Architecture is like play to me. As a boy, you play with Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, Legos, and you get interested in how things are made, like cars and drills and all that. Years later you come back around to what interested you as a boy. Now, if I have something that I'm dealing with that's causing me a lot of stress, my mind goes to architecture. I walk around the yard and start thinking about what I need to do to the house structurally. It's similar to puzzles in that way, like a crossword puzzle or anything else I can put my mind into. It's a relief for me.Obviously, we're not going to take this too seriously or get too offended, given who we're talking about here. But at the same time, this is a guy putting together rather earnest post-Katrina housing and going on tours of Fallingwater for his birthday. How would he feel if, the next time we were down, we decided to go shoot an Academy Award-winning short film?
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Charles Gwathmey, a member of the famed New York Five and a principal of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects, died on Monday at age 71 after a battle with esophageal cancer. Known for meticulously conceived modernist designs influenced by Le Corbusier, Gwathmey launched his career with a house for his parents, completed in 1967, that earned him wide acclaim and would remain a touchstone throughout his career.
Gwathmey and colleague Robert Siegel, who founded their office in 1968, designed major cultural projects including the American Museum of the Moving Image (1988), the renovation and addition to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (1992), and the International Center for Photography (2001), all in New York. Recent work includes the addition and renovation of the Art and Architecture Building at Yale, the Birchfield-Penney Art Center in Buffalo, and the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, which is currently under construction.
Houses remained among the firm’s most lauded work, and remained a particular love of Gwathmey’s. “Virtually all of the residences were his lead,” said Siegel, his business partner for more than forty years. “He liked working closely with individuals.” Gwathmey’s groundbreaking house for his parents, the Gwathmey Residence and Studio in Amagansett, on Long Island, was “a great discovery project, a great learning project,” Siegel said. “That house was monumentally important for him. After that, the house for Francois de Menil  stands out. It was a much larger, more complex project, much richer.”
Other longtime associates also recalled Gwathmey’s early house as his career-defining project. “When I think of Charlie, I think of the houses,” said his friend and frequent competitor Michael Graves. “His house for his parents stands as a testimony to all his work.”
Gwathmey and Siegel attended high school together in Manhattan, and though they attended different universities and graduate schools—Gwathmey went to the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, while Siegel studied at Pratt Institute and Harvard—they were reunited in the office of Edward Larrabee Barnes. The two left Barnes’ office in 1968, following the success of Gwathmey’s house for his parents, which was designed in collaboration with Richard Henderson. Gwathmey quickly became the public face of the firm. “He was a great spokesman for our office, as well as for architecture in general,” Siegel said. The 40-person firm, Siegel added, will remain open.
With Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk, Richard Meier, and Michael Graves, Gwathmey was known as one of the New York Five, also called the Whites, who embarked on aesthetic, formal, and volumetric explorations of architecture and became leading figures in the 1970s and 1980s. Le Corbusier’s idea of the Modulor—a system based on the proportions of the body—was an important influence. “What we all shared was a real understanding of the human scale, and you can see that in Charlie’s work, a real interest in the public and in human interaction,” Meier told AN.
While architecture passed through stylistic phases beginning in the 1970s—including deconstructivism, postmodernism, and computer-aided design—Gwathmey remained largely consistent. “He was a fighter for Modernism,” Eisenman said.
All images courtesy Gwathmey Siegel & Associates
Behind those closely held convictions, his peers remember Gwathmey as warm, honest, generous, and collaborative. Eisenman called him the “mediator” of the World Trade Center team that included Eisenman, Meier, and Steven Holl, one of seven groups competing for the master plan of the site.
Other important projects include Whig Hall at Princeton (1971), in which the firm inserted distinctive modern volumes within the burned-out shell of a neoclassical building, the Glenstone Museum (2006) outside Washington, D.C., and the United States Mission to the United Nations, currently under construction in Manhattan.
Some of the architect’s more recent work was the target of criticism, including the residential tower at Astor Place (2005), the Guggenheim, and Yale’s Art & Architecture Building, but Eisenman saw Gwathmey’s willingness to take on such complex sites as an affirmation of his spirit. “Even though he was a macho guy, he was able to sublimate his ego while working on a lot of these great projects,” Eisenman said. “I don’t think many people could do that.”
Brad Collins, principal at Group C, which created a half-dozen monographs for the firm over the past two decades, said Gwathmey never stopped working, even while recovering from a battle with lung cancer several years ago. “That’s what instilled loyalty in staff and clients,” Collins said. “Charles was incredibly demanding, but it was only because he cared so much about the work.”
Gwathmey’s honors include a 1983 Medal of Honor from the AIA New York chapter and a lifetime achievement award from the New York State Society of Architects. Gwathmey also taught at architecture schools including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Pratt, and Cooper Union, and was president of the board of trustees at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies, the experimental New York school that drew many luminaries from 1967 to 1984.
Readers are invited to share their own memories of Gwathmey by leaving a comment on the A/N Blog.
On Thursday, the Hudson River Park Trust announced a winning plan for Pier 57, the brooding hulk at West 15th Street: a rooftop park crowning a small city of local artisans working out of shipping containers, the vision of developer YoungWoo & Associates with New York architects LOT-EK.
