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Design of New Heights Building: Mishmash of Contextualism or Appropriate?

Landmarks Commission Asks Design Team to Consider Changes To Make it ‘a Better Building’

By Linda Collins

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — Following what one person described as “an exhilarating” discussion on the value of contextual vs. contemporary architecture in a historic district, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) yesterday asked the design team of a proposed new five-story, five-unit building at 30 Henry St. in Brooklyn Heights to consider making some additional changes. Speakers ranged from those preferring a bold, contemporary building for what they call a gateway corner at Henry and Middagh streets to those who believe the contextualism and contemporariness of the design “strikes an ideal balance.”

Otis Pearsall, a preservationist who led the campaign to create the Brooklyn Heights Historic District, urged the LPC to take a proactive approach and reject the proposed design as “antithetical to the goals of the district,” which, he explained, were to encourage new construction that adds to “the mixture of architectural styles and periods.”

Representatives from the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) — Jane McGroarty, BHA president; and Jonathan Marvel and Philip Magnusson, both residents and architects — also asked commissioners to reject the design and ask for a building that was “more reflective of our time.”

Calling it “a mishmash of contextualism,” McGroarty said, “There is nothing special about it, nothing that represents the best of this era. It’s too restrained, too timid, the whole result is boring.” Marvel urged commissioners to look at the site as a gateway.

It’s a threshold site to this district. It’s not an infill building, but a gateway building,” he said, asking of the design team: “We implore you to inspire, to delight, to raise the bar on originality.” Said Magnusson, “30 Henry is a special location, an entry focus to the district. We hoped for an exciting approach to celebrate this corner.”

Speaking in support of the design and in opposition to the BHA, Clem Labine, a Park Slope resident and preservationist, said, “Modern or contemporary is often code for a starchitect-type building” that is often “dissonant and disruptive.”

From a report about a building’s compatibility with its historic setting, he read, “New construction must respond to and protect the overall integrity of the historic district.”

“Does this project do that? Yes, it does,” he said.Another speaker, Lucinda Ballard, said a building should take cues from its neighborhood, and this one has an “appropriate and delightful approach” — from its varying window widths, to its cornice and materials.

Regarding the request by the BHA to ask for a bolder building, Chris Belko, legal counsel for the commission, said “There is nothing in the law to require a developer to build in a particular style. The law does not support their position.”

Asked to respond, the architect Steve Burns of BKSK Architects, said he respects the BHA and believes theirs is a very valid approach — asking for a modern contemporary design — but that’s not the only approach.

“It’s not what my client wanted to do,” he said. “He didn’t want to be imitative, he wanted to knit together the various elements of the neighborhood.

Burns also said, “We think this building is colorful, it has inventive details and it’s interesting.” Of the site, he said he considered it “a mildly important entrance” to the community, “more of minor gateway.”

He also said the charge of the commission is to seek and approve “appropriate design.” Appropriate is a great word, he noted, that gives the commissioners greater flexibility.

In their discussion, the commissioners appeared relieved that they did not have to mandate a new contemporary building and they appeared to be at a consensus that the building as designed “is a great start but is not quite there yet,” and that it’s well on its way to being appropriate.”

Among their concerns were the entranceway, appearing too much like an apartment building, striving to be a background building, preferring that the brick come down to the street, the quality of the fiberglass cornice, and “the stuff on the roof.”

Noting early on that Community Board 2 had given its unanimous approval to the project and commenting at the end of the discussion that his fellow commissioners made some very important points, LPC Chair Robert Tierney concluded by saying, “I find it appropriate now and I would openly embrace it, but I agree with my colleagues that it could be a better building.

January 11, 2012 - 11:50am


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