The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) had an April 1 spoof about US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announcing a new US initiative – an amendment to the National Historic Preservation Act called the Failed Public Space amendment designed to preserve ugly and abandoned historic places. The secretary staged the supposed announcement at the Empire State Plaza (ESP) in New York state’s capital Albany.
Although it has its defenders the ESP is perhaps the most unsuccessful and disliked examples of government-led ‘comprehensive redevelopment’ of the mid-20th century.
Secretary Jewel: “Many people are not aware that awful spaces like Empire State Plaza are under serious threat across the country. Our new Failed Public Space amendment is designed to protect these spaces, and to ensure that future generations of Americans can continue to not use them.”
Jokes aside, no new laws are needed to protect bad buildings from being replaced. Existing historic preservation laws often do this. Here in Frederick a literal reading of the existing Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) Guidelines often leads to proposals being rejected to tear down concrete (cinder) block garages.
The Guidelines require retention of any building, structure, site, or object ‘or part thereof’ judged to be a “contributing resource” defined as items that “help define” the historic district, “add historic or architectural value” or were built more than 50 years ago. (p15, p16)
Note the ‘or.’
Taken literally the local Guidelines mean that a building (or associated item) within a historic district is protected by regulation regardless of its historic or architectural merit. Old-ness – over-50 – by itself is sufficient for it to be designated in the regulatory term of art a ‘contributing resource’ deserving of protection against modification, let alone demolition. And of course now proposed demolition at any building over 50 is subject to HPC review anywhere within the city, not just in the historic district, and the same rules apply.
Regardless of the building’s architectural or historic value – its merit – the property is subject to preservation orders solely on account of age anywhere within Frederick city limits – subject in each case to the city government (Mayor & Board) endorsing the extended HPC jurisdiction.
So we are already at the point where “Failed” buildings must be preserved. Of course what is ‘Failed’ and what has historic value is always a matter of opinion. So basing preservation solely on age avoids dealing with differences of judgment about architectural merit.
But then what is the point of preservation if not to preserve things of value?
Much to the consternation of some local property-owners, cinderblock garages 55 and 60 years old are being described by historic preservation staff as worthy of preservation.
But back to the setting for the April 1 spoof, the Empire State Plaza (ESP) in downtown Albany, the capital of New York state. It illustrates changing tastes in architecture and urban design, and the difficulties of historic preservation. When it was built 1959 to 1976 the ESP was the height of enlightened ‘urban renewal’ combining ’slum clearance’ with imaginative planning on a grand scale. At the time most of the criticism was about cost. And some deplored the displacement of people when ‘slums’ were seized under the state’s power of eminent domain.
Few however criticized the concept or design of the Plaza. Along with cul-de-sacked suburbs this kind of comprehensive urban renewal was as widely accepted then as neo-traditional main streets and smart growth are today. I took planning courses in the early 60s, and I remember it.
Prime movers for the Albany Plaza were Governor Nelson Rockefeller and architect Wallace Harrison. It saw about 100 acres of ‘slums’ – home to 9,000 people – cleared from a poor area next to city center called ‘The Gut.’ In its place was built the Plaza, a set of about ten large contemporary buildings, five very vertical tower buildings, one Manhattan-scale (44 storeys) tower four other identical 23 storeys high, also several squat and horizontal buildings. Plus there’s a freeform concrete theater called The Egg.
All this is organized on three sides of a grand pedestrian promenade with huge reflecting pools with fountains and winter skating rink. It has generous stone paved walks, numerous memorials, large outdoor sculptures, lawns, and trees. The promenade buildings house various state government agencies, 11,000 people work there. At the northern end of the grand promenade is the state legislature’s home the Capitol – a stark contrast to of uncompromisingly mid-20th century buildings. The Capitol is a late-19th century building of neoclassical, romanesque design – a kind of dolls house writ large.
Under the main promenade are five sub-surface levels the lowest being car parking, the upper two a Concourse of shops, food places, post office, bank. An expressway runs through the complex at the lower levels.
The concept is very much mid-20th century modern by Le Corbusier (1887-1965), heavily influenced by his 1935 La Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City) proposal of highrise towers spaced out in a parklike setting. Streets as we know them were dispensed with, replaced by superhighways for motor vehicles, helicopter pads on the roofs of mass transit hubs.
The Empire State Plaza is an American version of some of the design of new-from- scratch Brasilia in Brazil and Chandigarh in Punjab state India.
The style of the Albany buildings is nowadays often called brutalist, although instead of concrete most of the buildings on the Plaza are clad in stone, marble even.
The kind of ‘comprehensive urban renewal’ epitomized by the ESP fell out of favor beginning with the writings of Jane Jacobs , Tom Wolfe, Paul Goldberger, and Robert Hughes in the last third of the 20th century. Jacobs argued that urban planners had no idea who cities actually worked and detailed how their schemes of comprehensive renewal destroyed valuable informal networks of neighborly help and destroyed small business. Crime rates soared in the slum replacement ‘projects.’ Many were demolished as little as 20 years after they’d been built. Many people plain hated the look and feel of such places.
The Center for Public Spaces has the Empire State Plaza prominent in a Hall of Shame: “This is an empty, wind swept plaza with no human scale what-so-ever. The plaza is made completely of hard surfaces, has very few places to sit, ugly architecture, and most of all, an out of scale feeling. The only use for the plaza is walking from point A to point B. There is no way you could meet anyone here because (1) it is so inhospitable, and (2) so large you wouldn’t be able to find them.”
The New York Times reporter covering the opening ceremony in mid-1976 noted that the wind coming off the Hudson River sent so much spray from the fountains onto the paved areas that attendees had to take shelter. Perhaps they now turn the fountains down on windy days?
It has its defenders too: “The ESP is a unique and awe-inspiring structure. Few cities in the US have such a defining skyline, and we should be grateful for the plaza’s role in shaping this city’s visual identity. The plaza’s public space, albeit difficult to access, is attractive and begs exploration. I’ve been fortunate so see a lot of great public spaces in the US and abroad: Central Park in NYC, The Mall in DC, the Riverwalk in San Antonio, St. Mark’s Square in Venice, La Defense in Paris, Park Guell in Barcelona, Piazza San Pietro in the Vatican City, and the list goes on. I consider the ESP to be close to that high a standard.”
COMMENT: My view is that there’s a role for monumental civic spaces in capital cities for parades and big civic ceremonies. A limited role. There’s a fine line between the grand and the grandiose, and the Albany plaza goes over that line. The scale is too large for people to actually use on a daily basis. They only make sense as a venue for the occasional mass rally or ceremonial procession. Outside a few monumental ways (Pennsylvania Avenue for example) we’re better off without these grand boulevards. Plus comprehensive planing is vain idiocy. Planners understand little of how cities work now, and are clueless about how they will develop in the future. No one can know that.
We’re better off acknowledging that a city comprising vast numbers of people living and working is too complex for anyone to really understand, let alone anticipate, and we’re better off allowing growth to be organic like the market economy, changing a little here and there in response to felt needs as expressed in where people choose to invest and develop. The best cities were never master-planned. They evolved.