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Nehemiah's New Look
The Nehemiah Houses by Alexander Gorlin.
Courtesy AGA

In 1975, I interviewed I. D. Robbins, the founder of Nehemiah Houses, at the organization’s first project in East New York, Brooklyn. Nehemiah, named after the Old Testament prophet who rebuilt Jerusalem, had just delivered new homes to the neighborhood’s working-class residents for the astonishingly low price of $40,000. At that time, the neighborhood was a place of “stunning devastation, glaring needs, abandonment, and rubble,” according to local community organizer Michael Gecan, and Nehemiah played a major role in making it a thriving community.


The houses bring an unexpected splash of color to the neighborhood.
 

The organization achieved this transformation by replicating the mass-produced building techniques of the postwar suburb, bringing, as Robbins put it, “Levittown to the city.” The Nehemiah formula included partnering with community-based religious organizations as co-developers, and convincing the city to offer free land on which to build. A continuous concrete foundation slab would be poured, and topped by freestanding, two-story residences. Robbins insisted on building only low-density neighborhoods. “Single-family is the way to go,” as he said, “because families take pride in their homes.”

Using this successful strategy, the group has built thousands of homes in New York, and admirably transformed neighborhoods around the city. But the architecture of the Nehemiah houses—replicas of medieval half-timbered residences marching uniformly down the block—is less than desirable. The historian Richard Plunz claimed that they “harken back to 19th-century mill housing,” and I asked Robbins about this in my interview. I pointed to Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, which had been created in the 1920s with more modern architecture and thoughtful landscaping. Robbins was furious with the comparison, calling Sunnyside’s builders out of touch with the aspirations of working New Yorkers for the pleasures of middle-class life. I told him I thought that was precisely what Sunnyside had achieved, and Robbins asked me to leave his office.

Now Nehemiah has finally created a large new project inspired as much by the housing tradition of Holland as by the streetscapes of Brooklyn. Designed by Alexander Gorlin Architects, the development Spring Creek is built on a 45-acre former landfill in East New York. It will eventually contain more than 800 homes that have little in common with the flat brick facades of earlier Nehemiah housing.

Gorlin is better known for his luxury houses, though he brings the same level of detail to his affordable work, as well.

The commission came about after Gorlin wrote The New American Townhouse in 1999 and wanted to work on larger-scale, socially responsible housing. He wrote to HPD commissioner Richard Roberts, who suggested that he contact Nehemiah, and the group’s general manager Ron Walters was not un-receptive to a new direction for the organization. Gorlin took him on an architecture tour of Dutch housing estates, including MVRDV’s Eastern Docklands and J.J.P. Oud’s 1927 Hoek of Holland project, and it convinced Walters to embrace the idea of a modern housing estate.

But Gorlin, who is best known for his luxury homes, was told that every plumbing turn would cost $75, and this mattered greatly to the final cost of the house. Despite these constraints, Gorlin has designed several different house types that sell for an average of $153,000. The two-story, single-family unit is composed of two, 80-square-foot modules prefabricated by Capsys in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and then covered with 4-foot-by-8-foot sheets of colorful HardiPlank. The somewhat flat facades do have small protruding bays, indentations with vestibules, attached canopies, and metal stairs.

Through this economical use of prefabricated components and clipped-on elements, Gorlin has achieved something very important in New York. He has respected the Nehemiah mandate that its houses convey the notion of homeownership to first-time buyers—but not at the cost of importing an ersatz identity to the streets of Brooklyn. And he has done this with perhaps the freshest approach to affordable housing in the city today, showing that urbanity and community need not be mutually exclusive.

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Chairs on Film

 
 

Objectified
Directed by Gary Hustwit
IFC Center, 323 6th Ave.
Opens May 8 

Gary Hustwit’s new documentary Objectified is a primer that tells you much of what you already know: Everything in the man-made landscape is designed by someone, and much of it isn’t working or good to look at.

As he interviews design titans from the forthright Dieter Rams of Braun (on fundamentals of aesthetics, usefulness, and understandability) to Jonathan Ive of Apple (on the separation of function from form), what is most striking is Hustwit’s assumption that his audience suffers from design illiteracy. 

He dwells on process, as Dan Formosa and Davin Stowell of Smart Design recall crafting an ergonomic handle for a peeler, beginning with the problem that a conventional peeler, which hadn’t evolved in years, was a struggle for someone with arthritis. And, in general, Hustwit lets his subjects sound off with their objects nearby: Karim Rashid wonders out loud why digital cameras still look like cameras through which film moved.

The conversations in Objectified are more aggregation than argument or debate. Yet the film’s best asset isn’t Hustwit’s analysis, but his eye. His film (shot mostly by Luke Geissbuhler) can make you feel the impact of design, whether it’s observing a product on a work bench, or viewing it in the landscape, which can be an office, a city street, or a landfill.

And that landfill, warns Mark Newson, is where most design—by him and anyone else—will end up. Who will then take up Rashid’s dare to design mobile phones or laptops in cardboard? In the film’s exquisite opening credit sequence, a CNC router cuts the word “objectified” into white plastic, slowly and deliberately. Typefaces in the form of products are rendered in three dimensions. The waste from that process is brushed off-camera, a hint of the industrial waste crisis that still awaits design resolution.

That sequence also points to the film’s shortcomings. Hustwit has an aesthete’s eye, but he suffers from an aesthete’s ear. He only talks to designers and those in the clubby circle who write about them. That’s not to say that Rob Walker of The New York Times Magazine isn’t eloquent, pleading for objects that have stood the test of time. We just miss other parts of the design equation.

In a candid moment, Mark Newson says, “I just wish people would be more critical of design, and of designers, who are responsible for designing some pretty nasty stuff.” Where are the consumers who might feel that way? And no corporate decision-makers respond to David Kelley of IDEO, who says, “Bad design is where the customer thinks it’s their fault that something doesn’t work. People should demand more from the things they own.”

The sequential interview approach made for fascinating testimony in Helvetica, Hustwit’s first feature documentary about the transformative effect of a typeface. In Objectified, you feel there’s more to the problems facing design than what you hear from the creators of high-end consumer products, the most glamorous sector of industrial design. Something is surely astir in the trenches.

Also, like so many products that are overtaken by the new, Objectified has been eclipsed by the now. Since the film was finished, the automotive sector in the United States has collapsed. So has finance, which was nothing if not a field of purely designed products. (Eerily, the designers at SMART discuss creating red ATM kiosks for Bank of America, which has now gotten at least $45 billion to stay afloat from the government.)

If it’s true, as the designers say, that this is a time for opportunity and vision, by the film’s end you’re impatient for them to get beyond the familiar generalizations.

