Ada Louise Huxtable Takes On The New York Public Library

The Public ’s (NYPL) main building on Fifth Avenue, is a Beaux-Arts masterpiece designed by architects Carrère & Hastings. Image via Flickr User CC wallyg.

The New York Public Library has a plan to save millions of dollars, improve efficiency, and reverse the cutbacks that have been plaguing it. How? By sending little-used resources off-site (after all, most people use the library for its online resources these days), the Library will consolidate three libraries into one Mid-Manhattan branch, renovating the building with a streamlined, efficient design – courtesy of Foster + Partners - to create “the largest combined research and circulating library in the country.”

It sounds like a wonderful, modern solution. Ms. Ada Louise Huxtable would beg to differ.

The former New York Times architecture critic and current critic for the Wall Street Journal has come out swinging against the plan. First, she builds on the critique that others have made, that by moving volumes off-site (to New Jersey, or “Siberia, as she puts it) to make room for more modern amenities, the library will devalue its primary purpose (making resources readily accessible). To put it another way, as Scott Sherman did in his article for The Nation, it would turn the library into “a glorified internet café.” Then, Huxtable makes her own argument: that removing the current, intricate system of stacks would be an enormously complex, expensive, and hopelessly misguided structural challenge.

But, ultimately Ms. Huxtable’s argument comes down to the intrinsic architectural and cultural value of this Beaux Arts Masterpiece: “You don’t “update” a masterpiece.”

More on the Ms. Huxtable incendiary critique of The New York Public Library’s Central Plan, after the break…

The Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library. Image via Flickr User Brother O’Mara.

The Situation

The NY Public library – a New York institution and architectural icon designed by Carrère and Hastings in 1911 -plans to demolish seven floors of stacks (sending 2 to 5 million volumes to New Jersey) in order to consolidate three separate libraries and make room for a new state-of-the-art, computer-centered facility, designed by Foster + Partners.

The Library reasons that since their has been a 41% decrease in the use of collections over the last 15 years, and an increase of use of online resources, that the $300 million project will eliminate substantial, unnecessary operating costs (saving the libraries somewhere between $7 and $15 million dollars).

Argument #1

The first argument, which many critics have made, is that the plan robs the library of its primary purpose: making resources readily accessible. As Ms. Huxtable points out, it’s a question not of the quantity of people using resources, but of the quality of resources available:

“The library’s embrace of the future is commendable; it has been on the frontiers of change in technology and practice for some time. But some of these numbers are misleading. A research library is devoted to the acquisition, maintenance and availability of collections of amazing range, rarity and depth, much of which will not be consulted for decades, have not been digitized and probably never will be. If we could estimate how many ways in which the world has been changed by that 6%, the number would be far more meaningful than the traffic through its lion-guarded doors.

The library’s own releases, while short on details, consistently offer a rosy picture of a lively and popular “People’s Palace.” But a research library is a timeless repository of treasures, not a popularity contest measured by head counts, the current arbiter of success. This is already the most democratic of institutions, free and open to all. Democracy and populism seem to have become hopelessly confused.”

A sectional view of the New York Public Library. Cover of Scientific American, May 27, 1911. Image via the New York Public Library.

Argument #2

The second argument, unique to Ms. Huxtable, is that the plan will involve overly complex and expensive engineering. After having studied the system of stacks, which according to Huxtable “literally hold [the reading room] up,” she states that demolishing this “engineering landmark” would be a huge mistake:

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. [...] 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.”

Argument #3

Moreover, Ms. Huxtable claims that the architectural/cultural importance of the building is undervalued by the plan. If the New York Library needs a state-of-the-art facility, why not let Fosters+Partners create their own new structure, rather than for ever altering the existing building?

“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.”

[...] 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.”

The stacks under construction, 1907. Image via the New York Public Library.

Can you ever update a “Masterpiece”? Do hybridizations of old and new necessarily devalue the original architecture? Or are they justified in order to keep a building relevant?

And should a library privilege new technologies and social space over the accessibility of materials in the 21st century? Has the library’s primary purpose changed?

Let us know where you lie on the debate in the comments below.

Story via the Wall Street Journal

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "Ada Louise Huxtable Takes On The New York Public Library" 17 Dec 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 02 Sep 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=308134>

7 comments

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      Its encouraging that New York has the vision to create a new public building that will meet the changing needs of society. It’s also predictable that there will be objectors resistant to change. This case is a very visible example of that libraries worldwide are facing but the solution lies not just in architectural refurbishment, but in adopting human-centred service design to cope with new and emerging activities inside the building.

  1. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    [...] 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.”

    This makes absolute sense to me. An iconic building like the NY Public Library can remain iconic this way.

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    Another Great Beaux Arts building destroyed by modern architects. Isn´t it possible to understand that Beaux Arts architectural culture is both made of classicism and engineering? And both need to be well preserved to maintain the integrity and authenticity of the monument!
    Foster is doing wrong here as he did at the British Museum where he also get rid of the bookstacks leaving the round reading room as a lost balloon in the middle of a cultural shopping center… He should come back to inspired and enhancing designs of his “youth”, like the Sakler Gallery…
    New York continues loosing it´s character and power: its Beaux Arts gems are harrassed as with SOM´s project for Grand Central!

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    Foster’s new design looks like a train station terminal. This is one of his worst designs yet. I agree with fabio when he says Foster should go back to his earlier inspired designs. Now Foster only works to push out the same tired, boring designs made of steel and glass and labeled “elegant”. Foster is fortunate to be able to rest on his very famous brand name because if he were actually judged by the quality of his work recently then he would be unemployed.

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