New Life For DC’s Old Library

News broke yesterday here in Washington that one of the most visible white elephants in the city, the former Carnegie Library on Mount Vernon Square, will become home to a new Apple flagship store. Renovation and conversion of the property, which has been closed off for some time now due to a serious mold problem, will be undertaken by Foster + Partners, the architectural firm headed by Sir Norman Foster. Foster also designed the nearby Kogod Courtyard, a space covered with one of his signature undulating glass roofs, which sits between the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum.

The Carnegie Library (also formerly known as the Central Library) was built in 1903 as a gift to the city by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who spent a significant part of his considerable fortune building libraries all over the country. It was designed by Ackerman & Ross, New York-based architects who specialized in Beaux-Arts style buildings. Carnegie particularly liked their work, and a number of the libraries which he donated were designed by the firm, including those in Columbus, Denver, and East Orange, New Jersey. This particular library ceased to operate as one when the present, Martin Luther King Central Library, designed by Mies van der Rohe, opened in 1972.

Since then the building has been the subject of various redevelopment proposals, but nothing has really “stuck”. When I was in college for example, Placido Domingo and the Washington National Opera were trying to acquire the library to turn it into an opera house. At one point the building housed a DC City History Museum, but that closed due to a lack of interest. More recently, the Spy Museum attempted to obtain a long-term lease in the building, but was unable to come to agreeable terms with the city, so that institution is building a new museum elsewhere in town.

While I’m not a fan of Apple, they certainly have the wherewithal to make this building a functioning space again. And although my more classically-minded friends in the world of architecture will no doubt be aghast, personally I think that Sir Norman Foster is going to do a great job on both preserving and bringing this building up to date. It needs the help: it is not by any stretch of the imagination a particularly spectacular example of its style, unlike nearby Union Station, one of the most beautiful Beaux-Arts buildings in the world. Plus, the library’s position on what is essentially a giant traffic island makes it seem uninviting and inapproachable.

My ideal solution would have been to restore the building and turn it into the special collections home of the DC Public Library. It would have honored Carnegie’s original intent, and provided much-needed space for this public service. However, since I’m not in charge of these things, this new venture promises to bring back life to what has become a rather sad part of a revitalized downtown, and that does not seem to me such a bad thing.



Popping Cork Street’s Bubble

For those of you who are not particularly interested in the art world, the news that London’s Cork Street is about to undergo a major redevelopment may be of little interest.  Following on the heels of the eviction of the Gemäldegalerie collection of Old Master paintings in Berlin, which I wrote about last week, it now appears to be the turn of the modern and contemporary art world to feel the boot.  That being said, in the case of London, perhaps this will be a good wake-up call to the present art establishment in Britain that they do not have permanent control over the cultural narrative which they believe they hold by right.

Historically Cork Street in London’s Mayfair district has been the home of many of the city’s major sellers of modern and contemporary art since the previous century, probably due in part to the fact that the Royal Academy is very close by. Painters like Francis Bacon and Joan Miró first found their major British patrons here, as each gallery tried to compete to identify the next big thing in modern art, a process which continues to this day. Other streets around Cork Street itself have taken up some of the slack as well, since the amount of available space is limited, though for a certain well-heeled segment of the population, having a Cork Street address has remained the most prestigious thing you can hold as a modern/contemporary art dealer, rather like having your suits made on nearby Saville Row.

Personally, although I did go to Cork Street quite a bit when I lived in London, I spent most of my time on that particular stretch of pavement visiting friends who worked there, or patronizing fine drinking establishments bearing that address.  My “beat” was Old Master painting, which has its own stomping grounds on Bond Street and Albemarle Street in particular, not far away.  As it happens, from the point of charm or architecture there is little or nothing particularly attractive or even gracious about Cork Street itself to commend it to the visitor: it is simply another street in the West End, with lots of store fronts and a mixture of brick, Portland stone, and concrete buildings.

However even if you have little or no knowledge of modern and contemporary art, the name “Cork Street” itself has become practically synonymous with new ideas in art over the past century, and is often referenced or visited in literature or screenplays.  In John Galsworthy’s monumental “Forsyte Saga” for example, the respectably Edwardian Forsytes end up being dragged into the avant-garde world of the 20th century in part through the association of members of their family with Cork Street. In one sequence, Soames Forsyte unwittingly visits an art gallery owned by his Cousin June, whom he has not seen since a falling-out some time ago, and is perplexed by a contemporary painting on display entitled “The Future Town”:


Soames turned his head a very little.

