New Buildings in Historic Districts Produce Contrast in Context

Event: ContextContrast: New Architecture in Historic Districts Inaugural Forum
Location: Cooper Union Great Hall
Speakers: Hugh Hardy, FAIA — Principal, H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture; Richard Meier, FAIA — Principal, Richard Meier & Partners; Peter Pennoyer, AIA — Principal, Peter Pennoyer Architects; Annabelle Selldorf, FAIA — Principal, Selldorf Architects
Moderator: Suzanne Stephens — Deputy Editor, Architectural Record
Introduction: Robert B. Tierney — Chairman, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission
Organizers: New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation; AIANY; NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission
Sponsors: New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation


Langworthy Residence, 18 West 11th Street, 1972, Hardy Holzman Pffiefer Architects, in the Greenwich Village Historic District.

Norman McGrath

Building in historic districts is a challenge for every generation of architect. “Even if you are an architect with a good reputation, you can’t necessarily design an appropriate building in the center of New York City,” exclaimed Suzanne Stephens, deputy editor of Architectural Record. This inaugural forum on building in New York’s historic districts, hosted by the New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation in conjunction with the “ContextContrast” exhibition at the Center for Architecture, brought together a range of architects to illuminate the discussion, including Richard Meier, FAIA, Hugh Hardy, FAIA, Peter Pennoyer, AIA, and Annabelle Selldorf, FAIA.

Each architect discussed projects that had encountered issues involving building in traditional surroundings. Meier’s examples were mainly drawn from overseas, emphasizing the importance of place-making over simply the buildings themselves. For example, his Stadhaus in Ulm, Germany, a cylindrical civic center completed in 1993, was built to complement its urban context in scale, but was a radical departure in form. Even so, said Meier, it was the creation of a public space on a former car park that provoked more consternation from local authorities. “Making the square around the building was probably more important than the building itself,” he said.

Hardy spoke about 18 West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, a reconstruction of an 1840s townhouse blown up in 1970 by American terrorists the Weathermen. H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture rebuilt it in 1978 with its façade partially angled at 45 degrees, a design which he said pleased neither “the Modernists,” who wanted it to be “steel and glass,” nor the “Traditionalists,” who wanted a recreation of the historic houses alongside. He said the surrounding massing inspired the design rather than any idea of what it had looked like before.

Pennoyer gave a visual tour of various townhouses his firm had restored, including a home at 91st Street whose cornices and window frames had been renovated through extensive architectural research of the era when the house was first built. His message was not to ignore history. “Tradition is more than just a set of rules,” he said. “It’s something we live in every day.”

Selldorf focused on the Neue Galerie and the difficulties of modernizing the Beaux Arts-era building for public use. While the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) had few problems with the restoration work, the air-conditioning system was the subject of four years of negotiation. There are three steps to carrying out the successful restoration of such a building, said Selldorf: restoring the existing elements; designing new elements how they would have been built originally; and acknowledging interventions that could never have been part of the building. “No matter how well we designed the lift,” she stated, “it would still have been a dramatic intervention because the building was never designed to have a lift.”

During the group discussion, Meier said NYC should not be set in stone. “The excitement of living and working in New York is change.” Added Hardy: “New York has dramatic juxtapositions of scale, which is what makes it such an exciting place to be, but it makes this subject very difficult to have rules.” Stephens asked Hardy about his controversial design for a 23-story extension to the New York Historical Society, turned down by the LPC in 1984. Hardy replied that he didn’t know if the “rhetoric” of preservation for preservation’s sake would stand if the scheme were put forward today. But Stephens reminded the audience that Foster + Partners had a similar problem at 980 Madison Avenue. The design for a 30-story extension was recently chopped down to four before receiving LCP approval. Pennoyer was in support of the LPC’s move. “I think a building on top of a building like this… would alter the scale of the entire neighborhood and be a looming presence on Central Park.” Selldorf countered that as long as it was “good architecture,” such a building would not in and of itself be a problem. “Just because it can be seen from Central Park doesn’t make it bad.”

Receiving a more unanimous reaction from the panel was Atelier Jean Nouvel’s 75-story tower planned for a site adjacent to MoMA on West 53rd Street. Hardy acknowledged that although he admired the “sculptural” form of the tower, he was “startled” by its height. Meier put it more concretely: “I happen to think it is too tall. It is out of scale with everything that will be in that neighborhood. It just doesn’t look right.” Pennoyer agreed that it was “dynamic,” but added: “It’s a bit too Spiderman for my liking.”