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For Buildings Commissioner, Demand the Real Thing

Yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn introduced more than a dozen pieces of legislation targeted at reforming the beleaguered Department of Buildings. Much of the legislation had been introduced last month, prior to last Friday’s crane accident, but among the new initiatives was one of great concern for the city’s designers and for its residents as a whole.

The administration has been trying for some months to alter the requirement that the Buildings Commissioner be a professional engineer or registered architect. The mayor contends that it provides necessary flexibility for running a bureaucracy of the city’s own making, and the mainstream press has begun to agree with him.

As architects and engineers well know, this is fallacious logic, writes Fredric Bell, executive director of AIA New York, in a Protest column in our forthcoming issue. AN presents his argument in full below.

There are 41,000 professional engineers (PEs) and registered architects (RAs) in New York State. One of them should be the next commissioner of the New York City Buildings Department, replacing Patricia Lancaster, an architect who resigned in April.

Some in New York’s City Hall are questioning whether a professional license is needed or even desirable to effectively run the largest and most complex buildings bureaucracy in the country. In answer, architects and engineers have sent mailbags full of letters and emails to the City Council chambers to explain why—with safety concerns on our sidewalks paramount—now is not the time to relax the professional qualifications needed for this difficult job.

Noting that the Surgeon General must be a doctor, and that the Architect of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., should be an architect (although that, too, is currently being questioned by a congressional oversight committee), registered architects and professional engineers were heard chanting “No PEs, no justice” on the steps of City Hall in late May. The commissioner of the Department of Buildings must have the knowledge and experience that comes from being a registered architect or professional engineer. The current city law, which requires this level of tested expertise, is both logical and necessary.

Members of the Council’s Governmental Operations Committee heard many of the reasons why the head of the agency that guarantees safety on construction sites must be trained and tested in how buildings come together, how they rise, and how they stand. The process by which an architect or engineer becomes licensed by the state of New York is arduous, arguably harder than passing the state bar exam. It tests comprehensive knowledge of codes, zoning, building practices, and environmental standards, to name but four of the many constituent issues that are important in neighborhoods from Co-op City to Gravesend, from Midwood to Central Harlem, from Ozone Park to East New York.

Professional architects and engineers have an unparalleled combination of education, on-the-job training, licensure, and professional experience that makes them uniquely qualified to ensure the safety and security of the public. Professional architects and engineers understand the integration of structural, technological, and life-safety elements into buildings to assure their usefulness. Through their training and practice, they are capable of balancing the requirements of building codes with the goals of historic preservation, energy efficiency, sustainability, and accessibility.

In addition to technical training, architects and engineers, by law, are personally responsible for their work and have a fiduciary responsibility to maintain the health, safety, and welfare of the public. As licensed professionals, architects and engineers bring to the task a special degree of commitment crucial to the position of buildings commissioner.

This year, after long deliberations, New York City brought a new and modern building code to fruition, replacing rules mired in 19th-century construction practices. At the same time, in many neighborhoods, people have questioned whether some of the taller buildings going up fit into the context of their communities, and whether development pressures and the city’s double-digit growth have led in some instances to deliberate misinterpretation of zoning regulations. We need an architect or engineer at the head of the department who will interpret and enforce the city’s zoning codes, guaranteeing that political pressures and expediency do not engender neighborhood-busting mistakes.

Mayor Bloomberg’s administration and his friends in the City Council have pushed for progressive reform of Buildings Department operations, enforcement, and communications, insisting that building practices be forcefully regulated and made more transparent. The former commissioner, Ms. Lancaster, to her credit, got Buildings Department records out of dusty boxes and posted on the city’s website for all to see. We need an architect or engineer at the head of the department who will provide our communities appropriate scale and comfort, someone who knows about the economic and material determinants of buildings, not just how to manage a large and complicated bureaucracy.

Most importantly, through a wide variety of environmental initiatives including PlaNYC, our elected officials have insisted that New York City attain a greener future and carbon-footprint reduction by, among other things, regulating building materials and construction processes. An architect or engineer at the head of the department will enforce these laws—not just spout greenwash rhetoric—and assure our children and our children’s children that future buildings will help, not hurt, the environment.

There are some, though, in City Hall who insist that the business of New York is business; that any agency, any department, can be run like a Fortune 500 company. They say that good management skills are more important than mere credentials, stale tradition, or a philosophy that knowledge matters. They are half right. This is not about tradition, or a return to the bow-tied past. This is not about credentials or elitism or silly glasses. This is all about professionalism, and the knowledge needed for the person heading the Buildings Department to make the tough decisions when there is nobody else to call, nobody else to consult.

You would not want your kids treated by doctors who learned their medical skills by watching Grey’s Anatomy on television, nor public defenders and district attorneys who learned their legal skills from reading John Grisham novels. You want the real thing for a Health Commissioner and for the public counsel. Just so, you would not want the person who oversees all aspects of zoning, site safety, and the quality of construction in our city to have borrowed his or her word choice from management case studies at Harvard Business School or Brooklyn College.

We need the real thing for our Buildings Commissioner. And New York needs a Buildings Commissioner who not only knows how the government operates, but how buildings stand up.

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NYDEP Blue
The blue light used on the eggs and elsewhere in the complex contrasts with the city's predominantly amber and white light, instilling a sense of calm and cleanliness.
Carl Ambrose/Courtesy NYCDEP

Last night, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) lighted the new digester eggs at its Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The lighting scheme, designed by L’Observatoire International, subtly casts a halo of blue light around the 145-foot-high, stainless steel–clad eggs, which process as much as 1.5 million gallons of sludge every day.

The lighting of the eggs marked the latest milestone in a 20-year plan, initiated in 1998, to expand and update the Newtown Creek facility, which is New York City’s largest wastewater treatment plant, processing the flow of 1 million residents in a 25-square-mile area including parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Polshek Partnership, which is providing master planning for the project, also designed the cladding, arrangement, and parapet atop the eggs. In addition to expanding the capacity and efficiency of the complex, the DEP is attempting to make it a better neighbor by reducing the plant’s odor and opening up portions to the public.

