September 25, 2020

Buildings Don’t Have Captions

BKSK has a portfolio of approvals by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), ranging from new buildings to storefront restorations. In many of these projects, we have worked to establish a meaningful dialogue between contemporary and historic elements. We think of this approach as important, as key to maintaining integrity and promoting vitality within our historic districts.

What kind of dialogue does this entail? One which grows from a close reading of the building or site, and their immediate context. One which, perhaps, is somewhat unexpected and makes you look twice. One which teases out a narrative of linkage between past and present.

A purposeful juxtaposition of old and new, as in some of the examples described below, can seem to some both intriguing and challenging. The LPC public hearing process offers us the opportunity to articulate a narrative of appropriateness, followed by probing questions from the commissioners. More than once, we have heard a version of: “Buildings don’t come with captions. How will a passerby understand your references, your design intent?”

The answer, of course, is complicated. The question itself is complicated. Have buildings ever come with captions? Was there a time, as we sometimes imagine, when the language of architecture was legible, and a non-captioned message was clear to many? No, and no, except with certain government buildings. (I’m thinking of NYC’s central post office, in general and the “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers …´inscription, in particular.)