The journal Places has a long and fascinating essay by Belmont Freeman (a New York name for you!) called “Unfinished New York.” He is a columnist for Places and an architect in private practice in the city, no doubt a dyed-in-the-wool modernist. I disagree with just about every sentiment expressed in his article, but he raises important questions, narrowing down to the idea that New York is only New York because it keeps on changing. He takes issue with preservationists trying to slow down change – none are trying to stop it, certainly not as hard as I would. (I would reverse it.) He cites O. Henry’s line that New York will be “a great place if they ever finish it” – as a warning to preservationists who have grown too big for their britches.
If I were in charge, I am not sure what I would do with New York, but I am sure that Belmont Freeman would not like it. He dislikes the idea of “saving place” if place is defined with beauty in mind (he calls it aesthetics; I call it beauty). He twits preservationists with the buildings we love today that would not exist had the preservation movement been alive when the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center were planned. They required razing, respectively, Columbia’s 19th century campus and the first Waldorf Astoria. He speaks of a “generation’s abhorrence” of Victorian architecture; I think he means the abhorrence of a “generation of architectural historians” – I doubt most regular consumers of architecture abhorred Victorians, far from it, though they might once have thought too many needed spiffing up.
But abhor his viewpoint though I do, Freeman raises the length and breadth of issues facing preservationists in New York (and nationally), and on that account his lengthy piece is worth reading, and is well written. New York’s Landmarks Law turns 50 this year; the National Historic Preservation Act turns 50 next year.
When several years ago preservationists raised a hue and cry at the planned construction of a Beaux Arts shop for Ralph Lauren on Park Avenue, I realized that the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission needed coaching. Freeman’s basic game strategy for big cities comes pretty close to anything goes, and the faster the better. My game strategy is that the world suffers such whiplash from change that slowing it down – and especially the rate of change in the appearance of those biggest of human artifacts, cities and buildings – would give the rest of us something to hang on to for dear life. Take your choice.
Hats off to Kristen Richards and ArchNewsNow.com – the indispensable and yet free collection of global news and commentary on architecture and urbanism – for running Belmont Freeman’s piece.
Rebuild Penn Station, sez I!