Treading Carefully but Not Timidly in a Civic Masterpiece
I don’t blame people for being nervous. It takes a certain hubris to mess with the noble Beaux-Arts structure that has dominated the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street for nearly a century. A product of the City Beautiful movement, the New York Public Library is one of the most glorious examples of civic architecture in America, a temple to the city’s highest democratic ideals. Why tinker with it?
But news that the library has hired Norman Foster and his London firm, Foster & Partners, for the job is one of a string of shrewd decisions by the library that should put our minds at ease. The project, part of the most ambitious expansion in the library system’s history, will update the classical interiors of this Carrère & Hastings building without disturbing the character of its beloved cavernous halls and reading rooms.
Mr. Foster has a long history of designing thoughtful additions to touchy historical structures, including the British Museum in London and the Reichstag in Berlin.
The question is how far he is willing to push his vision.
Known for his high-tech forms, Mr. Foster is not likely to design an interior that will blend quietly into its surroundings. The project’s potential lies in the delicious tension that could be created between new and old. To make it work he must create a structure strong enough to stand on its own while treating the colossal 1911 landmark with the care and tenderness it deserves.
The renovation will be the centerpiece of a much vaster overhaul of the library system that is philosophical as well as pragmatic. As Internet usage has ballooned, research libraries have seen a steady decline in visitors. Yet this drop has been matched by a surge in traffic at neighborhood libraries, where computer stations have multiplied and the mood is one of bustling communal activity.
Given that shift, officials have sought to reassert the library’s populist mission, announcing two new hubs, as well as branch renovations that will refocus services on children, teenagers and working-class people. The library also intends to merge its research and branch arms.
The Fifth Avenue building will become the nerve center of this vast network. Today’s old, noncirculating Rose Reading Room is used mostly by researchers; the planned new library space, tucked under this level and dominated by a new reading room lined with open shelves, is apt to be used by a wider audience, including those who cannot afford Internet service or who compete to share a sole computer with many others at home.
In combining the research and branch arms, the library is not only forging a more democratic vision but also a more fluid relationship between its collections and those who use them.
Part of the genius of the plan is its use of existing space. A vault to be built beneath the adjacent Bryant Park will be able to house more than three acres of books and research materials. By moving the stacks there, the library frees 1.25 million cubic feet in the back of the building, roughly the volume of the existing reading room.
The library showed similar vision in selecting an architect. Some believe that the only way to show respect for an old building is to dress up any new addition in a cute period style. This approach trivializes history by blurring the distinction between old and new. The result is a watered-down vision of history — or worse, kitsch. In choosing Mr. Foster the library is signaling confidence in the ethos of our own era, while nodding to a distinct past.
Major architectural hurdles lie ahead. One of the biggest challenges is getting visitors in and out of the new reading room. The most obvious entrance point, from Astor Hall on Fifth Avenue, would require slicing through the library’s main exhibition space. A second-floor entrance from the top of the hall’s vaulted staircases might be too small to accommodate crowds; the same problem might arise for an entry point on West 42nd Street.
Mr. Foster must also find a way to address the project’s functional needs — meeting rooms, Internet stations, abundant shelving — while creating a circulation library that equals the Rose Reading Room in grandeur. Because steel frames in the current stacks now support the floor of this old reading room, he must devise an equally strong structural support without piercing the new reading room with ungainly columns.
Finally, he must resist timidity. In his design for the British Museum’s Great Court, a two-acre, glass-enclosed square with the circular Reading Room building at its center, he seemed to be striving too hard not to disturb the 19th-century structures. The resulting weblike canopy and ersatz neo-Classical entry have a feeble air, lacking the boldness of Mr. Foster’s best designs.
Still, anyone with a minimal imagination will realize the dramatic possibilities of embedding a contemporary space in the New York Public Library, with its vaulted stone arches and grand staircases. The notion of passing through these magisterial chambers and emerging in one of Mr. Foster’s technological marvels makes the mind reel.
There is no project today that is more important to the civic identity of New York — or to reasserting a populist ideal that has been dormant for too long.
British Architect to Redesign City Library
Norman Foster, the eminent British architect who has made something of a specialty out of inserting contemporary designs into historic buildings, has been selected for a major renovation of the New York Public Library’s landmark 1911 main building, on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets.
Mr. Foster and his London firm, Foster & Partners, are to create a new circulation library in a space below the library’s Rose Reading Room and overlooking Bryant Park that now houses seven levels of stacks and a basement.
“It’s the greatest project ever,” Mr. Foster said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
The area, which now measures 1.25 million cubic feet, will be completely reconfigured, with new rooms for children and teenagers and numerous computer work stations. The stacks are to move to an existing three-acre storage area beneath Bryant Park that is also to be renovated. Work is expected to be completed by 2013.
