PAUL GUNTHER Is An Opinions contributor to Architizer. He HAS SPENT NEARLY 40 YEARS AT THE SERVICE OF VARIOUS CIVIC AND CULTURAL ORGANIZATIONS, including The New York Historical Society, Municipal Art Society, And The American Center in Paris. MOST RECENTLY HE SERVED AS PRESIDENT OF THE INSTITUTE OF CLASSICAL ARCHITECTURE & ART AS IT EXPANDED ACROSS THE COUNTY IN FULFILLMENT OF ITS EDUCATIONAL MISSION. The views expressed here are his own. INTERESTED IN CONTRIBUTING TO ARCHITIZER? EMAIL EDITORIAL@ARCHITIZER.COM.
“Drink deep or taste not,” admonished Alexander Pope three centuries ago. The warning is particularly applicable to design today, at a time when branding and high-end marketing, assisted eagerly by development-driven public officials, increasingly define communities across the world’s urban cores.
The point is writ large in a sort of blurry apotheosis at the controversial redevelopment of the former St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York’s Greenwich Village, overseen by FXFOWLE Architects and with interiors by Thomas O’Brien.
Image via FXFOWLE
St. Vincent’s was founded by four Sisters of Charity in 1849 to treat victims of a cholera epidemic and was the last Catholic general hospital in New York City. It treated victims from the sinking of the Titanic to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and was one of the early institutions to respond to the AIDS epidemic. Two years ago, after a long and often contentious battle with local advocates, the imperiled if vibrant hospital sold its vast, prime Greenwich Village holdings to the renowned Rudin family, leading to its present development.
Rendering via Hayes Davidson
The redevelopment comprises ten distinct new buildings along with two former health professional residences retained but converted; five townhouses and five apartment towers rising behind the existing brick facades will house 200 units. Luxury is the watchword, transforming nearly an entire landmark block.
Interior rendering via Hayes Davidson
Whatever one’s view of the project, it is worth taking stock of how far we have come in debasing the language of architecture just at a time when many more seek to speak it—or worse, think they already do.
The phenomenon has complex and diverse sources, stemming from “starchitect”-defining journalists like the late Herbert Muschamp at the Times and attendant associations with fashion and its inevitable celebrity tie-ins. Personalities and publishers encouraged fans and readers to assert taste as defined by the certified makers identified officially as “leaders.” It has been promoted this way ever since, with no end in sight. The Bilbao effect is a global one.
Rendering via Hayes Davidson
Along with this is a debasing application of the terms classicism and modernism, which puts the lie once and for all to any quixotic polemical divide between these two design protagonists (outside an aging cross-section of academics and elite publications). Instead, it is a case of hard-working practitioners and builders meeting the marketplace, where old and new blend as need dictates and where, in any case, the tenets of modernism themselves grow “classical” with condign nostalgic reverence. Most new generations of design professionals are too busy to solve client needs and match demand in lieu of chasing utopia. (Imagine the dismay of Robert Moses at a time of economic uncertainty a century on, learning that young people opt for trains over the numbing isolation of automobiles.)
Aerial rendering of Greenwich Lane, via FXFOWLE
The attendant breakdown in vocabulary is made richly evident in the handsome broadsides now adorning the construction sheds along 11th and 12th streets between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, where the massive site now takes shape. The words speak best for themselves: Appreciating that each address seeks a distinct identity, defined primarily by the abundant use of preservationist “facadism” as a worthy urban mix, the message nonetheless comes across as a risible mishmash that sounds Pope’s warning and heralds perhaps the definitive end to theoretical divides as a sound basis for design legitimacy. What counts finally is the brand advanced by any words whatsoever that come to mind as handmaidens of associated excellence.
Classical modernism! Modern classicism!–poor Herr Gropius and his fellow Dessau travelers. Das ist kein Gesamtkunstwerk. If any sense can be made from the signs’ varied message it is that any and all language taking advantage of a little learning about design finds its ready reader. Evidently the only thing that sells as well as “Bauhaus-inspiration” is the “pre-war jewel.” As a result form follows unction; form takes its cue from what might be called a dangerous thing.
Yet at the end of the day, the architects and interior designer may well emerge uniquely capable, even as hype drives development and the high-stakes sales, which presently motivate so much of it. Progress on this massive and history-laden site will reveal next year.