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The Firm of "Blah, Blah and Blah?"

by Erica Pearson, Mar 01, 2002
 

The recent selection of architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle to oversee a plan for rebuilding Lower Manhattan has spurred a heady public debate. New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp warned New Yorkers to expect the worst from the firm, saying that its proven strengths in renovation projects do not carry over to its original work. The firms' original buildings often blend in with their surroundings, prompting colleagues to call the firm "Blah Blah and Blah," wrote Muschamp. New York Post columnist Steve Cuozzo in turn called the firms' critics high-brow intellectuals putting aesthetics before all else. "What they really crave are the far-fetched fantasies that clog the pages of unreadable design magazines Ð not precisely the thing for the Financial District," he wrote, saying that a practical plan for the space needs to be in place before any creative building design is drawn.

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It is no wonder that Beyer Blinder Belle is under intense scrutiny. Rebuilding at Ground Zero is perhaps the most important design project in New York's history, and New Yorkers have called for what is built to be at once awe-inspriring, respectful, safe and accessible. "There is no precedent for a project like this," said Lance Jay Brown, chair of City College's school of architecture. For some, it is hard to escape the persistent worry that the site will end up as a group of mediocre, mid-sized buildings.

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In their application for the $3 million World Trade Center site contract, Beyer Blinder Belle referred to the complexity of the project, saying, "The successful resolution of an urban design plan for the WTC site will greatly depend upon an open collaboration. The challenge will be to do it with the right touch of respect and invention. Exploring ways to reinvent the fabric of this tragic site and give it a new purpose becomes the goal to drive us." Along with engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, Beyer Blinder Belle will develop an overall plan for new structures, transit connections, and streets. They will not, at this stage, design specific buildings. Beyer Blinder Belle associate partner Maxine Leighton said that the firm would not speak about the World Trade Center project until after they hold their first meeting with the Port Authority and Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

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The New York-based firm was launched in 1968 and has grown to 125 employees. On its website, Beyer Blinder Belle states that its mission is to unite "the old with the new Ð classic historic preservation meshed with the creative contemporary design of new construction." In 1988, Metro-North chose Beyer Blinder Belle, already known for restoring the Ellis Island U.S. Immigration Station, to lead the restoration of Grand Central Station. This celebrated project became the firm's best known work. As part of the 12-year project, the firm restored the sky ceiling and redesigned much of the space within the terminal. The award-winning project inspired founding partner John Belle, a former president of the New York City Landmarks Conservancy, and Leighton to write a book about Grand Central.

In sharp contrast with Muschamp, Rick Bell, executive director of the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter, said that the firm's experience at Grand Central is a good sign for Ground Zero's future. The firm brought together many different urban design projects-such as improving transportation and including commercial space- in the Grand Central renovation. "Their past projects are a great indication that they can create places that synthesize people's different needs," said Bell.

The firm's other projects include the restoration of the Hoboken, NJ train station waiting room and the New York Hall of Science in Queens. Fred Kent, the director of the urban planning policy institute Project for Public Spaces, said that the firm's past work has left it well equipped to work within the context of existing neighborhoods and buildings. When Beyer Blinder Belle designed the Mark Morris Dance Group's headquarters in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, partner Fred Bland said the building was planned as a "phoenix rising" to revitalize the neighborhood. The firm kept the street level of an existing building and added a new exterior. The light, nearly white building was celebrated by Morris, who told his guests at the 2001 opening ceremony to enjoy the "wonderful dignity" of the space.

The different reactions to Beyer Blinder Belle's selection point to an underlying conflict of opinion about architecture's place at Ground Zero. The guidelines that the Port Authority and Lower Manhattan Development Corporation used to select Beyer Blinder Belle gave weight to firms that have experience bringing large urban planning and transportation projects to completion, instead of a firm with an outstanding design vision. In his column, Muschamp said that by following this process, the authorities will bring a design architect to the project when it is already too late to save it from mediocrity.

Mediocrity really isn't what New Yorkers have in mind. "We're waiting for perfection," said Stanley Moses, chair of urban studies at Hunter College.


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