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Paul Gunther

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Mr. Jobs, Meet Jackie O

Posted: 12/02/11 03:38 PM ET

The opening next week of the new Apple flagship store along the eastern balcony of New York's Grand Central Terminal weaves together strands of classical architecture, landmark preservation and the edgiest of edgy new design solutions in a beautiful knot that puts an end once and for all to any doubts about the value of historic continuity.

It's a far cry from the colossal Kodak Colorama sign that loomed on that exact balcony from 1950 to 1990; while ultimately a landmark itself, this illuminated spectacle was one that succeeded only by obliterating the integrity of its host architecture. It was absolutist in its rejection of the past, as were those who sanctioned it. Ironically, in today's digital photography market, its function would now be obsolete, unlike that of the station itself. Trains lasted, camera film did not.

The predilections of two immortal tastemakers, the 35th First Lady and the late visionary Jobs, who, even among tech skeptics stands tall as a genius of design, converge in ways more inevitable than unlikely. The new Apple store is cultural memory writ large, resulting in a renewal of artistic appreciation for a place at risk of being taken for granted.

The global firm of Eight Inc. (never easy to ascertain who does what chez Apple with its cloak of anonymity wrapped tightly around the dress form of Jobs' persona) has succeeded above all in framing the Beaux-Arts majesty of Warren and Wetmore's masterpiece. This renovation followed an epic political battle and a realization that, lo and behold, trains were here to stay as the transporting cornerstone of a shared urban future. Eight Inc.'s minimal design intervention (viewable online) lets the existing classical architecture serve as a gateway to the virtual world.

It is thus the synthesis of technology and tradition; broadening modernism's vocabulary to include a total deference and almost invisible exploitation of this well-tested and beloved space.

Marcel Breuer's commission by the Pennsylvania Central Transportation Co. to turn Grand Central into a stripped down base for a towering pendant to the Pan Am Building next door bumped up against civic activism spurred by the destruction of the great Pennsylvania Station at 30th Street and Seventh Avenue. The Madison Square Garden/Pennsylvania Plaza replacement was a superblock of stunning mediocrity, even as measured by its concurrent destructivist enablers, who, with those like Robert Moses leading the charge, saw the American city and especially its traditional elements as little more than weeds to be pulled. As scholar Vincent Scully said best about the 1963 loss of Penn Station, "One entered the City like a god, one scuttles in now like a rat."

The combined force of civic groups like the Municipal Art Society along with enlightened elected officials at all levels of government gathered steam, and, paradoxically, the other great Manhattan train station became the track forward until 1978, when the United States Supreme Court ruled to uphold the designation of the Terminal as a landmark, and, for that matter, the entire legal principle of landmark designation by public agency.

Justice Brennan wrote for the majority, and, leading up to that, Jacqueline Onassis became the galvanizing symbol of citizen advocacy, standing up for beauty, historic continuity and sense of place. She, like many others, disagreed with the hegemony of Modernist orthodoxy, calling as it did for the elimination of all of the past. She was a force for the accessible domain: the public square as a place for democracy, not for the imperatives of a cocksure elite and their commercial implementers. There would always be plenty of real estate left for them.

The publicity she drew to the issue brought not only press scrutiny but a sense of individual empowerment which resulted in collective sway and attendant policy reform.

The convenient manipulation of utopian dogmas, whether by commercial developers or academic polemicists, have little place in a postmodern world. Answers to our built future lurk instead in continuity and not in wholesale upheaval. Mrs. Onassis helped set the stage and this coming week we will all see how Jobs et al. took due advantage, setting the design symbiosis in stone.