Standing atop one of the eggs, which converts human excrement into fertilizer through a process of anaerobic digestion, DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd gestured to a stand of row houses immediately abutting the plant. “Any good town planner would locate a facility like this as far away from residential areas as possible,” said Lloyd, “but because this is New York City, these functions have to exist cheek-to-jowl.”

Last September, the DEP opened the George Trakas–designed Waterfront Nature Walk, which provided the first public access to the Newtown Creek waterfront. This fall it will open a visitors’ center at the site, designed by Vito Acconci, which will feature installations describing how the city’s effluent is treated.

L’Observatoire’s lighting scheme does its own part in making Newtown Creek a better neighbor. Backlit by four batteries of four 2,000-watt metal halide lamps, the eggs, which possess an elegant sculptural quality of their own, serve as a local landmark for travelers on the Long Island Expressway and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. (Four of the eight eggs went online on May 23, and the rest are expected to be in service by the end of this year.) The firm provided lighting design for the entire 52-acre facility as well, strategically placing white and amber lights for functional purposes while liberally sprinkling the plant with touches of blue. 

Speaking of that color’s role at the site, L’Observatoire founder Hervé Descottes said, “The color is a symbol for calm, cleanliness, and purity, but it also serves to contrast the light of the city, which is predominantly amber or bright white.”

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Venice Bound

THE U.S. EXHIBITION FOR THE VENICE BIENNALE FOCUSES ON HOW ARCHITECTURAL PRACTICE CAN, BEYOND BUILDINGS, SOLVE THE PROBLEMS OF THE GLOBALIZED WORLD.
COURTESY ESTUDIO CRUZ

The editor-in-chief of The Architect’s Newspaper, William Menking, has been named commissioner in charge of an exhibition to represent the United States at the 11th Architecture Biennale opening in Venice on September 14. The exhibit, called Into The Open: Positioning Practice, is organized by Menking in collaboration with architects Teddy Cruz and Deborah Gans and supported by Aaron Levy and Andrew Sturm.

The exhibition explores recent explosive migration and its impact on shifting socio-cultural populations and geo-political boundaries, as well as the subsequent repercussions these changes have had on how architecture is made.

By way of graphic demonstration, a project by Teddy Cruz vividly portrays the life and conditions around a 60-mile line running through San Diego County and across the Baja California border. In all, there will be 16 geographically, culturally, and ethnically distinct participants providing equally eye-opening projects, from Rural Studio’s work in Hale County, Alabama, to chef Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California.

In sync with the overall theme of the Biennale, Into the Open explores how architects are increasingly going beyond building when meeting the challenges posed by today’s urban and ex-urban conditions. Through drawings, video projections, photographs, but no building models, Menking and his team aim to explore the way that architecture is leading the way in generating new forms of sociability and activism across many different environments.

“The idea of the exhibition is to talk about practice in a new way where design evolves out of conflicts and relationships,” Menking said. “In a sense, the building is a marker of that, but we’re really more interested in the process. We’re saying it’s a new way of doing architecture.”

Open to the public through November 23, Into the Open, the official United States representation at the 11th Architecture Biennale in Venice, has been organized by the PARC Foundation and Slought Foundation and is supported by a grant from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.

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St. Vincent's Hail Mary
An aerial view, with the hospital at left and the development at center right.
Courtesy St. Vincent's

“If O’Toole had to go, this is a much better option,” Gil Horowitz said. The former member of Community Board 2 and Greenwich Village resident of more than 50 years was referring to St. Vincent’s Hospital’s revised plans to build a new 21-story hospital tower at the western corner of 7th Avenue and 12th Street, demolishing the distinctive, saw-toothed landmark O’Toole Building in the process.

St. Vincent’s, along with its development partner the Rudin family, presented the new plans to a board committee last night, where many community members and preservationists seemed to agree with Horowitz. “They really listened to us and took our suggestions and criticisms, as well as those of Landmarks, to heart,” Horowitz said.

It was a stark turnaround from two weeks earlier, when the Landmarks Preservation Commission said that it could not support the plans as designed, and the development team insisted there were no alternatives.

In addition to the hospital, those plans involved the sale and demolition of eight buildings on the eastern side of the hospital campus, to be replaced by the Rudins with a condo tower and townhouses designed by FXFowle. The $310 million sale would pay debt service on the campus and help finance the $835 million hospital, which is designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.

The new plans call for restoring and adaptively reusing four of the easterly buildings for residential use. (The commission recommended retaining five of the eight buildings,  which, along with the O’Toole Building, lie within the Greenwich Village Historic District.) The condo tower will shrink in height by 30 feet and in width by 60 feet, and the number of townhouses will be reduced. “This really locks back into the architecture of the neighborhood,” FXFowle partner Dan Kaplan said.

The hospital will lose two stories, falling from 329 to 299 feet, as well as a 53-foot prow that was proposed for its southwestern corner. “This should really open up the sky on the west side,” Ian Bader, the project architect for Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, said. The bulk will remain the same, however, by raising the five-story podium base to six and expanding the elliptical tower by four feet on each side.

Some in the audience were vexed by the hospital’s quick trip back to the drawing board, though they were generally happy with the results. “You should be congratulated for coming up with a plan so quickly after you told us last time you couldn’t reuse any of the buildings,” said Carol Greitzer, a member of the board’s Omnibus St. Vincent’s Hospital Committee, which was expressly created to oversee the hospital’s expansion for the board. “But there is no doubt the result is a better contribution to the streetscape.”

While they shared the optimism of the community, preservationists remained cautious. “It’s amazing how much better it looks with the buildings still present,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “But there may still be some major concerns.”

