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.


Austin Tobin Plaza

December 8, 2006


Yesterday’s post about plans for the WTC site at ground level (see below), I received this photo and a note from Visual Diaries photog Cary Conover:

Your post about GZ made me reminisce. I even dug up some old scans I made after 9/11. I kind of miss the Austin Tobin Plaza. Not because it was some great example of urban planning/plaza design, but more because it’s where/how I became most familiar with the towers. I was up in the viewing observatory of the south tower only once, but visited the plaza three or four times total before 9/11. I moved here in August of 2000 and it was just a few weeks later that I took what was then, to me, a very long walk (beginning at Stanton/Bowery) toward the WTC. I just set out to walk and walk and walk until I got to the towers, my goal simply being to get there and touch them, to look straight up at them. … I do remember the wind in the plaza. There was a blue tarp that was covering some sort of stage and it was flapping like hell. … This shot shows the north face of the south tower, and that’s WTC 4 over in the distance.

Click the photo to see the whole image.

Frog’s Eye View

December 7, 2006


I have been staying away from posting about the World Trade Center site because it just got too depressing. So here’s a nice little diversion from disaster that is ground zero. David Dunlap at the Times forgoes the bird’s eye view of the site today in favor of a close-up.

Plans for the new trade center are typically rendered from a far-off perspective. But the experience of the place will succeed or fail on a much more down-to-earth and pedestrian level: in its streets, sidewalks, plazas and parks.

Last week the Port Authority issued a request for proposals to “recreate Fulton Street and Greenwich Street through the trade center super-block, to reconfigure Liberty Street, to design sidewalks along Vesey and Church Streets and the new Liberty Park opposite the memorial. In short, to shape the public environment.”

In some ways, what happens at this level will be more important than what the buildings look like, which is more for aerial photographers than for people who will actually experience the site on a regular basis. The above rendering is Peter Walker’s interpretation for the area immediately around the Freedom Tower. Maybe, just maybe, if the planners get it right at the granular level, the disaster that is the Freedom Tower might just be mitigated. (Note the translucent wind screens on the bottom left of the rending, a gesture that hearkens back to the windswept plaza that was the old WTC plaza.)

Cry Me A River

September 12, 2006

NYC Unveils 9/11 Memorial Hole

I don’t know if it was intentional, but The Onion’s play on “Memorial Hole” and Orwell’s “memory hole” is too much! Laugh or cry, people, laugh or cry:

The Onion September 11, 2006 | Issue 42•36

Said Gov. Patakai: “This vast chasm, dug at the very spot where the gleaming Twin Towers once rose to the sky, is a symbol of what we can accomplish if we work together.”

Now for a post 9/11 anniversary round-up-o-rama (courtesy of Arch News Now). The last link, a commentary by Dan Bischoff of the Newark Star-Ledger, is NOT to be missed. He absolutely eviscerates Arad’s Memorial design.

Towers of Light

September 11, 2006


Photo by Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn


September 11, 2006



(photos taken by Lisa in May, 2006)

Breathtaking Inanity: WTC Triangulation

September 7, 2006

Larry Silverstein unveiled plans this morning for three more gargantuan towers to be built at the World Trade Center site, which will rise near but set apart from the Freedom Tower. As David Dunlap of the Times put it diplomatically: “…the buildings do not appear at first glance to be parts of a unified whole. Instead, it may look like an instance of urban randomness.”

Just when you think it couldn’t possibly get any worse, here’s some rock salt for that gaping wound: “Construction of Tower 2 [second from left] will require the removal of the Vesey Street staircase, also known as the survivors’ stairway, which is the only aboveground remnant of the original trade center that is still in place. It served as an escape route for hundreds of people on 9/11.”

How can this possibly be happening? Please, please, Eliot Spitzer, stop the madness. Step in now, say you’re going to void the whole deal when you take the office of Governor, and start over. We beg of you.

WTC: Anniversary Updates

September 6, 2006

With the anniversary of 9/11 fast approaching, there will be lots of WTC updates to keep on top of.

