open up its huge, Stalinistcorridors, whack off its ridiculous and spindly columns, and scrub it free of all the red andgold trappings of luxury that are so dated and oppressive.
Some structures should be preserved based on longevity alone. But it dishonors the practiceof architecture to preserve buildings in the middle ground of history, where Stone's workfalls, that aren't otherwise great architecture. And while 2 Columbus Cir. was one of Stone'smost curious and eccentric spaces, and while there are domestic projects and smaller workssuch as the Unitarian church that have real merit, quirkiness is not alone an argument forpreservation. Even the hero of "A Rebours" had the good sense to locate his private,inward-looking pleasure palace in the suburbs, "twenty minutes' walk from the station." Notover the crossing of the One, A, B, C and D trains.
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