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Herbert Muschamp, 1947-2007
Courtesy The New York Times

Everyone has a notorious Herbert story, but certainly the very last one I would want to have to circulate is his obituary. A longtime heavy smoker, Herbert died of a lung cancer on Tuesday, October 2, that was diagnosed earlier this year. He had stepped down from his position as the architecture critic for The New York Times two years before.

Herbert’s contribution to architectural criticism has not been fully measured. His opinions were often hyperbolic; his prose outrageous; the path of his thinking inimitably complex. Unforgettable samplers would have to include his comparing Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to the “reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe,” and calling Zaha Hadid’s Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati “the most important American building to be completed since the end of the cold war.”

Famously, he wrote positively in September 2002 that Daniel Libeskind’s tower proposal for Ground Zero “attains a perfect balance between aggression and desire,” only to switch allegiances five months later. As a newly converted partisan of the proposal by the team THINK, he wrote, “Daniel Libeskind's project for the World Trade Center site is a startlingly aggressive tour de force, a war memorial to a looming conflict that has scarcely begun.” A close reading—and no one more deserves a closer re-reading than Herbert—reveals that he has not really contradicted himself here but refined his opinion. To many, his views were inflammatory, even dangerous to architecture. “Whoopee,” he might have said. Has anyone else stirred up so much heated passion about cold bricks?

Before becoming the third architecture critic for the Times in 1992 following Ada Louise Huxtable and Paul Goldberger, Herbert Muschamp held the same position at The New Republic and Artforum. He also served as director of the graduate program in architecture and design criticism at the Parsons School of Design from 1983 to1992, a role that must have satisfied his desire to impress moldable intellects but hardly indulged his talent for the kind of performance writing that became his hallmark. At the time of his death he reportedly had just finished his memoirs.

I came to know Herbert at The New York Times, when I was an editor inviting him to write for the Sunday magazine’s design pages. Whether it was the glamour days of airline fashion and the Cold War or Donald Trump’s strange allure, he always had something he wanted to push through the clarifying wringer of design and architecture as organizing principles. As a self-defined outsider, a gay man, and as someone far more articulate and widely-read than most anyone he encountered, he believed deeply in the saving power of architectural space. For him, heaven might well be a dim, luxuriantly appointed lobby with library shelves.

Herbert was also maddening; he drove his editors and his friends up the wall only to charm them back down again with twinkling wit and an open generosity that could almost prepare one for the next onslaught. He liked the power that came with being the Times architecture critic, commissioning a then unknown (in the United States) Santiago Calatrava to design a time capsule for the newspaper in 1999, and making sure that, if not Gehry, then Renzo Piano would design the paper’s new headquarters. But he had no favorites; he only championed what was interesting. And what was interesting to him was anything that was compelling and vital and personal. Freud was often lurking in the background of his prose. Herbert once wrote, “the Freudian history is personal, the Marxian history is social, but in both instances a diagnosis is called for. It often seems to me that the architect's task today is to shape spaces that don't make the world more diseased than it is.” But it was Herbert himself who wanted to cure the world of unthinking, unengaging architecture and fill it instead with places that would welcome even someone as critical but hopeful as himself.

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Commodity and Delight
Tom Dixon's Glowb installation in Trafalgar Square.
Courtesy London Design Festival

People were clamoring to honor Zaha Hadid during this year’s London Design Festival. Her Urban Nebula installation of jagged concrete modules sat in front of the South Bank Centre beside the Thames, her Aqua table was rendered in marble for furniture company Established and Sons, and London’s mayor Ken Livingstone awarded her the inaugural London Design Medal at the event’s opening.

The fifth annual London Design Festival, which also incorporates the longstanding tradeshow 100% Design, was—like Hadid herself—an intriguing mix of hard commerce and entertaining experimentation. The polished concrete wall commissioned by the festival organizers as part of the project Size + Matter aimed to blur the boundaries between architecture, design, engineering, and sculpture by partnering Hadid and Future Systems’ Amanda Levete with manufacturers of precast concrete and Corian, respectively, to create installations to be auctioned off by Phillips de Pury & Co. When asked to make a sales pitch for the installation during a series of talks hosted by Blueprint, Hadid expressed a desire to make her work accessible.

You might be forgiven for thinking there weren’t any other designers in the city, but not everything was Zaha-related. Tom Dixon demonstrated deft skills in public relations and reaching the public with his Glowb giveaway, in which 1,000 Dixon-designed energy efficient lightbulbs were given away on a first come, first served basis. His site-specific chandelier, a suspended carpet of his “Blow” bulbs, was the flame to crowds of mothlike customers swarming Trafalgar Square during the festival’s opening days.

