This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Heinz Architectural Center’s opening. Our birthday has put us in a pensive mood, but we’re not just looking back on what we’ve done so far. We’re also going to spend a lot of time in 2013 thinking about how, in the future, we can better help people understand the role of architecture in their lives—why architecture matters to all of us. Our current exhibition, 20/20: Celebrating Two Decades of the Heinz Architectural Center, was organized to help us carry out this Janus-like task.
One of our most important goals for 20/20 was to start a conversation with visitors about how they respond to architecture and how they connect with architectural ideas through a museum exhibition. To that end, the show includes several activities that allow visitors to react to what’s on view. This website and blog will enable us to continue and expand that conversation during the run of 20/20 and throughout 2013. It’s the place where you can share your experiences, ask us questions, exchange ideas with us, and in general, contribute to the important project of helping us determine what the Heinz Architectural Center will be and do in the next five…10…even 20 years. To get the blog started, tell us a story about a building or place or architectural experience that holds special meaning for you and we may add it to this site. Send us your pictures, drawings, words—whatever mode of expression works for you!
Here’s a building that has a very strong hold on my memory: the New York Public Library. As an art history graduate student at the City University of New York in the 1980s, I spent countless hours there. When I first started going there to do research, I hadn’t yet taken up the study of architectural history, so I didn’t know that the building was a quintessential expression of the Beaux-Arts style. This approach to architecture was imported from France in the late 19th century and remained popular into the 1920s. It shows a reverence for forms and motifs from classical antiquity and is meant to convey stability, vigor, gravitas, and authority. There’s a reason the Beaux-Arts was the style of choice for financial, institutional, and government buildings in America’s Gilded Age: nothing like a temple front, some columns, and giant arches, all rendered in marble, to let the world know you’ve arrived as a nation….
The library building was designed by the New York firm of Carrère and Hastings and constructed between 1902 and 1911. A century later, many of the consequences of America’s corporatization and emergence as a global power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries strike some as problematic, unseemly, or even immoral. At the same time, it was precisely the extraordinary growth in wealth during that era that made an institution like a library financially possible—and, arguably, politically necessary. How to square this paradox intellectually can be challenge that implicates one’s deepest values. Architecturally, though, a building like the New York Public Library embodies, in my estimation, some of the greatest things about our society.
When I entered the building’s great atrium from 5th Avenue, I would experience an almost palpable release from the hubbub outside the building’s doors. It was as if my brain and soul have suddenly expanded, at the same time that my focus started to sharpen. To this day, I feel an exhilarating sense of intellectual possibility and ferment—a kind of resolve to be smart and worthy of the place—when I go to the New York Public Library. I can imagine that some find the main entrance intimidating or overwhelming, or maybe there are days when you just don’t want the distraction of feeling compelled to be wowed by the mere act of entering the building. For those people, and those days, there is the smaller, more discreet entrance on the 42nd Street side of the building, allowing you to pass from the world “out there” to the one “in here” without breaking your mental stride.
I think of the 5th Avenue entrance to the library as a kind of sorter, with bunches of people being spat into the building in a scrum and then going their independent ways. Many of them end up in the main reading room, on the library’s third floor. This was the space in which I always felt most truly in touch with the city: it was where you saw renowned writers and scholars one day, and a person who appeared to be on the knife’s edge of “normal” life the next. I remember very clearly one man who always wore the same clothes: grubby pants dragging on the floor (and not as a fashion statement), their cuffs chewed up by rain and time; a torn coat that was too big for him, hanging lopsidedly off his shoulders; worn shoes whose backs were crushed from walking on them; and a Greek fisherman’s hat. And his paper shopping bag full of old newspapers. He would shamble through the long reading room, sit at a table, remove his hat and coat, pull the papers out of the bag, carefully place them in stacks, and read this one or that one. He did all of this with the same deliberateness and concentration that I brought to my own work, and I always wondered what he was up to. I had a feeling that he was living in a universe of his own imagining, but it seemed that we shared a drive to impart some kind of order to knowledge. And we were both doing our work in one of the most spectacular, rigorous buildings in the city.
New York City was rough in the 1980s: some people were making gobs of money, while thousands of homeless were living in the streets. It often seemed ugly and coarse. (Still, it was an amazing place to live.) By the ’80s, the library was in a bit of a sorry state. Most of its many murals were barely visible because of decades of neglect, and the main reading room’s tall, arched windows were nearly covered with black-out paint from World War II—yep, the one that ended in 1945. Homeless people washed their clothes, and sometimes bathed themselves, in basins in the library’s restrooms. But there, in the big Beaux-Arts box, we all were welcome, and we all were equal. It continues to amaze me. Any building that can facilitate and accommodate that fundamental quality is, to my mind, of inestimable importance.