What Do Norman Foster's Plans for the New York Public Library Mean for its Storied Architecture?

What Do Norman Foster's Plans for the New York Public Library Mean for its Storied Architecture?
A conceptual design of Gottesman Exhibition Hall at the New York Public Library

NEW YORK — People love the New York Public Library, and yet there’s a general agreement that it cannot survive in its current state. Even with a user base of 15.3 million people, it chronically struggles to compete among the other priorities addressed by City Hall. Investment from private donors and the city government have taken a particularly sharp dip since the financial crisis of 2008, resulting in woeful cuts in hours, acquisitions, and staff. While strong points have been made on all sides of the debate over the NYPL's future as a center of research, a real conversation about its future as an architectural treasure is just now emerging — and thankfully so, for the fate of the institution is also the fate of one of New York's most iconic landmarks. 

Experts At Odds

CUNY professor David Nasaw garnered laughs and knowing murmurs when he spoke at a public forum on the NYPL's future that took place at the New School on May 20th. “I realize that the politicians and the public have to be convinced that it would be a crime to destroy or denigrate this great research institution or to let it remain in the state that it now is,” he told the audience. “It will not be easy to scrap this plan or radically alter it, but having heard it so eloquently defended, I’m more than ever convinced that it has to be scrapped or changed.” 

Nasaw's words were met with an eruption of applause. The plan he was referring to, conceived during the administration of former library president Paul LeClerc, would combine the New York Public Library’s Mid-Manhattan and Science, Industry, and Business Libraries, and place them inside the library’s famous central outpost at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue (a structure known as the Schwarzman Building since the banker and financier Stephen A. Schwarzman donated $100 million to the Library in 2008).

This consolidation effort has been presented at once as a massive money-saver for the Library and as a Big Event for New York architecture. Under the direction of world-renowned architect Norman Foster, the Schwarzman Building would turn from a pure research facility (from which no books are currently permitted to leave) into a circulating library that serves the broader public. This update would require a wide-ranging remodelling that makes some preservationists cringe.

With approximately $200 million from the sale of the two vacated buildings, and $150 million in contingent support from the city government, the heart of the Schwarzman Building would be converted into an open area for computers, desks, and tables for groups, displacing seven levels of bookstacks. Approximately three million books will be moved to Princeton, New Jersey, in a storage facility already being used by the NYPL and shared with Columbia and Princeton, where items are meant to be available in New York within 24 hours of being requested. "The great entrance hall, grand staircases, and marble corridors will continue to convey the atmosphere of a Beaux-Arts palace of the people," Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library, writes in the New York Review of Books, "But the new branch library on the lower floors overlooking Bryant Park will have a completely different feel," meant to "suit the needs of a variety of patrons." If it comes to fruition, the "Central Library Plan" (CLP) would be the most comprehensive restructuring — physical or otherwise — in the institution's history.

A Public Research Library Looks to the Future

It is also the most contested. Along with other supporters of the plan, NYPL president Anthony Marx has spoken in adamant detail about how the Library would save money by selling off two of its three biggest pieces of Midtown real estate. "I have thought hard about what the alternatives would look like," Marx told ARTINFO. "I cannot think of an alternative that provides the city with a great central branch library without having it closed for expensive renovations, that ensures the preservation of the book collection going forward, and that provides significant additional resources for hiring more librarians and buying more books, which we have not had the resources to do for years now." 

Supporters of the CLP argue that converting the Schwarzman Building's stacks into a circulating library will accomodate a future in which people inform themselves less from paper and more from digital media. They point out that even as fewer New Yorkers read books, the Library's users haven't dwindled in number, and that they increasingly depend on it as a place with free access to Internet. Taking the space devoted to books that almost no one reads and converting it to an open area with computers and wi-fi access is, by their account, a smart move.

Of course, such a world of paperless readers is still far off. Professional researchers, whose work depends on access to obscure material that is rarely available in digital form, are the group that will be most directly affected by the CLP, and an awful lot of them are troubled by it. “Books and microfilm are falling apart. The staff has just gone totally downhill,” one scholar told ARTINFO. “You could spend $150 million fixing up the collection itself.” 

