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.