The Met Finally Takes Some Old Advice

On Tuesday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced what will surely be the most prestigious landscape architecture project in New York City for the next five years. After a long process, the 140-year-old institution has selected the landscape architecture firm OLIN to revamp the Fifth Avenue plaza that runs along its 400 meter façade. The project will begin with a $10 million pledge by museum trustee David H. Koch, but the budget is likely to far exceed that.

The last time the Met undertook a renovation at this scale was for its centennial, in 1970. Among other things, the monumental stairs were introduced then, as were the stone paving and fountains that stretch along the rest of the venerable institution’s interminably long façade. And someone instantly saw what was wrong with them – the incredibly astute New York Times architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable.

In her column “Misgivings at the Metropolitan,” published in the Times on November 8, 1970, Huxtable criticizes the stairs for overwhelming the beautiful façade, and the rest of the plaza for having no character at all. Here are her prophetic words:
“I do not dislike the idea of the stairs and the plaza. The public uses them as planned, and that is good; taxis and cars, drawing up at the curb for more congestion than formerly because they seem unaware of the poorly marked drives, do not; and that is bad…

The building is downgraded, overwhelmed by the overscaled approach, the overlong and sterile fountains (great space fillers, fountains), the overdose of hard-surfaced pavement flanked at the too-far ends by regimented trees.”
Not much has changed in the following 40 years. The stairs are certainly a great favorite with New Yorkers and tourists alike, as a backdrop for photographs, a lunch table, or even an impromptu couch for a quick afternoon nap. But the plaza is always conspicuously empty by comparison – except for the few strong-kneed individuals who squat on the low stone skirting around the fountains. The OLIN renovation project will address exactly those issues, along with improving access to the 81st street and 83rd street entrances.

Ada Louise Huxtable, now 89 years old, still writes architecture criticism for The Wall Street Journal. I can’t wait for what she will have to say when the new design proposal is released. Whatever it is, hopefully the powers-that-be will take more notice this time.

Huxtable was featured as a Metropolis Visionary in our January 2006 issue. She also answered some quick questions for us a few years ago, in which she revealed, among other things, that she breaks her writer’s block by eating a whole box of crackers. 

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