The first Tent London product design show, set up by 100% Design founders Ian Rudge and Jimmy MacDonald, was staged in the former Truman Brewery building in East London. Rather than products, the highlight here was the Urbantine Project, an open competition aimed at budding architecture and design practices to design and construct a temporary pavilion that responds to the need for flexible workspaces. The winner, architect Alex Haw, built an concertina-like system of interlocking plywood panels to form a sequence of work/leisure spaces.

It was clear that the thriving and affluent commercial design scene and the designers/ makers still emerging remain disparate entities. Unlike in Milan, where the furniture show has roots in the city’s manufacturing industry and retains an affinity with the production process, it was evident this year that the lack of a coherent focus in London is what gives the festival its character. The charm lies in finding the oddities and individual highlights.

Sunnyside Shines at LPC

After five years of intensive work by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), during which neighbors battled over issues ranging from owner’s rights and affordable housing to architectural details and historical precedent, the LPC voted 10-0 this morning to designate Sunnyside Gardens as a historic district. This makes Sunnyside Gardens the seventh and largest historic district in Queens.

“I feel particularly privileged to present Sunnyside Gardens for landmarks designation,” LPC chairperson Robert Tierney said while introducing the vote at a public meeting. “As we’ve seen, Sunnyside Gardens is one of the most significant planned communities in the city.” He added, “I believe Sunnyside Gardens expresses a special sense of place. When you walk around its streets and gardens, you experience a distinct part of the city.”

Conceptualized as a model of quality affordable housing for working-class families, Sunnyside Gardens was built from 1924 to 1928. Designed by Clarence Stein and Frederick Ackerman with the support of Alexander Bing, a real estate executive in charge of the City Housing Corporation, Sunnyside Gardens was intended as an experiment in architectural, urban, and community planning, one that has been copied nation- and worldwide. Urban critic Lewis Mumford lived there from 1925 to 1936 and often wrote fondly about the neighborhood.

Stein and Ackerman were forced to work within the existing street grid, comprised of long, narrow plots on the south side of the Sunnyside rail yards, but the architects used this to their advantage, pushing their one-, two-, and three-family townhouses to the lot line and sewing the resulting backyards together into community gardens. “The system of shared backyards was a breakthrough, proof that the public and private could coexist to the betterment of both,” LPC commissioner Diana Jackier noted. Two of the nine commissioners at the meeting admitted to having studied Sunnyside Gardens in architecture school, an education that helped strengthen their decisions.

In recent years, fences and additions have sprouted in these backyards next to herb gardens and towering trees that have flourished over the neighborhood’s 80-plus years. Though extant features will be grandfathered, landmarks designation seeks to preserve these gardens as close to their original designs as possible, as well as the Art Deco and colonial revival buildings themselves, which are not protected under the current Special Planned Community Preservation District. This distinction is where the acrimony begins.

“They’re going to tell me what color to paint my door?” Sunnyside Gardens resident Joseph Licalsi asked a reporter after the vote. “They’re going to tell me what windows to install? I bought this house to be a homeowner, not a custodian.” Licalsi said he has owned his house for 20 years but would never have bought it were he faced with the current constraints.

Ira Greenberg, a local attorney working for the Preserve Sunnyside Gardens Coalition, said the LPC is “missing the boat.” “They’re talking about sense of place. There’s no place for that in the law. The yards are protected in the zoning. They’ve been protected since 1974. What they’re doing is trying to protect the details of our houses. The American Institute of Architects guide to New York said the design is unimportant.” The actual passage states, “The architecture is unimportant, but the urban arrangement a source of urbane delight.”

Though the LPC’s 50-seat meeting room in the Municipal Building was filled with angry neighbors waving signs that read, “Don’t Landmark Sunnyside Gardens,” the commission said a majority of the community supported the initiative because it would protect a neighborhood being eroded by curb cuts and fences. “I’m very much in favor,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, which helped spearhead landmarks designation.

For many, the change was necessary. “Right now it’s been very complicated,” Laura Heim, a resident and local architect said of the houses she has worked on in Sunnyside Gardens under the community preservation guidelines. “The new plans will be clearer. It should be easier to work on.” But opponents insist what was once an affordable neighborhood will continue to become inaccessible. “Slate roofs and Hudson brick? Those were used in the past because they were cheap,” Greenburg said. “But it’s certainly not cheap now.” LPC spokesperson Lisi de Bourbon responded, “It’s not a foregone conclusion that anything will be more expensive.”

Future Perfect?

On May 31, the state agency charged with reimagining Governors Island revealed five all-star teams’ design schemes for the 176-acre island’s public spaces, beginning a juried review process that will stress usable ideas. The jury will prioritize proposals that seem most likely to create a park constituency that will prompt office, institutional, and commercial users to build out the island’s southern half. “The park is a first phase to promote future development,” the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC) president Leslie Koch told AN. “We need a public space people will visit and visit again,” she said. “The word we use is ‘compelling’.”

