New York Public Library cans £200m Norman Foster revamp

Senior Reporter

Norman Foster has expressed his “sadness” at the scrapping of his firm’s controversial £208 million revamp of the New York Public Library building in the heart of Manhattan.

The celebrated architect’s company Foster + Partners had been enlisted to redesign the Library’s century-old Beaux-Arts research building on Fifth Avenue, clearing away its ageing book stacks and converting the space into a giant public lending library.

Although the firm’s full plans for the building have never been made public, initial drawings drew howls of protest from local writers, academics and preservationists, with one critic labelling the Foster design as having “all the elegance and distinction of a suburban mall”.

New York’s new mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned against the renovations during last year’s municipal elections, and last week hundreds of protesters gathered outside the building during a meeting of trustees. But the most obvious reason for the U-turn is the project’s increasing price tag.

The Library, which now intends to refurbish its Mid-Manhattan branch instead, reportedly paid Foster + Partners £5.3 million for the work. The redevelopment project is expected to receive £89 million from the public purse and the sale of other buildings.

Foster + Partners declined to comment, but Lord Foster told The New York Times: “Obviously, I respect the decision of the trustees and whoever’s been involved in the decision. If I have any kind of sadness on the thing – besides obviously not having the project going ahead and having spent a huge amount of passion on the project with colleagues – it is that the proposals have never been revealed, and there hasn’t really been a debate by those involved, including those who would have benefited from an inclusive approach to the library.”

The Stephen A Schwarzman Building, designed by the Carrère and Hastings firm of architects and constructed in 1911, has a vast archive of books contained in its lower levels, feeding the studies of those who gather in the celebrated Rose Main Reading Room above.

The redesign, known as the Central Library Plan and dating back to 2008, would have seen 1.5 million books sent to a warehouse in New Jersey with the resulting space used to create a four-level modern lending library overlooking Bryant Park, complete with sofas and computer terminals.

The library’s chief executive officer Anthony Marks said of the plans in 2011: “To the degree that we can... replace books with people, that’s the future of where libraries are going.” But writers who used the reading room regularly said the creation of a lending library below was a betrayal of the building’s original research purpose.

It did not take long for them to mobilise and attack the plans, which eventually attracted several different lawsuits. Shortly after Foster + Partners released its initial schematics in December 2012, Michael Kimmelman, a critic for The New York Times, wrote: “To me, what results is an awkward, cramped, banal pastiche of tiers facing claustrophobia-inducing windows, built around a space-wasting atrium with a curved staircase more suited to a Las Vegas hotel.” In response, Lord Forster described the diatribe as “both offensive and premature”.

It has been a tough month for Britain’s largest architectural practice. In April it wrote down the value of its business by nearly £130 million after revising forecasts for its international division, for which it blamed the “tough economic environment”.

Last week it emerged that the Foster-designed Harmon Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip is to be razed without ever opening, after a protracted legal battle between owners MGM Resorts International and contractors over various defects.

However, the firm’s work on the library project may not be entirely wasted: some of its designs may still be used in the creation of new public spaces inside the building, according to The New York Times.

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