Loses One In The Bronx
February 6, 2002
After several hours of
exhaustive Internet research, I have concluded that there are not any online
photographs available for The Bronx Developmental Center. This might come
as some surprise to architects who are aware that this building, designed
and built between 1970-1977, was deemed by New York Times architecture critic,
Ada Louise Huxtable, "the cynosure of the architectural world."
As the focal point for
admiration in the architecture world, way back in the 1970's, this
building represented the fashionable whim of the times; but as such we should
not expect that it would automatically become triumphantly represented in
the digital ether of the Internet - a media borne long after the tangible
news print carried Huxtable's admiring words. And yet, the New York Times
also reports that the AIA guide to New York City lists this building as, "A
consummate work of architecture, it is among the great complexes of its time."
The AIA is certainly entitled to its opinion.
So how "consummate" a
work is it? Well, a google search for "The
Bronx Developmental Center," identifies several picture-less articles
about the building, and even turns up references to the architect, Richard
Meier. However, the first link listed in the search engine carries an article
which discusses the untimely death of one of the residents of this mental
facility, in September 1981. Not exactly priority marketing for a "cynosure"
work of architecture.
So, you're asking, why
all the attention paid to the presence [or lack thereof] of the photo of this
building on the Internet? Well, that's a very good question. As a public information
media of a relatively young age, the Internet can [and does] highlight even
the most benign and myopic of subjects. So with its breadth of information,
displayed in all kinds of beautiful and misguided ways, we would expect at
least one visual image of a work of architecture that is so highly touted
- but we get everything except the image we are looking for. In fact, we are
even able to find the image below, which is more similar to the facade of
the building than it is different.
New York Times reported last week that The Bronx Developmental Center,
"is being partly demolished, significantly changed and expanded by its new
owner... Joseph Simone." One should not wonder, as architectural critics did
last week, "How could this happen?" It's sale and renovation should really
come as no surprise at all. That almost 30 years later, a building built in
the latter half of this century, would fail to capture the attention of anyone
other than a real estate developer and a few gray haired architects, reveals
what we already know about our fast-food culture: Things are only as interesting
as they are new and unique.
Ironically, this truism
was also in operation at precisely the time this building was initially constructed;
in fact, without making any value judgement, this truism is the cornerstone
of American culture. The 1970's American society which erected this building
was already disenfranchised with the philosophical and sociopolitical musings
of the Modernist project in which Rich Meier's rational building is so firmly
rooted; but they were not immune to the fashionable cloak of the Avante Garde
under which the Architect of this period created this building.
The knee-jerk reaction
illustrated by Rich Meier's good friend Bob Stern, in his statement to the
New York Times, illustrates his unwillingness to accept the short attention
span of the modern American consumer culture. "He called the news, 'a shocker.'
Saying he felt as if he were losing a familiar acquaintance. 'And my God,
we've lost the trade center,' he said. 'This is a monument of exactly the
same period. This is serious.'
Yes, the loss of the
trade center was serious. But Bob cannot reasonably expect us to be moved
by his comparison of that loss to the renovation of an outdated and dilapidated
building in the Bronx. But still, we must take seriously the personal loss
he feels; and we must also highlight the hypocrisy of this position.
As part of a generation
of architects so eager to engage the novel capitalist whims of developers
and the fashionable Zeitgeist of the American public [under the guise of a
long outdated rational Modernist project, robbed of its socio-political underpinnings
decades before] he and his cohorts prolifically created architectural expressions
to satisfy their suitors needs - and to feed their own insatiable egos. Architects
like Bob Stern and Rich Meier are so proud of the society and economy that
supports their flash-in-the-pan design creations, and yet they find it appalling
that such a throw away society would also change it's mind and destroy, as
effortlessly and quickly as it creates.
Rich Meier's comments
on the situation [and where he was when he made them] illuminate that perspective
only too well. The New York Times reports that he stated, "I hope that what
he's replacing it with has the quality of what we built there." And he followed
up with, "It's interesting to me that they never come back to the original
architect." He said these to things while he was attending the World Economic
Forum in Manhattan; of course.
That the same feverish
development can create a "consummate work of architecture" and also require
that the developer [Joseph Simone] to hail it's demise as quoted from the
New York Times, as "The biggest thing to hit the Bronx in decades," reveals
the place that art and architecture have been relegated to in this Capitalist
And for Rich Meier to
claim to be above such a delinquent system and not also fully acknowledge
his status as an architectural commodity reveals either an underlying hypocrisy,
a horrible case of egomania, an as yet undiagnosed clinical schizophrenia,
or more likely a combination of all three. In the end, he doesn't want to
admit that our society celebrates both the birth and the death of great works
The Bronx Developmental
Center, should not be saved the fate granted to it by capitalist America and
its consumer culture. To avoid this fate, it would have been necessary for
this building to have achieved a higher status: It would have had to, over
the last 25 years, become a part of our cultural consciousness - become a
work of art/architecture which has a presence that continues to inspire thought
and encourage reflection to the benefit of the culture in which it exists.
Unfortunately, this status
carries no real currency in a system in which the City's Landmarks Preservation
Commission, "can confer landmark status only on buildings that are at least
30 years old." As a litmus test for the artistic presence and potential of
a building, this empty and worthless criteria [set up as the only protection
for architecture against the rabid bite of capitalism] is a sad and impotent
And yet this building
was neither a part of our cultural consciousness, nor 30 years old. And no
amount of grandstanding by a couple of old gray-haired architects can change
that. It will only further reveal the nature of this system which artists
and architects celebrate and loathe.