Don’t fix what’s isn’t broken is my response to New York City’s plan to improve the plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Philanthropist David H. Koch, who’s donating $60 million to finance the work, saw the refurbished fountains at Lincoln Center and then prodded the Met to do something about their “crummy” ones. The new design, by Philadelphia-based landscape architects OLIN, replaces the long, low fountains at each side of the museum entrance with smaller square ones, and frames the two underused, street-level side entrances with stands of trees. The plan of the project released to the Times has a hollow prettiness, filling the space with trees, cafe tables and umbrellas. The amateurish quality of the drawing certainly doesn’t help.
The plaza, as it is, is a vibrant urban space. On cold days, like today, there are groups of visitors gathered on the entrance steps, some waiting for others and some just sitting there. On warm days it feels like a festival, the entire length of the plaza thick with artists, food vendors, tourist and park-goers. On the final evening of the Alexander McQueen show last summer, just before midnight, lines of brilliantly turned-out scenesters and fashionistas snaked around the fountains for a final entry, a spectacle of crazy, urban glamor. True, the fountains are dismal, and rarely offer anything beyond a burble. But that only keeps the area clear for small children and dog walkers. Why can’t the Met keep the plaza they’ve got, which works, and clean and light the fountain properly? The two side entrances that the new plan highlights are awfully small. To turn them into proper entrances will require significant architectural work (larger openings, windows, some interior replanning) and not just rows of flowering trees out front. There’s something nice about leaving this monumental public plaza in this, the city’s toniest precinct, unadorned, rather than turning it into an open air food court. The real magic, after all, happens after you step inside the building.