“I’m not yet sure what to think,” added Nadezhda Williams, a preservation associate at the Historic Districts Council. “There’s a lot to digest.” Meanwhile, roughly a dozen hospital workers and unionists showed up, waving signs that declared, “Lives Not Buildings.”

The plans now return to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for a new round of public review on June 3. Though the appropriateness of the designs will be vetted as usual, the focus will likely be St. Vincent’s hardship application.

Last invoked in 1993, this provision of the city’s landmarks law allows landlords hamstrung by the commission’s findings—in this case, the determination of historical importance for the O’Toole Building, one of Albert Ledner’s four 1960s buildings for the Maritime Union in the city—to argue that they cannot maintain the landmark and either turn a profit or, in the case of a nonprofit like Saint Vincent’s, serve its charitable purpose.

“At the end of the day, the O’Toole building is the only site St. Vincent’s can move into,” Shelly Friedman, counsel to the hospital, said. In the end, that will likely be the case: Only three of 15 hardship applications have been denied.

Matt Chaban

The O'Toole Building will be torn down to make way for a new hospital tower, assuming the Landmarks Preservation Commission allows it.
Matt Chaban
 
The height of the hospital has been reduced by 30 feet and a 53-foot prow has been removed. The previous building envelope is outlined in red.
All images courtesy St. vincent's
 
As the renderings, which look north up seventh Avenue, show, the changes greatly open the building's western side to the sky.
 
The current hospital will be replaced by a condo tower while the historic buildings that line 12th Street will be repurposed as residences.
 
north Elevation of the current and previous plans and the existing condition.
 
West eleveation of the current and previous plans and the existing condition.
 
South elevation of the current and previous plans and the existing condition.
 
 
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Post-Industrial Preservation
Noho's cast-iron cachet has drawn contextual new construction. At far left, 40 Bond by Herzog & de Meuron. At center, 48 Bond by Deborah Berke.
Matt Chaban

Manhattan’s all-but-vanished industrial history was front and center yesterday when the Landmarks Preservation Commission considered two former manufacturing neighborhoods for landmark designation. Though they share a soot-stained past, the two neighborhoods in question—Noho and West Chelsea—fared quite differently at the commission, due largely to their wildly divergent architectural trajectories in the last few years.

Much of Noho, of course, is already a historic district, which was designated in 2000 and expanded in 2003. Today’s action sought to further enlarge the district to fill a gap [.PDF] between East 4th Street, the Bowery, Great Jones Alley, and Lafayette Street. The commission voted unanimously to approve the designation, following a public hearing on March 18.

It was a different story for West Chelsea, which had its first-ever hearing before the commission, with preservationists facing off against developers and their representatives, who turned out to question the historical value of the area under consideration.

The proposed district covers [.PDF] 30 buildings between West 28th Street and West 25th Street, and between the West Side Highway and Tenth Avenue. At the heart of the district is the individually landmarked Starrett Lehigh Building.

This tale of two landmark designations hinges on local development trends. One need look no further than Bond Street and the High Line to see how. In Noho, at 25, 40, and 48 Bond Street, three marquee architects have all built high-profile luxury condo projects, all of which are surprisingly contextual considering that they did not have to go before the commission.

Chalk it up to Noho’s tighter zoning rules. But also credit the cachet of the surrounding cast-iron architecture, which a number of projects in the area embrace not only in their designs but also in their marketing. While landmark status for the area might have blunted these buildings, it would not have been by much.

Chelsea, on the other hand, has seen a flood of disparate, often dynamic new projects, many of which could be called landmarks in their own right—think Jean Nouvel, Annabelle Selldorf, Neil Denari, Shigeru Ban, and Polshek Partnership, to name but a few. The announcement of the High Line park and a rezoning that followed it led to this burst of development, and preservationists have so far framed the proposed district as a corrective.

While the majority of this development has taken place to the south and east of the proposed district, the developers and their representatives who spoke before the commission argued that to landmark the area might put a cap on its architectural renaissance. This, they said, is because the area lacked the cohesion and historic value of a more unified neighborhood. A neighborhood like, say, Noho.

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Nouvel Gets His Air Rights
Courtesy Ateliers Jean Nouvel

Though Jean Nouvel will not receive his Pritzker until June 2, he can get a big head start on the celebrations, knowing that his Tour de Verre, né the MoMA Tower, received the necessary approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission today for a transfer of air rights from two landmarks down the block, the University Club and St. Thomas Church. The project’s neighbors criticized it on a number of fronts at a hearing last month, and while some commissioners acknowledged those issues, the regulatory authority had little jurisdiction to tamper with Nouvel’s design.

The land on which the tower will rise is not part of a historic district, so the commission has no authority over what gets built there. But because the developer, Hines, is seeking a transfer of air rights from two nearby landmarks to achieve its monumental 74 stories, the commission must determine two things in a report to the City Planning Commission, which will address urban planning issues during the standard land-use review process.

First, the air rights transfer must warrant a distinct preservation purpose, including the creation of a maintenance trust fund. And second, the new building must relate harmoniously to the landmarks. The commission voted unanimously in favor of the transfer of 275,000 square feet from the church and 136,000 square feet from the club, though one modification was made to the preservation plans of the latter.

Mark Silberman, counsel to the commission, opened today’s discussion of the project by affirming the narrow jurisdiction of the commission on this project and cautioned against taking some of the community’s urbanistic concerns into consideration when they had no bearing on issues of preservation. He also countered one of the critics’ biggest gripes about the transfer: the well-heeled organizations involved in the sale don’t need special treatment because their landmarks are already well tended.

“Because a building is in good shape, it should not be ineligible,” Silberman said. “All that is required is a cyclical maintenance plan. And I would just like to point out that it would make for strange public policy to penalize owners who have managed to keep their buildings in good shape and have wanted to save them, and only allow these special permits to be available to people who have not kept their buildings in good shape.”