“How are you?” he said. “Haven’t seen you for twenty years.”

“No. Whatever made you come here?”

“My sins,” said Soames. “What stuff!”

“Stuff? Oh, yes–of course; it hasn’t arrived yet.

“It never will,” said Soames; “it must be making a dead loss.”

“Of course it is.”

“How d’you know?”

“It’s my Gallery.”

Soames sniffed from sheer surprise.

“Yours? What on earth makes you run a show like this?”

“I don’t treat Art as if it were grocery.”

Soames pointed to the Future Town. “Look at that! Who’s going to live in a town like that, or with it on his walls?”

June contemplated the picture for a moment.

“It’s a vision,” she said.

“The deuce!”

– John Galsworthy from “The Forsyte Saga Vol. III: To Let” (1921)

Now, as real estate prices in London continue to escalate, international property developers have decided to demolish two large buildings on the street, replacing them with luxury residences and mixed-use space. This will involve the eviction of eleven existing art galleries, seven of which have already been told to vacate their premises by June of this coming year, including the oldest continuously operating on Cork Street. Naturally the art community in London is rather upset, and protests have been lodged with appropriate authorities.

To now, the reaction from government has been that property owners are free to do what they wish with their own properties, and canceling a lease with advance notice is without question the right of the landlord over the tenant.  Moreover, it is not the role of the state to proscribe that commercial art galleries must be preserved on a particular site or street. Given how far into socialism Britain has fallen in recent decades, this rather common-sense approach is rather surprising, I must say.

While from a historical perspective no doubt many will be sad to see the end of this enclave and its affiliation with the art world, in truth such things are almost inevitable.  Cities change with the passage of centuries, and the center for the production and vending of a particular commodity shifts as well.  After all, it has been quite some time since lime was processed and sold on Lime Street in The City, the term for London’s financial district and historic center, and there hasn’t been a “May Fair” in Mayfair, from which the neighborhood’s name originally sprung, since 1764.  Cork Street in the 18th and 19th centuries had nothing to do with the art world, and over time the galleries presently located there will likely pop up somewhere else.

Although it is unfortunate when communities fall apart, perhaps this change can be viewed as a positive development.  By shaking things up and having to re-think their identities, the better galleries will survive in some new fashion, the weaker ones will fold, and new ones will take their place, in some other corner of the British capital.  Nothing we human beings make with our own hands lasts forever, which we must keep in mind in this life, but sometimes these experiences of shaking things up or loose is just what we need to change course and do something positive.  And no doubt many in the contemporary art world could use just such a good bursting of their balloon.

View of Cork Street, London

Preserving Our Unique Capital City

Over the past week here in the Nation’s Capital there has been a fair amount of chatter about the possibility of raising the building height restrictions which have kept the  Washington skyline relatively low to the horizon over the past century.  Among a number of other commentators, Harry Jaffe had an opinion piece in the Washington Examiner explaining why this was all about greed, and Josh Barro gave his own views in The Atlantic as to why New York is a much better city than Washington, in part because D.C. has such restrictive building codes, including the height restriction.  As it happens  I have written previously about why height restrictions in D.C. should not be loosened in any way.  To paraphrase the Emperor Charles V, when he saw what had been done to the Grand Mosque in the city of Córdoba after Spain had been reconquered from the Moors, people are seeking to build something here which might be found anywhere in the world, and in the process will destroy something truly unique.

The first issue we have to confront head-on is an architectural one.  The heart of the ongoing design problem of the vast majority of contemporary architecture is its bland disposability. People tend to focus on unique and interesting-looking modern buildings, such as The Gherkin in London, and forget that these are the exception, rather than the rule, in architecture today.  No matter how high you build a tall building, 99% of the time it is never going to be much more than a box of kleenex stood on end. Even worse, occasionally you get something like the laughably awful Sony Tower in New York, by the grossly-overrated architect Philip Johnson, who tried to differentiate his box of kleenex from the others by putting a giant broken pediment on top, and only ended up creating a rather expensive bit of kitsch.

