New Post

January 12, 2008

UPDATE! is live!

I’ve been woefully negligent here on Polis. But UnBeige, a design-oriented blog on MediaBistro, has an update about what’s been happening in my life… To see the original post (with the weirdly distorted picture below), click here. I probably won’t revive Polis anytime soon, as I’ll be concentrating on developing a website for my book Slackonomics.


A New Era of Civic Virtue?

September 7, 2007


The Chief Urban Designer for New York City, Alexandros Washburn, has a piece on arguing that in previous centuries, civic virtue was expressed through architecture, from the Pantheon in Rome to the Farley building in New York. But the current era of civic virtue requires us to better manage the environment.

Nature is the new civic ideal. To invent the urban design language that will express this is a vital part of the mayor’s challenge. It may happen in surprisingly low-tech ways or it may take advantage of our most advanced science. It may build incrementally on tradition or it may seek entirely new forms. The only certainty is that change is in the air, from planting in our parking lots to rediscovering our waterfronts.

Chicago is, of course, way ahead of all other American cities in this regard, but the above picture is a good example of the issues we face here in New York. The largest green roof in the city is on top of Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, which benefited from some government support, but also required considerable private sector investment, most notably by Silvercup and the landscape architecture firm which designed the green roof, Balmori Associates. The firm recently won a design competition to do the landscaping around Gehry’s Bilboa Museum, and in fact, much of Balmori’s work — which is right in keeping with this new era of civic virtue — is not being done in New York City, where the firm is based, but in other international cities where there is a much greater commitment of resources to better managing the urban environment.

Herein lies the rub. A new era of civic virtue of environmental stewardship in cities across the United States (beyond Chicago) will require a serious commitment of government resources on the local, state and national levels. The modern interpretation of civic virtue on the scale of a Pantheon or Farely building requires nothing less.

Read the whole Metropolis article here.

For a Metropolis piece I wrote about Chicago in 2004, click here (PDF): metropolis-final.pdf

US Open

September 5, 2007


I’ve been going to the US Open since 1990, the year Pete Sampras exploded onto the scene, beating Andre Agassi in what was supposed to be Agassi’s first grand slam title. This was also when Louis Armstrong Stadium was center court, before the monstrous Arthur Ashe stadium opened in 1997. I’ve only ever had seats in the nosebleed section of Ashe, which often provides better views of the Manhattan skyline than the tennis match. So take it from me, you haven’t seen tennis at Ashe until you’ve watched it from a luxury box, which I did last night until about 2:30 in the morning when David Ferrer beat Rafael Nadal. The velocity generated by the power-hitting of these two players just cannot be appreciated until you’ve seen it in person. Ferrer’s unbelievable defense is what ultimately won him the match. The pic above was taken just prior to the opening night matches, which started with Justine Henin and Serena Williams. (I gained a whole new appreciation for Henin’s game last night, who matched Serena’s power shot for shot, in addition to having more variety. Serena mistakenly seemed to think she could just muscle her way through, and ultimately failed because she never constructed points.) Alas, I’ll be back in the nosebleed section on Thursday.


September 3, 2007


The new food kiosk, Picknick, in Battery Park opened today, a beautiful day for a debut in Lower Manhattan. This eco-friendly food station (the seemingly plastic cups are made of cornstarch, among other recyclable items) is complimented by uncrowded tables, providing a great spot to see the harbor, Red Hook,  and the Statue of Liberty.


Floating City

September 2, 2007

I’m back in New York and I have a little story to share.

While I was in Mesilla, NM (see below), I was of course missing New York, but then not really — the beautiful adobe house I was staying in was huge and lovely, rundown in a charming kind of way, and ever so cheap (you see my point). So every morning, I biked a short distance to a coffee place, The Bean, and one day I noticed a book on one of the side tables, a slim little paperback titled, “Floating City,” which piqued my interest. It turned out to be a book of poems by a woman who had won the Walt Whitman award for new poets. Now, keep in mind I hardly ever read poetry, but I started reading this collection by Anne Pierson Wiese. Turns out she lives in Brooklyn and her poetry so absolutely captures the essence of life in the city — the small moments of beauty and tragedy, how the natural and the built environments can combine to create magic. So I kept this book with me (stole it from The Bean, I must admit), carrying it around in my bag for weeks, pulling it out at times to read a poem and just revel in this woman’s ability to remind me why I love New York so much. Here is one of my favorites:

Composed upon Brooklyn Bridge, July 6, 2003

How the city’s infinite motions seem stilled

in the sun’s horizontal blue gaze–her tips

and contraptions, her manifold upright lips’

lisp of steel and breath on sky, her curved sill

of shoreline, bridged and built as if the mills

of God have been replaced by quicker equipment,

her people heading home; now, before the dip

of the sun spills red, how this equal light wills

me to see the whole as one. For an instant,

her interlocking parts of bedrock and air,

asphalt and wind, metal and flesh, infant

cries of traffic and windows’ crowded state–

all these seem to pause and fuse, a jubilant

pair of mighty lungs with breath upheld in prayer.

