"Great Day" for Modernism in New York City

Love them or hate them, the three concrete buildings that constitute I.M. Pei's 1967 Silver Towers/University Village are now New York City landmarks.

Last week the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to add University Village to a list of more than 1,200 protected sites—a move that preservation groups called a watershed victory for modernism.

"It's definitely breaking new ground for the commission," says Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which submitted the proposal for landmarking the complex in 2003. "Never before has the City of New York chosen to recognize the significance of a modernist complex of buildings like this with landmark designation."

In the name of urban renewal, New York's "master builder," Robert Moses, cleared three blocks of Greenwich Village in the 1950s. The space, south of Washington Square, remained empty until architect James Ingo Freed of I.M. Pei & Associates designed the award-winning five-acre University Village for New York University. The school still owns the land.

Landmark designation puts a crimp in NYU's plans to build a 40-story tower on part of the site, Berman says. "The chances of that being approved are now significantly diminished."

"It's a great day for preservation in New York City, particularly for modern architecture," Commission Chairman Robert B. Tierney said in a Nov. 18 statement. The commission landmarked two other modern structures that day: the Guardian Life Insurance Company of America Annex and the Morris B. Sanders Studio and Apartment.

Berman's group is keeping a watchful eye on the university, which has considered replacing a one-story grocery store and gym located near one of Pei's 30-story towers.

It's the design of Silver Towers, not the possible threat to the buildings, that led the Greenwich Village Historical Society to urge designation, Berman says. "The complex itself gives you an exhilirating view of the city around you. It spreads itself out open to the rest of the city even as it makes its own modern statement. The cast-in place concrete towers are, I would argue, beautiful."

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