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Walk This (Arch) Way
An original drawing of the Manhattan Bridge archway by Carrere and Hastings. The archway is to reopen to the public this summer after decades of closure.
COURTESY DUMBO IMPROVEMENT DISTRICT

Long barred to the public, a stone-covered archway beneath the Manhattan Bridge in Dumbo is being reopened for public access this summer, revealing for the first time in decades the elegant public space designed by renowned Beaux Arts firm Carrère and Hastings, which created both approaches. Thanks to the advocacy of the Dumbo Improvement District, the archway is also expected to serve as a stage for a variety of public programming, as well as a temporary summer site for a public marketplace known as the New Amsterdam Market.

Much of the new programming, including the market, has yet to be formally announced pending city approvals, according to the district, which emphasizes that discussions with public officials are ongoing. “The Dumbo Improvement District is working closely with the Department of Transportation and the City of New York to readapt and unveil The Archway,” the district said in a statement. “Plans are in the works for many exciting programs; we have been approached by the New Amsterdam Market among others. In the spirit of Earth Day 2009, we are glad to reclaim this incredible community space.”

The reopening of the historic archway, which is already publicly accessible, marks a significant milestone for advocates who have slowly been reclaiming the urban fabric around the bridge’s piers. “The archway connects Dumbo east to west. It’s crucial to the development of the neighborhood,” Kate Kerrigan, executive director of the improvement district, said in an interview.

Work on the archway, which had previously been used for storage by the Department of Transportation (DOT), will improve pedestrian connectivity while providing a number of new design features to make it more amenable to the public. In collaboration with the improvement district, Rogers Marvel Architects has designed benches for the 45-foot-high, 7,000-square-foot space, along with subtle lighting to improve safety and to highlight the original architectural elements.
 

The stunning space is expected to host a variety of public events this summer.
Jane KoJIMA/Courtesy Dumbo Improvement District

The new space would offer a stunning—if provisional—backdrop for the New Amsterdam Market, a project spearheaded by Robert LaValva, a former planner for the Department of City Planning who has evangelized for the role public markets can play as both civic gathering spaces and a key link in the sustainable supply chain. “My interest in urban systems comes from my background as a planner, in how the surrounding region can supply the city,” he said.

LaValva ultimately envisions a permanent showcase of purveyors that runs year-round indoors and offers a wide variety of goods, similar to the Borough Market in London or Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. He has long had his eye on the old Fulton Fish Market, but the ambiguous status of the South Street Seaport has made that site unavailable, at least through the summer. While LaValva continues his quest for a year-round location, he would welcome a temporary summer space under the Manhattan Bridge, perhaps setting up once per month, he said. “The archway is a wonderful space for a market,” LaValva told AN. “But the goal remains to find a permanent home.”

If all goes as planned, the market is expected to make its debut at the archway on June 28. However, an official reopening date for the public space has not been set, and much of the site’s programming is still being formalized, according to the improvement district, which expects to announce archway events in the coming weeks.

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A Landmark Ruling?
Chicago's East Village Historic District is the target of a lawsuit that could unseat the city's landmarks law, and those of other cities in the process.
Courtesy CCL

Preservation alarms are ringing at the specter of Chicago’s architectural patrimony—Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright—being pummeled by the wrecking ball in the wake of a court challenge that has raised constitutional questions about the city’s 41-year-old landmarks ordinance.

On March 11, attorneys for the city asked the Illinois Supreme Court to review a lower court’s ruling that blindsided preservation advocates by deeming the Chicago ordinance so rife with “vague, ambiguous, and overly broad” language that it may violate due process and equal protection rights. Meanwhile, preservation agencies around the nation have scrambled to file briefs in support of Chicago’s landmarks law, which if invalidated would not only threaten more than 9,000 protected properties in the city, but embolden challenges to ordinances around the country—including those in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Seattle—that mirror the law in Chicago.

“If the precedent is set in Illinois,” said Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, “it could open the floodgates for the loss of preservation ordinances throughout the country.”


The East Village is known for its working class streetscapes.
Courtesy CCL
 
 

The case originates not in the nuances of pediments and porches but in what the plaintiffs contend is the flagrant abuse of the landmark process to make an end-run around zoning rules. The complaint was first brought by residents of two landmark districts: the Arlington-Deming District in the affluent Lincoln Park area, a collection of 1890s mansions and Second Empire–style houses; and the East Village District, comprised of working-class streetscapes dating to the late 1800s. Both neighborhoods had been subject to out-of-context new development, and in both cases, local aldermen had moved to downzone the areas to preserve neighborhood character.

In their complaint, Albert Hanna, a longtime Lincoln Park resident and land-use critic, and Carol Mrowka, a real estate agent, argued that these landmark districts were created only after downzoning attempts were separately thwarted. (The Arlington-Deming rezone was scotched following a successful court challenge by Hanna.)

“Landmarking was a complete afterthought,” said Thomas Ramsdell, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “What happened here is that when two zoning measures failed, two different aldermen, using the exact same criteria, simply said: Let’s landmark the area.” The result, Ramsdell argued, were districts cobbled together from a hodge-podge of buildings that had no coherence as landmark districts. A trial court didn’t buy those arguments, however, and dismissed the case in 2006.

But on January 30, an appellate court sided with the plaintiffs, finding that the seven criteria used to evaluate Chicago landmarks are unconstitutionally vague.
In its decision, a three-judge panel said the criteria—which use wording such as “significant” or “unique” to describe potential landmarks—could apply to virtually any property in the city. Moreover, the court rejected the city’s argument that landmarks commission members were experts well-versed in such terms, and further found that qualifications for commission members were untenably vague. With that, the case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

 

 
The Arlington-Deming Historic District, another neighborhood directly threatened by the lawsuit, is home to 1890s mansions and Second Empire-style houses.
Courtesy preservation chicago

For the time being, at least, the city’s landmarks law remains in full effect. Whether or not the state’s supreme court weighs in—a decision is expected by June—a final ruling may not come for at least a year. And given the considerable case law on the matter, some experts see the Illinois ruling as an “oddball decision” that is likely to be reversed.

“What we’re looking at here is an intermediate court decision in a state court. It doesn’t carry a lot of persuasive authority around the country,” said Julia H. Miller, special counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Indeed, a federal district court, ruling on a similar challenge to Chicago’s landmarks law in 1994, declared it consistent with the state and federal constitutions.

Regrettably, the ultimate outcome is likely to have little impact on what the plaintiffs maintained was their true target: Chicago’s dysfunctional political culture. “There is no comprehensive plan in Chicago,” Ramsdell said. “We have 50 fiefdoms—we leave land use up to the individual aldermen of the 50 wards. It looks like we’re out to undo historic preservation,” he continued. “That’s not the case. We want the city to have a strong landmarks ordinance that can’t be abused this way.”

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Recession Tales: James Polshek

In the third of AN's conversations with architects about past recessions, Julie V. Iovine talks to James Polshek, senior design counsel and a founder in 1963 of Polshek Partnership Architects, who will be presented with the Augustus Graham Medal by the Brooklyn Museum on April 23.