 

The five finalists are Field Operations/ Wilkinson Eyre; Hargreaves Associates/ Michael Maltzan Architecture; REX/MDP; West 8/Rogers Marvel Architects/Diller Scofidio + Renfro/Quennell Rothschild & Partners/SMWM; and WRT/Urban Strategies. The brief requires a promenade circling the island and a park big enough for festivals. GIPEC seeks uses that wouldn’t necessarily work in nearby Brooklyn Bridge Park or Battery Park, and that will lure bikers and picnickers to ride a ferry or come across in a gondola from those areas, which are undergoing their own renovation. “It must offer completely unique, compelling experiences…as well as provide for common activities in an uncommonly wonderful setting.”

 

In that context, even virtuosos like Field Operations chief James Corner have submitted restrained or low-key playful approaches. “Do too much and you get the world’s biggest theme park,” he told AN, “so we really minimize the architecture.” The most fanciful proposal, from the team including Diller Scofidio + Renfro, works around the concept of “urban illusions,” including loaner bikes. Such fancy has prompted some observers to question whether the architectheavy roster is equipped to handle the site’s manychallenges.

 

REX-NY principal Joshua Prince-Ramus, whose describes his firm’s proposal as a development scheme, endorses GIPEC’s logic of using public space to prompt private investment. “What they’re doing is really smart,” he told AN. “Private development won’t come without the grounds cleaned up in such a beautiful way that a university or institute would want to be there.” Indeed, GIPEC had tried earlier to start the revitalization process by asking developers’ teams to submit ideas for building out the island, then dismissed all those proposals, except for a small charter school, as insufficiently imaginative or financially feasible. The future, then, begins with open space that the public will use and love. A panel discussion on June 11 and public hearing on June 20, Koch promises, will clarify the public’s priorities for uses of the new park. The jury, which includes SHoP’s Gregg Pasquarelli and former Planning Commissioner Joseph Rose, will evaluate schemes over the summer. 

A Second Act for the Bam Cultural District

When the Brooklyn Academy of Music decided to throw its cultural heft into remaking its then-dingy neighborhood, it did so the BAM way, i.e., con brio. With a master plan from Rem Koolhaas’ OMA and Diller + Scofidio, and renderings of a state-of-the-art new public library by TEN Arquitectos, the future looked glamorous. And while it took almost nine years, new architects, scaled-back projects, and some political shifts, several significant pieces of the plan are about to go forward. By Alan G. Brake. 

When the Brooklyn Academy of Music burned to the ground in 1903, the New York Times opined, “In short, there has hardly been a great public movement of national import but the old Academy has been at one time or another its principal focus.” BAM quickly relocated from Brooklyn Heights to its present location on Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene where it has enriched the city’s cultural life for more than a century. Over the last ten years, however, BAM has added an unusual element to its portfolio of offerings, and that is neighborhood redevelopment.

In 1998, Harvey Lichtenstein began to move out of his position as the institution’s director, and looked outward at the neighborhood. It wasn’t pretty: The 1970s and 1980s had not been kind to Fort Greene and downtown Brooklyn, and one of the most respected performing arts organizations in the country found itself surrounded by a nondescript mix of parking lots, liquor stores, and not much else. But with a location near commercial hubs and lots of subways, there seemed to be no reason why the area couldn’t come back. Lichtenstein formed the BAM Limited Development Corporation (LDC) as a catalyst for the transformation of the ten or so blocks immediately around the theater into an arts district. The organization hired New York’s Diller+Scofidio and the Rotterdam-based OMA to develop a conceptual masterplan in 2000. Two years later, it held a competition for a Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) branch for the Brooklyn Public Library; the jury chose TEN Arquitectos, and images of an ship-like building were published everywhere.

But things seemed to slow down soon after, and there wasn’t much news from the intersection of Flatbush and Lafayette Avenues. In 2004, WORK AC quietly took over the planning job. “The Diller +Scofidio/OMA masterplan still provides the basis for what will be built,” says principal Dan Wood. Wood founded WORK AC after leaving OMA and continued to be involved in the project. The main innovation of the latest version is shifting the site of the Theatre for a New Audience, a respected Shakespearian company, to Layfayette Avenue, next to the Mark Morris Dance Center and catercorner from BAM, opening up space on Lafayette for a substantial new park with the working name Grand Plaza. Toward the end of the process, WORK AC brought in Ken Smith’s firm to consult on open space and streetscape plans. The Grand Plaza will act as a front door for three of the major cultural institutions, making it a sort of Lincoln Center stitched into the fabric of brownstone Brooklyn. Parking will be built under the plaza and will match the existing number of spaces. “The modified plans allows us to create a park where you want to be, not just a remnant patch,” says Christian Gabrial, a designer at Ken Smith Landscape Architecture.

