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.
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.]