The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 6-2 Tuesday to allow the New York Public Library to go ahead with its intended expansion and revision of its main building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The new designs are to be carried out by Norman Foster and they look promising enough. They do not appear to undermine appreciably the pre-existent building, which opened in 1911 to designs by Carrere & Hastings.
Foster’s stock in trade, for the past decade and more, has been taking old buildings and rejuvenating them by admitting the blessings of daylight. He did this most daringly at the Reichstag in Berlin by glazing the dome of that august building in a move of questionable taste. Far more successful was his dazzling revision of the Great Court of the British Museum. If the new plans for the 42nd Street library are not as visually exciting as the latter project, they are more sensitive to historical discretion than was true at the Reichstag. Now when visitors to the library enter from Fifth Avenue, they are greeted with a dead-end to the west. The new project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018 at a cost of more than $300 million, will pierce that wall and admit sunlight from, and views out onto, Bryant Park.
The problem, for preservationists, is that this space is now occupied by bookstacks as well as by the columns that hold up the Rose Reading Room on the 2nd floor. To hollow out the space will require the removal of 1.2 million books, which is fewer than originally intended, but more than many — including Salmon Rushdie and Mario Vargas Llosa — would have wanted. But there are excellent pragmatic reasons for the removal, not least that many of the books are rarely used and have been digitized.
The new space, with sinuous wooden accents across three levels, supported by pale stone pillars, looks good enough, to judge by the renderings. The best part about the space is that it will look out on Bryant Park and give some function and formal consequence to the odd and distinctly non-classical glass and steel façade along the park, a façade that Carrere & Hastings conceived rather durably with nothing more than utility in mind.
James Gardner is The Real Deal’s architecture critic.