After the masterplan was complete, the teams switched roles to further develop the open space and streetscapes, with Ken Smith’s team as the prime consultant and WORK as the subsidiary. “A lot of time and energy are going into the streetscape, which will have a key role in pulling the district together,” says Louise Eddleston, a designer at Ken Smith. “The district is primarily residential and with more units of housing going in it will remain that way.” She says the short blocks and intimate scale of the neighborhood have to be understood and used to their best advantage. The firm will present schematic designs to the Economic Development Corporation in the Fall, and hopes to get the contract to build the project.

This is more likely to happen than it would have been even a year ago: Last year, the city, frustrated by the lack of action on the VPA and other projects, stepped in and moved the BAMLDC under the umbrella of the larger and more powerful Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DBP), which includes business improvement districts for Metrotech and the Fulton Street Mall. DPB has close ties to deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff, and this has clearly contributed to the recent up-tick in development activity in the district. “There was a sense in early 2006 that the city needed to step up, not just in terms or time, but also in terms of high-level attention,” says Joe Chan, the DBP president. “Coordinating development with cultural groups is a lot more complicated than private developers.”

The move is yielding results. Though the VPA library was recently declared all but dead by the Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin due to lack of fundraising on the part of the Brooklyn Public Library, several other significant projects are moving forward in the district. Along with the streetscape design, a revised design for the Theatre for a New Audience is in the works by Frank Gehry and the H3 Partnership, and the department of Housing Preservation and Development just concluded an Request for Proposals for a new mixed use building that will house Danspace, the contemporary dance incubator. All of this is happening in the shadow, metaphorically speaking, of Forest City Ratner’s controversial and gargantuan Atlantic Yards development.

But curiously, the fighting around Atlantic Yards seems not to have affected plans for the BAM cultural district, at least thus far. “It’s sort of an elephant compared to an ant,” says Wood. “The BAM cultural district can fold into an existing neighborhood, whereas Atlantic Yards will generate its own.” From the beginning, too, BAM LDC also worked with community groups, local churches, and elected officials to address concerns about rising rents and over development. “There was a call for many opportunities for input,” said Chan. “Gentrification and displacement is the greatest fear.”

Chan, however, sees Atlantic Yards and the cultural district as complementary projects. “Both projects emphasize the development of mixed-income communities,” he says. “They are a part of changing perceptions about Downtown Brooklyn and about catering to diverse and inclusive tastes for art, culture, entertainment, and sports.” Gabrial adds, “The cultural district operates within a web of existing neighborhoods, including Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn. It’s really a linchpin project.”

While coordinating multiple city agencies and cultural groups and meeting fundraising goals has somewhat slowed and altered development, the district’s largely positive reception in the community speaks to the thoughtful and neighborly scale of the project, as well as a flexible, piecemeal approach. The subtle way in which increased cultural programming,open space,and higher density are being woven into the neighborhood could prove to be a model for the borough and beyond. It also shows that Brooklynites aren’t averse to change, they just don’t like to get steamrolled.

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Dialogue: Shaun Donovan & Gwendolyn Wright

In March, the Department of Housing Development and Preservation announced that it had reached the one-third mark in its initiative to develop and preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing. To mark the occasion, AN asked housing historian and Columbia professor Gwendolyn Wright to sit down with HPD commissioner Shaun Donovan.

Gwendolyn Wright: What surprises you about working in city government?
Shaun Donovan: One of the most pleasant surprises has been that in a city so famous for politics, how un-political this administration has been. I think Rolling Stone did a profile of the mayor that said New Yorkers have an opportunity to see what government can be without politics, and it actually feels that way inside. It’s amazing how much support we have from the mayor and City Hall to stand up and say this is why we do what we’re doing. 

GW: Having lived in New York for the last 25 years, I can tell you it wasn’t always that way. What does that actually mean in terms of the way things work downtown?
SD: It has a broad set of implications, but there’s a piece of it that’s all about leadership. For example, Iris Weinshall [the recently-departed transportation commissioner] called me the other day and said, “You know what, we’re going to give you these seven parking lots.” For her to make that decision is actually a remarkable thing inside government, because what’s the upside for the transportation commissioner? Not a lot. Even though a given lot is only 25 percent full most of the time, she’s going to get yelled at by the local merchants because the people who use it can’t get to their shops as easily. To me, that says there’s a clear message from City Hall that affordable housing is a priority for the mayor.

