JJ in Memoriam

June 27, 2006


Better late than never. Jane Jacobs, who profoundly influenced urban planning not just in New York City, but throughout Western Civilization, will be honored Wed. at 5:00 pm (rain or shine) under the arch in Washington Square Park, the site of her first victory against the ravages of urban renewal that were being waged by the notorious Robert Moses. She died April 25, 2006 in Toronto, where she moved with her family from NYC’s Greenwich Village in 1968 so her sons wouldn’t be drafted into the Vietnam War.

It has become the contrarian fashion to say that Jane Jacobs’ contribution to urban planning didn’t address many of the problems we grapple with today, and that Robert Moses wasn’t entirely destructive and wrong. I find this to be an intellectually lazy argument. No single person could simultaneously explode an entire profession AND anticipate every possible consequence of that (such as gentrification, which did not exist at the time that she wrote her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961).

Still others have the impression that Jacobs was a milquetoast housewife who presaged New Urbanism by only favoring small, quaint neighborhoods — which couldn’t be further from the truth. What she was critiquing at the time — brutal urban renewal practices — compelled her to attack large-scale planning and modern architecture in favor of community and neighborhood, but that doesn’t mean she dismissed everything big and modern as inhumane and unworkable. What makes Jacobs so compelling and enduring is the power and flexibility of her ideas, rooted in an instinctive response but articulated with precision and clarity.

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Breathtaking Inanity: Grand Transit Here, There and Everywhere

June 27, 2006

After decades of neglect, New York is suddenly in love with its monumental transportation hubs, even if all the grand architectural gestures in the offing won’t do much on the most basic level: make more people’s commutes easier.

Today’s installment of breathtaking inanity (the new irrational exuberance) takes note of three facets of this latest craze.

moynihan-station0.jpg1. Moynihan Station, in its third (or is that fourth?) design iteration, will cost $1 billion to turn part of the Farley post office building into a partial replacement for Penn Station across the street. The catch: the only tenant is NJ Transit, which will leave behind 80 percent of commuters who currently use the old Penn Station in the pit below Madison Square Garden. This makes absolutely no sense. The inanity of this was pointed out when an even grander plan was floated recently to move the entirety of Madison Square Garden across the street as well, thus forcing Amtrak and the rest to move into the new space. Even though this will take much longer to build and will be much more costly ($7 billion) at least it makes sense in the long run, but of course Gov. Pataki might quash this plan because he wants a groundbreaking before he leaves office on the long delayed Moynihan Station.path-station.jpg

2. Santiago Calatrava’s beautiful transit station design at Ground Zero will cost $2 billion and serve only those people who ride PATH trains from New Jersey to Lower Manhattan (so New Jersey commuters are getting not one, but two grand transit hubs built for them here in New York City?). Don’t get me wrong. It’s a lovely, lovely train station. No question about it. But here’s the rub: it will be connected underground to yet ANOTHER architecturally grand and very costly transit hub, the Fulton Street subway station, less then two blocks away, which brings us to the final point:

fultontransit.jpg3. The new Fulton Transit Center, run by MTA, is behind schedule and over budget even after the signature architectural element, a huge “oculus,” was reduced in size and – get this – the plans to untangle the clusterf**k of subway lines underneath Fulton were also scaled back. In other words, MTA is prepared to spend another $800+ million on a duplicative grand transit statement while backing away from the original intent of making the subway lines more rational for commuters … New York commuters.

Hey, I’m all for grand architectural gestures, WHEN THEY ALSO WORK FOR THE PEOPLE WHO USE THEM.

ARO Goes Back To School

June 20, 2006

I had a post here at Polis last fall about a Times story noting all the architecture schools in NYC that were hiring big names to design new, flashy buildings, including Steven Holl at Pratt in Brooklyn, Lyn Rise at Parsons downtown, Rafael Vinoly at City College in Harlem, and Thom Mayne at Cooper Union in the E.Vil.

I then noted that Avery Hall at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture was badly in need of an overhaul … which is now in the works. I happened to be in the architecture library yesterday and spotted Stephen Cassell who, along with Adam Yarinsky, are the founders of ARO, one of my favorite architecture firms. It seems the firm will be undertaking the Avery Hall rehab.

They are not starchitects but smarchitects, intent on — hold on to your socks now — designing buildings while keeping in mind 1. the people who will use them, and 2. the surrounding environment. They are a whole lot less focused on developing a signature style that shouts, “ARO!” the way a ten year-old can now spot a Gehry building (ARO stands for Architecture Research Offices … so obviously, they’re not too concerned with branding their own names, either).

Just to make the point about how they brilliantly design for the surrounding environment, here are two very different projects: The Army recruiting station in Times Square (above) and home in Telluride, CO (below). Some of the firm’s other NYC projects include rehabbing the currently underutilized building at the north end of Union Square Park, working with landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburg on Brooklyn Bridge Park, as well as other commerical and residential projects around the city (and the rest of the country).


Hotel Chelsea Blog Party 2.0

June 4, 2006

After sitting on the piece for weeks, and after the copy editors drained most of the life out of it, and after the caption editor inserted an error by calling it a “new blog,” the New York Times’ City section finally ran a piece I wrote about the year anniversary party of Living With Legends. Polis readers know I attended the party at the Chelsea Hotel more than a month ago hosted by Debbie Martin and Ed Hamilton, creators of the blog, in an apartment once occupied by Thomas Wolfe. It was a wonderful evening full of rich characters and stories … which sadly, doesn’t quite get fullly conveyed in the piece. I’m probably being a little overly dramatic, so read it for yourself (PDF). And watch a slide show here.