I was talking with a very knowledgeable person recently about what is perhaps the biggest luxury condo failure built in New York during the real estate boom: the “Sculpture for Living” by Charles Gwathmey at Astor Place. We agreed the interiors are great, but otherwise it landed like a spaceship in the East Village, an opinion shared by many people.
But what I didn’t realize is that the base of the building — perhaps the worst part, because there is absolutely no street context and has all the character of big box retail — was not entirely the architect’s fault. It turns out, the blocky base was a compromise to satisfy NYC zoning requirements that all new buildings address the street in an essentially uniform and measured distance. In other words, what we have here is an urban planning theory, a la Jane Jacobs, rigidly applied in the form of zoning, which of course results in the law of unintended consequences. It might not have saved the building from disaster, but how much more interesting the block would be if the undulations came all the way down to the street? Furthermore, if ever there was an example where an architecture team should prod the city to address issues of the surrounding area (i.e. the deadzone that is Astor Square), this is it.
Which brings me to my real point. Over the holidays when Polis was on break and I was eating and drinking like there’s no tomorrow, I received an email from John Lumea, he of horizonr, a rockin’ new urban planning/architecture blog (the horizonr mission statement: “Practical knowledge about how, exactly, buildings create urban environments must get in the hands of the general urban-dwelling public; and the public must use this information to build better cities”).
He sent an email alerting me to an in-depth, thought-provoking piece he wrote which coins the term “New Yorbanism.” This phrase represents his theory that the last 30 years of bad building in New York is the result of a misinterpretation of Jane Jacobs mashed up with New Urbanism and cemented into untouchable dogma, which then fomented in a real estate feeding frenzy.
One of the interesting points he makes is to challenge the universally accepted idea that the superblock of the World Trade Center site should be broken up and reconnected to the street grid. This was certainly an idea I accepted without question — and that is always where the trouble comes in, no? When a sentence starts with, “Everyone knows that …” Well, how do we know, exactly? That is PRECISELY the default mode of thinking that Jacobs questioned in the first damn place.
Mr. Lumea quotes Jacobs in an interview with Adam Gopnik, suggesting that perhaps the street grid at the WTC shouldn’t be restored at all. “I was at a school in Connecticut where the architects watched paths that the children made in the snow all winter, and then when spring came they made those the gravel paths across the green. Why not do the same thing here?” Aside from the fact that we’ll never see snow in New York again, this is SUCH a wonderful Jane Jacobsian statement: beautiful in its simplicity and brilliance.
But then Mr. Lumea adds this: “Jane Jacobs recognized that the [WTC] site itself is a giant X-intersection; that the whole thing is a corner; and that this corner will not be a ‘lively heart’ … if it is choked with streets and real estate — including the memorial — that max out the site too quickly, (1) robbing this heart of the room it needs to expand and (2) making the next World Trade Center a less, not more, hospitable place…”
In other words, the superblock was not the problem, and the street grid will not fix it. Rigidly applied formulas are the problem that get writ large when mixed with greed, grief, and political opportunism. Jane Jacobs is dead. Long live Jane Jacobs.