GW: What is the role of the private market in the New Housing Marketplace initiative?
SD: That has been the single biggest challenge and opportunity here. When I arrived, the mayor had already started to shift the strategies towards recreating a market in places where there wasn’t one, such as the South Bronx and lots of Harlem. He did this through the New Housing Marketplace plan. I think the real shift that I’ve tried to make is to figure out how to harness the market, rather than recreate it. In affordable housing, a $5 million condo can actually be your friend: It can be as simple as building a few market rate units for the cross-subsidy they create for affordable ones. I think it has also meant that we have a broader opportunity to create mixed-income communities across the city than we did before. One of the great failures of housing policy has been to think about low-income housing as something dangerous that has to be separated out. We try to blur the lines as much as possible, and leveraging the market is really important in doing that. 




Donovan (top) and Wright.  
Aaron Seward
 
 

GW: It is interesting that the mayor and your agency speak about a marketplace, which is different from the market. When people invoke the market they tend to mean the upper tier of it, and how to keep those guys happy—and they’re pretty happy right now! But the marketplace is a circumstance where you have the realities of economics: many different prices, many different groups, and many different kinds of markets. You’re allowing New York to function like a city as opposed to a place defined by the market aspirations of a few major developers.

SD: Housing advocates often focus on how much money government is putting into something, but the levers that we hold in government are often much more powerful than the money. Inclusionary zoning is a perfect example of that. We’ve got million-dollar condos going up on the waterfront in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, but we could never have thrown enough money at those projects to end up with what we’re getting, which is that 20 to 30 percent of these buildings are affordable. This is some of the most prime real estate available. The only reason it will be a truly integrated community is because we used the powers of zoning to say that there is a benefit to the marketplace, and we want the marketplace to flourish there. We’ll allow you to build taller, but if you do, you’ve got to give something back for that density.

GW: You seem quite interested in design innovations of various sorts. What are the possibilities for architects?
SD: At the simplest level, it’s about increasing our engagement in design and opening up the process to architects. I think [commissioner] David Burney has really done that for public work through the Department of Design and Construction, and I hope that we’re following that example. Look at all the entries for the New Housing New York competition we just held. I think it is the best example to date of a process that integrates architecture in a way that was not just about design, but about creating a sustainable community. We’re going to do more design competitions like that, but we can’t do it on every single project. It was an enormous effort and expense, but there are a lot of principles that we can integrate into our smaller projects. 

GW: One of the things that you’re doing, which is unusual and wonderful, is challenging architects to imagine and innovate in new ways.
SD: I think there has been a mutual fear within affordable housing and the architecture community about the failure of design in public housing. I strongly believe that design gets a bad rap for lots of other failures, most of them around the social makeup of a project or its financing, all of which have fed into the disintegration of many public housing communities. There’s disillusionment about the possibilities of architecture. I worry about the retreat into traditionalism and contextualism as a way of repairing that. In this competition, we had a long discussion about whether the city was ready for a tower in the park that wasn’t the traditional model. 

GW: I think you’re absolutely right. A lot of architects have felt that housing in general, beyond very expensive luxury housing, tied their hands; there was a demand that it be traditional because then it would seem familiar and somehow ease over all the social problems. It’s almost modernism in reverse. How do you think we can open up a definition of housing beyond the accretion of units in some kind of block or bar?
SD: I think a lot of that is thinking about urban design as part of the work that we do. If you look at Arverne [Arverne Urban Renewal Area, Far Rockaway, Queens] we’re essentially creating new towns there. Our relationship with City Planning is so much stronger than it once was.  

GW: Let me shift a little and ask you about homeownership. It’s emphasized in a lot of the literature put out by the Bloomberg administration. It’s also becoming more controversial due to the problem of subprime mortgages. Homeownership is not the right thing for everyone. What do you see as the advantage of homeownership?
SD: We just reached a record high of homeownership in New York City: 33.3 percent, though it’s the lowest rate of any metropolitan area in the country. We’ve created close to 20,000 low-income homeowners through the limited-equity properties we created through cooperative programs. These were city-owned buildings that we took in foreclosure, renovated, and sold for $250 a unit to the residents. That’s an incredible amount of equity that’s been created for low-income people, and has built a stable financial existence for them. In that sense, I think it’s an increasingly important tool that works within the marketplace. It will never be our primary strategy, but is an important piece of the overall strategy. 

GW: There are several exhibitions on Robert Moses in the city right now. He’s a controversial example of someone not elected to office who exercised enormous political power over the environment, social services, transportation, and housing. What does he teach political figures today?
SD: This goes back to my earliest experiences in government, when I realized the importance of balancing public consensus with moving ahead consistently. That balance is probably the single most important thing that a public servant can achieve, but it is extremely difficult to do. I think it’s very clear that Moses was too far on one side of the spectrum. There was no respect for the importance of building consensus. On the other hand, I think this administration has tried to move toward big things again. Look at Williamsburg: It’s two miles of waterfront. It’s not about small plans. A lot of it is about setting a framework for growth that has an organic quality. The city is a living organism and we have to think of it in that dynamic way. We can’t freeze New York at any time. We have to be ready for change.

