Critics Lash Out at Redesign Proposal for Landmark 'Red Cube' Plaza

The plaza of 140 Broadway, which extends along Broadway from Liberty to Cedar Streets. In 2013, the Landmarks Preservation Commission declared the building and plaza an landmark. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Feb. 05, 2018

A building owner’s proposed plans to alter one of Lower Manhattan’s most prized plazas is facing fierce opposition from some preservationists and other critics.

The landmark plaza at 140 Broadway, noteworthy for its Noguchi Red Cube that stands 28 feet high on an otherwise starkly bare expanse along Broadway, is proposed to undergo renovation, and a redesign that includes new planters, seating and trees.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing on the plan, originally scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 6, was taken off the agenda following sharp criticism that the additions would spoil the dramatic effect of the Red Cube in the plaza, a privately owned public space, or POPS.

“Very good news that this utterly wrong proposal seems to be tabled,” architectural critic Paul Goldberger tweeted. “Every single public space doesn’t have to follow the same playbook. Yes, seating is usually good, but it would be destructive to the Noguchi and plaza at 140 Broadway.”

Critics especially targeted a proposed 14 feet in diameter planter with seating and trees to be added near the Broadway and Cedar Street corner of the plaza. Charles A. Birnbaum, president of the Washington-based Cultural Landscape Foundation, said in a letter to LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan that the structure “would not only adversely affect the experience of Noguchi’s sculpture, but of the building and the plaza as well, for all three elements are compositionally intertwined.” The foundation named 140 Broadway an “at risk” landscape and urged the LPC to reject the plan.

A separate application by the owners before the city’s Department of Transportation requests permission to install planters and benches on the public sidewalk along Broadway, meant in part to clear the sidewalk of food vendors. A Tribeca Trib story that revealed the proposed overhaul of the plaza, especially its impact on the vendors, set the opposition in motion.

Among those strongly opposed to the plan is the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Long Island City, which calls itself “the guardian of the artist’s legacy.” Changes to the plaza, the foundation’s senior curator, Dakin Hart, said in a statement, “will, no question, have a negative impact on Isamu Noguchi’s Red Cube and its relationship to the plaza, building, and surrounding space, all of which were of concern to him.”

The New York Landmarks Conservancy also objected to the plan, including the street furniture proposed for the Broadway sidewalk. “The Commission should direct the architects to develop a more appropriate scheme that is compatible with the original design intent of this important site and honors its historic minimalist design,” the conservancy said in a statement prepared to be read at the LPC hearing.

Completed in 1968, the 51-story Marine Midland Building (now the Brown Brothers Harriman Building) and surrounding plaza were designed under the direction of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s chief architect, Gordon Bunshaft, a frequent Noguchi collaborator. The original plaza design, with five round planters on the Cedar Street side and nothing but the Red Cube occupying the rest of the space, was changed in 2000, replacing the original circular planters along Cedar Street with the current four long granite planters and benches.

The proposed design calls for six round planters with trees and seating, larger than the originals, along Cedar Street, plus the controversial sixth circular structure with trees. There would also be new paving, and light fixtures along the building’s property line on Cedar Street (also intended to eliminate food vendors).

The large circular bench and planter would also serve as a revised (and much diminished) memorial to Harry Helmsley, the building’s developer. The new design proposes to remove Helmsley’s large, polished granite monument, added in 1999, and inscribe the wording on the new planter.

Jackson Wandres, the NV5 landscape architect in charge of the redesign, defended the structure last month in a presentation to Community Board 1’s Landmarks Committee.

“It’s obviously a departure from the original design,” he said. “But we felt there was an opportunity here to integrate an element that would allow people to sit in the plaza itself where they actually enjoy the vista of the cube and the building and watch people come and go through the plaza without disturbing pedestrian circulation.”

“That’s a gesture toward making the plaza more dynamic and more engaging for the public,” he added. Wandres did not return a call seeking comment about the status of the project after it had been removed from the LPC docket for Tuesday.

Community Board 1 voted last month to support all the planters and trees within the plaza, while taking issue with the street furniture on Broadway and the light posts on Cedar Street. Landmarks Committee Chair Roger Byrom, in particular, spoke out in favor of the addition of trees on the spare plaza.

“We all know these public plazas in the summer are rendered unusable unless somewhere there’s a little bit of shade,” he said.

Requests for comment from Hines Property Management, managers of 140 Broadway, and Union Investment, the German-based owners of the building, were not returned.