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Skyline Panelists Debate Preservation vs. Evolution

new york manhattan skyline

On Wednesday, May 11, several top American and Canadian thinkers on architecture and historic preservation participated in a panel co-sponsored by MAS and the New York Landmarks Conservancy focused on the challenge of preserving the New York City  skyline.

Moderator Paul Goldberger of The New Yorker, suggested that since current user preferences  result in bulky buildings, the issue of an iconic skyline is one of design and not necessarily height.

Historian Kenneth Jackson identified the difficulty of determining what is worth preserving in a city like New York. He pointed out that if preserving the iconic were truly a priority, then Yankee Stadium would still be standing. Instead, buildings like those that line Central Park West are frozen in time, from a moment in history that may or may not reveal itself to be significant. He argued that New York risks the “musuemification” of the city as has happened in places like Savannah, Georgia and Paris. He also made a supply and demand economic argument for building more and building higher, rather than artificially restricting supply as historic designations tend to do.

Squarely in the other camp was Phyllis Lambert, founding director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, who highlighted the historic importance not only of certain buildings, like the Seagram Building, but also the areas surrounding those historic landmarks that provide the context for them. She stressed the importance of a buffer around meritorious buildings to prevent their stature in the skyline from being diminished and their prominence within certain viewsheds from being compromised. Dinu Bumbaru, policy director of Héritage Montréal, placed the discussion within the framework of landmarks and how a city’s cultural heritage must be taken into account when making major alterations of the skyline.

The engaging debate touched on many important and contentious considerations about the role of heritage and the preservation of the past as well as the need for cities to grow in order to be affordable to attract and keep residents.