What Is NY-LON? Mark Wigley and Brett Steele On the New York-London Axis

Brett Steele, Enrique Walker, and Mark Wigley at "What Is NY-LON?". (Lindsay Kunz, Columbia University GSAPP)

Brett Steele, Enrique Walker, and Mark Wigley at “What Is NY-LON?” (Lindsay Kunz, Columbia University GSAPP)

“NY-LON” is an annual series of discussions at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP) about the transfer of ideas along the New York-London axis.  In this particular conversation, Brett Steele, director of London’s Architectural Association (AA), and Mark Wigley, dean of New York’s GSAPP, talked about the threads that connect the two cities, what that means for architectural discourse, and how the connection has evolved over time.

Brett Steele at "What Is NY-LON?". (Lindsay Kunz, Columbia University GSAPP)

Brett Steele at “What Is NY-LON?” (Lindsay Kunz, Columbia University GSAPP)

Steele began with an amusing comparison of the stereotypes of both cities, starting with Woody Allens famous take, “Don’t you see? The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.” As for London, Oscar Wilde said it best: “The man who can dominate a London dinner-table can dominate the world.” But these assumptions, Steele posited, are now mostly synthetic and based on narratives driven by marketing.

So how does architectural discourse flow from London to New York and vice-versa?

Imperialism loosely defined the trans-atlantic exchange of ideas before globalization. Columbia was originally founded to promote the proliferation of European-style education in America. In the 1950s, Reyner Banham and the New Brutalists in London influenced Gerhard Kallman, the young German architect who studied in London at the AA.  Kallman made his way to New York and Columbia, where he and another British architect, Michael McKinnell, would build the infamous Boston City Hall, a Brutalist icon.  In a similar exchange, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, built New York’s Lever House, one of the first Modernist skyscrapers for UniLever, a London-based company.  Educators, such as Bernard Tschumi and Alvin Boyarsky, moved from the AA to Columbia, also helping bring experimental architectural ideas and discourse to New York.

Today’s NY-LON exchange is more complex, evidenced by the United States’ influence on England’s foreign policy in the Bush/Blair years. The “Occupy” movement has similarly crossed between New York and London in both directions. Today, Steele said, the AA serves “as a mechanism for the converging and moving of bodies.  Not in a traditional sense of directional transmission, but of allowing different people to converse.” It is these wierd and accidental interactions which both Wigley and Steele are interested in.

Moving Forward, the panel asserted that the continued influence of New York and London is questionable. Wigley made an interesting remark that New York and London will play no role in the future of cities. In the experiment of rapid urbanization in places like China and India, Wigley feels that America and Europe are like parents, quaint and out-dated.  In an era of globalization, these formerly imperial locations have become “provincial.” But Steele made “a plea for continued exceptionalism,” pushing for the continued relevance of New York and London’s unique ideology. As the west continues to be the center of markets, both financial and intellectual, NY-LON’s influence will be in the delivery of known models, but also in facilitating the accidental transmission of ideas and the interesting exchanges that take place in auxillary locations, such as Columbia’s Studio-X or the AA’s Visiting School, both of which serve as places, dispersed around the world, for the exchange of ideas, and possibly the future of education.

Are New York and London “provincial” locations which serve only to facilitate accidental exchange of ideas around the globe? What is the world coming to?

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