OP-ED: Famed Architects’ Insights Are Worth Consideration

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As the debate swells around the proposal to replace the Village Post Office building, recent insights from two world-renowned architects (and Columbia High School alum) are worth everyone’s consideration. During an appearance at the high school hosted by the Maplewood Library’s 2015 Ideas Festival, Peter Eisenman, FAIA, and Richard Meier, FAIA shared their thoughts on personal development, themes in their careers, and anecdotes from a myriad of projects they have led over nearly sixty years. And while doing so, they drew our attention directly to the Village Post Office. (See video below.)

Eisenman and Meier discussed and expressed strong preference for adaptive re-use of the Maplewood Post Office building, a mid-century era design by Alfred Pollitt that was built by the federal government in 1958. They criticized the massive over-scaled mixed-use “housing blocks” recently completed or under construction in South Orange, Maplewood, and beyond. They spoke lovingly of quaint Maplewood Village, its scale, and its engaging “human” character.

Perhaps most significantly, they warned those in the audience to be vigilant in their stewardship of the Post Office building and other public institutions in our community.  Mr. Eisenman noted “…people like yourselves should be really concerned about how these things develop, because so quickly they can change the character of a town.”

Richard Meier began his comments speaking generally of the importance of scale. He noted, “I think the most important thing is scale, rather than materiality. I think the scale is what gives Maplewood its character…it is a human scale…it was built as a place you want to walk through, to experience and to say hello to your neighbors.”

While speaking of the building itself, Eisenman elaborated on Meier’s remarks by adding “…it’s a modern post office respecting the spirit. I hadn’t remembered how good it was until we went to see it.”

At another point, Meier spoke to the issue of use, particularly of public buildings in town centers such as Maplewood and South Orange.  He said,  “…what is proposed here, in terms of tearing down the Post Office building for instance, well, I think that’s a shame…the building has a life to it…I think someone should come along to make use of that building and keep it where it is.”

Later in the discussion Eisenman returned to his views on scale when saying, “…I thought that the scale of the Village was really important the way it was.  I think to lose that, if Maplewood Center loses that, if the [South Orange] Village continues to lose that, I think Maplewood and South Orange will be lesser places.”

Eisenman then summarized by saying, “I think these kinds of things are really important for the civic health of the town, and I think advocacy for people to be involved is really good and important.”

Scale, materials, mid-century design, the importance of public institutions and structures, civic health and advocacy. Mr. Eisenman and Mr. Meier called our attention to themes that their long careers have shown to them to be important. We are very fortunate to be able to bring their wisdom to our debate regarding the Maplewood Post Office.

Dave Helmkamp

Founding member, Engage-Maplewood and the OhNo60 project

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