Library is About People Encountering Each Other, Sez Starchitect

Do you go to a library solely to sit down? Is your purpose to photograph yourself and your misbehaving friends? To harass and hamper people who are trying to accomplish something? If so, the New York Public Library system under the dubious leadership of board of trustees chairman Neil Rudenstine and president and CEO Anthony W. Marx is for you. If you are planning a big event in the next few years, give them a call because the library is rapidly becoming party space.

The latest evidence that this is true is a quote from Enrique Norten, the architect who has designed the Donnell Library Center on New York’s West 53rd Street, which will open in late 2015.  He describes his creation as “More like a cultural space, which is about gathering people, giving people the opportunity to encounter each other.”

His definition fits not a cultural center but the subway system and city sidewalks. Cultural spaces are actually where people experience art, theater and the written word. Such spaces could feature Picasso or Basquiat, Handel or hip-hop, Wilkie Collins or Erle Stanley Gardner, but they are not primarily meet-and-greet. That a supposedly educated man affiliated with the New York Public Library could make such a public statement tells us all we need to know. Ditto a statement comparing taxes to Hitler’s invasion of Poland made by library benefactor Stephen A. Schwarzman*.

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NYPL puts bleachers where books used to be, at cost to public

Norten’s Donnell Library Center will be embedded in a luxury hotel and has been diminished to a third of the size of the Donnell Library that it succeeds, but certainly does not replace. The main feature of Norten’s version, of which he is so proud, will be bleacher seating and steps. He seems to be copying the High Line and Times Square bleachers, but both are open-air, not contained in libraries. Architects must follow and serve the money, but surely they are supposed to be too educated, or at least too savvy, to make statements like Norten’s unless they know their patrons would approve.

A bit of background: the original and much-mourned Donnell library branch opened in 1955 and had the system’s largest collection of non-English circulating materials. It also housed the system’s largest collection of materials for teenagers.  As the New York Library’s second busiest branch it was clearly appreciated by New Yorkers. It lent a note of leniency and humanity to midtown. In 2008 (before Rudenstein and Marx took over), the library sold the Donnell and its space to developers. Norten’s largely empty area (see photo) will open in late 2015. The “new” Donnell is to the 1955 Donnell what a rhinestone is to an engagement ring.

Norten’s quote achieved prominence this week when N.Y. Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman evaluated the anticipated destruction of the American Folk Art Museum building near the destroyed original Donnell. His piece offers an explanation of why midtown Manhattan will soon resemble a Stamford industrial park and shopping mall, and it also provides insight into current cultural leadership.

In sum, if you are a student or some other kind of knowledge seeker, or if you just want to read, the New York Public Library is decreasingly for you. However, if you want to make noise and socialize, and you are over-caffinated from Starbucks public spaces, by all means go to the New York Public Library, particularly the Stephen A. Schwarzman* Building, as the iconic library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue is now known. A few months ago one patron (not me) in the Reading Room was so driven to distraction that he started screaming: “We are NOT zoo animals.” He lost when the tourist setting up a tripod to photograph him proved to be too much.  Last Saturday afternoon when I searched for an empty place at a reading room table, tourists were less in evidence. It was cold and rainy, and so only people who love and need the library were about.

Catch content-users while they last. People who use the New York Public Library as a source of knowledge are endangered. Rudenstine, Marx and Schwarzman, who have a big contested plan to renovate the library, are more geared to party people. The stone lions in front of the Schwarzman building are called Patience and Fortitude. Let’s adopt the library management’s spirit of update and call them Philistine and Barbarian instead.

[Search “public library” for previous posts]

*Stephen A. Schwarzman is chairman of The Blackstone Group and author of a 2010 statement about proposals to end the carried-interest loophole allowing executives like himself to pay taxes on only 15 per cent on income: “It’s a war; it’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” He is a NYPL financial benefactor and trustee and his name is on the former Main Branch, but he is apparently not one who reads history books. He did apologize.

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