Foster Responds to Kimmelman’s “Offensive” Diatribe Regarding the New York Public Library

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

When applying “major surgery” to a beloved, 20th century “masterpiece”, you’re going to face some harsh criticism. Such is the case for , as the legendary British architect has been receiving intense backlash from New York’s toughest critics for his proposed renovation to the New York Public Library. First, the late Ada Louise Huxtable exclaimed, “You don’t “update” a masterpiece.” Now, the New York Time’s architecture critic claims the design is “not worthy” of Foster and believes the rising budget to be suspect.

More on Kimmelman’s critique and Foster’s response after the break…

In a lengthy critique on Foster’s New York Public Library renovation plans, Kimmelman declared, “I’m not buying it.”

He describes: “The designs have all the elegance and distinction of a suburban mall. I was reminded that Mr. Foster is also responsible for the canopied enclosure of the inner court at the British Museum, a pompous waste of public space that inserts a shopping gallery into the heart of a sublime cultural institution.”

Rendering by dbox, Courtesy of Foster + Partners

Foster’s proposal, now four year’s into the making, promises to preserve the building’s legacy while integrating a new, state-of-the-art Circulating Library into its flagship Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street. The “library within a library” will transform seven floors of stacks, currently occupying the back of the building, into an aesthetically, technologically and environmentally advanced public space that hopes to meet the demands of our 21st century society. By consolidating two deteriorating nearby branches and relocating underused research stacks nearby in a humidity-controlled chamber beneath Bryant Park, the proposal hopes to save the public library system money and create a new,“inspiring”, and more usable public space.

But Kimmelman concludes: “To me, what results is an awkward, cramped, banal pastiche of tiers facing claustrophobia-inducing windows, built around a space-wasting atrium with a curved staircase more suited to a Las Vegas hotel.”

In a letter to the New York Times, accompanied by a second letter from library president Tony Marx, Norman Foster responded to Kimmelman by stating, there is “no inherent risk of cost overruns” and that the design team is still working on the detailed proposals making Kimmelman’s “diatribe about our design… both offensive and premature”.

Foster continued: “We seek to protect the library’s historic legacy. It was founded as both a research and a circulating library, and we are returning the circulating collection to its rightful location. In the process not only are we equipping the building for the digital age, but we are also creating additional spaces for research readers.

“The option of doing nothing with the book stacks does not exist; they do not comply with current fire safety codes or book conservation standards. They cannot be adapted to comply, and therefore there is an opportunity to create a major public space for New Yorkers. The structural solution for removing the stacks uses tried-and-tested techniques, so there is no inherent risk of cost overruns.”

Library president Tony Marx seconds Foster’s points, stating: “The Central Library Plan has been the subject of public discussion for five years. It will provide a world-class branch library, double the public space in our main building (without changing any of its current historic spaces), bring financial stability throughout the New York Public Library system, and will help preserve the research collection.

“Supported by the neighborhood community board, financially prudent and as wonderfully ambitious as the library users we serve, the Central Library Plan fulfills New Yorkers’ aspirations.”

Are you a New Yorker or familiar to the New York Public Library? Let us know your thoughts on Foster’s proposal in the comment section below.

You can review the design in greater detail here on ArchDaily.

via The New York TimesBDOnline 

Cite: Rosenfield, Karissa. "Foster Responds to Kimmelman’s “Offensive” Diatribe Regarding the New York Public Library" 06 Feb 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 May 2015. <>
  • Philip

    Old adage, ‘those who, those who cannot…teach and those who can do neither…criticise

    • Aria

      The renderings for Foster’s “intervention” show a stale and stagnant space comprised of conventional and commercial d grade materials assimilated in the most predictable of manners. Its predictable because we’ve all seen this type of architecture in our hometown malls and outpatient care facilities. Are these renderings supposed to represent the most breathtaking elements of the project? Did Norman Foster actually have a hand in this? It does not exhibit the level of care required for an addition to one of the most important buildings in one of the greatest cities in the world.

  • Rafael Bergés

    I’m a New Yorker and I can’t stand Foster’s design. It seems to me like Foster has been putting his brand all over New York lately and this is another classic example. The idea of renovating the library sounds great, but I don’t think Foster’s plan is the right way to go. I’m usually a fan of Foster’s work but this time he needs to go back to the drawing board because this design really isn’t up to par with a pritzker prize winner. It seems to me that he’s really resting on his laurels and just producing the same “high-tech” design with glass and steel.

  • javier g

    My response to Kimmelman’s oh-so contrary criticism is a Schinkel quote:
    “Many are trained in criticism, but few in the art of making. Therefore, mastery must be respected”

    To suggest that Foster with all his experience and a team of professionals could threaten the stability of the vaults and cause a collapse in just plain silliness from someone who doesn’t know much about architecture as a practice. To print that in the New York Times architecture column who is directed to non-practitioners is just plain dangerous.

    Shame on him for further then stereotype of architects as destroyers for the sake of ego.
    I was upset but then I realize one thing. It is the New York Times and most of our graduate students could do a better job than any of the previous critics and the current inept one. Its is time that these news institutions hire architects who can write and not writers who can critisize architecture.

  • stephan jaklitsch

    Foster claims that the circulating library is being returned to its rightful place. that is false. the main building was never intended to be a circulating library. Foster and the library board are also being disingenuous in stating that there is no inherent risk of cost overruns. the costs have already increased and they will increase as the design and construction move forward. this design and plan to replace the stacks is misguided and will be an unfortunate destruction of an important building. Ada Louise Huxtable was completely correct and it is worth noting that she felt strongly enough about the issue that her last column prior to dying was to call for the preservation of the new york public library as it is.

  • L.F.

    Yeah!… Stephan… you’re abslolutely right!!! We shouldn’t make any change to the existing building!!! Come on! Foster has shown us that he’s able to deal with existing old building… at least they are doing something for a cultural building… and that is the most important thing on our planet nowaday. They’re doing something for the culture!!! As an architect i would have done something else, but be glad that the one who is working on that project is Foster and no other bootlegger with a Turbocad licence trying to screw up the world! Unwanting to be unrespectful to Ada Louise Huxable, but things have to move on… and any single penny that can be spend for improving the culture in our our society should be blessed!

  • g.c.a.

    Stephen, there was a circulating library inside the main library building until the 1970s. The space is currently being used for administrative offices, but will be returned to public space with the new design.

  • l.m.

    Stephan, there was a circulating library in the main building until the 1970s, so you are incorrect in saying the main building “was never intended to be a circulating library.” Frankly, it makes no sense that the beautiful main building is purely for research and that the average New Yorker has to go to the decrepit Mid-Manhattan branch to check out books. That isn’t the vision of a public library. Arguments against adding a circulating library are based in elitism.

  • richard

    NYers, and the world. What a great problem to have!

  • Mike Lindgren

    The Foster renovation was hideous, and this represents a rare instance of passionate and public-minded advocates pushing back successfully against vested interests. I am a frequent user of the research library and it does not need improvement. And we certainly don’t need more tacky glass-box garbage in midtown.