Hailing the Future

For tired, cold New Yorkers stranded far from home, there’s no better sight than a yellow cab. But sometimes the sight can be less welcome. 

When a taxi passenger door swings out unexpectedly into the path of a cyclist, it can be a mortal threat. According to a Department of City Planning survey, being “doored” by cars is the number-one cause of crashes for cyclists in New York City. Taxis are a frequent culprit, due to their chaotic passenger pickups and drop-offs. 

But if taxis were better designed, cyclists would have less to fear. 

To that end, Antenna Design has come up with a highly visible roof light that declares when passengers are entering or exiting. The light is just one of many prototypes on display through April 15 at Taxi 07, a free exhibit created to spur discussion and development of the ideal taxis for the future. 

The exhibit is staged outside the New York International Auto Show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, on the convention center's inner roadway near the corner of 35th Street and 11th Avenue. Visitors can check out several full-scale, functional taxi prototypes. One model can zoom along at 200 miles per hour; dubbed the World’s Fastest Taxi, it's driven by a 1,000-horsepower hydrogen-fueled engine. 

Less sexy but more spacious internally, the Standard Taxi is wheelchair accessible. The Kia Rondo offers a smorgasbord of good design, including a Birsel + Seck child-safety seat that folds up when not in use, a light from Smart Design that illuminates the ground when passengers exit at night, and Antenna Design’s LED roof light. On the nearby sidewalk, visitors can view small-scale models, a film about taxi drivers, and a rendering of Weisz + Yoes’ concept for a GPS-enabled taxi stand that would let riders hail taxis digitally. 

The exhibit coincides with the centennial of New York’s gas-powered taxi, an appropriate moment to reflect on the less-than-progressive current state of our taxi system. Grimy, uncomfortable, toxin-spewing cabs constitute as much as half of all traffic at some times of day, according to Deborah Marton, executive director of the Design Trust for Public Space, the organization behind Taxi 07

The exhibit is just one part of a multifaceted program. The Design Trust will soon release a report with the working title “Taxi 07: Roads Forward.” Examining the current state of affairs and offering strategies for improvement, the report will be available online at www.designtrust.org. The group is also planning to launch an advocacy group to fight for reform. 

While there is growing momentum to explore green alternatives, of the 13,037 taxis currently operating in New York City, just 327 are electric hybrids and one is fully electric-powered, according to Allan Fromberg, a spokesperson for the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. Only 47 are wheelchair accessible, though more are on the way. And many cabs remain startlingly low-tech, though by the end of 2007 all cabs will offer at least a credit-card payment system and personal information monitors that provide maps, news, and entertainment. 

“The goals of Taxi 07 are to recognize that the New York City taxi is already an icon,” Marton said. “We think that the taxi should also be a symbol of our commitment to sustainable mobility, access for all, and good design. There’s no reason the taxi shouldn’t have the highest level of design for its usability, its access, its fueling systems, and its looks.” 

These issues don't only concern design geeks, political activists, urban planners, and nonsuicidal cyclists. Since most New Yorkers don’t have automobiles of their own, Marton observed, “the taxi is basically our shared family car.” Maybe it’s time to consider a serious upgrade. 

Piano vs. Rudolph Fight Called Off

It was a bad week for Boston businessman-cum-developer Steve Belkin. On March 13, the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) issued a 90-day stay against the demolition of Paul Rudolph’s 1960 Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building. Belkin owns the building and had planned to pull it down to make room for a tower in the city’s financial district designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW), which, at 80 stories, would have become the city’s tallest. Four days later, Piano quit the project in a battle for creative control of the design.

Piano was not driven away by the preservation of 133 Federal Street, Rudolph’s boxy 13-story concrete building, but by the urge to preserve his own work. "There have been requests to change,” an anonymous executive at RPBW toldThe Boston Globe. “Some modifications were asked for. We felt they weren't appropriate." RPBW declined requests from AN for comment.

“We hired the Renzo Piano Building Workshop to undertake a conceptual design for our proposed tower,” Belkin said in a statement, but a source from the Boston architectural community suggested that this was not the original arrangement. Executive architects CBT are now in charge of the design. No word yet as to whether the project will continue to carry the Piano name or how much his designs could still change. Mayor Thomas Menino, who vigorously supports the project, referred to the new plans as “Renzo Piano–inspired.” 

And Belkin still has the BLC to contend with. Though the commission has limited authority over buildings outside historic districts or not designated as individual landmarks, it reviews all buildings in downtown Boston slated for demolition. If the BLC deems a building of historical, cultural, recreational, or, in this case, architectural significance, it can issue a demolition delay, which protects it for 90 days.

