Provoking the consumer of the urban environment

On view now in New York City is a show orchestrated by architect/urbanist Rem Koolhaas and the New Museum called “Cronocaos” (read the review in the New York Times). Located appropriately in an old equipment supply store next to the museum, the show explores what Koolhaas sees as the disturbing tendency of modern cities to use preservation as a tool to erase certain layers of the past, and to “sanitize” the urban environment for upscale tourism and consumption.

Controversial by design, the show questions the darker side of the preservation movement, where developers, governments, and preservation agencies unite over projects that displace the poor, and benefit tourists and upper-income consumers. It’s apt the show’s located on the Bowery, until recently a byword for poverty and soup-kitchens (and good punk rock venues); it’s now brimming with upscale boutiques, hotels, and condos.

A different case for preservation?

Since the shotgun houses of the poor were long ago cleared from Birmingham’s central city, there are few residents to “displace” here; much of our own preservation movement has converted old commercial structures into residential, bringing new populations into what had hitherto been exclusively commercial areas. Perhaps more relevant is Koolhaas’ lament of the “sanitizing” nature of a lot of historic preservation, where messy but fascinating layers of time are erased to create a faux-historic environment at odds with any historic reality. Further complicating this is the fact that we’re willing to create new buildings in vague “period” styles, often diminishing the power of nearby, truly historic buildings (this was the argument against the imminent “historicizing” of the Alagasco building downtown, whose current 1960s self is shown above).

$50 a week on 24th Street North

Right down the street from our office–24th Street North–is a small two-story building which in the not-too-distant-past was a boarding house offering “furnished rooms” from $50/week. The painted sign advertising this can still be seen on the brick. While the boarders have long departed, it’s preserving this sort of quirky authenticity that Koolhaas is arguing for (a dreadful oversimplification I know). Anyone who is interested in the complexities of urban space and historic preservation: if you are lucky enough to be in New York before June 5, see this show!

[thanks to the New York Times for the exhibition pic]

8 responses to “Preservation/sanitization

  1. Historic preservation has secured more true urbanity to Birmingham, NYC and many other cities than all the modern architects/planners put together. I have no respect for Koohaas’ perspectives on this. He’s an ideologue, not an urbanist.

  2. Urban revitalization WITHOUT historic preservation is more likely to result in sanitization and gentrification…in this nation.
    PS: Making new buildings look “period” is a major violation of the preservationists’ code as encapsulated in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards.

  3. For a bit of additional information what has been often described as the ‘original’ 1960’s facade of the Alagasco building is actualy a dumbed down version in EIFS that replaced the orignal Fritz Woehle design in the early ’80’s. The circle windows were retained, but all other detailing the buiding displayed was removed and replaced with the flat EIFS facade currently seen.
    The building was orignaly built in the 1930’s and was a typical load bearing brick warehouse structure with large ‘storefront’ openings delineating 4 bays across the front of the building, with corresponding openings on the second floor. In 1970 the building was renovated by Woehle for the National Bank of Commerce, creating the distinctive circle window scheme seen today. The building’s cornice was removed and other brick detailing was covered by the new facade. The facade was covered in cement asbestos panels with an exposed quartz stone pebble surface a small metal base met the sidewalk. The original windows were divide into quarters with aligning reveals in the panels both verticaly and horizontaly. The exposed pebbles, metal base and reveals all worked to give character and scale to the large building. The interior was also renovated creating a large interior banking hall on the first floor of four interconnecting domes. The drive-thru lanes were also added at this time.
    In the early ’80’s corresponding with the building purchase by Alagasco the cement panel facade was removed and replaced with flat EIFS with no detail and of a single color. At this time the interior was completely renovated and the domed banking hall was removed. The original drive-thru canopy was replaced a couple of years ago.
    The building has been through many changes over the course of its life, and it can be argued that the current configuration is not one of its finest adaptations. The best direction for the future of this building is also arguable, but in the end it is the desires of the owners that will prevail.

    • Thank you for this thorough explanation of the history of the facade. It is clear that what we see today, regardless of a future direction, is not Woehle’s original design. If Williams-Blackstock and its client are comfortable posting a rendering of the renovation, we’d all appreciate it as it would further enhance understanding of this project. Again, thanks for reading and posting.

  4. Yes, this history is welcome. A designer friend once described that original pebble quartz paneling (used on several other projects about that time) as chewing-gum-in-epoxy. It didn’t weather well at all. I’m certain that’s why it was removed.

  5. I have always been a fan of Rem’s and I have not understood why his approach has not been more indoctrinated into place-making than it has. To read and digest his work and writing makes me lament the mainstream acceptance of ‘Urbanists’ like DPZ and Kunstler and much of the fluff they peddle. The fact that Koolhaas can state with confidence that ‘the generic city, the general urban condition, is happening everywhere, and just the fact that it occurs in such enormous quantities must mean that it’s habitable. Architecture can’t do anything that the culture doesn’t.’ is perhaps his greatest strength. I’m not huge on historic preservation as I ascribe that cities are like palimpsest that should be written upon, scraped and then rewritten as needed. Indeed, preservation should be a tool, but it is far from a toolbox.

    • I’ve always been a big fan of Rem’s too, and thank you for this eloquent comment. Preservation is a tool, and can be a wonderful tool. But we’ve developed a knee-jerk reaction in this country that allows very mediocre-or worse-preservation projects, or faux-historicism, at the expense of authentic place-making and a richer, fuller understanding of urban experience.

  6. I’ve long admired Koolhaas’s resourcefulness as a designer, a critic, and a documentarian.

    It seems to me that every time we want to cover up something ugly we lose something we’ll later wish we’d kept. There was a time when everybody seemed to agree that Victorian gusto was horribly ugly and needed to be torn down or covered over, until a few visionaries became enamored in the 70s. More recently everybody has seemed to agree that the modern movement produced only sterility and banality, except for a few enamored visionaries. The day when we’re tearing off all the built-up EIFS cornices and installing some new cliche (sustainably-harvested brises-soleils? LED-embedded terra cotta?) seems already on the horizon even as we watch a last flurry of styrofoam detailing go up.

    At least these fashions translate into billable architectural services.

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