“We had to have someone as good as Carrère & Hastings,” said Paul LeClerc, president of the library, referring to the original architects of the library’s Beaux-Arts building, a city and national historic landmark. “We had to create a second masterpiece.”
The project, which is expected to cost $250 million, is proceeding despite a steep economic downturn in which the city plans major budget cuts and in which fund-raising is expected to be an enormous challenge.
The overhaul has been planned in stages, library officials said, so adjustments can be made to the timetable, depending on how the economy fares. “It doesn’t have to be done at once,” said Marshall Rose, the library’s chairman emeritus, who is head of the institution’s building committee. “The way we’ve phased it, if the world got worse, we could proceed without losing our momentum. We may delay parts of it. But the thing is in motion.”
The project is part of a $1.2 billion plan to update the entire library system through improvements to branch libraries, a larger endowment and the creation of two new libraries in Upper Manhattan and on Staten Island.
For this larger effort, the library has announced a $500 million private fund-raising campaign that has already brought in $300 million, including a$100 million gift from a trustee, the Wall Street financier Stephen A. Schwarzman, that was announced in March. The renovated main building will be named after Mr. Schwarzman, as will be noted discreetly on its facade.
The library also plans to raise money from the sale of its properties, including the Mid-Manhattan branch, on the east side of Fifth Avenue at 40th Street, which is in negotiations with a buyer, and the Donnell branch in Midtown, which was sold last year to Orient-Express Hotels Ltd. for $59 million.
“I’m very optimistic that we’ll be able to do this,” Mr. LeClerc said. He predicted that the renovated central library would “be a huge jolt of energy for the city when it’s done, the biggest comprehensive library open in the world but also in human history.”
During the selection process, Mr. Foster said he came to understand the New York Public Library’s importance as a social nexus and a place to gain access to information. This made him newly appreciate the role his local library had played for him when he was growing up in Levenshulme, a suburb of Manchester, England. In preparation for his renovation proposal, Mr. Foster had a staff member photograph that branch “to remind myself of the debt I owed.”
“If it hadn’t been for the library, I probably wouldn’t have gone to university,” he said. “I discovered a whole world of literature — great writers — and also a world of architecture, like the original books of Corbusier.”
“I remember discovering Frank Lloyd Wright through Henry-Russell Hitchcock,” he added, referring to the architectural historian.
Mr. Foster’s acclaimed work with prized historic buildings made him a particularly compelling candidate, the library said. He has designed glass-enclosed additions to the Reichstag in Berlin (1999), the British Museum in London (2000) and the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery in Washington (2007).
This is also not the first time that the architect has tackled a New York City landmark. His 2006 Hearst Tower project on Eighth Avenue at 57th Street in Manhattan involved planting a glass-and-steel tower atop a six-story Art Deco base dating from 1928.
Because the library is a landmark, its exterior, including its strip windows, will not be altered. “It will be a building within a building,” Mr. Rose said. “We’re not going to encroach on the landmark quality.”
While the library did not want a design that would overshadow its historic envelope and had considered architects with a more traditional aesthetic, the trustees wanted to commission a distinctive piece of contemporary architecture.
“This is now 2008, and when this happens, the library building will be 100 years old,” said Catherine Marron, the library’s chairwoman. “One has to embrace one’s time.”
Starting with about 30 candidates and narrowing the field to 10, the library was particularly impressed by Mr. Foster’s efforts, trustees said, declining to name the other architects considered. Mr. Foster or members of his team visited the library 19 times before offering their proposal, Mr. Rose said. They designed elaborate visual presentations and even a model, which library executives declined to describe, saying that it was strictly hypothetical and that a final design was more than a year away.
“They did do a knockout proposal,” Mr. LeClerc said. “It wasn’t, ‘This is what you’ve got to do.’ It was something that was indicative of the capacity of the firm to think very, very creatively about how this could be pulled off in a way that was really interesting — indeed, brilliant.”
The library was also reassured by “the scale and the power” of Mr. Foster’s firm, with 1,300 employees, Mr. LeClerc said. “This is a very, very complicated job,” he added. “We needed a firm that had a lot of breadth and depth.”
Because the stacks structurally support the reading room, for example, the reading room will have to be braced before the stacks are taken out. Mr. Foster’s firm has conducted engineering studies and evaluated the acoustics. Today about 1.2 million people visit the main library annually; when the new circulation library opens, that figure is expected to increase to about 4 million.
Some are bound to question whether the library can raise the necessary funds, given the current financial crisis. But library officials said they were determined to press on. “We are committed to this program,” Ms. Marron said. “We recognize the world is different than what it was, and it might take a longer time. We’re not going to be foolhardy.”
“Libraries are needed in times like this,” she added. “More people need to borrow books, to get job information — it’s free. So I think everybody strongly believes the library is needed more than ever.”