The commissioners seemed to agree with this logic, and chair Robert Tierney even said so before he cast his vote. The only substantive issue came from Commissioner Stephen Byrns, who said he had spent a great deal of time studying the work of McKim, Mead & White, the firm behind the University Club.

Byrns felt that a balustrade once fronting on Fifth Avenue that had been lost when the street was widened would go a long way to restoring its historic character if replaced. “That balustrade would warm the heart of Charles McKim,” Byrns said. All eight of his peers agreed, and the resolution was amended to include the balustrade as part of the preservation effort at the club.

Commissioner Pablo Vengoechea expressed a certain shared discontent that the commission did not have more influence on Nouvel’s tower. “I agree that there is no real impact from the tower on the landmarks,” he said. “But I would hope, however, that City Planning engages the urbanistic questions that have been raised in the testimony.”

The reaction, both from the development team and the audience, was subdued, but many residents vented their anger at the commission afterwards. “The decision was a gross misjustice,” said Charles Steinberg, a resident of 54th Street across from the Museum. “They talk about preservation while they destroy a very valuable, and valued, neighborhood.”

“This is not over,” Veronika Conant, president of the 54th-55th Street Block Association, declared as she left the commission.

In other news from the commission, a landmark district was considered for West Chelsea, an extension of Noho district was passed (more on those shortly), and Winka Dubbeldam of Archi-Tectonics was on hand to present plans for a far-out, rear-yard addition to a townhouse on West 24th Street. She said the sloping, sinuous facade will be home to a fashion-designer friend and fabricated in three massive pieces by an automotive design shop.

No Nouvel in My Backyard

MoMA neighbors speak out against Hines' tower at LPC
It has been suggested that Jean Nouvel’s design for a 74-story tower abutting the Museum of Modern Art helped the French architect win the Pritzker Prize a month ago. Whether there is truth to this or not, the building certainly earned the French architect little admiration or appreciation from dozens of the building’s future neighbors. Instead, they ridiculed the project for more than two hours during a hearing at the Landmarks Preservation Commission on April 8. Though Nouvel and Hines, developer of the newly christened Tour de Verre, made the most detailed presentation of their condo/ hotel/MoMA gallery yet, the designs were not actually under review. Instead, the commission was asked to determine the worthiness of a transfer of air rights from two landmarks down the block: St. Patrick’s Church (275,000 square feet) and the University Club (136,000 square feet). It is up to the Commission, as per the Zoning Resolution,to determine whether the transfer and its resulting development “contribute to a preservation purpose” and “relate harmoniously to the subject landmark.” The Hines team took a nuanced approach in their arguments for the transfer, suggesting it would move the development rights almost a block away from the two landmarks in question. This move would protect them from closer and therefore disharmonious developments, they explained. “The strategy here is to move the bulk into that higher density zone” along Sixth Avenue, said Michael Sillerman, Hines’ counsel. The idea is that at that remove,it would just be another Midtown skyscraper. “You’ll see a new building amidst a series of towers,” said Ward Dennis, the project’s preservation consultant. “Really, this is about an urban experience, not building side-by-side.” Nouvel argued that the design itself, while not stylistically analogous to the landmarks, would still have little effect on them. “The impact is less strong because the building is very narrow,” he said. “I wish to enrich this neighborhood, to open the sky, and also to create a kind of signal you can read in the skyline of the city and you can say, ‘The MoMA is here.’” Furthermore, to deny Nouvel would, as the architect put it, deny the city a wholly new building type, a departure from its boxes and cylinders. Then, following a series of renderings reinforcing the building’s slim profile, Nouvel concluded, “You understand we really can’t see a lot of the building. This vertical line, this élan is very important to convey this sense of lightness.” Despite Nouvel’s poetic performance and the near-breathless reviews in the architectural press that preceded it, almost every speaker lashed out against it, bringing a litany of complaints. The most persistent, and perhaps obvious, concerned the building’s size—at 11,150 feet, it is taller than the Chrysler building—and scale. The necessity and validity of the air-rights transfer also came into question. “These landmarks are already well taken care of,” said Veronica Conan, president of the West 54th-55th streets Block Association. Her group, which represents a block of anomalous residential buildings in the heart of Midtown (whose entire membership seemed to turn out for the hearing) contests the preservation schemes put forward by the well-funded parties involved in the plan. The project was not without a few supporters, including David Childs—he called himself “a friend and admirer” of Nouvel— as well as MoMA heavies Glenn Lowry and Barry Bergdoll. Perhaps Nouvel’s greatest promotion, however, came from a young, pony-tailed Pratt architecture student. The only speaker without notes, he delivered a blistering defense of the project, arguing that it will become an instant landmark. Because the hearing ran past 7 p.m., a number of the commissioners had left, and, lacking a quorum, the project could not be discussed or cross-examined as usually happens at the end of a hearing. Commission chair Robert Tierney said it was a “terrific presentation”but would go no further. A commission spokesperson, Lisi de Bourbon, said it was unlikely the project would be publicly discussed until it came back for a vote on the transfer within the next few months. This leaves the opinions of the oft-enigmatic commission a big question mark. Afterward, Nouvel said he was not surprised by the reaction. “I’m always a little bit sad of that,” he told AN. “Ninety-nine percent of the presentations are negative because they want nothing. Every project for them is a disagreement.” Asked what he would do if the commission sided with the community, Nouvel began to speak before a Hines representative tried to cut him off. “No, no, I can answer this,” the architect protested, waving the man away. “I can always change a project if I have a good reason. It could even get better.”
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No Nouvel in My Backyard
Matt Chaban

It has been suggested that Jean Nouvel’s design for a 74-story tower abutting the Museum of Modern Art helped the French architect win the Pritzker Prize a month ago. Whether there is truth to this or not, the building certainly earned the French architect little admiration or appreciation from dozens of the building’s future neighbors. Instead, they ridiculed the project for more than two hours during a hearing at the Landmarks Preservation Commission on April 8.

