Many of New York's finest modern buildings and interiors face an uncertain future.
Abby Bussel -- Interior Design, 9/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
It is tricky business to weigh the needs of urban growth and economic imperative against the value of significant structures, be they 30 or 130 years old. New Yorkers on both sides of the issue are facing off over endangered structures and interiors, with building owners and government agencies calling for market-driven solutions and preservationists, architects, designers, and members of the cultural community rallying to save historic elements integral to the modern city. Like so many baby boomers, the modern works of the postwar era are coming of age; the cool lines of glass, steel, and exposed concrete are not, it seems, as worthy—or lovable—as buildings with old-world charm.
New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission stipulates that in order to be considered eligible for designation, buildings must be at least 30 years old and interiors "customarily open or accessible to the public." According to the Modern Architecture Working Group, the United Nations and the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center are among important interiors unprotected by landmark status. Even with designation there are ways for careless or devious landlords to circumnavigate the preservation laws. On rare occasions, architectural gems can disappear by way of midnight demolition, political maneuver, or timely fire.
Or, as is the case with one international icon, existing landmark status can be superseded by an independent government agency. If the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has its way, Eero Saarinen's Jet Age masterwork, the 1962 TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport, will lose its innovative flight wings (satellite gates at the end of the tubular jetways). It may be adapted to nonaviation use by a future tenant, who would be responsible for the terminal's restoration and renovation. Designated a city landmark in 1994, the authority does not consider the terminal a significant element in its ongoing, airport-wide efforts to expand gate capacity and improve efficiency. The plan is to surround TWA with a massive new facility for United Airlines. TWA will lose its processional sequence toward the sky and, long compromised by neglect and insensitive alterations, may lie empty while awaiting a new tenant. The Municipal Arts Society, a civic institution that has testified before the LPC in support of TWA's formal and functional preservation, is encouraging the Port Authority to make tenancy a priority, commit funds to preservation and long-term maintenance, and, if no aviation tenant can be secured, ensure ongoing public access. The MAS has also solicited letters of support from Philip Johnson, Steven Holl, Richard Rogers, and Robert Stern, who argues that the terminal is "the Pennsylvania Station of the air age."
An already compromised modern work is "Manhattan," a site-specific mural by the Bauhaus-trained artist Josef Albers that welcomed daily commuters who passed through the lobby of the 1963 MetLife Building (formerly the Pan Am Building) on their way to Grand Central Terminal. Commissioned by Walter Gropius, an architect of the building along with Pietro Belluschi and Emery Roth & Sons, the mural is in storage, following a recent lobby renovation. There are "no plans to return it to the lobby," says MetLife spokesman John Calagna. The company may donate the mural to Baruch College or another institution, an alternative that will make the piece public but not in its intended home. Like the Albers mural, the Kaufmann Conference Center, a late work by Alvar Aalto in an office building near the United Nations, is in private hands. Commissioned by Edgar J. Kaufmann (of Fallingwater) in 1961 for the owner of the building, the Institute of International Education (IIE), its existence was jeopardized by the building's sale last year to a Japanese nonprofit group that planned to convert the space into rentable offices. The Tri-State working party of Docomomo, an international organization dedicated to the documentation and conservation of modern movement works, the Consul General of Finland, and other groups attempted to save the room in situ, or have it reassembled in a friendly setting, like a museum. By 2001 the building had been repurchased by the IIE and, according to Caroline Zaleski, director of advocacy for Docomomo, "calendared" by the Landmarks Commission, providing a temporary safety net until an official hearing is arranged. Each of these projects represents a time when imagination flourished in all corners, from corporate boardrooms to civic-minded institutions. While the city thrives on change and reinvention, the current stewards of great modern works should find creative ways to preserve the legacies they—and we—have been so fortunate to inherit.
To Get Involved
To protest changes to the TWA Flight Center, please go to www.mas.org for a list of public officials and their addresses.