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

Sony Tower Central Park Zoo
1001 Fifth Avenue 31 W 52nd Street
Fifty-Third at Third  Lila Acheson Wallace Wing at the MET
Bergdorf Goodman Facade Banca Commerciale Italiana
Frick Collection Pavilion Exterior of Domenico Vacca
Le Parker Meridien Hotel Atrium and Galleria Schermerhorn Hall
Townhouse for Matt Sabatine Shun Lee West
AXA Equitable Building Central Park Path Lamppost
870 Park Avenue Central Park Ballplayers' House
ONE UN New York Dene Summerhouse


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Nov 10, 2014 09:42 pm
 Posted by  Stanley jay friedman

Thank you all for the lovely article...... It sure brings back memories.
Stanley Jay Friedman

Nov 13, 2014 12:16 pm
 Posted by  Donald L.

This represents important issues for architectural preservation. Postmodern architecture remains controversial, however, many of its buildings are quite good. We find it hard to recall the time when the saving of Grand Central Terminal required yeoman's work; who would question the significance of Beaux-Arts monuments now?

The AT&T, and now Sony Tower, by Philip Johnson is one of his finest compositions. It shouldn't matter that some architects still don't like or understand it.

It's been my experience that architects and architectural historians often have very different takes on what good architecture is or should be. Since I belong to the latter group, I have often wished that architects were more conversant with their own traditions. Moreover, even in Postmodern architecture there are substantive distinctions to be made. If we take Venturi and Scott Brown to be Postmodern (and this is a label they didn't like), we'd really need to differentiate them from Michael Graves, for example, who the Venturi's regarded as having "gone further" in his use of historical references than was wise.

Nov 19, 2014 05:48 am
 Posted by  postmodern

Nice to see a piece on postmodern architecture preservation. This comment is off-topic in that it is not about New York, BUT topical if we are to discuss postmodern preservation. One of the first postmodern structures to get official recognition by city, state, and federal authorities in the U.S. is the Perry Harvey Sr. Park Skateboard Bowl in Tampa, Florida, otherwise known as the "Bro Bowl." Conceived of in 1975 and built in 1978, the structure was recognized on October 7, 2013 by the NPS and placed on the register of National Historic Places. The inclusion of this structure, which can be compared to concrete sculpture, is remarkable as it was less than 50 years old and the first piece of architecture related to skate culture to be placed on register. It also achieved recognition in less than 6 months due to the hard work of the people behind its registration. The two parties responsible for this are a local resident named Shannon Bruffett and the Skateboarding Heritage Foundation, a non-profit that is focused around preservation. By all accounts, they broke records more than once in getting this piece of architecture recognized.

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