02 . 23 . 2018

Renovation is always a better use of resources than demolition and replacement

AUTHOR Lloyd Alter

That’s what Alexandra Lange says about the possible loss of New York’s Union Carbide Building.

Years ago some people thought that the architecture of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was derivative of a famous modernist, and they were nicknamed “the Three Blind Mies”. But many of their buildings have aged well, including the former Union Carbide Building. It was designed by Natalie de Blois and Gordon Bunshaft, and Alexandra Lange, like a lot of other architectural critics, is shocked that it might be torn down to build a bigger building. She is also surprised that it wasn’t a designated landmark. She writes in Curbed:

Union Carbide is a superlative example of what Ada Louise Huxtable named “The Park Avenue School of Architecture” in 1957: sleek, shiny buildings that to her seemed like the city shaking off masonry, somnolence, the past, and marching up Park into the future. “In a surprise shift,” she wrote, “elegance has moved from domestic to professional life, from the apartment house to the office building.”

Lange notes, as we often do on TreeHugger, that “renovation is always a better use of resources than demolition and replacement.” There is a lot of embodied energy in that building, the energy it takes to replace every square foot that is demolished, to melt down the steel and glass and copper and make it new.

It is also an important monument to the role of women in architecture and the talent of Natalie Griffin de Blois. The late, brilliant Detlef Mertins interviewed her in 2006 where she explains how she ended up at Skidmore; she was with another firm with offices upstairs, where another male architect was hitting on her.

NdB: He was very fond of me, but he was not encouraged. So he went to Mr. Ketchum and told him that he just couldn’t work with me there. Mr. Ketchum called me over to his desk. We were all in one room. He said he was sorry, I’d have to leave. Just like that. Of course, I hadn’t experienced a shock like that before.

DM: You were just starting. You had been an excellent student, were doing good work, and suddenly…

: It all happened within a day. He said, “Well, I’ll call up Mr. Skidmore. He’s downstairs?—?see if he needs anybody.” So he called up Skidmore and told me to go down there. There was no, “Sorry to see you go,” or anything like that. Just “Pack up your things and move downstairs.” So that’s how I got to Skidmore.

Buildings have so many stories to tell, they are so much more than just steel and glass and embodied energy. Justin Davidson of New York Magazine writes that “the Union Carbide Building deserves to continue existing, not because it was in the vanguard of a movement with a dubious urban legacy, but because it’s among the finest of its kind.”

Or we can just quote Carl Elefante: “the greenest building is the one already standing.”

Image credit:  Treehugger