How the Guggenheim became a toilet seat and other thoughts on mixing old and new buildings

Preservationists want Frank Gehry to incorporated a mid-century bank into his mixed-use project on Sunset. Gehry says it's not so easy. Is this a case of preservation going too far? Or could the architect and developer successfully juxtapose old and new?

Should the past take precedence over the future? Or can they be elegantly combined? That’s a question posed by the struggle right now over Frank Gehry’s 8150 Sunset Boulevard project.

The proposed mix of dwellings, offices and stores, at the border of Los Angeles and West Hollywood, developed by Townscape Partners, won LA City Council’s approval after reducing its scale.

Then the Lytton Savings Bank, located on the site and designed in 1960 by Kurt Meyer, was designated a historic-cultural monument, and a Superior Court Judge has now ruled in favor of LA Conservancy to stop the demolition of the building. 

Rendering of 8150 Sunset, designed by Gehry Partners for Townscape Partners, proposes replacing the Lytton Savings Bank with a glazed cluster of commercial buildings.
The LA Conservancy would like Gehry to integrate this 1960 bank by Kurt Meyer into 8150 Sunset (photo: Frances Anderton).

The Conservancy argues that Gehry can fit the building into his scheme. Gehry, who has demonstrated his ability to fuse old and new in many projects including his famed house in Santa Monica, says in this case it is not so easy, and adds that the story of LA is one of constant renewal.

Is this a case of preservation going too far? Or could the architect and developer successfully juxtapose old and new? Check out the debate on this show.

DnA discussed this architectural conundrum with Marc Kristal.

He is author of the new book “The New Old House: Historic & Modern Architecture Combined,” a sumptuous, inspiring collection of homes that fuse past and present in the US, UK and Puerto Rico (and including Lorcan O’Herlihy’s renovation and adaptation of the Raphael Soriano-designed home of the late Julius Shulman).

In this brilliant renovation of the ruins of Astley Castle project architect Freddie Phillipson of the London firm Witherford Watson Mann, inserted a new brick building, while leaving much of the ancient fabric exposed (photo: Philip Vile).

For Kristal, the issue is one of how successfully old and new can be meshed, especially in the case of an urban development:

“You have to ask yourself the question, what’s more important — the object or the experience? If the building is really important and significant architecturally and there is a way to integrate it meaningfully into a larger new building — so that it’s not just a kind of stand alone object that’s being fetishized, a kind of architectural Faberge egg — and it improves the overall experience of the development that’s being created, also the streetscape and the general area in which it resides. . . that’s great.”

If those criteria cannot be met, then unless the older building is highly significant, he says, “I would tend to come down on the side of the experience as opposed to the object.”

Did the addition of this eight-story tower to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, designed by Gwathmey Siegel and Associates Architects, 1990–1992, make the Frank Lloyd Wright building look oddly similar to a toilet seat? (Photo: David Heald, courtesy Guggenheim.)

He also talks about how difficult it can be to successfully add new to an older masterpiece.

He cites the example of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. When they built a large block behind Wright’s “kind of spiral shaped building,” they wound up making “what had been one of the great buildings in New York suddenly look like a toilet seat.”

“It didn’t destroy the Guggenheim but it compromised the Guggenheim character in a subtle and strange way,” he said.

In his introduction to the book, Kristal writes about urban buildings where modern meets antique by architects as wide-ranging as Carlo Scarpa and Norman Foster. The rest of the book is devoted to private homes that exemplify what he calls a “meaningful relationship” between old and new.

At Hunsett Mill in England, London firm Acme removed five awkward extensions that had been added to this 18th-century English cottage and built a window-studded black “shadow” curving behind the structure (photo: : Cristobal Palma/Estudio Palma)

For him a “meaningful” intertwining of past and present involves a narrative.

“It’s very easy to build a new extension onto an old building where the two aren’t necessarily related and they don’t have a ‘dialogue’ but it’s more complicated and more interesting to take an old building and develop something new that has a kind of amplification effect where each brings something to the other and there’s a kind of larger whole that comes out of that relationship.

If you if all you’re trying to do is preserve an object because it’s cool but it doesn’t really have any connection to what it is that you’re building, what’s the point? Why not just create something new?