James Polshek in 1972.
 
elmer kardos

 

The Architect's Newspaper: Which downturn has been hardest on you so far?

James Polshek: 1972—that was the big traumatic one. My memory of the later ones is not as vivid as when there was no gasoline or oil in the ’70s.

Before that, things were going great. I went to Japan in 1962 when I was 32 for almost two years. It was a busy time of unlimited possibilities, and I was doing these big $100 million laboratory projects.

When I came back in ’63, I was back to doing little remodeling jobs and consulting for the New York State Mental Hygiene fund that was very progressive then, hiring young architects to consult on bigger projects.

I was sharing an office at 295 Madison with Richard Kaplan, Michael Zimmer, and Walfredo Toscanini, grandson of the conductor. We each had a corner office in the tower at the top. We had an agreement that whoever got the busiest first would take over the whole space. And I got it. We grew to about 45 people.

Then in 1969, I was working on a student center at Wesleyan University when there was a sudden, gigantic drop in the market and they cancelled it. That was the beginning of rumblings from the Middle East. Then in 1972, we had a fire. I had these two apartments on 9th Street side by side: one my family lived in and the other was a kind of branch office because we had grown so large. For me, the fire was really symbolic, like Thor had thrown his lightning bolt.

Did it really feel that desperate?

Well, we were down to about five people, from 45. I recall talking to my wife at the time, saying I thought it was time to call [Ulrich] Franzen (I had worked for him years before) and tell him that maybe it was time for me to go back to work. She said, don’t be silly, something will happen, but I was really considering closing the office. I didn’t engage in a job hunt, but I did look at ads. There wasn’t much around, anyway. I just didn’t want to fail.

At the same time, though, we were doing some interesting planning studies for Westinghouse. And we did the Brotherhood Synagogue on Gramercy Park. That turned out to be important as it proved my commitment to preservation.

Did you go into preservation as part of a survival strategy?

You can say strategy, but preservation, like planning and feasibility studies, was also a philosophical predilection. It had to do with my own eclectic set of interests and my getting easily bored. I really believe in preservation, particularly when it’s in conjunction with the addition of something new.

When I was at school at Yale, historic buildings were not even looked at, but I thought preservation was a moral obligation. I didn’t share the agenda of that generation of architects who came out of school after World War II, Harvard in particular, who were kind of mini master-builders. I think that in architecture, at its most ideal, the architect is somewhat anonymous. That encouraged me to find ways to create new architecture that was not always visible, not de novo: underground, historic preservation, interiors, healthcare, and laboratories.

When did you start teaching? Was it to support your practice?

I became dean of Columbia in 1972, but I didn’t seek it out. Max Bond recommended me and I had every reason to agree because things were really bad. And it stayed depressing all the way until about 1976.

Some architects weather downturns by looking abroad for work.

That’s another strategy, but not one we entertained. In the ’70s, many big firms were running to the Middle East for work. They were making presentations to the Shah of Iran. I was too young to get offers of that kind, but I was absolutely disinclined anyway. And I think there was an unspoken consensus in my office because everyone had little children. They didn’t want to go off to Saudi Arabia or China. And we still don’t.

Was there something else you did go after?

Feasibility studies—they don’t often result in buildings, but they can. They’re sometimes intellectually provocative and they force you to collaborate with engineers. We worked on a plutonium processing plant until everyone realized how dangerous it was. And on a prototype to develop a new type of industrial plant—it was the most eclectic bunch of stuff you can imagine, but it all helped in our recovery. Studies go on, whether there’s a recession or not.

I was one of Philip Johnson’s adoptees and went to those soirees where architects criticize one another. It was a parallel universe, when Eisenman and those guys were dividing up the world into whites and grays. I said, I’m not white or gray. I’m pink, and I’m not going to be part of this, and I wasn’t. It is, however, important to establish a reputation within the profession for quality of work and integrity. But it’s even more important to survive.
 

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Comment: Worlds Away
Canadian architect Clive Grout has designed the U.S. pavilion for Shanghai's 2010 world expo, but the project may not be built.
Courtesy Clive Grout Architect

In May 1956, a young federal employee named Jack Masey was asked to create a pavilion for an agricultural exposition in Afghanistan. The United States embassy in Kabul had been lobbying for a pavilion ever since it learned that the Soviets and the Chinese were planning large shows of their own. With the fair scheduled to open in August, Masey had just three months to create a pavilion that would help the U.S. outshine its Cold War rivals.

Masey, an army veteran and graduate of Yale’s architecture school, contacted Buckminster Fuller, creator of the geodesic dome. Within days, Fuller had drawn plans for a 110-foot-diameter building, which was fabricated in the U.S. and airlifted to Kabul. There, it was erected by Afghani workers, who, according to Masey, were visibly proud of their involvement. (By contrast, the Soviet and Chinese pavilions were built by imported technicians.) Thousands of Afghans visited the dome, which contained a working TV studio and other displays of American know-how. A photo taken in the pavilion during the fair shows a group of young men in traditional garb, suitably agog.

Masey tells this tale in his new book Cold War Confrontations: US Exhibitions and Their Role in the Cultural Cold War (Lars Müller Publishers, 2008). The book, coauthored with Conway Lloyd Morgan, couldn’t be more timely.

Next year, the eyes of the world will be on Shanghai, where the Chinese government will host a world exposition (informally called a world’s fair) from May 1 to October 31. Nearly 200 countries are building pavilions, many by important architects chosen in national competitions. The host city will try to match the showmanship of last summer’s Beijing games, and, unlike the made-for-television Olympics, the expo will likely attract tens of millions of Chinese visitors.

But whether the U.S. will be at the fair is still an open question. Under a misguided 1999 law, the State Department is prohibited from spending money on international expositions. Last year, the department authorized a private group, headed by Washington, D.C. lawyer Ellen Eliasoph and California amusement park executive Nick Winslow, to solicit donations for a privately funded pavilion. Last fall, unable to find sponsors, they abandoned their quest. Now they are trying again, and the Obama administration, according to Winslow, is rallying behind them.

Meanwhile, Clive Grout, a Canadian architect chosen by Winslow and Eliasoph, has designed a U.S. pavilion that may or may not get built. Time is running out. “The U.S. government can only commit to participating in the Shanghai Expo if the necessary funding from the private sector can first be secured,” a spokesman for the U.S. Consul General inShanghai confirmed by email last week.

That the United States wouldn’t attend a giant international gathering, at a time when so much is at stake in U.S.–Chinese relations, seems unimaginable. Sadly, though, it is not unprecedented. The U.S. embarrassed itself with a tacky pavilion at the Seville expo in 1992 (timed to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage, with the U.S. meant to be the guest of honor). It ignored the next expo (in Hannover, Germany, in 2000), insulting a crucial ally. At the insistence of Toyota, whose retired chairman conceived the 2005 expo in Aichi, Japan, the U.S. did have a pavilion. But the building’s creators, who had to rely on corporate funding, put more thought into the VIP suite (where those sponsors could entertain clients) than into the main event, a film about Benjamin Franklin.

