A Modernist Replacement
That the commission seemed to have no problem with that design is a problem not just for the commission but for preservationists and historic districts generally. That the LPC last July approved a more recent, traditional design by HS Jessup Architecture is to its credit, but the approval was immediately criticized by the Historic Districts Council:
HDC finds that while the proposed design is not offensive and would be constructed of appropriate materials, it raises the question of whether it is appropriate to construct faux historic houses in historic districts. Introducing a design that is of our time or replicating the house that originally stood here would be acceptable strategies, but this house, while thoughtfully picking up details found in the neighborhood, does neither. The house might look like it has always been here, but we are not sure that would be an honest approach.
Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts seconded the HDC critique, but with a twist, adding that it may be a missed opportunity for a more creative design:
[FUESHD] has spoken out in the past about ersatz historic facades, and although this building is not an exact copy of a historic building, it closely resembles one and could be seen as a very literal adaptation. This site could be an opportunity to take a more contemporary approach.
So this group is not only against exact copies of previous structures but against anything a passerby might think is old.
Such blind adherence to decades’ old modernist dogma raises the question of what preservation is all about. Does Manhattan or any historic neighborhood exist for the benefit of the people who live and work there, or is it a museum in which what is built is determined by a curator’s diktat? Preservationists should embrace new architecture in traditional styles because cities can and should change. But change need not poke folks in the eye. New traditional work is a strategy for embracing change without placing historical character at risk. Historical character, not just old buildings, is what preservationists should protect.
We are often warned that cities are not and should not be museums – mostly by architects and architectural historians who oppose new traditional architecture because it does not “reflect our time.” But can architects be trusted to determine how concrete, steel and glass express “our time” when historians themselves cannot even assess an era’s meaning with the perspective of decades or more?
Architects and preservationists who continue to embrace this “of our time” bugaboo are guilty of perpetuating not just an era but an error. Preservationists should look, rather, with favor on the proposed new building at 34 East 62nd St.