During this time, preservationists who supported the delay are encouraged to discuss alternate plans with the developer and the city. These alternative plans are nonbinding, and the developer is free to proceed how it sees fit once the demolition delay expires. “It is certainly our intent to sit down and listen,” a spokesperson for Belkin said. “But this all happened a week ago, so nothing has happened yet.”

For preservationists and Rudolph fans, the fact that Belkin wants to demolish an early work by one of modernism’s most controversial and influential practitioners is bad enough. But they are further angered because the tower would not rise directly off the Rudolph footprint but instead from that of an adjacent city-owned parking garage. A public plaza would occupy the space where 133 Federal Street now stands.

Nonetheless, the city still supports plans to demolish Rudolph’s work. “It behaves like a freestanding structure even with the garage on two sides,” said Kairos Shen, director of planning for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which is overseeing the project for the city. “You couldn’t really integrate it with another building.”

Sarah Kelly, director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, disagrees. “We’d like to see a range of alternatives,” she said. “No one is opposed to development, but the project should not be just new or old. I’m always optimistic that we will be able to find a win-win situation.”

One of the most popular alternatives was put forth by Tim Rohan, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is writing a book about the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building. The proposal draws on Rudolph’s own 1987 studies for a seven-story addition to the building. 

But Rohan is uncertain such a plan would be successful without the involvement of RPBW. “In a way, I would rather have seen Renzo Piano involved,” he said. “He is a great architect, and I thought it was a great opportunity for him to work with an existing structure or a fragment of it, because he had been so successful with that in the past, like at the Morgan Library.” 

Piano vs. Rudolph Fight Called Off

It was a bad week for Boston businessman-cum-developer Steve Belkin. On March 13, the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) issued a 90-day stay against the demolition of Paul Rudolphhs 1960 Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building. Belkin owns the building and had planned to pull it down to make room for a tower in the cityys financial district designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW), which, at 80 stories, would have become the cityys tallest. Four days later, Piano quit the project in a battle for creative control of the design.

Piano was not driven away by the preservation of 133 Federal Street, Rudolphhs boxy 13-story concrete building, but by the urge to preserve his own work. "There have been requests to change,, an anonymous executive at RPBW told The Boston Globe. Some modifications were asked for. We felt they weren't appropriate." RPBW declined requests from AN for comment.

We hired the Renzo Piano Building Workshop to undertake a conceptual design for our proposed tower,, Belkin said in a statement, but a source from the Boston architectural community suggested that this was not the original arrangement. Executive architects CBT are now in charge of the design. No word yet as to whether the project will continue to carry the Piano name or how much his designs could still change. Mayor Thomas Menino, who vigorously supports the project, referred to the new plans as Renzo Pianooinspired..

And Belkin still has the BLC to contend with. Though the commission has limited authority over buildings outside historic districts or not designated as individual landmarks, it reviews all buildings in downtown Boston slated for demolition. If the BLC deems a building of historical, cultural, recreational, or, in this case, architectural significance, it can issue a demolition delay, which protects it for 90 days.

During this time, preservationists who supported the delay are encouraged to discuss alternate plans with the developer and the city. These alternative plans are nonbinding, and the developer is free to proceed how it sees fit once the demolition delay expires. It is certainly our intent to sit down and listen,, a spokesperson for Belkin said. But this all happened a week ago, so nothing has happened yet..

For preservationists and Rudolph fans, the fact that Belkin wants to demolish an early work by one of modernismms most controversial and influential practitioners is bad enough. But they are further angered because the tower would not rise directly off the Rudolph footprint but instead from that of an adjacent city-owned parking garage. A public plaza would occupy the space where 133 Federal Street now stands.

Nonetheless, the city still supports plans to demolish Rudolphhs work. It behaves like a freestanding structure even with the garage on two sides,, said Kairos Shen, director of planning for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which is overseeing the project for the city. You couldnnt really integrate it with another building..

Sarah Kelly, director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, disagrees. Weed like to see a range of alternatives,, she said. No one is opposed to development, but the project should not be just new or old. IIm always optimistic that we will be able to find a win-win situation..

One of the most popular alternatives was put forth by Tim Rohan, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is writing a book about the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building. The proposal draws on Rudolphhs own 1987 studies for a seven-story addition to the building.

But Rohan is uncertain such a plan would be successful without the involvement of RPBW. In a way, I would rather have seen Renzo Piano involved,, he said. He is a great architect, and I thought it was a great opportunity for him to work with an existing structure or a fragment of it, because he had been so successful with that in the past, like at the Morgan Library..

