When applying “major surgery” to a beloved, 20th century “masterpiece”, you’re going to face some harsh criticism. Such is the case for Norman Foster, 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 Michael Kimmelman 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...
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.”
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.