The end of 2021 is fast approaching, and it’s worth taking a moment to stop and reflect on a year that for many of us seemed to stretch into eternity.
Even if you can’t remember these stories, at the time they drew more than a bit of outrage both online and in real life; and a few are still ongoing. From historic demolitions, to megadorms, to ultra-tall skyscrapers, to the ever-present battle for affordable housing, here are the most controversial stories of 2021.
Towers at the South Street Seaport begins a battle between residents and housing proponents
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM)’s scaled-back mixed-use tower proposed for 250 Water Street—currently a surface parking lot—within Lower Manhattan’s Seaport Historic District won the approval of New York City’s Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) in May and final approval from the New York City Council in its last meeting of 2021. The $850 million, 324-foot-tall complex will bring 270 units of housing to the neighborhood, 70 of them earmarked as affordable, and $50 million to the ailing South Street Seaport Museum.
Of course, as with any project seeking to rise in a New York City Historic District, regardless of programming, opponents were out in full force as soon as the Howard Hughes Corporation first unveiled its (taller) scheme back in October of 2020. Soon after the LPC rebuked SOM’s original plans in January, which would have spread 360 units across two slender towers that topped out at over 900 feet, both support and opposition came flooding in. After AN published an op-ed from John Sanchez arguing that the LPC had a civic responsibility to allow the project, a flurry of testimony arguing the opposite came in both from groups like the City Club of New York and commentators, arguing that the project would set a bad precedent in historic districts elsewhere—it was never about preserving a parking lot.
Ultimately, a lawsuit was filed by a group called the Seaport Coalition against Howard Hughes to stop construction but a judge dismissed the grievance in October.
A string of historic demolitions rattle preservationists
Paul Rudolph’s Burroughs Wellcome headquarters; another Paul Rudolph-designed home in Delray Beach, Florida; Tokyo’s iconic Nakano Sun Plaza concert hall and the Nakagin Capsule Tower, and the lobby of the former McGraw-Hill Building in Manhattan—all faced demolition this year or are now in serious danger of coming down.
At the end of 2020, Kate Wagner waxed poetic on the inspirational power of Brutalism, and how the style, oft-maligned, was seeing a resurgence thanks to pop culture’s recent embrace. Still, that newfound love wasn’t enough to stay the wrecking ball in North Carolina, and in January, the Paul Rudolph-designed North American headquarters of pharmaceutical giant Burroughs Wellcome & Company was demolished in the state’s Research Triangle Park. Although a hulking behemoth, the complex was an exceptional piece of architecture whose space-age interiors frequently made the rounds online and served as the backdrop of science fiction films.
Further south in Florida, Paul Rudolph fans suffered another blow as it was discovered a historic home, built in 1955 at 212 Seabreeze Avenue in Delray Beach, was demolished by the owners without approval by the city or contact with the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation. Owners Michael and Nina Marco have argued the demo was necessary to rebuild the structure more in line with Rudolph’s original vision, but preservationists beg to differ.
To the north, New York State Supreme Court Judge Eileen Rakower dismissed a suit brought by preservationists on September 10, who wanted the owners of the McGraw-Hill Publishing Company Building at 330 West 42nd Street to restore the original 1930s-era lobby as part of their redevelopment plans. The renovation, led by MdeAS Architects, has since continued.
A 2015 decision by the LPC to not landmark the tower’s interiors largely stemmed from the interior renovation carried out in the 1980s that significantly changed the lobby. Apart from changing the marble wall finishes and installing new metal trim, the renovation added a new ceiling and lighting, replastered over the original metal walls, and relocated doors.
And in Tokyo, not one but two iconic towers are on the chopping block. Nakano Sun Plaza, a pyramidal concert venue and hotel tower that stands as one of the tallest and idiosyncratic structures in Tokyo’s Nakano ward, will be torn down in 2024 for a new mixed-use skyscraper. Unfortunately for concrete fans, the same fate awaits Kirsho Kurokawa’s decaying 1972 Metabolist landmark, the Nakagin Capsule Tower. Despite a concerted effort to preserve the tower, the 13-story building is slated to be torn down in March of 2022, though some of the capsules will reportedly be unplugged from the central structure and saved.
A billionaire’s megadorm project unites the internet (against him)
Do we even need to explain the problems with Charlie Munger’s $1.5 billion “megadorm” for the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) at this point? Designed by Munger himself, the building would hold 4,500 students but more than 90 percent of the rooms would not have access to natural air or light, and even a quick look at the floor plans indicates that there would likely be… issues if a fire broke out. Eight former campus architects from across the University of California system have come out against the project, as have various AIA chapters and architects unaffiliated with the school. Even students are protesting the building.
Still, neither Munger nor UCSB have backed down at the time of writing. Even worse, the school had enrolled in a binding housing plan to put roofs over the heads of its burgeoning student body, including environmental reviews for existing projects that had been scheduled, but seem to have ditched plans for smaller buildings to hit its 5,000 new beds by 2025 plan in favor of the 400’-by-400’ Munger Hall.
Speaking of supersized new projects (and we’re not picking on SOM), the 1,575-foot-tall mega mixed-use tower at 175 Park Avenue proposed by developers RXR Realty and TF Cornerstone, directly next to Grand Central Terminal, was also approved for construction by the New York City Council in mid-December. The tower (also named Project Commodore) was first unveiled back in February as a replacement for the Grand Hyatt Hotel on East 42nd Street.
After the proposal passed the LPC in February, only three weeks after its original reveal, residents were aghast that another supertall would soon overshadow Grand Central (the 1,401-foot-tall, Kohn Pedersen Fox-designed One Vanderbilt being on then other side). Still, despite the pushback and questions of whether the tower would even make financial sense by the time it’s projected to open, 2030, the project is likely to break ground in 2022.
Demolishing the old (formerly Donald Trump-owned) Grand Hyatt is expected to take 18 months, and once 175 Park Avenue opens, it will contain 2.1 million square feet of offices, 10,000 square feet of retail, 25,000 square feet of outdoor terraces, and 453,000 square feet carved out for a new Hyatt Hotel.
Last but not least, the push to rebuild Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral ahead of the 2024 Summer Olympics has gone into overdrive. Although the cathedral will regain the same spire it had prior to the fire on April 15, 2019, and even though that spire and thick roof trusses will be rebuilt with up to 1,000 ancient oak trees, one area of the restoration will be decidedly new: the ground-level interior.
Approved by France’s 20-person National Heritage and Architecture Commission (CNPA) earlier this month, the interior modernization is intended to render the building a more welcoming space to the thousands of international visitors Notre Dame sees annually. In addition to an under-consideration seating overhaul, the lighting would be reworked to be softer and more intimate, Bible verses in different languages would potentially be projected onto the cathedral walls, visitor circulation would be reconfigured so that a front entrance would be used in lieu of side doors, and public art installations would be on view within Notre Dame’s infrequently used 19th-century confessionals, which would be relocated to the first floor as part of the scheme.
The proposed changes sparked considerable outrage when leaked ahead of the CNPA vote. A chorus of critical voices spoke out in conservative-leaning French news sources including daily newspaper Le Figaro; what’s more, numerous right-wing media international outlets on both sides of the Atlantic quickly spread the furor over plans to transform the world-famous medieval house of worship into what some opponents called a “Woke Disneyland.”
Speaking with the New York Times, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, who serves as rector of Notre Dame Cathedral, further defended the interior modernization plans. “The idea is that the faithful, or visitors, are first struck by the grandeur, by the beauty of Notre-Dame,” Chauvet explained, going on to note that the proposed changes are meant to “bring a little more sense to the visitors.”