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Will Designs Placate Critics of NY Public Library Reno Plans?

Much has been written, both in favor and against, ambitious renovations planned for New York's landmark Public Library building on Fifth Avenue. Until this week, those opinions were written without the benefit of the architect's design concepts.
December 20, 2012, 5am PST | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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This week the New York Public Library released long-awaited renovation plans for one of New York's most important landmarks. Designed by British architect Norman Foster, the plans have come in for criticism from many, including eminent critic Ada Louise Huxtable, for their radical redesign of the library's undergound stacks as a 'People's Palace', necessitating the displacement of millions of volumes to an off-site location. Those criticisms, however, were conceived without the benefit of the architect's vision for the renovated spaces (the Library's reluctance to provide the designs was made clear in Huxtable's piece). 

The plans released this week reflect a design that responds to criticisms by keeping more books on-site (but still displaces more than a million of the existing 4.5 million). "Using space at the back of the building now occupied by seven floors of stacks, Mr. Foster has essentially created a major new contemporary library within Carrère & Hastings’s neo-Classical one," writes Robin Pogrebin.

While Foster says that he was careful to respect, "those spaces which are so wonderfully intact and have become venerated, hallowed, over time and are steeped in history," the renovations propsed for the stacks are clearly not timid. "The plans call for opening the building’s central axis from the Fifth Avenue entrance through to the Bryant Park side, where there will be a four-level atrium, with bookshelves, sitting areas and desks, that will replace the stacks space, which is now closed to the public," explains Pogrebin. "For the first time since the library was completed in 1911, patrons will be able to view Bryant Park through the tall, narrow windows on the ground floor."

So will the designs for the largest indoor public space in New York appease critics? “Anytime you engage in a renovation of a building as beloved as this one,” said Anthony W. Marx, the library’s president, “there is going to be controversy.”

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Published on Wednesday, December 19, 2012 in The New York Times
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