Though Nouvel and Hines, developer of the newly christened Tour de Verre, made the most detailed presentation of their condo/hotel/MoMA gallery yet, the designs were not actually under review. Instead, the commission was asked to determine the worthiness of a transfer of air rights from two landmarks down the block: St. Patrick’s Church (275,000 square feet) and the University Club (136,000 square feet). It is up to the Commission, as per the Zoning Resolution, to determine whether the transfer and its resulting development “contribute to a preservation purpose” and “relate harmoniously to the subject landmark.”

The Hines team took a nuanced approach in their arguments for the transfer, suggesting it would move the development rights almost a block away from the two landmarks in question. This move would protect them from closer and therefore disharmonious developments, they explained. “The strategy here is to move the bulk into that higher density zone” along Sixth Avenue, said Michael Sillerman, Hines’ counsel. The idea is that at that remove, it would just be another Midtown skyscraper. “You’ll see a new building amidst a series of towers,” said Ward Dennis, the project’s preservation consultant. “Really, this is about an urban experience, not building side-by-side.”

Nouvel argued that the design itself, while not stylistically analogous to the landmarks, would still have little effect on them. “The impact is less strong because the building is very narrow,” he said. “I wish to enrich this neighborhood, to open the sky, and also to create a kind of signal you can read in the skyline of the city and you can say, ‘The MoMA is here.’”

Furthermore, to deny Nouvel would, as the architect put it, deny the city a wholly new building type, a departure from its boxes and cylinders. Then, following a series of renderings reinforcing the building’s slim profile, Nouvel concluded, “You understand we really can’t see a lot of the building. This vertical line, this élan is very important to convey this sense of lightness.”

Despite Nouvel’s poetic performance and the near-breathless reviews in the architectural press that preceded it, almost every speaker lashed out against it, bringing a litany of complaints. The most persistent, and perhaps obvious, concerned the building’s size—at 11,150 feet, it is taller than the Chrysler building—and scale.

The necessity and validity of the air-rights transfer also came into question. “These landmarks are already well taken care of,” said Veronica Conan, president of the West 54th-55th streets Block Association. Her group, which represents a block of anomalous residential buildings in the heart of Midtown (whose entire membership seemed to turn out for the hearing) contests the preservation schemes put forward by the well-funded parties involved in the plan.

The project was not without a few supporters, including David Childs—he called himself “a friend and admirer” of Nouvel—as well as MoMA heavies Glenn Lowry and Barry Bergdoll. Perhaps Nouvel’s greatest promotion, however, came from a young, pony-tailed Pratt architecture student. The only speaker without notes, he delivered a blistering defense of the project, arguing that it will become an instant landmark.

Because the hearing ran past 7 p.m., a number of the commissioners had left, and, lacking a quorum, the project could not be discussed or cross-examined as usually happens at the end of a hearing. Commission chair Robert Tierney said it was a “terrific presentation” but would go no further. A commission spokesperson, Lisi de Bourbon, said it was unlikely the project would be publicly discussed until it came back for a vote on the transfer within the next few months. This leaves the opinions of the oft-enigmatic commission a big question mark.

Afterward, Nouvel said he was not surprised by the reaction. “I’m always a little bit sad of that,” he told AN. “Ninety-nine percent of the presentations are negative because they want nothing. Every project for them is a disagreement.” Asked what he would do if the commission sided with the community, Nouvel began to speak before a Hines representative tried to cut him off. “No, no, I can answer this,” the architect protested, waving the man away. “I can always change a project if I have a good reason. It could even get better.”

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China Bound
Aric Chen and Tobias Wong are the creative directors of the first 100% Design Shanghai, June 26-28, at the Shanghai Exhibition Center.
Stephen Rose

The Architect’s Newspaper: You were last heard from running a tattoo parlor at Design/Miami. Is participating in an international design fair going to be a big stretch? 

Aric Chen: Well, because this is the first international contemporary design fair that we know of in China, it seemed that it couldn’t be just any fair. There had to be some kind of underlying premise not only because it’s the first one, but more significantly, because contemporary design in China really doesn’t exist as we know it here and in Europe. In fact, I think that’s why the organizers wanted to involve us, and especially Tobias, because he’s known not so much as a conventional designer of products but as a provocateur. And I think they realized that the fair had to be a little bit more of a statement than just a showcase of interesting designs.

What do you mean by no contemporary design when “made in China” is printed on so many products in our stores?

Tobias Wong: When I first arrived, what I thought of as original, indigenous Chinese design just wasn’t there. What I did see, from interiors to products, were really western-influenced goods. 

AC: In January 2007, I was in China working on a story for Fast Company magazine about creativity in graphic design, architecture, product design, and so on. I spent two weeks traversing the country, and I found only two really creative product designers. I assumed that I just hadn’t looked hard enough. Recently, I saw the Victoria & Albert Museum catalogue for a show covering design in China, and they have the same two as their featured product designers. So that seemed to confirm that there really isn’t much. There’s no real infrastructure to speak of, although, oddly enough, there are hundreds of design schools—some quite good, like the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing—literally turning out thousands of graduates each year. Still, I can’t seem to figure out what they’re doing after graduation. 

TW: We did find some signs of a changing scene, and they’ll be seen at the fair. Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu own a store in Shanghai called Design Republic that’s very cool. It’s like the Moss of Shanghai.

AC: But they also design themselves, and one of the great pieces they have is this double-walled glass vessel. It’s a smart, updated take on the Chinese teacup, and one of the favorite pieces we found that does something new with a traditional concept. I see them as part of a wave of overseas Chinese who are making a big difference in China. Rossana is from Chicago and Lyndon studied at Harvard, and they both worked for Michael Graves in Shanghai.