This is not to say that all tall buildings are uniformly awful. Architects of the 1920’s and 1930’s for example, managed to produce some interesting and lovely ones, such as the Chrysler Building and the American Radiator Building in Manhattan. Yet again, these are the exceptions, rather than the rule, particularly because the idea of integrated ornamentation that enlivens the skyline and makes us want to soar like a bird is a rare commodity these days. Either we get the steel and glass box in the colors du jour, or we get some half-hearted attempt at stretching out semi-traditional-looking architecture past the point of ridiculousness, like a Victorian shopfront wrung through a pasta roller.

As Mr. Jaffe points out in The Examiner, there is nothing to be gained by increasing building heights in the Nation’s Capital, apart from making money. Those of us who are not in one of the circles where such money will be made, but rather simply live in, work in, or visit this city, will suffer the consequences of higher rents and taxes, to begin with. Never mind the fact, by the way, that there is plenty of undeveloped or underdeveloped land all around the city where at the present time there are only unimportant one and two-story buildings waiting to be knocked down, and where new communities well-within the existing height restrictions could be built.

And with a precedent of adding two more stories to buildings in Washington, why should we stop there? Why not add five, or ten, or twenty? In other words, why can’t we just try to be like New York, as indeed Mr. Barro advocates in his article?

The point of course is that Washington is not New York – and thank goodness for that.  The real estate market is not always easy here, but on the other hand one does not to hire a real estate broker to try to snag an apartment at a ridiculously inflated price plus commission.  Nor does one have to settle for a dark railroad car apartment with no outside space, which looks out onto some alley on 7th Avenue.  Those of my readers who live in Washington know that it is not at all unreasonable to want and to get outdoor living space when one is house-hunting here – whether a balcony, terrace, patio, or even an entire back yard – which in Manhattan would be positively unheard of, unless one counts sitting on a fire escape “outdoor living”.

What makes the Nation’s Capital special is that when you look out across it, you see dozens of parks large and small, noble monuments to those who loved this country, and low, restrained buildings in various architectural styles such as Federal, Victorian, Beaux-Arts, Art Deco, International Modern, and so on.  We have hundreds and hundreds of magnificent, beautiful trees all over this city, lining our streets in ways which cities like New York could not even dream of attempting, now.  And with the trees in blossom during the past two months, in green leaf now, and with the autumn to follow, there is a vibrant, natural canopy over the entire town that makes it a wonderful place to walk, pause, and enjoy nature in ways which other cities, who have built too high, must concentrate only in a few central locations.

Anyone who has visited Manhattan for example knows that, as exciting a city as it is, at least for a few days, it is very easy to feel a sense of darkness, claustrophobia, and malaise within a very short period of time. Most of the gigantic buildings that make New York so lovely from a distance are actually rather oppressive up close. For every beautiful Chrysler Building there are dozens of unremarkable concrete boxes that provide no shelter to the passerby, block the sun and air, and are distinguished only by their dirt and ugliness.

Those cities which have tried to copy New York City, assuming without foundation that it sets the standard for how all cities ought to look, usually end up ruining much of their unique character in the process.  Take a look at whatever vista you can manage from street level in cities like Philadelphia or Shanghai, and compare them to photographs of what these places once looked like before they Manhattan-ized themselves, and you realize that there is an appalling sameness to all of these places now, which were once beautiful in their own way.

Moreover, the reasons why you have to fit so many people onto the island of Manhattan or other urban centers do not exist here in Washington.  The only industry in this city is the Federal government: there is no shipping, manufacturing, finance, publishing, entertainment, etc. to really speak of, certainly as compared to New York City.  Why do we need to make ourselves look like a city with which we have virtually nothing in common?

Even with large, grand buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue, or glass office blocks along K Street, there is still a feeling of the small American town about this place.  You walk under the trees, rather than under giant buildings funneling dirt and debris through murky canyons and down into your eyes, your skin, and all over your clothes.  Anyone who has wiped their face with a white towel after stepping off the street in Manhattan knows exactly what I mean.

As I see it, Washington’s strength as a city is its relative smallness, and its human scale.  The tallest and most prominent buildings inside this oddly-shaped former parcel of Maryland are those which speak to the nobility of what man can achieve when he acts selflessly, rather than when he celebrates his own powers of acquisition.  I hope that Congress continues to see sense, and leave the Nation’s Capital the way it is.  Flawed it may be, but it remains uniquely beautiful.

View of tree-covered Washington from the National Cathedral