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Update: Design Commission approves Met plaza redesign with conditions

March 17, 2012

DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State was one of 14 groups or individuals who testified at the March 12 Public Design (formerly Art) Commission hearing on the redesign of Kevin Roche’s 1970 Fifth Avenue plaza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Read testimony.) Ten of those testifying were opposed to the proposed design, including (besides DOCOMOMO NY/Tri) the Historic Districts Council, Defenders of the Upper East Side, preservationist Ted Grunewald, and several neighborhood residents (some from buildings across Fifth Avenue).

One resident decried the lack of “grandeur” in the proposed design, calling it “cluttered” and “hodgepodge.” Another challenged the Museum’s record of trustworthiness, stating that the Museum itself had caused the damage to the plaza paving by using it as a staging area during previous construction projects, and noting the two proposed entrances from Central Park—part of Roche Dinkeloo’s approved 1970 Master Plan for museum expansion—that have never been opened.

Three speakers testified in support of the proposed redesign, including the headmistress of a local school, and a self-identified art and architectural historian who regretted Roche’s design “taking the Museum out of the park” (which was precisely the architect’s intent) and compared the present plaza to a “prison yard.” The Friends of the Upper East Side supported the proposal in general, but objected to the semi-permanent kiosks and the density of the “aerial hedges” in front of the end pavilions.

Discussion by the Commissioners focused on the kiosks, which were strongly disliked and considered insufficiently transparent, the parasols (their red color as well as their existence), the height and density of the aerial hedge trees, the base planting, and the programming intentions for the fountains (the “dancing” fountain at Lincoln Center was cited as a model not to be imitated).

Architect James Polshek commended DOCOMOMO’s testimony, stating that he agreed with all of it, but noted that design is about compromise, and proposed approving the redesign with several modifications: removing the parasols, modifying the kiosks, making the fountains circular (but maintaining their proposed size and location), reducing the height of the aerial hedge trees, and removing the base planting. Commission Chair Signe Nielsen reminded Polshek that he had been outvoted on the question of fountain shape at a previous (non-public) committee meeting, so that item was “off the table.”

The Commission then moved to approve the redesign with the following conditions: the programming of the fountain be further studied and clarified, the parasols be revised in color or removed, the height of the aerial hedges be reduced, the kiosks become more transparent or be removed, and the base planting be eliminated. This motion was approved by a vote of 6 to 1, with Polshek in opposition.

As this was a preliminary hearing, the applicant will need to reappear to present a proposal responding to the conditions noted by the Commission (which could entail complying with them or arguing that it would be undesirable to do so). DOCOMOMO will continue to monitor developments.

A description and renderings of the proposal were published in the New York Times February 7.