The Postmodern Watchlist
As preservation battles rage, will architecture from the 1970s and 1980s get its turn?
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Of all New York’s Postmodern buildings, the Sony Tower is certainly the most identifiable. Purchased in 2013 for $1.1 billion, the property is facing a rehaul of sections of its floor space.
Courtesy David Shankbone/All original photography by Mark Wickens
Next year, the Landmarks Preservation Commission of New York City will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding. It was created to protect architecturally, historically, or culturally important buildings that New Yorkers want saved. Landmarking is a tricky and often controversial process, and buildings must be at least 30 years old before the Commission will consider designating them.
The problem is that in the past decade, the Commission has been slow to landmark buildings from the heyday of Postmodernism, the early 1970s to 1984 (the latest year that a structure is currently eligible for landmarking). Michael Gotkin, a landscape architect and preservation advocate, notes that the recent recladding of Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s iconic Takashimaya Building on Fifth Avenue was a wake-up call. “The demolition and redesign of a slew of Postmodern designs, including the South Street Seaport building, the Cherry Hill landscape in Central Park, and the threat to the Frick Collection’s wonderful entry pavilion and garden, demonstrate the urgency for the Landmarks Commission to designate and protect significant works from the 1970s and 1980s—itself an era of awareness about historic preservation,” says Gotkin, who cofounded the Modern Architecture Working Group, an organization that has successfully lobbied for preserving several postwar buildings in New York City. “To complicate matters, many Postmodern contributions to the cityscape are frequently additions to previously landmarked buildings. Presently, the Commission lacks a consistent methodology for dealing with the preservation of later modifications, including Postmodern additions, to historic buildings, landscapes, and districts.”
We have come up with our own watchlist of overlooked gems that will start the debate over Postmodern architecture and design’s contribution to Manhattan. Of course, it will be a challenge to draw attention to these structures, considering the many baby boomer architects who rebelled against Postmodernism in their youth, and might now be loath to protect buildings and landscapes from that era. Perhaps a younger, more open-minded generation will decide the fate of Postmodern design’s legacy. Docopomo, anyone? —Paul Makovsky
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