And what are your plans for the exhibition? I understand the hall will be filled with about 100 exhibitors, with some familiar names from Italy and the United States like Cassina and Formica. How will it all hang together?

AC: You have to remember how vastly different China was even five years ago. When we first started, we kept talking about the obvious clichés that are in use there—the dragons, the phoenixes—meaning that that would be the last thing you would ever do. But the more we started talking about it, the more we wanted to use something that was local and familiar. So we’re doing this big installation of raw bamboo scaffolding, a platform, if you will, for the years to come.

The double-walled Boli glass from Design Republic in Shanghai.
Courtesy Design Republic

TW: Yeah, bamboo scaffolding is a very prevalent thing that you see absolutely everywhere in China now, and it’s become a widely appropriated sort of symbol about the country’s breakneck development.

AC: And so we thought we would invert this idea of the bamboo scaffolding so it’s not about structures rising but rather like a void to be filled. The venue is this fantastic Soviet-built complex—it’s very grand and quite ornamental—from around the 1950s, and inside the entry hall will be empty but for the floor-to-ceiling scaffolding. It becomes a kind of trope for the emerging nature of contemporary Chinese design.

WOKmedia from London and Shanghai will be creating an installation with these large glass pieces—like lenses or eyeballs—fabricated locally and scattered in the scaffolding as it continues outside. We’re also commissioning some large sculptures for a café. We want it to be a fun and inspiring collaboration with other artists and designers.

AC: In the past, fairs—say, the 1925 Paris Exhibition or the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago—played a huge role in the development of design. We can’t compare this to that, but it would be nice if 100% Design Shanghai went down as an influential moment in the development of contemporary Chinese design.

TW: This can’t be a conventional trade show. It’s more a call to arms, as in, “Where are you, Chinese designers?”

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Food and the City
David Rockwell and Danny Meyer at Gramercy Tavern, March 27, 2008.
Adam Friedberg

AN: We’ve been thinking about restaurants and their role as public spaces, and the way they interact with and influence the life of a neighborhood. In different ways, both of you have worked to expand that role. Danny, this neighborhood has changed a lot [20th and Broadway] in the last 15 years, and must have seemed on the fringe when you decided to open. What brought you here?

DM: It’s hard to give language to what was a gut feeling. With Union Square Cafe in 1985, it was an infatuation with the Greenmarket. In 1993, this was still sort of a no-man’s-land, bizarre but true, but the architecture in the neighborhood wasn’t going to change dramatically. It is also a classic feature of New York to have pockets of industries, and here, they were on the wane: In Union Square, there was the men’s garment district, and literally you couldn’t get down the sidewalk on 16th Street without bumping into rolling garment racks; you knew that wasn’t going to last. In Madison Square, there were wholesale industries, like toys, tabletop, kitchens …

DR: How much of that was a conscious process?

DM: When I realized I’d dumbed into making it work at Union Square, I thought, ‘Well, this can work anywhere,’ and started looking for dying industries. In 1985, I walked around the Meatpacking District and thought it was one of the world’s great stage sets. Later on, it hit with a combustibility that made it completely unattractive for me.

DR: Now you’ll have to wait for its revival in 50 years! It’s like South Beach without the beach.

DM: It doesn’t have a natural balance of residences and businesses; it’s still a stage set. If you’re the kind of chef who likes Las Vegas, this is where you would do it in New York.

DR: Thinking back 15 years to when we designed Nobu, Tribeca had a lot of the characteristics you’re describing, like great architecture, but it also had residential pockets. I think part of the appeal for people going to restaurants is the exotic journey to a place where they didn’t live, the notion of a destination. The Meatpacking District is by-and-large design boutiques and restaurants, as opposed to being embedded in a fabric that’s kind of growing around it.

DM: I always felt that if the balance tipped either way too much, it would be less appealing. Why? Because I wanted to be busy at lunch and dinner. Midtown was never interesting to me because it was all business, and the Upper West Side, because it was all residential.

DR: There is also something about authenticity, in being the quintessential embodiment of the neighborhood. Think of the Theater District: I’m a huge theatergoer, and after all these years, I still go to Orso’s on 46th Street because it feels like an integrated part of the community. As a designer, that’s fascinating to me. Design has become a bigger discussion point in restaurants—which it wasn’t when we started 22 years ago—and what has become clear to me is that there has to be a leader—a restaurateur or a chef who has a vision that the design can relate to. If not, it becomes sort of an alien object. I was going to Union Square Cafe long before I knew Danny, and what I admired about it most is that you couldn’t put your finger on the single ingredient that made it work. That’s what we strive for in design: to have the design embedded in the concept of the owner and the operator in a way that it provides a back story; then design decisions aren’t arbitrary.

DM: The neighborhood is the frame that provides the context, and the restaurant has to belong in that frame. I wanted to pick neighborhoods that I felt comfortable in. One of the reasons you don’t see me in Las Vegas (so far) or you wouldn’t see me in the Meatpacking District, is that it’s not who I am.

DR: Another week, you never know!

DM: But it’s not going to ring true. I always thought that, like Union Square, I’m weird, but not too weird, and normal, but not too normal.

DR: You know it’s interesting you mentioned Vegas, which is nothing like this city. Just take the circulation in Vegas, for example, where it’s a one-way corral—there’s a way in, there’s a way out, and you’re largely directed like cattle. I think most people who look at restaurant design don’t understand that the biggest decisions really aren’t what things look like. The biggest decisions are about choreography, circulation, scale, a series of views that unfold, the ability to get the food to the tables, how the first 15 people feel—all of the basic decisions that break down the scale of the room. And all of those decisions have to be driven by a relationship with the restaurateur or chef.

AN: Those are all urban design issues, too.

DR: Exactly.

