Save the Four Seasons!

The Four Seasons' Pool Room in 1959. (bettmann:corbis)

The Four Seasons’ Pool Room in 1959. (bettmann:corbis)

The owners of the famous Four Seasons restaurant in the famous Seagram Building want to renovate its Pool Room. No less an eminento than Robert A.M. Stern, America’s only classical starchitect, writes to defend its modern design. His piece is “Why Changing the Four Seasons Will Destroy a Cultural Landmark” in the Wall Street Journal.

The Seagram Building. (lebbeuswoods@wordpress.com)

The Seagram Building. (lebbeuswoods@wordpress.com)

He has a point. Whatever you think of the Seagram (I don’t like it; it illustrates the adage “Less is a bore”) and the restaurant design (I think it is a delightful rendition of the best of midcentury modern – that is, it is inside), it does not deserve to be brutalized by its owners, RFR Holding LLC, which purchased it in 2000.

The restaurant was designed in 1958, mainly by the late Philip Johnson, famous as a postmodernist (that is, essentially a modernist) architect. Stern writes that the proposed Four Seasons renovation would “do more than simply tweak and freshen a detail here and there but instead threaten to fundamentally alter the character of this incomparably dignified setting for dining.”

A close look at the proposed renovations raises eyebrows – partly because one of the changes opposed would return the Pool Room closer to its original look. Also, the more downscale Brasserie was renovated by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in 2000 without any (loud) objections from the modernist restaurant preservation community.

Still, I’m sure lots of modernists are rising up to join Stern in seeking to preserve the Four Seasons from desecration. Good for them! But why can they not see the obvious parallel between preserving a beloved interior and preserving a beloved exterior? Whether it be an old building or an entire historic neighborhood, modernists believe that it is appropriate to add features that do not fit, undermining the character that makes it worth preserving. Yet they go apoplectic if unsympathetic features are proposed for a modernist building, interior or exterior. Why can they not see the inconsistency?

Since most mods are not downright stupid, I assume that they do see the inconsistency, and simply recognize that nobody will protest if they protect their own even as they spurn their own principles in applauding the desecration of things other people love. They know that no mainstream architecture critic will say boo. Mum’s the word!

“It is our obligation to preserve for future generations the essential experience of the Four Seasons that its creators originally intended,” writes Stern. Likewise, those who seek to preserve traditional buildings and historic districts rarely demand that no changes be allowed, only that changes reflect an evolution rather than a revolution in appearance.

The American Institute of Architects seeks to prop up the sagging reputation of modern architecture and architects. Clearly, the AIA has a lot of work to do, and this utter hypocrisy, blatant and unblushing, is one reason why.

[New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission ruled against most of the proposed changes on Tuesday. Proposed new carpeting was permitted.]

A more recent view of the Pool Room. (Selldorf Architects)

Rendering of renovated Pool Room as proposed. (Selldorf Architects)

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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