The AIA Guide’s Fran Leadon on Preservation, Development, and the Guide’s Future

Fran Leadon

Fran Leadon, architect and professor at City College’s Spitzer School of Architecture, coauthored the fifth edition of the American Institute of Architects Guide to New York City along with Norval White, who passed away prior to its publication in 2010. The Guide, published by Oxford University Press, is a comprehensive, and compulsively readable, handbook to the City’s architecturally significant buildings and spaces. It was created in 1968 by former Landmarks Preservation Commission Vice Chair Elliot Willensky, and architect and professor Norval White. The Guide offers opinionated descriptions of important buildings spanning architectural styles, interspersed with historical tidbits, editorials, and advice for the reader. Sitting on the Brooklyn promenade with a view of the Manhattan skyline, Leadon spoke with CityLand about the Guide, historic preservation, and his concerns about development trends in the City.

Involvement with the Guide. Leadon describes the Guide as “taking a snapshot every ten years of what the City is like.” He became involved in the Guide through mutual acquaintances of Norval White at City College, where White had chaired the architecture program, and where Leadon teaches design studio and architectural history. Although White retired two years before Leadon joined the faculty, many of Leadon’s colleagues had been former students of White. 

White sought out a younger partner to assist with the 2010 Guide. Leadon possessed the requisite knowledge of the City’s architecture and history, and the ability to write in a straightforward yet sophisticated fashion. Leadon claims that there is not a street in the City that he or his students did not walk while compiling the Guide. He believes the on-the-ground experiences contribute to the unique tone of the Guide and its understanding of the City.

On Historic Preservation. The first edition of the Guide was published only a few years after the establishment of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Although independent of any other organization, with its authors invested in such causes as fighting the demolition of the original Penn Station, the Guide has always been conceived partially as an advocacy tool for preservation. The Guide identifies compelling buildings and public spaces, and it promotes older buildings that have been overlooked.

Leadon describes himself as a big proponent of the work of Landmarks and praises Chair Robert Tierney’s stewardship. He says when surveying the City for 2010 Guide, he saw a tremendous amount of upheaval since the previous edition, with many important buildings lost and replaced with glass-faced residential and office buildings. He speculates that without the protection offered by Landmarks the most recent development boom could have seen the destruction of icons like Trinity Church, or even the Woolworth Building.

Leadon generally supports Landmarks overall philosophy in creating historic districts. However, he is concerned about the potential consequences of the agency’s piecemeal approach in establishing district boundaries. Leadon wonders if the ultimate solution may be to have borough-wide historic districts, and require all new development to undergo Landmarks’ review.

Leadon says it is easy to nitpick Landmarks’ decisions, but Landmarks’ overall impact has been overwhelmingly positive. He calls Landmarks a “codified process” which seems much more democratic than the manner in which other land use decisions are made. He finds the City’s ULURP process to be hit or miss in ensuring responsible growth, having produced great projects as well as what he regards as tragedies.

Public space and development trends. Leadon articulates a concern for the loss of unambiguous public space in the City in recent years. He says that the basic right of public space is being constricted, and was shocked that he and his students were repeatedly prevented from taking photographs from public thoroughfares in the course of working on the Guide. He believes that older generations would have found the idea of private interests regulating public space laughable.

He worries about a trend in recent development where buildings are solely marketed by, and focused on, the experience of the interior, rather than the context of the area in which the building is sited. He refers to the trend of calling a buildings’ facade it’s “skin” as emblematic of a stark differentiation between interior and exterior.

Leadon also predicts the Empire State Development Corporation’s Atlantic Yards arena project will be a “disaster” and says that there needs to be a process instituted to prevent similar projects in the future. While the City’s skyline was formed by capitalist motivations, development has long been informed by other voices, like the City Beautiful movement of the late 1800s. He believes those voices were not given credence in the creation of Atlantic Yards, leading to an out-of-balance plan.

Leadon hopes to participate in writing another AIA Guide in ten years. But, given the beleaguered state of the publishing industry, he worries that it may not take the form of a printed book. Leadon is prepared, and has been developing an iPhone application that would provide information for specific addresses and architects and allow users to create their own walking tours. — Jesse Denno

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