DM: I think a good designer is like a really good shrink. The information is there, you just don’t know how to pull it out of your subconscious. This is what I’ve loved about the relationships I’ve had with architects. It was dumb luck that I met Larry Bogdanow, who designed Union Square Cafe. I didn’t know the first thing about architecture. I told him I wanted a place that looks like an architect was never in there, and that you’d never know it had been designed in 1985. But what I learned was that all these small episodes that happened because of that architecture are what people wanted. Here at Gramercy Tavern, I wanted to create episodes so that, as a diner, wherever you are, you’re in your own neighborhood. Another neat thing happened—David probably figured this out 30 years ago, but I hadn’t—when you create more small communities within the restaurant, you multiply the number of corner tables!

DR: Another fascinating thing is the collaboration that goes on in a restaurant. It’s a social place in which you are eating food that is handmade for you, so you have the ability to make links between all of these things and the texture of a place. I think more than ever, since we’re in this world of sameness and can replicate a design through CNC milling a million times, that the notion of craftsmanship and sense being touched by the human hand is increasingly important.

AN: We wanted to ask you both about private programming in public spaces, in particular the controversy over replacing the restaurant in the old bathhouse in Union Square. On the one hand, there’s been a seasonal restaurant there, Luna Park, for years, but many argue that it amounts to a privatization of public space. 

DM: It’s a fascinating issue for me. Any question that begins with ‘What does the community want?’ always leads me to wonder, ‘Well, who is the community?’ Whether or not you ever went to Luna Park or ever believed it should have been put smack dab in the middle of Union Square, there were lines of people trying to get in every single night. There was clearly a community of people who loved having a place to go. To some degree, it made others feel safe because there were people in the park. These are people who may not go to community board meetings or get politically active. Then there are also preservationists, and people who think there shouldn’t be any money exchanged in a public space unless it’s for the public good. It’s kind of like religion—no one religion can be all right unless the rest are all wrong. All these constituencies need to be balanced: There is a playground constituency, a Greenmarket constituency, a food constituency, a dog-run constituency… I’m very comfortable, for example, with the model we have at Shake Shack, where we have a partnership with Madison Square Park Conservancy so that we can return money to that park.

DR: The opportunities for architects to work with public/private partnerships to create interesting new opportunities is going to grow exponentially—with tighter budgets, there’s just less and less public money. We’ve been thinking for three or four years about playgrounds, and wanted to establish a pro bono, not-for-profit group in New York. I realized early on that we had to build in parents as a constituency—the people who use playgrounds had to be comfortable with it. And so when we were making our presentation—it had to be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Seaport, and Community Board 1—it was hard for them to understand at first that there was no reason for us to do this other than to contribute, and we volunteered to raise money to endow the organization. That’s when the light bulb went off for them. Now we’re approached by every community in New York that wants a playground. They’re all private groups for public places.

DM: People are okay with playgrounds because you don’t have to pay to use them.

DR: But the link that I’m making is about the programming of public spaces. And one of the things that we haven’t touched on, Danny, though it is an interesting point, is to look at the city inside-out. Look at the role of restaurants, and by extension hotel lobbies—New York’s inner spaces. During the 1920s, which was the golden age of hotels in this country, lobbies were an extension of the public realm; they’re private spaces but opened to the public. The city looks so neat and organized from the air, and then when you get down to the ground, it’s much messier and it’s much more vital—that’s what is fascinating.

DM: I moved to New York for good because I had fallen in love with the Algonquin lobby.

DR: I moved to New York because when I was 11, we came into the city, went to lunch, and then went to the theater to see Fiddler on the Roof. And with both of those city experiences, a kind of light bulb went off and I knew that this is where I wanted to be. I got a sense of the relationship between communal spaces and storytelling, and it was a real eye-opening experience for me, to see the relationship between audience and performer.

DM: Well, that’s New York. In fact, it’s the dialogue between whoever is performing and whoever is the audience, everywhere. Those were my first experiences, too—it could have been theater, it could have been jazz, it could have been in a restaurant. There’s always someone who has something to say and someone who’s there listening. That’s what the whole city is about. 

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NY's Next Builder
Courtesy New York State

New York governors often build their legacies. Peter Stuyvesant established New Amsterdam, creating the foundation for modern-day New York. DeWitt Clinton opened the west via the Erie Canal. Al Smith ushered in the skyscraper age with the Empire State Building, and Nelson Rockefeller was master of the superblock. 

How New York’s 55th governor, David A. Paterson, joins the ranks of these builder-governors remains to be seen, especially given his relatively low profile on issues of development and infrastructure. Paterson’s first challenge, after negotiating the budget due April 1 that will determine much of his agenda, will be addressing the ongoing projects of his immediate predecessors. Two of George Pataki’s major New York City projects—the World Trade Center and Atlantic Yards—are plagued by delays and political wrangling. Others, particularly those on Manhattan’s West Side, were still-born, and this was largely where Eliot Spitzer had begun to focus his energies.

“These projects have been bungled for the last six or seven years,” said Assembly member Richard Brodsky, who chairs the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions that oversees many such projects. “I don’t think you can predict how David will handle these things.”

Paterson surprised many when he threw his support behind New York City’s congestion pricing proposal on March 21, following a closed-door meeting with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. The governor’s move bolstered the prospects of the all but moribund pricing plan, whose passage still requires the blessing of state and city officials. MTA director Elliot Sander told AN that passing congestion pricing was the authority’s first priority, which would then pave the way for the capital projects.

During his 22 years in public office, Paterson has had a hand in a number of projects, primarily in his home district of Harlem, and these shed some light on how he may approach the public realm.

In the early 1990s, while still an obscure state senator best known for his famous father Basil, also a former state senator, Paterson took a stand against two major projects, which showed his concern for the city’s deep African-American roots. The first involved Columbia University’s plans to replace the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated with a biomedical facility; the school eventually won out, but only after agreeing to preserve almost half of the ballroom. The second concerned a new federal building on the site of a colonial-era burial ground for thousands of African Americans, both free and enslaved.