If the U.S. pavilion for Shanghai gets built, it, too, will have a lavish VIP suite, Winslow said. The exhibition will be by BRC Imagination Arts (the company behind the Franklin movie in Aichi). The building is by Grout, who designed a number of pavilions for the 1986 Vancouver Expo, and went on to masterplan the 2002 Swiss Expo.

According to Grout, the pavilion he has designed for Shanghai—where the theme is “Better City, Better Life”—will be “a celebration of an American metropolis in 2030, focusing on health, sustainability, and community.” The 60,000-square-foot building will employ “a very contemporary vocabulary of metal and glass,” he said. The glass will be covered in a decorative film made by 3M, a sponsor of the pavilion. Grout is waiting to see which other companies give money, so that—if there’s time—he can incorporate their products into the design as well.

As his clients scrounge for handouts, Grout is collaborating with a Chinese architecture and engineering firm, which is creating working drawings even as design development continues. “We are under tremendous pressure,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of time to study or investigate. I’m just focused on the fact that this is going to open in May of 2010, and we’ve got to get it into the ground. Until somebody tells me different, that’s my responsibility, to keep it alive.” He added: “We don’t yet know how much money is going to be available. It’s not the way to create a crackerjack pavilion.”
 


Fuller's dome landed at Expo '67 in Montreal, where the Soviet hammer and sickle made a definite statement.
Courtesy Lars Müller Publishers
 

That is a far cry from Masey’s day, when pavilions were symbols of national pride and funded by the government. Masey’s employer, the United States Information Agency (USIA), made its first foray into exhibition diplomacy with barge- and truck-borne displays touting the Marshall Plan, helping to win the hearts and minds of western Europeans, and it participated in hundreds of large expos and small trade fairs over the next five decades. According to Masey, it was the USIA that gave Fuller, George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Ivan Chermayeff, and Thomas Geismar their first peacetime commissions.

Among the highlights of Masey’s tenure was the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. Best known as the site of the “kitchen debate” between Nixon and Khrushchev, the fair attracted 2.7 million visitors during its six-week run. The interest of Soviet citizens was, according to observers, palpable.

Even more poignant is the tale of the 1956 exhibition in Brussels. Though the fair had an atomic energy theme, the U.S. chose to present its human side in a stunning circular building by Edward Durell Stone. (Among other exhibits, there was a fashion show organized by Jackie Kennedy’s sister, Lee.) A separate building was designed to house an exhibition on race relations in America. The goal was to counter Soviet claims that the United States, with its history of segregation, was in no position to lecture the Soviets on human rights. Called Unfinished Business, it depicted progress being made toward racial equality.

The show created a furor at home, with Senator Herman Talmadge of Georgia writing to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that the pavilion represented “an unwarranted invasion of the rights and prerogatives of the states of the south,” where “segregated society has proved to be in the best interest of all races concerned.” The exhibit was replaced with one devoted to public health, which Masey calls “an unworthy end to one of the most successful examples of architectural propaganda ever attempted by the United States.”

But there were to be other successful U.S. pavilions, at Montreal in 1967 (a giant Fuller dome) and Osaka in 1970 (a fascinating, inflatable building). Indeed, since at least the 19th century, world’s fairs have produced important architecture, as the assumed temporariness of the structures frees designers to experiment. (Both the Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower were built for international expositions.) Recent fairs have been filled with estimable structures, from MVRDV’s startling Dutch pavilion in Hannover to Foreign Office Architects’ Spanish offering in Aichi. In Shanghai, expect great things from Denmark’s BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), Italy’s BiCuadro, and Spain’s Miralles Tagliabue EMBT. England’s pavilion was designed by Thomas Heatherwick, chosen in a competition over Zaha Hadid and London Eye designers Marks Barfield.

But the U.S. no longer turns to its top talent. Ironically, Shanghai officials commissioned Yung Ho Chang, head of the architecture program at MIT, and Edwin Schlossberg, a prominent New York exhibition designer, to create their pavilion for Shanghai. Chinese business leaders have chosen American experts to sell themselves on their own home turf. 

Congress should immediately end the ban on public funding for international expositions, and allocate the $100 million or so it will take to build a pavilion worth texting home about. Jack Masey, 85 and still working, might have a few ideas.

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Comment: Worlds Away
Canadian architect Clive Grout has designed the U.S. pavilion for Shanghai's 2010 world expo, but the project may not be built.
Courtesy Clive Grout Architect

In May 1956, a young federal employee named Jack Masey was asked to create a pavilion for an agricultural exposition in Afghanistan. The United States embassy in Kabul had been lobbying for a pavilion ever since it learned that the Soviets and the Chinese were planning large shows of their own. With the fair scheduled to open in August, Masey had just three months to create a pavilion that would help the U.S. outshine its Cold War rivals.

Masey, an army veteran and graduate of Yale’s architecture school, contacted Buckminster Fuller, creator of the geodesic dome. Within days, Fuller had drawn plans for a 110-foot-diameter building, which was fabricated in the U.S. and airlifted to Kabul. There, it was erected by Afghani workers, who, according to Masey, were visibly proud of their involvement. (By contrast, the Soviet and Chinese pavilions were built by imported technicians.) Thousands of Afghans visited the dome, which contained a working TV studio and other displays of American know-how. A photo taken in the pavilion during the fair shows a group of young men in traditional garb, suitably agog.

Masey tells this tale in his new book Cold War Confrontations: US Exhibitions and Their Role in the Cultural Cold War (Lars Müller Publishers, 2008). The book, coauthored with Conway Lloyd Morgan, couldn’t be more timely.

Next year, the eyes of the world will be on Shanghai, where the Chinese government will host a world exposition (informally called a world’s fair) from May 1 to October 31. Nearly 200 countries are building pavilions, many by important architects chosen in national competitions. The host city will try to match the showmanship of last summer’s Beijing games, and, unlike the made-for-television Olympics, the expo will likely attract tens of millions of Chinese visitors.

But whether the U.S. will be at the fair is still an open question. Under a misguided 1999 law, the State Department is prohibited from spending money on international expositions. Last year, the department authorized a private group, headed by Washington, D.C. lawyer Ellen Eliasoph and California amusement park executive Nick Winslow, to solicit donations for a privately funded pavilion. Last fall, unable to find sponsors, they abandoned their quest. Now they are trying again, and the Obama administration, according to Winslow, is rallying behind them.

Meanwhile, Clive Grout, a Canadian architect chosen by Winslow and Eliasoph, has designed a U.S. pavilion that may or may not get built. Time is running out. “The U.S. government can only commit to participating in the Shanghai Expo if the necessary funding from the private sector can first be secured,” a spokesman for the U.S. Consul General inShanghai confirmed by email last week.