The one bit of good news (so to speak), comes from David Dunlap of the Times, who reports that an “interim” memorial is set to open, first privately for the families, and then publicly on Sept. 18. At 120 Liberty will be a collection, mostly of ordinary items, from the site as well as from donations. It looks to be quite moving and I’m guessing there won’t be anything “temporary” about it. Everything about the Ground Zero that is supposed to be “permanent” doesn’t ever seem to happen, and everything “temporary” seems to last forever, even ephemerally, like the towers of light that were displayed to mark the six month anniversary. I’m still amazed when I travel around the country by how many people who think those lights are the memorial and are still there.

Then there’s a piece in this week’s New Yorker by Paul Goldberger, who makes this obvious but salient point:

Amid all the squabbles and revisions, it’s unsurprising that so many people who once cared passionately about Ground Zero have simply lost track of the developments there and have stopped caring. This summer, the success of the first movies about 9/11, and acclaim for a clutch of important novels dealing with the subject, showed that the public is still hungry to make sense of the tragedy and what it means for America. But they are no longer looking to architects, contractors, and developers for answers.

Check back for more WTC news as the anniversary comes and goes.

Old Wine, New Bottles: WTC Clusterf**k

May 27, 2006

It’s been a few days since I hammered away at the WTC disaster, but Miss Representation takes up the slack in a big way with another one of his scathing take-downs. This is a must-read, but I’ll whet your appetite here:

“…it’s a total clusterfuck. Not a total clusterfuck like last year, when no one knew what the Memorial would look like, or even what the final program was; when the deconstruction of 130 Liberty was marred by poor oversight and flawed planning; … when no progress was being made on the Freedom Tower; when Pataki was a bumbling idiot who couldn’t marshal the forces … to finalize any site planning; when no one knew how anything was being paid for, but that all the money was definitely running out. No, now it’s a new kind of clusterfuck, one that — I was going to cut and paste the above paragraph, for dramatic effect, but even that isn’t worth it. Can we agree once again how unfathomable it is that these people can speak without shame in public? If this were medieval Japan … wouldn’t they all have committed ritual suicide by now for their failings?”

I wrote an article for the July issue of Planning magazine (a trade publication for professional urban planners) arguing that the utter lack of planning at Ground Zero is the root of all the problems there. But given how milquetoast that publication is, I wasn’t able to make the case as strongly as it really needs to be made. I took the above photo from the Winter Garden, which overlooks the pit.

Here is the PDF version of the article.

And Now the Memorial Fight

May 17, 2006

The “Freedom Tower” fight has been settled with Larry Silverstein (for now), and we move quickly into the memorial fight. The latest estimate for building the memorial came in at an alarming $1 billion, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg jumped in to say that it should be capped at $500 million. This provided an opportunity for those who have various beefs with the design to use its cost as a wedge; namely, those who think the memorial should be above ground are now saying the design should be radically overhauled. [See Times article today.]

Michael Arad’s original design, which was selected from more than 5,000 entries, put the memorial under ground with water falls and galleries. I haven’t studied the design closely, but I can well imagine that the decent into the memorial would be a powerful experience. I can also imagine the benefits of having different levels serving different purposes, the most solemn area being below ground, and more relaxing and serene areas at ground level. No one who is contemplating the horror of this tragedy wants to encounter kids running around acting goofy. But there needs to be room for joyfulness as well as solemnity, and giving those emotions separate levels to take place is one good solution.

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New Amsterdam Center

March 29, 2006

corbin.jpgI have a piece in today’s Times about the current owners of the Corbin Building — the Collegiate Church — who want to turn this historic Lower Manhattan building into the New Amsterdam Center. But it’s being taken by eminent domain for the new Fulton Transit Center. Not much to add to the piece, really, so click here to read it in full, and find out how those mild-mannered, tolerant Protestants of Dutch heritage are going to take it to MTA!


Photo: John Harrington Jr., left, and Casey Kemper of the Collegiate Church Corporation and the original staircase and railing from 1888 by Michael Flaco.