Chelsea Hotel

July 29, 2007


I’m still in Mesilla, NM (see below, or click here to go to a flickr page with photos of this historic southwestern town), but since I wrote an article for the Times about how the long-time managers of the Chelsea Hotel were ousted, and all the coverage this has received around the world, I thought I would repost the story I wrote more than a year ago about Living With Legends, the unofficial Chelsea Hotel blog (which has been covering the hell out of this ongoing tragedy). Below are links to two of the stories I’ve written for the Times about the Chelsea (both PDF files), and a photo essay I shot at the Living With Legends blog party that took place on April 28, 2006 in a room where Thomas Wolfe wrote, appropriately for a residential hotel, You Can’t Go Home Again.

A Year in the Life (Chelsea PDF)

Changes at the Chelsea, Shelter of the Arts (chelseafinal.pdf)

Living With Legends Blog Party (photo essay on flickr).

JJ in Memoriam II

April 3, 2007

Shin-pei Tsay and I are organizing the second annual Jane Jacobs memorial at the White Horse Tavern. Basic details: April 25, 6 PM. Darren Walker, VP of the Rockefeller Foundation (which will be awarding the first annual Jane Jacobs medals this June) will speak for a few minutes. Alex Washburn, the first ever Chief of Urban Design for the City of New York, will also talk for a few minutes about his new job and the challenges of urban design in 21st century New York. But needless to say, this will be an unscripted event in honor of a writer and activist who knew when to don the white gloves, when to get arrested and when to unwind at the local pub. All are welcome and no RSVP required. Send me an email if you didn’t receive a notice already but want updates about the event.

Vertical Farm

April 2, 2007


I have a piece in this week’s New York Magazine about vertical farming, a concept developed by a professor of environmental health at Columbia University. The idea is to bring crop cultivation into skyscrapers in urban areas and allow farmland to be reforested. Why? Many reasons, but the main one is to stabilize weather patterns and climate change. Since the dawn of agricultural practices 11,000 years ago, the earth has lost about half of its forests.

The illustration above is the top of the vertical farm building with an urban windmill, a concept developed by Cleveland State University Professor Majid Rashid. Conventional windmills are too big to be incorporated into the urban landscape, so the idea here is for a screw to turn, bringing wind to the smaller blades, rather than giagantic blades reaching out to capture the wind.

Go to the New York Mag piece here and click through all the cool illustrations before reading the Q&A below with Prof. Dickson Despommier (special thanks to Chris Jacobs of United Future for all your hard work on this project!).


How did this idea come about?

DICKSON DESPOMMIER: In 2000, in my medical ecology class, the students conducted research about how much food could be grown on rooftops in Manhattan. They discovered there’s only about 13 acres of farmable rooftops in the city. That’s not very much. So at the end of the class, I threw out the idea of farming indoors and called it “vertical farming.”

Next year’s class was given a project to find out what is being raised inside. They uncovered a NASA website about growing plants indoors because on Mars, there’s no take-out.
Read the rest of this entry »

For-Profit Parks

February 11, 2007


The Los Angeles Times has a good piece about the privatization of public parks, focusing on Bryant Park in Manhattan. But buried in this excellent article is this shocker of an item:

On Wednesday, [New York] city officials are expected to vote on a plan to give 20 of Manhattan’s wealthiest private schools exclusive after-school access to dozens of public ball fields, rather than allow them to be used by nearby public schools in East Harlem and South Bronx. The private schools would pay more than $2 million a year to use the 63 fields for 20 years.

I don’t know if this has been covered in the New York media (since I’ve been on the opposite coast, see below), but if not, someone needs to get on it.

Across the U.S., Public Parks Are Landing Private Operators [LA Times, reg. req.]

For a slideshow of Bryant Park Ice Pond I took last year, click here (including the above photo).

Second Coming of Moses

January 24, 2007


Befitting uber New York builder Robert Moses and his unparalleled impact on the built environment, no less than three retrospective shows about his career are opening next month, reports the Times. You can read the piece for yourself, but here’s the money quote from deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff:

“Can there be another time when you can get big projects done all over the city?” Mr. Doctoroff said. “I think the answer is yes, and we’re in one now. Could you ever have one person who with imperiousness, with concentrated power, with lack of community input, could get things done? The answer is no.”

A lesson Mr. Doctoroff learned firsthand, no doubt (ahem…westside stadium…cough cough).

When Jane Jacobs passed away last year, I noted here on Polis that it has become the contrarian fashion to say that Robert Moses wasn’t so bad after all. Now it seems we’ll have three exhibits to assess that viewpoint.

Click here for a slideshow (including the above pic of Astoria pool).

