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Growing Out of the ’60s: The Ford Foundation Building Gets Renewed

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Renovating a building is like taking a long, honest look at your life. You have to decide which parts to keep buffing and which have fallen away, how much sameness to cling to without getting stuck in the past, how to embrace change without betraying your core. Preservation means understanding that a course chosen decades ago no longer means the same thing. In the 1960s, a handsome ashtray embedded in an armrest was a touch of thoughtfully deluxe design, not an incitement to antisocial behavior. Few of us were ever as enlightened as we thought.

Those brass ashtrays remain — as relics, rather than conveniences — in the seats of the Ford Foundation’s auditorium after a sensitive, even self-indulgently gorgeous renovation. The $205 million refurbishment, by Gensler and the landscape architecture firm Jungles Studio, has rejuvenated the building (which faces East 42nd and 43rd Streets, between First and Second Avenues), and restored many details while deliberately transforming its spirit. Completed in 1967, when Manhattan seemed unbearably chaotic, the building, by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, bathed the foundation staff in an atmosphere of monastic serenity. The centerpiece of this urban retreat was an indoor public garden designed by Dan Kiley, where stepped walkways paved in topsoil-colored brick threaded through dense greenery, rich in blossoms, foliage, and shade. With touching hubris, the architects believed that the beauty of their midtown Eden would promote world peace. “It will be possible, in this building, to look across the court and see your fellow man or sit on a bench in the garden and discuss the problems of Southeast Asia. There will be an awareness of the whole scope of the foundation’s activities,” Roche predicted before construction had even begun.

With an endowment of $12 billion, the Ford Foundation battles injustice around the world, an infinite task carried out by a surprisingly small staff. The foundation’s current president, the perpetual-motion social-justice warrior Darren Walker, isn’t interested in presiding over a cloister; he wants the building to buzz. “Kevin Roche said it was about calm and reflection,” Walker told me. “Today it will be more kinetic, dynamic, and filled with energy. The work we do ought to be energizing. It should create a sense of urgency.” The Landmarks Preservation Commission, which must sign off on every physical alteration to the exterior and the public atrium (though not the........

© Daily Intelligencer