WTC Site “Planning”

December 29, 2005

When I first proposed “breathtaking inanity” as the new “irrational exuberance,” I knew the phrase would come in handy, but I had only an inkling of just how handy. Today’s installment comes from a great Times article by David Dunlap about how a draft of the design guidelines for the World Trade Center site have been circulating for two years with no finalization in sight while building designs have been thrown at the wall like spaghetti just to see what sticks:

In that time, the Freedom Tower has been designed and redesigned, partly following the draft guidelines and partly ignoring them. The transportation hub has been designed in a form quite unlike that contemplated in the 2003 draft. Ditto, the memorial. Ditto, the cultural building.

Now, the architect Norman Foster … has been chosen by Larry A. Silverstein to design the second largest office tower on the site…

And there are still no guidelines.

In a recent piece I wrote about the Transbay Terminal (or the “Grand Central of the West”) in San Francisco, my favorite line got cut from the piece (for good reason, I will readily admit), but I so wanted to indirectly point out the right way to plan a site. The final line in this graph, alas, did not appear in print:

The [Transbay Terminal and accompanying tower] competition, guided by conceptual designs unveiled on Dec. 19, is a result of … the adoption of a high-density master plan, devised by Skidmore Owings & Merrill, to redevelop the surrounding 40 acres and provide much of the financing for the terminal and tower. In other words, years of planning, coalition building, and financial structuring were done before the public’s imagination was dazzled by star-studded architecture.


Can We Re “Think” This Please?

October 5, 2005

Also from the Regional Plan Association’s newsletter today (scroll to next item) is a review of Paul Goldberger’s Up From Zero: Politics, Architecture and the Rebuilding of New York, which just came out in paperback (note that the paperback version uses the Towers of Light on the cover instead of Libeskind’s original “Freedom Tower”). I couldn’t agree with Alex Marshall more:

…after reading Up From Zero, and knowing the difficulties Libeskind’s design has encountered, I found myself regretting that the design of Rafael Viñoly and Frederic Schwartz was not chosen, which vied with Libeskind’s plan for selection until Gov. Pataki made a choice. The centerpiece of the Viñoly-Schwartz [Think team] plan, at least initially, was two tall, lattice-work towers that would rise from the site and be essentially ornamental and symbolic, and completely public. The private office buildings with their 10 million square feet would be left to another portion the site, and perhaps for another time, when the office sector rebounded. Such a plan would have avoided

the controversies that have plagued Libeskind’s and David Childs’ Freedom Tower, which must double as a symbol AND a giant office tower.

Although meant to symbolize freedom and openness, the base of the tower was recently redesigned to resemble a windowless battle-hardened bunker to withstand a terrorist blast (emphasis added).

Ugh. That’s really depressing.

Idling at Zero

October 3, 2005

I just finished reading the updated paperback version of Paul Goldberger’s book Up From Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York. Anyone remotely interested in understanding what has transpired there should read this book. Even though I’ve followed the events fairly closely, Goldberger’s running account not only reminded me of things I had lost track of, but provided invaluable insight into the conflicts, bad decisions and miscommunications that have plagued the rebuilding effort. As he concluded the hardcover version of the book, “Idealism met cynicism at Ground Zero, and so far they have battled to a draw.”up-from-zero.jpg

The book reminded me of how much hope there was at the beginning of the rebuilding process, and how that has been so shamelessly squandered. He quotes the initial “Vision Statement” of The Civic Alliance, organized by the Regional Plan Association, which said in part:

Lower Manhattan [can] show the way to a new urban future.

Is there anyone who can say with a straight face that we’re on the way to making that hopeful statement happen?

I had a post on Polis not too long ago pleading to re“think” the WTC rebuilding site, with a reference to Rafael Vinoly’s THINK team design of two open-lattice towers that mimic the Twin Towers. Governor George Pataki, who no one would argue is an architectural visionary, single-handedly nixed the THINK team’s striking proposal based on a gut reaction, which just goes to show how powerful even a rendering can be. It succeeds precisely because it is disturbing as a symbol of what was lost as well as how we will recover: Tall and proud yet never quite the same again. Goldberger’s description of Pataki’s reaction reminded me of the knee-jerk response to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, which surely never would have been built if the decision were up to one politician concerned about getting re-elected.

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