Critics describe the CLP as a hasty, flashy plan that neglects the parts of the library that are already chronically overlooked: funding for scholarly acquisitions, competent research staff, and maintenance at the library’s circulating branches in upper Manhattan and New York's outer boroughs. Many feel that a 24-hour turnaround for books from Princeton is too long to make scholars wait. Others, including Nasaw, say that students can't rely on the delivery system as it now stands, and consequently doubt that it would be improved under the new plan. 

Caleb Crain, a Cullman Fellow at the NYPL, has built a comprehensive cache of articles, blog posts, op-eds, radio, and television interviews about the Library's plans on his Web site Steamboats are Ruining Everything. Though Caleb himself is a harsh critic of the CLP, his site's content suggests that well-informed people can disagree — often quite strongly — with the academic community’s objections to the proposed changes.

The Architecture Question

Even with concerns about research in mind, the most interesting dissenter to speak at last week's New School event wasn’t a research librarian. It was Mark Hewitt, an architectural historian with deep concerns about what the CLP would mean for the treasured Beaux Arts building. “As a preservationist, if I were to landmark the interior of the New York Public Library, one of the first things I would put on the landmark list would be those bookstacks,” he told the audience. “They are incredibly important as artifacts of early 20th-century engineering.”

Hewitt got to know the library when he co-authored the book “Carrere & Hastings, Architects” — about the architecture firm that, between 1897 and 1911, designed and constructed the Schwarzman Building. He remains a particularly ardent admirer of the stacks, not only for their compact design and their capacity to bear the load of the grand Rose Reading Room above them, but because of the fact that as bookstacks go, they are uncommonly fire-resistant. Hewitt points out that placing books inside the steel tubes that support the building allows them to burn slower, giving firemen the opportunity to get in and put the fires out. "As they are now disposed, they are a technological marvel," he told the New School panel, "and an artifact of incredible importance.” 

Hewitt is particularly skeptical as to whether the stacks, which were designed to house books, were ever meant to house people at all. “It’s a space,” he said, “that has very poor natural light, because the strip windows face west. That’s the worst kind of light. Architects know this, and it will require huge amounts of illumination to create a decent lighting scheme in that space. It will also require a huge amount of mechanical systems to heat and cool the space for people, because books don’t require the same amount of heating and cooling as human bodies. So the cost, the logic behind this completely escapes me, and I think it probably would escape many other architects and preservationists.”

Starchitecture and Its Discontents

The upshot of this is that while many defend the CLP in terms of its potential for the public, there has been a lack of response to the concerns raised by people who care passionately about the preservation of the historical aspects of the Schwarzman Building. Speaking by phone, Hewitt seemed to agree that it would help if the Library’s board of directors could describe in greater detail the alternative plans they considered before concluding that the books in the two other Midtown libraries could go nowhere else but in the Schwarzman Building’s stacks. 

It would also help if the public could see Foster’s full plan for the new library before the board began asserting that it was worthy. Foster only received approval to start schematic designs in February; his firm has published some attractive but uninformative renderings, and no detailed drawings are available. It would help the board’s dealings with a skeptical public a great deal if they could convince the NYPL’s users that their choice of a super new building, designed by a super famous architect, wasn’t being unreasonably pushed forward by a small group of donors and members of the city government looking for a Big Event. Going forward with the plan as it stands, Hewitt laments the board is bending to a widespread trend in contemporary architecture, one according to which "you hire a starchitect, you give the architect free reign to do whatever he or she wants, and you suddenly attract a lot of money.”

With these questions unanswered, we can expect every public forum in which the library invites comment and dissent to be like the event at the New School, which at times resembled a discussion in which two parents tell their children that they’re getting divorced. Despite obvious feelings of tension, everyone was polite and respectful. Though people spoke energetically, there was a heaviness in the air, a sense that most of the immense changes that were about to take place were inevitable, coupled with an unspoken collective impulse to wonder if anything should or could be done to prevent them. Also, the word "love" was used about a hundred times.