The federal government wanted to rush the excavation of the bones, saying it would cost millions of dollars to perform an extensive dig. Paterson held his ground, and not only were more than 400 bodies recovered, they were reinterred at an on-site memorial that opened last year. Rodney Leon, who designed the memorial, said without Paterson’s efforts, many New Yorkers would be blind to that historical moment.

“He felt it was extremely important for this site to be preserved,” Leon said. “He was willing to put his political capital on the line. It speaks to his commitment to this community and to New York City as a whole.”

The governor has not always been the staunchest preservationist. During the Audubon fight, Paterson founded a group called Landmarks Harlem, but the man he installed in 1995 to grow the group, Paul Brock, eventually bilked it of much of its funds, leading to its collapse. He also pushed for the creation of a school in a former nightclub and a minimum security prison for women in a row of brownstones, both of which preservationists opposed.

As lieutenant governor, Paterson was put in charge of a $1 billion upstate economic development package and a $1 billion stem cell research program, which he had championed in the legislature.

Congressman Gregory Meeks, who represents the Sixth District in Queens and has been friends with Paterson for decades, said he believed rebuilding the state’s flagging infrastructure would be a major priority. “Look at his district,” Meeks said. “You can see from the transformation of Central Harlem that he knows how to drive development. Now the entire state is his district.” 

MATT CHABAN
 

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Gaining Speed
A conceptual downtown station.
IBI GROUP

Forget the red car era, in which public transportation was seen as unglamorous and irrelevant to Los Angeles life. In 2008, public transport projects crowd the region like sorority girls vying to be Pasadena’s Rose Queen. 

In January another hopeful, a high-speed intra-regional transportation system designed to link a necklace of Southern California airports and ports, transitioned from planning to implementation phase when the LA City Council approved a joint-government authority to oversee the development of its initial operating segment (IOS). The authority will supervise and approve route selection, the Environmental Impact Review (EIR), financing, land acquisition, bids, and construction on a proposed route linking Los Angeles to the Ontario Airport. 

If funded and built as currently conceptualized, the entire system would be completed by 2030, move at speeds of up to 300 miles per hour, and provide transportation for up to 500,000 riders a day. 

Los Angeles City Councilman Greig Smith characterized the step as “a giant leap” from a planning process more than seven years in the making. Smith represents the council on The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), which initiated the project and has carried it through preliminary planning. 

The first segment of the system is slated to have stations in West Los Angeles, Union Station, West Covina, and the Ontario Airport. According to Smith, an LAX station was also suggested for the route by SCAG’s board about six months ago. SCAG has commissioned conceptual plans from land use and transportation consulting company IBI Group, but the official design phase for the IOS could be more than a year away and would be contingent on funding. 

maglev
Conceptual rendering for Union Station. IBI GROUP

Rather than occupy city streets or require underground tunneling, the transit system would piggyback onto Los Angeles freeways. Caltrans participated in the planning stages and has bought into the concept of the project. 

A study by SCAG staff will be completed this June to help the authority decide on routes and technologies. The document will provide comparisons between the I-10, SCAG’s preferred alignment, and a newer alternative on property owned by the Union Pacific Southern Route that runs parallel to State Route 60. Transportation systems being considered include a high-speed steel wheel system, such as Japan’s bullet train, or Maglev, which harnesses advanced magnetic levitation technology and an elevated monorail. 

The latter was favored throughout much of SCAG’s project evaluations, but SCAG currently holds a technology-neutral position. Smith, however, touted Maglev for its lower construction and maintenance costs and lower pollution levels. Maglev does have one drawback, though. There are few long term data demonstrating proven success. In China, Shanghai boasts the only operating Maglev system in the world. Bullet trains, which have a lengthier track record, have positive safety records. 

IBI Group oversaw SCAG’s initial planning process and developed conceptual designs for four Maglev stations. Their work will provide a reference point for architects designing the stations in the future. 

“The aesthetic features of the stations are intended to reflect the intrinsic values of the Maglev system: advanced technology, movement, and speed,” the IBI Group stated in a report to SCAG. Their sleek, often-curved conceptual designs contrast cast-in-place concrete cores with glass and polycarbonate walls leveraging natural light and ventilation through open air stations to take advantage of the region’s climate. Louvers or perforated metal screens provide shading. Connections to other forms of transportation like light rail, bus, air, and automobile were emphasized. 

While the conceptualized stations share a visual identity, each addresses individual site considerations. At West Los Angeles, IBI’s challenge was to conceive of a station that could meet the system’s taxing demands but also retain the modest scale required to integrate with the residential community. At Union Station, the firm created space for a new mode of travel in an already packed and historic site by elevating a Maglev station above existing rail. In West Covina, the station is built into a mall—the result of SCAG successfully reaching out to the retail complex’s operator, said David Chow, director at IBI. 

As with the myriad of transportation projects in development across the region, the elephant in the room is cost. A 2005 estimate by IBI predicted the project could cost up to $7.8 billion, a figure that would be higher with current market prices. Funding-wise, the system would not be “a government subsidized project,” but rather a public-private partnership developed to supply funding, councilman Smith asserted. 

A new player on the Maglev scene, American Maglev of Marietta, Georgia, has offered an unsolicited bid, proposing to provide free construction if the first route is revised to include the port of San Pedro. In this case, fees charged to cargo transportation would finance the rest of the endeavor. But American Maglev does not yet hold a track record of successful projects. 

In making the case for a high-speed system to serve the region, Richard Marcus, program manager for Maglev and High-Speed Rail at SCAG, pointed not only to population growth but to Los Angeles’ position as a major port. According to Marcus, 43 percent of containers that enter the United States travel through the San Pedro Bay. In the next 22 years, the number of containers received will triple. “Continuing to build freeways is not the answer,” said Marcus, with understatement. “We’re going to have to come up with another way.”