Ever the contrarian, Malcolm Gladwell is once again championing an argument that goes against popular opinion. While a lot of New Yorkers are worried that Norman Foster’s redesign will ruin the beloved New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, Malcolm Gladwell could care less about preserving the “massive money sink of a mausoleum” and thinks we should tear the thing down and build condos, according to the Huffington Post.
“Every time I turn around, there’s some new extravagant renovation going on in the main building. Why? In my mind, the New York Public Library should be focused on keeping small libraries open, on its branches all over the city,” Mr. Gladwell said at a BookExpo America in New York forum.
Not content to let the attack go at that, he added: “luxury condos would look wonderful there. Go back into the business of reaching people who do not have access to books. And that is not on the corner of 42nd and Fifth.”
So much for the Beaux-Arts landmark that Times’ architecture critic Michael Kimmelman has said embodies the spirit of the city better than any other great building.
Mr. Gladwell has a point—branch libraries play a fundamental role in bringing books and a quiet, safe place for study to neighborhoods where both are in short supply; keeping branch libraries open should be a, if not the, central focus of any library system. Nor would redirecting some of the $300 million that the main branch’s renovation is slated to cost into keeping other branches open be a bad idea.
At the same time, that shouldn’t have to mean abandoning the main branch. In a system where the funds are always too tight and competition for resources fierce, it’s not altogether unsurprising that the flagship would end up forced into an adversarial relationship with the neighborhood branches. But it’s important to remember that both the flagship and the branches are, or at least should be, devoted to the same goal—the democratization of learning and the belief that the city’s residents should have access not only to enlightenment and research materials, but also beautiful, uplifting public spaces. Not every branch library can or should look like the Fifth Avenue branch, but whether or not a person agrees with the current renovation plans or the financial projections that go with them, the city does deserve to keep its beautiful, Beaux Arts library.
The Fifth Avenue branch isn’t anti-democratic, rather, as Mr. Kimmelman wrote earlier this year, it is an exemplar of democracy “at is healthiest and best, of society making its finest things available to all. Climbing the library steps, passing the lions, rising up to the reading room where anyone can ask for books, enshrines, architecturally, the pursuit of enlightenment. Inspiring more people to reach those heights is the library’s loftiest mission.”