This plan from the New York Public Library to have Sir Norman Foster gut its beloved central building and rework it, getting rid of the pesky "books" there in the process, all in the name of modernization and The People and prudent money-management—Michael Kimmelman, holder of the office of New York Times architecture critic, has reviewed the plan, and he has delivered the verdict, and the verdict is: DEATH. The library and its "celebrity architect," Kimmelman writes, have cooked up a plan for a "money pit," an "Alamo of engineering" that will pointlessly deform a vital and important structure to no good or useful end.
Kimmelman disdains the Foster plan on architectural grounds—"an awkward, cramped, banal pastiche of tiers," he calls it, and then he really gets going—but his true line of attack isn't about taste. It's about engineering and common sense. The Public Library wants to get rid of its noncirculating stacks to make room for the main library building to absorb the book-circulation operations of other branches, including the Mid-Manhattan Branch across the street, so that those branches can be sold off for money to build an endowment.
That scheme won't work, Kimmelman writes. The most damning phrase in his whole piece is a quote the engineering firm itself gave the Wall Street Journal: that the central concept of the project, the removal of the stacks currently at the bottom of the library, amounts to "cutting the legs off a table while dinner is being served." Rather than worrying about the library-science merits of moving the books off site, Kimmelman focuses on the fact that replacing the stacks with open space involves blowing out the building's basic structural support:
[H]omeowners know what happens when contractors talk about performing magic tricks. Even if Silman's pros ensure that the reading room doesn't collapse, the whole rationale for the plan—the annual millions promised for acquisitions, librarians and so on—comes crashing to earth if the finances don't work out.
The Public Library could find a more plausible source of money, Kimmelman argues, from the branch it wants to get rid of:
[T]he Mid-Manhattan site at present has the potential to be redeveloped as a 20-story building. The library could also sell some 100,000 square feet of unused space at the site, or seek city permission to transfer air rights (there may be more than a million square feet) from 42nd Street. A new Mid-Manhattan branch should cost a fraction of gutting the stacks and could produce much better architecture.
A Times architecture critic holds enormous influence, and possibly actual power. And now Kimmelman is testing that power by swinging it at another major civic institution. The Public Library, in its enthusiasm for the project, is willing to defy its reading-room loyalists and perhaps the laws of physics and finance. Can it get away with defying the Times as well?