That the United States wouldn’t attend a giant international gathering, at a time when so much is at stake in U.S.–Chinese relations, seems unimaginable. Sadly, though, it is not unprecedented. The U.S. embarrassed itself with a tacky pavilion at the Seville expo in 1992 (timed to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage, with the U.S. meant to be the guest of honor). It ignored the next expo (in Hannover, Germany, in 2000), insulting a crucial ally. At the insistence of Toyota, whose retired chairman conceived the 2005 expo in Aichi, Japan, the U.S. did have a pavilion. But the building’s creators, who had to rely on corporate funding, put more thought into the VIP suite (where those sponsors could entertain clients) than into the main event, a film about Benjamin Franklin.

If the U.S. pavilion for Shanghai gets built, it, too, will have a lavish VIP suite, Winslow said. The exhibition will be by BRC Imagination Arts (the company behind the Franklin movie in Aichi). The building is by Grout, who designed a number of pavilions for the 1986 Vancouver Expo, and went on to masterplan the 2002 Swiss Expo.

According to Grout, the pavilion he has designed for Shanghai—where the theme is “Better City, Better Life”—will be “a celebration of an American metropolis in 2030, focusing on health, sustainability, and community.” The 60,000-square-foot building will employ “a very contemporary vocabulary of metal and glass,” he said. The glass will be covered in a decorative film made by 3M, a sponsor of the pavilion. Grout is waiting to see which other companies give money, so that—if there’s time—he can incorporate their products into the design as well.

As his clients scrounge for handouts, Grout is collaborating with a Chinese architecture and engineering firm, which is creating working drawings even as design development continues. “We are under tremendous pressure,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of time to study or investigate. I’m just focused on the fact that this is going to open in May of 2010, and we’ve got to get it into the ground. Until somebody tells me different, that’s my responsibility, to keep it alive.” He added: “We don’t yet know how much money is going to be available. It’s not the way to create a crackerjack pavilion.”
 


Fuller's dome landed at Expo '67 in Montreal, where the Soviet hammer and sickle made a definite statement.
Courtesy Lars Müller Publishers
 

That is a far cry from Masey’s day, when pavilions were symbols of national pride and funded by the government. Masey’s employer, the United States Information Agency (USIA), made its first foray into exhibition diplomacy with barge- and truck-borne displays touting the Marshall Plan, helping to win the hearts and minds of western Europeans, and it participated in hundreds of large expos and small trade fairs over the next five decades. According to Masey, it was the USIA that gave Fuller, George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Ivan Chermayeff, and Thomas Geismar their first peacetime commissions.

Among the highlights of Masey’s tenure was the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. Best known as the site of the “kitchen debate” between Nixon and Khrushchev, the fair attracted 2.7 million visitors during its six-week run. The interest of Soviet citizens was, according to observers, palpable.

Even more poignant is the tale of the 1956 exhibition in Brussels. Though the fair had an atomic energy theme, the U.S. chose to present its human side in a stunning circular building by Edward Durell Stone. (Among other exhibits, there was a fashion show organized by Jackie Kennedy’s sister, Lee.) A separate building was designed to house an exhibition on race relations in America. The goal was to counter Soviet claims that the United States, with its history of segregation, was in no position to lecture the Soviets on human rights. Called Unfinished Business, it depicted progress being made toward racial equality.

The show created a furor at home, with Senator Herman Talmadge of Georgia writing to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that the pavilion represented “an unwarranted invasion of the rights and prerogatives of the states of the south,” where “segregated society has proved to be in the best interest of all races concerned.” The exhibit was replaced with one devoted to public health, which Masey calls “an unworthy end to one of the most successful examples of architectural propaganda ever attempted by the United States.”

But there were to be other successful U.S. pavilions, at Montreal in 1967 (a giant Fuller dome) and Osaka in 1970 (a fascinating, inflatable building). Indeed, since at least the 19th century, world’s fairs have produced important architecture, as the assumed temporariness of the structures frees designers to experiment. (Both the Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower were built for international expositions.) Recent fairs have been filled with estimable structures, from MVRDV’s startling Dutch pavilion in Hannover to Foreign Office Architects’ Spanish offering in Aichi. In Shanghai, expect great things from Denmark’s BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), Italy’s BiCuadro, and Spain’s Miralles Tagliabue EMBT. England’s pavilion was designed by Thomas Heatherwick, chosen in a competition over Zaha Hadid and London Eye designers Marks Barfield.

But the U.S. no longer turns to its top talent. Ironically, Shanghai officials commissioned Yung Ho Chang, head of the architecture program at MIT, and Edwin Schlossberg, a prominent New York exhibition designer, to create their pavilion for Shanghai. Chinese business leaders have chosen American experts to sell themselves on their own home turf. 

Congress should immediately end the ban on public funding for international expositions, and allocate the $100 million or so it will take to build a pavilion worth texting home about. Jack Masey, 85 and still working, might have a few ideas.

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Dream Team
The Smithsonian Institute has selected Freelon Adjaye Bond to design the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Courtesy Freelon Adjaye Bond

The Smithsonian has selected a team led by London-based David Adjaye to build the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, the last major institution planned for the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The team, known as Freelon Adjaye Bond, is a joint venture between the Freelon Group, Adjaye/Associates, and Davis Brody Bond Aedas. The venture in turn is paired with SmithGroup.

“Their vision and spirit of collaboration moved all members of the design competition jury,” said NMAAHC Director Lonnie Bunch III in a press release issued this morning. The museum, due for completion in 2015, will cost $500 million and be located on the southwest corner of the intersection of 14th Street and Constitution, across from the National Museum of American History and about 800 feet northeast of the Washington Monument.

“It is kind of like being in the Sweet Sixteen,” Bunch said of the selection. “We’ve got a ways to go, but I’m going to enjoy it for a while.”

Freelon Adjaye Bond has deep roots with both the museum and Washington. Before the competition began, Phil Freelon, president of the Freelon Group, and the late Max Bond, partner at Davis Brody Bond Aedas, oversaw the museum program planning process (Bond passed away on February 18, 2009). And all three firms in the joint venture are currently designing new branch libraries for the D.C. Public Library system.

"The joy of this moment comes with mixed emotions,” said Steven Davis, a partner at Davis Brody Bond Aedas. “Max Bond, who was my partner for over 20 years, worked tirelessly in conceiving the programming and design of our submission. We miss him especially on this incredible day.”


A rendering of the central hall as conceived by Freelon Adjaye Bond.
Courtesy Freelon Adjaye Bond

The team faced tough competition from a mix of avant-garde and establishment firms, ranging from Diller Scofidio + Renfro to Norman Foster to the duo of Devrouax & Purnell and Pei Cobb Freed.

