Preservation hits the bottom

190 Bowery St. with newly protected graffiti. (New York YIMBY)

190 Bowery St. with newly protected graffiti. (New York YIMBY)

The New York Landmarks Preservation Commission has almost hit rock bottom. It has approved a restoration project that preserves a building – and its graffiti. The website New York YIMBY reports the ruling in “Landmarks Approves Restoration and Conversion of 190 Bowery With Graffiti.” Darn low, but not rock bottom.

From the architect's plan to restore the facade.

From the architect’s plan to restore the facade. “Shh! Don’t mention the graffiti.” … Never mind.

Rock bottom would have entailed barring the restoration project unless the graffiti were also preserved. But there is a preservation architect even more idiotic than the commission itself. He is called Jørgen Cleemann, of Higgens Quasebarth & Partners, assisted by MdeAS Architects.

Excuse me. I am being daft. The real idiot here is Aby Rosen of RFR Realty. He is the client. Even if the idea of retaining the graffiti was Cleemann’s, as one must suspect, Rosen is responsible. YIMBY does not report whether tenants for the office space have been found, but apparently a first-floor tenant remains to be found. Good luck with that!

It is long past the day when adult behavior can be expected from boards and commissions charged with overseeing decisions from within the very broad realm of design. In this case, it seems that the entire commission was just bully about “saving” the graffiti.

Commissioner Frederick Bland called 190 Bowery an “extraordinary building” and applauded the “gentleness” of the proposal. He praised retention of the graffiti as an “interesting show of art.” Commissioner Diana Chapin called the proposal “very sensitive.” Commissioner Michael Goldblum said the building would be a “jewel box” and called the proposal “fantastic,” adding that it will be a “real testament to the layering that preservationists seek.”

Especially droll was Goldblum’s applause for the “layering.” He refers to the idea that, say, if the owner of a 18th century Colonial adds a Beaux Arts canopy above the entry to his house, and subsequent owner in the 21st century wants to restore it to its original 18th century appearance by removing the canopy, a “politically correct” landmarks commission might turn down the application on the grounds that “history” of the house – its layer-by-layer evolution through “periods” – must be respected.

Thus, in the case of 190 Bowery, the commission was able to approve the retention of graffiti – a literal attack of vandalism against the building – as part of its history. Reductio ad absurdum run wild!

Graffiti that tags beautiful buildings such as 190 Bowery is more than vandalism. It is censorship. In this case, authority has privileged one work of art over another, and a grafarttist over an architect at that.

Take a bow, Jørgen Cleemann!

No dissenting voices were reported by Evan Bindelglass, the who wrote the piece for New York YIMBY. It apparently stands for “Yes In My Back Yard.” Cute! Perhaps the neighbors remain advocates of NIMBYism regarding this extremely vexing proposal, but who the heck are the neighbors anyway?

What’s next? The retention of that recent pile of doggy dung? An addition every bit as significant as any other! Wouldn’t want to obliterate the historic fragrance! Don’t laugh. The commission has already passed beneath that demarcation. Idiots who own buildings must be lining up around the block.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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9 Responses to Preservation hits the bottom

  1. Sebastiaan says:

    Preservation reaches a new height!
    In certain cases, like this one, the grafitti has become part of the buildings history it is a sign of our time, I applaud the decision. There is no reason to remove it as long as it’s not harmful for the building materials and doesn’t obstruct the overall architectural design. Isn’t preservation also about minimal intervention?

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    • A ridiculous opinion, but founded on the faux plausibility of modern preservationism’s conceits, so not surprising in the least.

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      • Sebastiaan says:

        Surely we have past the ‘restoration’ concepts of Violette-le-Duc. Indeed, the dicision is a modern view on preservation, it is however not conceit, rather an open minded concept also seen by the people you mention above. Future generations might want to understand what our current societies are all about. Archaeologists will hopefully find the remains of the old city ‘New York’ and similar to today’s ancient findings will be exited to uncover graffiti intact. If the title would be changed by replacing the word ‘Preservation’ with ‘Restoration’ or better ‘Renovation’ it would all make more sense.

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      • The camera was a marvelous invention of yore and remains available in the modern era to preserve the impact graffiti has on a building – which, if left intact, even under a plausible desire to maintain the building’s historical record, does undermine its beauty, and hence the possibility that future generations will want to maintain it, hence continue its preservation. So, no, this still does not wash, Sebastiaan. The graffiti mars the work of the original artist, and should not be allowed to stand. It is a crime, not an art.

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        • Sebastiaan says:

          Agreed, in this case it’s not art. The question remains open if the digital or paper form of an image will be preserved or readable in the future. The role of the devil’s advocate seemed appropriate considering the style of your writing, it remains great material for discussion. Looking forward to read more of your posts.

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      • Thank you, Sebastiaan. I am always open to addressing intelligent comments from those who disagree.

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  2. barry says:

    Surely this Is not really true and is a satiric prank to make fun of the commission. Or perhaps, sadly, you cannot make up stuff more absurd than reality these days. Good thing that they removed much of the NYC subway graffiti before it was declared rolling art and was left to scare almost everybody off from riding the trains.

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  3. mynihility says:

    That’s just sad. Aren’t they supposed to preserve the building to its original glory? Graffiti is definitely not a part of the original design and has no significance in the history of the structure. It’s disrespect on the work of the architect. Besides, glorifying graffiti (done illegally on building walls) as an art only encourages more vandalism.

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  4. mrouchell says:

    I left a comment in the YIMBY article. My comment (the only one) is:
    “How fucking idiotic!! Graffiti is not art. It’s VANDALISM! How stupid are these commissioners for praising the retention of the graffiti!!”

    Like

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