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Review and Comment: It’s No Context

It’s a little strange to be sitting at home and writing about a space that no longer holds my office while I have yet to see the new office. The Brooklyn Eagle and its associated publications, including the Heights Press, vacated 30 Henry Street at the end of last week to make way for a new building on the site and are now splitting editorial and production operations between DUMBO and Sunset Park. In the meantime, the design of what’s to go up at 30 Henry Street (corner of Middagh) is the subject of angry debate.
 
 Since we’re no longer part of that site, we have no immediate stake in what gets built — but only a lingering appreciation of its surroundings. The proposed design for the five-story building to go there is all wrong. It springs from a total misunderstanding of the building’s context, as well as a total lack of design “guts.” As Linda Collins reported last week on the hearing before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Heights preservation pioneer Otis Pearsall called the design “antithetical to the goals of the district,” which he said was to have buildings honestly reflect their own historical period.
 
Not only does the proposed new design fail to do that, its weak “contextualism” even fails to reflect the actual context in which it is set. Directly across Henry Street are the Whitman Close townhouses, built in a distinctly modern idiom ca. 1967 (see photo at right). At either end of those townhouses are the Cadman Towers apartments of the same vintage — hardly beloved for their scale or design though undoubtedly strong presences. Across Middagh Street is the 1885 former Peaks/Mason Mints chocolate factory with its arch-topped windows (it is undergoing renovation). Five adjoining, end-of-19th century buildings on Henry Street, with unmatching storefronts, are of no special distinction, while, on the next block, across Cranberry Street, stands the impressive Art Deco apartment building (1931) called the Cranlyn.
 
So, it’s an extremely mixed context into which a new 30 Henry will be going. On that corner is needed a strong contemporary building that will not only assert its own character, but by being strong will give a focus to its disparate environment and help tie its strands together. What Brooklyn Heights Association president Jane McGroarty, at last week’s hearing, called “a mishmash of contextualism” just won’t do. It was good to see the Heights Association again clearly affirming the principle of new architecture expressive of its own time — a principle that has unfortunately gone by the boards in the case of some Disneyesque buildings constructed in the last two decades. 
 
The Landmarks Commission has been very unsure of its footing during the long tenure of its chairman Robert Tierney, an essentially political figure, and it doesn’t look as if the commission will demand more than slight cosmetic retouches before approving the design. As Collins reported, the commission’s lawyer made the point that “There is nothing in the law to require a developer to build in a particular style.”
 
One can only hope that the developers will somehow be persuaded to see how uncontextual their “contextualism” actually is, and that the site needs, not a wishy-washy building, but a proudly confident one from a new architect.
 
— Henrik Krogius, Editor
Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News
January 18, 2012 - 1:31pm


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