The winning design—which Freelon stressed is more an expression of concepts, and likely to change significantly—comprises a multistory stone plinth open on the north and south ends, with a pair of inverted, bronze-paneled trapezoids stacked on top of it. The team has cited both a crown and Yoruban columns as inspiration.

The interior of the museum will soar 100 feet, with exhibit spaces radiating from a center spiral ramp, similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. The procession will culminate in a rooftop garden.

“It had to be a project about celebrating a journey and looking toward the future,” said Adjaye.

All four firms on the winning team have extensive museum and institutional experience: Freelon designed the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture in Baltimore, and the firm was selected last month to design the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights.


A model of the winning design.
Ken Rahaim/Courtesy SMithsonian Institute

Adjaye recently completed the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver and the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, while Davis Brody Bond Aedas is involved in planning the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. SmithGroup has perhaps the most extensive experience with federal cultural projects, most recently completing the National Audio Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia.

Adjaye, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, was born in Tanzania but raised in London. Based in London and with a New York satellite office, he will be the design lead, while Freelon is the architect of record.

The competition was not without controversy, not surprising given the political sensitivity of its program. Several minority architects—though none involved in the competition—demanded the museum select an African-American-led firm and complained that too many of the finalist firms were predominantly white. These calls, in turn, raised opposition from both white and black architects, who worried that such calls could put pressure on the selection committee to choose based on race rather than design excellence.

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The Jersey City Shore
Starr Whitehouse and nARCHITECTS have designed a park for the Jersey City waterfront.
Courtesy JCWPC

In recent years, New York City has finally been reclaiming its moribund industrial waterfront. But across the Hudson, Jersey City has been at it for decades. The problem, as some see it, is that while New York has mostly been redeveloping its waterfront as parkland, Jersey City has almost exclusively built office and apartment towers on its shores since redevelopment began in the 1980s.

“Sure, there’s the promenade, but that’s basically just a steel railing,” Matthew Johnson, president of the Jersey City Waterfront Parks Conservancy, said of the city’s current open-space offerings. “We want more of a natural feel.”


The proposed park would stretch from the Goldman Sachs tower across little basin via a bridge to the peninsula. 
Julian Olivas

And so the conservancy unveiled plans for Paulus Hook Park on March 26. Designed by Starr Whitehouse and nARCHITECTS, the 9-acre park on the southern end of downtown seeks to weave together a half-dozen disparate lots into a destination for the area. “With the tremendous amount of residential development that has sprung up in Jersey City, there are a limited number of parks to serve this new community,” Johnson said.

One of the main challenges behind connecting the six separate plots is that they are owned by as many government agencies: Liberty State Park, the New Jersey Department of Military Veteran Affairs, the Morris Canal and Banking Company, the Colgate Center Property Owners Association, and the city.


The park was originally conceived as an alternative to the corporate and condo towers that have overtaken the Jersey City waterfront.

As if that were not enough of a challenge, the conservancy is also working against nascent development interests. Indeed, the group was founded two years ago after word had spread that some groups had expressed interest in building on various sites within the planned park. Thanks to the recession, the conservancy hopes it may have bought enough time to get the park past the planning stages and into the political ones. “It may be the perfect opportunity before somebody decides to build one of these pieces,” Johnson said.

At the heart of the park is a 1,000-foot-long shank-shaped spit of land that is already a public park, though it is little more than a plot of grass that is quickly eroding—a foot per year, estimates Johnson—because of heavy ferry traffic. One of the first tasks the designers will undertake if the park gets built is shoring up the peninsula against further erosion.


One of two proposed concession stands in the park designed by nARCHITECTS.

Beyond that, the plans call for a largely passive park, based on extensive community surveys. The surveys started with 25 different uses, from the most active (soccer fields and jogging tracks) to the most passive (walking paths and lawns for picnics and sunbathing). Johnson said the reaction was overwhelming for the latter, though a volleyball court will be included for a local group that currently plays on the extant park. A dog run is also being added, by popular demand.

Active uses aside, the idea is to provide a peaceful respite with views of the city and respect for the surroundings. “The community really understands that,” Stephen Whitehouse, principal of Starr Whitehouse, said. “They value the basic landscape, the sweep of that outdoor landscape and the sweep of the city and the river and the sun. Yes, there are some activities they wanted, but they really wanted a park that respects the space, one that integrated with the natural landscape that already exists.”


The "infinity bridge" is meant to serve as both circulation and symbol for the park.

Or at least used to. Across the Little Basin from the peninsula, the spaces are mostly vacant. The iconic Colgate Clock is still there, but otherwise the land is occupied with parking, a dilapidated shoreline, a basketball court, and a roller hockey rink. In addition to the new landscape, the designers want to add an education component on the north side of the basin detailing the history of the canal that once led inland from the site, including a tie-up for a historic barge. A Korean War memorial on a secluded part of the site will be moved to a more prominent location on the northern plot and surrounded by perennial gardens.

The signature piece of the park is the “infinity bridge,” a swooping figure-eight of wood that joins the peninsula to the northern side of the park. Designed by nARCHITECTS, the bridge is meant to visually represent the connectivity and continuity of the park with its surroundings and history while also serving the practical purpose of easing circulation within it. “The longer you can walk in green the more transformed you can become,” said Laura Starr of Starr Whitehouse.


A plan of the proposed park (Click to view larger image).

The project is still in the planning phases, though Johnson said that he has spoken with all the associated public agencies about the project and they have all been supportive so far. “We’re confident this park will be built,” he said.

