Goodbye, 2 Columbus Circle
A refurbished New York landmark fails to preserve the spirit of the original.
An unspoken sentiment underpins the historic-preservation movement: the widely held conviction that it is worth saving old buildings from demolition because whatever will replace them is likely to be not as good. It's hardly a lofty ideal, but it is the result of too many lost masterpieces: H.H. Richardson's Marshall Field's store, Charles McKim's Pennsylvania Station, Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Building. It is no coincidence that all these buildings date from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, when the quality of materials and construction was higher than today—even in run-of-the-mill buildings. That is why the public debate, four years ago, over the fate of 2 Columbus Circle in New York was unusual: The building in question was completed in 1964.
The architect of 2 Columbus Circle was Edward Durell Stone (1902-78), who studied at Harvard and MIT, set up shop in New York, and was responsible for the original Museum of Modern Art. * In the 1950s, Stone broke with orthodox International Style Modernism and produced a series of buildings that incorporated ornamental screens, decorative motifs, and rich materials. Like Wright's late work, Stone's iconoclastic buildings made him an architectural renegade. Clients liked his work, however, and provided him with a steady of flow of prominent commissions, including the Florida State Capitol, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. 2 Columbus Circle, which was originally the Gallery of Modern Art, built for the millionaire Huntington Hartford, was classic Stone: a vertical Venetian palazzo supported on delicate scalloped columns with a white-marble facade perforated by scores of tiny portholes.
By 2004, the idiosyncratic building on Columbus Circle had become an integral part of New York's urban landscape, which is why there was such an outcry when the Museum of Arts and Design announced that it planned to destroy Stone's facade as part of its renovation. I was one of many who defended the old building. "Stone's building, though not a masterpiece, is something equally valuable—a rarity, representing an unusual and interesting moment in the history of architecture," I wrote. "Which is why it would be such a shame if 2 Columbus Circle were given a terra-cotta wrapping, or any other up-to-date alteration."
Well, Stone's building got its wrapping, after all. The newly refurbished area around the Columbus Circle fountain was full of people the day I was there. Young tourists, mostly Europeans judging from their speech, were taking pictures of the new building. What did they see? The Museum of Arts and Design, designed by Brad Cloepfil of the Portland, Ore., firm Allied Works Architecture, reminds me of those trendy eyeglasses favored by some architects: fashionably inscrutable and mildly intimidating. It also feels like an alien presence. Stone's curved facade deferred to the geometry of Columbus Circle, but the new version, though still curved, does its best to ignore the 70-foot granite column. Slots appear at random, and a continuous ribbon of fritted glass zigzags down the building, graphic effects that belong more to the packaging of consumer products than to architecture. At the base, several of Stone's original Venetian columns are preserved behind murky glass like body parts in formaldehyde. As for the glazed terra-cotta tiles of the exterior, they are dull and lifeless and make even the slick steel-and-glass facade of the Time-Warner Center next door look lively. The new Museum of Arts and Design is artsy and designy, but it is not good architecture, and it makes me miss Stone's winsome palazzo all the more.
Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of 1964 facade of 2 Columbus Circle by Ezra Stoller, copyright Esto. All rights reserved. Photograph of present 2 Columbus circle by Witold Rybczynski.