The announcement on Tuesday that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has received $60 million from museum trustee and philanthropist David Koch to renovate the four blocks that align Fifth Avenue from 80th to 84th streets into a unique destination was a source of mixed emotions for some of us.
That the Plaza that fronts the museum will be reconceived and probably improved, at the hands of OLIN (which redid Bryant Park), is of course a good thing. And yet one ruefully observes that this strip of Fifth Avenue has been through hell in the past five or so years, in part because of the prolonged and half-hearted labors that were expended at great expense upon the very spaces, or near the very spaces, that now will be entirely reworked. A few years ago the museum’s trustees closed off the grand stairway for a year to improve its utility, if not its appearance. In the past year or so, they have similarly blocked off the pre-existent fountains to the same effect.
With that caveat, and with the provision that the work indeed be finished by the summer of 2014, as the Met’s press release claims, then the new project has much that looks promising. It would fundamentally reconceive the fountains and the tree-lined allées on either side of them to create a greater sense of coherence and ease of use. Over one hundred new trees would be planted and two elegant kiosks would be designed by Rick Mather Architects.
The present stairway, one of the most successful urbanistic achievements on the Upper East Side, or anywhere else in Manhattan, will not be part of the newly announced renovations. In a way, that is a shame. Undertaken over 40 years ago and, as good as it is, its pared-down, vaguely 1970s vocabulary does not work well with the Beaux Arts style of the rest of the Fifth Avenue façade. It too could use a fundamental revision in a classical style that accords with the work of Richard Morris Hunt and McKim, Mead & White, who together are responsible for the present façade.
As for the fountains, they appear in the renderings to be far larger and more imposing than the present fountains, more like destinations, rather than after-thoughts, whose effect will be similar to the fountains at the Louvre. This too would be a good thing. Above all, the great achievement of the proposed renovations would be to create a sustained destination space, a mélange of park and urbanism and culture, which is really without parallel anywhere else in the city.