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P!LA: Painting Sound, Ben Ball, Vampires, & MMOs, Oh My!
Though I already gave Mike the Poet pride of place, he was far from the only show in town Thursday night at Postopolis! LA. When I walked into the conference room--things had moved inside because the roof bar had been buffeted by a freezing wind all day--I saw a cluttered screenshot from World of Warcraft, something that had my inner-geek (aren't we all?) terribly excited. Indeed, Ben Cerveny of Stamen Design was talking about, among other things, deriving real life planning and tracking systems derived from more mediated sources, like MMOs. The talk was rather technical, and combined with my tardiness, I was kind of lost. Still, the potential is intriguing, especially after poking around Stamen's website. One of the examples Cerveny gave was the potential of cellphone apps. He proposed a program that would project one's preferences onto a wall, usually calibrated to some set of sounds and colors. When one person comes into proximity with another, it would create a cacophony or a melody between the two, depending on their settings. Another was a replacement for the personal library. As books decline in the digital age, Cerveny proposed a projection, ironically or not, the projection of one's digital self. "We're losing out real digital culture," he said. "Book-lined walls are being replaced with blank white ones, maybe a few modernist baubles." Whereas Cerveny and Stamen's work is about as technical as it gets, Steve Roden's is almost ambivalent to its very existence. A trained painter, Roden is seemingly obsessed with transforming one mode of experience, one sense, into another. His first, and probably best, example is how he found a piece of sheet music in his grandmother's attic. "I've never been able to let go of it," Roden said. But Roden does not play the music. Instead, he meticulously broke it down into its component scale--E-G-B-D-F, etc.--and then came up with a numbering scheme. That then gets plugged into a paint-by-numbers system that developed dozens of paintings. "I don't know how to read or play music," Roden emphasized. And yet, another major project was his installation for Alvaro Siza's Serpentine Pavilion in 2005. Roden, with the help of lay assistants working at the pavilion, mapped the structure in a rainbow of five colors, then transformed it into a painting, which, when he looked at it, resembled the scheme on a Tyco xylophone. He decided to turn the painting into a "player piano strip" that led to a recording played over an hour in the space. He played a minute of the composition. It had a haunting beauty for someone who seemed as though he could care less about what he was doing. Perhaps that was the genius of his art. Someone who cared very much, perhaps too much, was Gary Dauphin. An LA resident, Dauphin apologized for giving a presentation largely about New York, namely his home-hood of Fort Greene. As a gentrifier myself, Gary's talk about the cultural vampirism of gentrification really hit home. Dauphin argued that gentrifiers, specifically in Fort Greene but also beyond, are not always (white) outsiders, but generally ethnic (black/Latino) educated returners who make way for their new friends and thus feel guilty for it. The same goes for vampires, at least in the popular culture of Buffy/True Blood/Twilight/Blacula. More often than not, the story is about the "good vampire," the vampire who is trying to get beyond his vampirism, drinking synthetic blood or animal blood and not that of humans. When I asked if there was a solution to either problem, the answer was no. Finally, Benjamin Ball of Ball-Nogues Studio. I shared a beer with Ben afterwards--more on that later--but his talk was mostly on what he's done and everyone knows--Maximillian's Schell, P.S. 1, Venice--and what's yet to come--a teepee in Woodstock, a bird installation at Johns Hopkins Children's Hospital.
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Drilling for Dollars
Energy companies are hoping to drill natural gas wells throughout the region, including near this reservoir on the Delaware River outside Peas Eddy, New York.
Courtesy Damascuscitizens.org

In August 2008, Christopher Bianchi began receiving inquiries from energy company Lenape Resources of upstate New York, which expressed interest in prospecting for natural gas on Bianchi’s 21 acres in Gilbertsville, New York, for $100 per acre. About the same time, art critic Silvia Kolbowski and architecture scholar Kenneth Frampton, who spend their weekends at a home on 23 acres in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, fielded a similar query from Chesapeake Energy that offered 15 times that rate. Both properties sit atop the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation that extends from West Virginia and Ohio to the Southern Tier of New York, and contains as many as 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

New York State is already home to 13,000 gas wells, according to Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) spokesperson Yancey Roy, and some of those sites drill the Marcellus Shale. The state’s most recent drilling applications, from the likes of Chesapeake Energy and Nornew, take fresh advantage of the Marcellus Shale’s potential. The recent spike in energy prices and access to the Millennium Pipeline have inspired the latest wave of prospecting, and this time round, companies will deploy newer methods of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to tap into the natural gas deposits.

Hydraulic fracturing is a controversial process. At least a million gallons of water mixed with sand and a proprietary chemical formulation—the details of which are exempted from the Clean Water Act—is injected into the drill site to rupture the rock and release the natural gas trapped in its pores. Although a 2004 study by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that hydraulic fracturing was effectively safe, groundwater samples drawn from a natural gas field in Sublette County, Wyoming, last year proved that hydraulic fracturing had contaminated it with high levels of benzene and other carcinogens that threaten public health. The Sublette County incident was the first to be recorded by a federal agency; investigations by smaller groups have yielded many more examples of underground contamination, as well as surface spills.

The drilling applications in question would put gas wells not far from one of New York City’s largest drinking-water reservoirs. And while year-round residents of the Southern Tier and rural Pennsylvania might be ambivalent, weekenders from New York City are vocal in their call for more stringent environmental protection. “The question of our relationship to the land, particularly at a moment when the ecological aspects of buildings are at the top of an economic agenda, should not be left only to environmentalists,” Frampton told AN. This constituency has further reason to protest drilling, due to concerns about contamination of New York City’s watershed, the reservoirs of which currently support the population without filtration. City Council environmental committee chair James Gennaro has come out firmly against drilling within the watershed.

Falling energy prices have quieted activity for the moment: Chesapeake Energy recently rescinded its offer to Kolbowski and Frampton. In New York State, many companies are waiting on the DEC as it prepares an environmental impact statement concerning horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, mandated in a bill signed by Governor Paterson last July.

The inevitable rebound in prices, though, continues to fuel debate surrounding gas drilling, and currently both sides are staking claims in the fight. In February, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in favor of a municipality’s right to use zoning to determine drilling locations. Yet also last month, the Environmental Working Group revealed that New York’s DEC has not conducted tests of surface or underground water for contamination by hydraulic fracturing. And according to Joe Levine of New York–based Bone/Levine Architects and co-founder of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, drilling has just begun at the so-called Robson Well in Wayne County; the Delaware River Basin Commission is deferring jurisdiction on the effort, since the drilling is not technically tapping into the Marcellus Shale.

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Bronx Renaissance
In Mott Haven, a former warehouse was transformed into the Betances Community Center and Boxing Gym by architect Stephen Yablon.
Hypertecture for Stephen Yablon Architect

Not so long ago, if Neapolitans wanted to describe a place in ruins, they’d reach across the Atlantic for just the right simile: E’ come u Bronx—like the Bronx. That it came to represent urban chaos in Naples, a city renowned for the same, speaks volumes about the Bronx’s stubborn reputation, cast in the 1970s and fixed in pop-cultural memory for decades after.

Today, with the Bloomberg administration raining billions of public-private investment on the borough—a result of the South Bronx Initiative, an interagency effort launched in 2006 to encourage more housing, retail, and local jobs—there is no shortage of big-budget, star-quality projects. The new Yankee Stadium, a revamped Hunts Point Market, and the Gateway Center on the site of the former Bronx Terminal Market are all poised to make a dramatic impact on Bronx fortunes.


Courtesy at architects
 
Architect Ana Maria Torres worked with Sustainable South Bronx to include an extensive green-roof installation atop a former theater, which will serve as a new home for the Abundant Life Tabernacle.

 

Terry Chen
 
Ray Williams
 
Sustainable south Bronx worked with Columbia architecture students to develop plans for an eco-industrial park in oak point.

 
 
Courtesy whedco
 
on a former brownfield site In crotona park east, intervale green has been developed with apartments set aside for formerly homeless families.

 
 
courtesy hugo s. subotovsky Architects
 

Courtesy Dattner architects
 
A number of mixed-use, mixed-income housing models have sprung up in the bronx, including Boricua village (top) and Courtlandt Corners (above).