Matt Chaban

Pike Chic

On March 5, the Pike County Public Library in Milford, Pennsylvania, selected Frederic Schwartz Architects to design its new building. Other proposals came from New York–based BKSK Architects and Bolin Cywinski Jackson in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Architectural writer Alastair Gordon organized the jury, which included historian Kenneth Frampton, artist and art writer Sylvia Kolbowski, architect Jonathan Marvel, among others. The library will vacate the landmarked building it has outgrown and relocate to a site between Harford Street and the Sawmill Creek ravine.

Schwartz has sited the building at the lot’s rear, creating a small public lawn along Harford Street that echoes the greens fronting other local municipal buildings. At its rear, the building’s upper volume cantilevers out and exposes ceiling-height windows to the ravine, acting as a bridge between the town and the wild landscape of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. The design includes a café and a lightfilled atrium, which will double as a gathering space for events like the town’s annual film festival. A fundraising campaign kicks off in April. A construction timeline has not been set. 

LPC Delays Vote on Tower

At a January 16 public hearing, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) urged Foster + Partners to modify the designs for the proposed addition to 980 Madison Avenue in order to win approval for the project. The firm presented a scheme for a 30-story glass tower to stand atop a five-floor mixed-use building, originally known as the Parke-Bernet Galleries, a gallery and art auction building completed in 1950. The idea of planting a modern tower on top of a historic building echoes Foster’s recently completed Hearst headquarters.

The project’s developer, Aby Rosen’s RFR Holdings, and Foster plan to modify the design and present to the LPC yet again. Cheri Fein, spokesperson for Rosen and Foster, stated that the twomenwere“pleased that a vote was not taken and that there is now the opportunity to redesign.” A followup presentation to the LPC has not yet been scheduled.

The January hearing was a continuation of the public hearing held on October 24, 2006, where a large public contingency voiced both opposition and support for the design. Among the opponents was the Municipal Arts Society, which testified that the design of the addition was inappropriate in terms of “height, massing, design, and materials in relationship to the Parke-Bernet Building and the historic district.”

LPC chair Robert Tierney called the January 16 hearing “a good exchange of views and ideas.” Many comments centered on the height of the tower, which LPC vice chairperson Pablo E. Vengoechea deemed overwhelming. Others took issue with the materials and the way the glass tower would contrast with nearby buildings. One member of the commission, architect Jan Hird Pokorny, supported the project.

The second hearing again drew many Upper East Side residents who have been vocal about their opposition to the proposal, including writer Tom Wolfe. No limit was set for what height the committee would deem appropriate, although it is clear that the majority of the LPC board and neighbors think that 30 stories is too tall. Rosen said in a statement,” We appreciate the thoughtfully considered comments at the LPC meeting, and have returned to the drawing board to come up with a design that responds to these comments yet remains viable.” For approval, the design must win six of the 11 LPC member votes.

A. Stewart Walker and Alfred Easton Poor designed the 980 Madison building with a simple limestone facade. Foster’s proposal includes restoration, which Tierney praised as “an impressive return to the building’s historical origins.” The plan would have refurbished the building, including removing more than 50 windows cut into the building over time, removing the fifth floor added in 1957, reintroducing the original roof garden, and adding 25,000 square feet of public gallery space.

When asked if he felt thatmodernconstruction could fit in with the historic character of the Upper East Side, Tierney pointed out, “Renzo Piano’s expansion of the Whitney was quite striking, modern, and contemporary, and was approved.” Despite winning the LPC’s approval, however, the Piano project was ultimately scrapped, after the Whitney decided to build an expansion in the Meatpacking District rather than engage in a prolonged battle with neighbors.

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Pike Chic



Rear view of Pike County Library scheme facing the Sawmill Creek ravine (top); interior atrium (bottom).
COURTESY Frederic Schwartz Architects

On March 5, the Pike County Public Library in Milford, Pennsylvania, selected Frederic Schwartz Architects to design its new building. Other proposals came from New Yorkk based BKSK Architects and Bolin Cywinski Jackson in Wilkes- Barre, Pennsylvania. Architectural writer Alastair Gordon organized the jury, which included historian Kenneth Frampton, artist and art writer Sylvia Kolbowski, architect Jonathan Marvel, among others. The library will vacate the landmarked building it has outgrown and relocate to a site between Harford Street and the Sawmill Creek ravine.

Schwartz has sited the building at the lotts rear, creating a small public lawn along Harford Street that echoes the greens fronting other local municipal buildings. At its rear, the buildinggs upper volume cantilevers out and exposes ceiling-height windows to the ravine, acting as a bridge between the town and the wild landscape of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. The design includes a caff and a lightfilled atrium, which will double as a gathering space for events like the townns annual film festival. A fundraising campaign kicks off in April. A construction timeline has not been set.

CARL YOST