Counter Intel

January 22, 2007


I’ve been enjoying New York mag’s newish online feature, Daily Intel. NYM shuns the term, but let’s call a spade a spade: it’s a blog, albeit, a well-crafted, content-rich blog, but a blog nonetheless. The focus is all things New York, which is edited by Jesse Oxfeld. He used to be one of the main writers for Gawker back when that media gossip blog was clever (why he was let go is beyond me, but Gawker’s loss has been New York mag’s gain…). My favorite regular item is of course Neighborhood Watch, which culls short, snappy snippets from the world of local minutiae. To wit, today’s nabe watch:


A new fitness center for Coney Island’s beach.
Photo: Kinetic Carnival

Carroll Gardens: Starting in February, you can find Smith and Vine at its new location, 268 Smith Street. [A Brooklyn Life]
Chelsea: How should the lovely General Theological Seminary develop its property at 175 Ninth Avenue? Comment at the community-board meeting tonight. [Living With Legends]
Clinton Hill: Want to open a wine shop? Cheese shop? Coffee shop? Bookshop? There’s some retail space available on Greene Avenue. [Clinton Hill Blog]
Coney Island: It’s nice to see new stuff on the beach (above), but why is it always fitness related? [Kinetic Carnival]
Union Square: It doesn’t matter that she can’t really sing. When Neysa belts out old Madonna songs on the L-train platform, people bob their heads and smile. [Gridskipper]
Williamsburg: Hipster music mecca McCarren Pool among roster of city pools to be considered next week at public hearing for landmark status. Beirut and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, step up and testify! [Gowanus Lounge]

New York, 2106

January 17, 2007


The History Channel held a contest recently entitled Designing the City of the Future. Three finalists were chosen, one each from Los Angeles, Chicago and of course New York, by a panel that included notables such as Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for the New Yorker. But the final winner will be decided by a public online vote, so listen up.

ARO, one of my favorite architecture firms, won the New York entry, beating out ten entrants including big names such as Rogers Marvel (among others). In a previous Polis post, I dubbed ARO (Architecture Research Office) “smarchitects” as opposed to “starchitects,” a moniker they manage to exceed with a vision of New York in 2106.

Contestants had only seven days to come up with a model of the future, and what Adam Yarinsky and his team developed is a vision of New York recovering from massive flooding in low lying areas of New York as a result of global warming. In order to co-exist with fluctuating sea levels, ARO proposed a new building type called a “vane.” Part skyscraper, part viaduct, “vanes” are built in, on, and over flooded streets, reconnecting to the classic street grid and making up for lost square footage. The concept is mixed-use in a physical as well as philosophical sense, as both a throwback and a look forward, somehow imagining both a dystopian and utopian city of tomorrow, and reconnecting New York with its history as an archipelago.

The winning entry from Chicago also has a water theme; “eco-boulevards” will treat the city’s waste-water naturally via microorganisms. Interestingly, the city that arguably has the biggest water problem, i.e. lack thereof, is Los Angeles, yet that entry mostly avoided the water issue, focusing on massive public works projects.

To see a flickr page with tons of images of the ARO entry, click here, and then cast your vote on the History Channel’s website here.

Planning v. Designing

January 15, 2007


New York City planning commissioner Amanda Burden gets the close-up treatment from the Times, and the consensus seems to be that her meticulous attention to detail has created some good public spaces, but has come at the expense of 1. larger planning issues, and 2. pissing off real estate developers who feel micromanaged. The reality is, however, the planning commissioner doesn’t have a lot of power over larger planning issues such as transportation, and what’s more, if a planning commissioner doesn’t piss off real estate interests, she’s not doing her job.

I think a more salient point was missed entirely: Her rigid application of William H. Whyte/Jane Jacobsian principals has resulted in the law of unintended consequences. I noted this in a recent post about the Astor Place condo building, Sculpture for Living, which created a dead block in the heart of the East Village because Ms. Burden’s zoning laws mandated that the building address the street in a largely uniform manner, squandering a great opportunity to remake the surrounding public space. What is the point of meticulous attention to detail if rules are going to be rigidly applied? Adaptability is the key to vibrant street life, which Ms. Burden clearly holds in high regard.

The fundamental disconnect is that Ms. Burden’s job is urban planner, but what she practices is urban design. This is not entirely her fault, as the job of planning in NYC is constrained to zoning. She is exerting her influence in the only way that she realistically can: By wielding the power of approval, she extracts detailed design elements like pounds of flesh from developers, who are the city’s real urban planners by virtue of weak government oversight in the face of strong private property laws. For better or worse, that is the New York way.

Taking Play Seriously

January 10, 2007


Playground design might just take a major leap forward if an “imagination” oriented play space is built at South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan. David Rockwell, better known for imagining the restaurant Nobu, has designed this playground pro bono (he lives in Lower Manhattan); he is also raising money to pay for professional “play attendants,” which apparently are popular in Europe (note the lifeguard looking guy in yellow). There will be wooden ramps for running and, of course, a sandbox, but what makes this space interesting are the opportunities to turn these little tots into future engineers and architects. Foam blocks, small boats, as well as tubing, elbows and gaskets, would be available for construction projects (supervised by the play attendants, of course). There would also be a system of pulleys and ropes for children to lift and transport objects like little human cranes. The city and parks department are on board, so on the “Build Meter” (I just made that up) of 1-10, I give this a 7.5 that it’ll likely get done.

New York Tries to Think Outisde the Sandbox [Times]

New Yorbanism*

January 5, 2007

astorthumb.jpegI 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.

wtctowers.jpgMr. 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.

Read the entire horizonr post here.