 
 

At the other end of the spectrum, smaller projects in the borough—receiving less media coverage and funding—have arguably undergirded much of this restoration, with impact far beyond their modest budgets. Be they green-roof entrepreneurs, supportive-housing visionaries, or boxing-gym designers, architects are transforming the borough one vacant lot or storefront at a time. Working alongside established architects such as Richard Dattner, whose 323-unit Courtlandt Corners is among the city’s larger affordable housing developments, they have made the range and reach of community-driven Bronx development more vibrant than ever. And by engaging Bronx residents, they’re connecting the dots between social, environmental, and economic sustainability.

Few grassroots groups understand the synergy between design and community goals as well as Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx). Miquela Craytor, the group’s director,said that the Bronx has become a magnet for green technology because so much of the borough’s negative press centered on its severe pollution and decay. As one of many efforts to reinvent the borough through green design, the group has collaborated with Columbia University’s GSAPP to explore turning Oak Point’s industrial waterfront—where the city had planned to site a new jail—into an eco-industrial park. In 2003, taking matters into its own hands, SSBx started a program to train students to build and maintain green roofs, and four years later founded its own green-roof company, SmartRoofs. That has opened the door to real architectural opportunities.

On a recent afternoon, Craytor and Jesusa Ludan, Smart Roofs’ director,visited a new client’s property: the Olympic Theater in the Longwood neighborhood. Once a cinema for Spanish-language films, the Olympic was bought by Abundant Life Tabernacle and will be remodeled as the church’s new home by architect Ana Maria Torres. Torres, principal of at architects, suggested incorporating more than 12,000 square feet of green roofs into the design, a boon for a neighborhood sorely lacking open space. “This is ambitious, yes, but we’re going to make it,” Torres said as she showed off the project. “The economy is more difficult, so we need to be creative.” She aims to complete the jobfor $2 million, a budget made possible through so many donations—both of money and labor—from church members.

Adaptive reuse was similarly successful in Mott Haven, a neighborhood south of the theater, where the New York City Housing Authority converted a basketball gym, once a warehouse, into the Betances Community Center and Boxing Gym. The bold design by Stephen Yablon Architect has garnered numerous awards, including a 2009 Merit Award from the AIA New York chapter. Set to open in May, the center consists of the first floor of a housing tower connected to the former warehouse space through an arcade. The central attraction is the ring itself, where children and teenagers are taught the art of boxing in what Yablon called a “glass-enclosed cube”: a triple-height space lined with clerestory windows. Adapting the building involved raising the roof and installing an underground drainage system, but in Yablon’s hands the complex job, as he put it, seems “almost childlike in its simplicity.

Other architects have literally roamed the gritty streets in search of opportunity. In the early 1990s, Jonathan Kirschenfeld, known for designing New York’s floating swimming pool, decided that the best way to secure commissions for publicly-funded housing was to find sites on his own, study their zoning parameters, and then approach nonprofit groups. “I did a lot of feasibility studies,” he said. “Ultimately, I got to understand who was looking for sites.” With so few parcels remaining, those available are often irregularly shaped and frustrating to work with. But the key, he said, “is to solve the public spaces first.”

His project for Bronx Park East, for instance, looks to be a row house from the street, with a double-height common space and adjoining roof terrace. But it’s connected to a seven-story unit set back at an angle, creating a central courtyard between the large and small volumes. The project’s almost sly jump in scale is part of Kirschenfeld’s effort to counter what he called “a lack of faith in urbanism” that marked much of the 1980s housing solutions, including Charlotte Gardens, the 90 single-family houses that make many architects livid. “It kills me, looking for sites in R7 and R8 [medium- to high-density zones] and passing vinyl-sided, one-family houses with wrought-iron fences,” he said.
 


Models of Jonathan Kirschenfeld's multiple infill housing projects currently underway in the Bronx.
Courtesy Jonathan Kirschenfeld Associates

Kirschenfeld now has company in his quest to urbanize the Bronx’s low-density pockets. The Women’s Housing & Economic Development Corporation was granted a triangular site at Intervale Avenue to build a 127-unit building, with a third of its apartments set aside for formerly homeless families. Dubbed Intervale Green, the building sits just a block away from Charlotte Street, where a 1977 visit from President Jimmy Carter brought worldwide attention to burned-out buildings andrampantcrime. Constructed on a former brownfield, Intervale Green’s three green roofs and two courtyards have already proven a hit. New resident Carolina Beltre plans to share her one-bedroom apartment with her ten-year-old son, whom she left in the Dominican Republic five years ago in search of better work. “It’s a new beginning for this area,”she said. “Everybody needs to know what’s happening in the South Bronx.”

Even some of the largest Bronx developments are taking cues from their smaller siblings. Though the neighborhood around Yankee Stadium has rarely shared its team’s success, planners are applying a whopping injection of urban acupuncture to the area: The new stadium will be followed by a big-box shopping mall called the Gateway Center at Bronx Terminal Market. Just down River Avenue from the stadium, the center juggles multiple roles as it links the neighborhood to a planned Harlem River park across the Major Deegan Expressway.“The project was conceived to accommodate two vastly different scales of experience,” explained Gregory Cranford, partner at BBG Architects. “You have the highway scale—as the building would be experienced from the Major Deegan—and then the pedestrian scale.”
 


The Gateway Center at Bronx Terminal Market features mid-block piazzas that will connect the residential neighborhood near River Avenue to a future riverfront park.
courtesy bbg

Though community groups criticized the project for displacing two-dozen wholesale produce merchants, the architects strove to knit what could have been another blank box into the neighborhood. The mass is broken into urban blocks, with two pedestrian passageways leading toward the river, and incorporates a historic market structure. “[City Planning Director] Amanda Burden was adamant about the pedestrian nature of this development,” Cranford explained. “We worked closely to really anchor the pedestrian experience.”

A similar debate over an influx of new retail has played out in the east side of the borough, where the Bloomberg administration aims to make the Third Avenue corridor an economic catalyst, anchored on the north by Boricua Village, the mixed-use project built around a vertical campus for Boricua College. The area is also home to Melrose Commons, a housing development that galvanized the neighborhood in 1992 when local residents deemed the initial plans unresponsive to their needs.This resulted in the community group Nos Quedamos (We Stay), formed to counter the shortcomings of the Melrose project—whose finished form is now seen as a model of cooperative design. The city aims to attract more name retailers to the area, a goal that Yolanda Gonzalez, executive director of Nos Quedamos, said is reasonable, but not at the expense of what she called the mama-and-papa stores that have long been neighborhood mainstays.

The most successful projects,Gonzalez stressed, are those that give community groups a strong voice in the design process. That’s what has made the borough’s smallest new developments its most exuberant, a lesson planners would do well to heed as the Bronx continues to rebound. “There hasn’t been a lot of sit-down and get-together, and that is an issue,”Gonzalez said about the city’s Third Avenue plans. “It should be a collaboration that creates cohesiveness. It’s important.”