The Hudson River Park board and community advocates both picked YoungWoo over competing plans from the Related Companies and the Durst Organization, but for different reasons, said board president Connie Fishman. “The community working group liked the fact that it generated fewer vehicular trips,” she said, while the board focused on the plan’s financial feasibility (YoungWoo’s proposed cost was $191 million, compared to Durst’s $330 million and Related’s $353 million). Both the board and the community cited YoungWoo’s emphasis on the arts and innovative mix of uses.
While some observers have called the team a shoo-in, approval was anything but easy, said LOT-EK principal Ada Tolla. She described the scrutiny their plan underwent, with the board paying particular attention to whether the shipping-container design would satisfy building codes and create a high-quality experience. Visiting one of LOT-EK’s earlier projects—Puma City, a portable, mixed-use structure made from 24 shipping containers that recently landed in Boston—helped convince the Hudson River Park community of its feasibility for Pier 57, said Tolla.
The board also scrutinized YoungWoo and LOT-EK’s approach to historic preservation, in particular their balance between transforming the pier and preserving it, adding transparency, light, and greenery while remaining true to the pier’s industrial history. The tall trees on the rooftop, for instance, were agreed to be a boon for the park, but had no connection to the pier’s history, and were therefore set back so as not to be visible from the street.
Team members for the project include Beyer Blinder Belle as historic preservation architect and architect of record, and West 8 as landscape architects. Also on the YoungWoo team is Urban Space Management (USM), the company behind the success of London’s Camden Lock, a large urban market with train tracks separating it from the city, much like the West Side Highway cuts off Pier 57. YoungWoo is banking on USM’s strategies to help Pier 57 succeed, using tactics such as renting many small, work-sell spaces as incubators to local artisans, which will bring in revenue, keep the market active during off-hours, and give the pier street-credibility and community ties.
Visions for a new Philadelphia waterfront took another step forward last month when the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC) presented design finalists for the redevelopment of Pier 11, a run-down site along the Delaware River and the first phase of Philadelphia’s broader riverfront redesign plan.
At a June 17 public presentation of the finalists’ designs, the proposals varied widely—some showing conceptual ideas and others laying out detailed, site-specific plans—but all offered ideas for a redefined edge. One of the most comprehensive proposals, developed by Andropogon Associates, transforms the existing pier into an ecologically engaging place powered by tidal, wind, and solar energy, with adaptive reuse of the pier’s historic structures. “It’s an opportunity to actually develop a paradigm shift in the way the city relates to the river, and how the river relates to the city,” Andropogon principal José Almiñana told AN.
The other finalists took a more conceptual aim at the project. Corner, principal at James Corner Field Operations, compared Pier 11 to his firm’s work on New York’s High Line. Both sites, he said, are underutilized areas that can be transformed into an economic opportunity for the city while providing a new public space for its inhabitants.
Van Valkenburgh’s presentation offered previous park projects, including designs for New York City’s Union Square and Brooklyn Bridge Park, highlighting the latter’s sustainable elements. Lastly, W Architecture and Landscape Architecture proposed ideas based on the firm’s completed urban waterfront projects, emphasizing the interconnectivity of civic and natural environments.
Built as a timber structure in 1916, Pier 11 was used by national and international steamers carrying fruit, salt, and cargo, but gradually succumbed to decay. The 80-foot-by-540-foot strip at the foot of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge will “now bring a new look at public design along the waterfront, as well as a new way to reuse old industrial piers within the context of first-class public realm design,” said Joseph Forkin, vice president for operations and development at the DRWC. Eventual plans for the waterfront also include the reuse of Pier 9 and a former Water Department building.
The DRWC’s planning committee, chaired by Marilyn Jordan Taylor, is expected to make its recommendation for the winning design team by July 31, and Forkin said he hoped an announcement would be made soon thereafter.
A version of this article appeared in AN_07.29.2009.
Today the New York City Council voted unanimously to approve the land-use plan of the ARC Mass Transit Tunnel, which will add a new rail link between New Jersey and Midtown Manhattan. The council’s consent clears the way for tunnel construction to begin in Manhattan later this year. In June, work began on the New Jersey side near Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen.
The Port Authority and NJ Transit are hoping to complete the massive passenger rail project by 2017, and expect it to create approximately 6,000 construction jobs annually. ARC will double trans-Hudson commuter capacity, increasing the maximum number of trains per hour from 23 to 48. It will also add redundancy to the existing 100-year-old, two-track tunnel. Transit authorities expect the increased rail service to eliminate 22,000 automobile trips per day.
The council vote is the final major government approval for the project, which has been on the boards since 1995. From this point on, the only approvals that will remain in ARC’s way will be periodic environmental reviews, said a Port Authority spokesperson.
Much of the attention focused on the energy bill that passed the House of Representatives on June 26 has surrounded the somewhat controversial cap-and-trade program. A less noted but equally important part of the American Clean Energy and Security Act is the nearly three dozen programs the bill contains with far-reaching impacts on the built environment and those who design, construct, and operate the millions of buildings scattered across the country.
"The fact that there was so much that relates to buildings is an important moment for the building community," said Andrew Goldberg, the senior director for federal relations at the AIA. "It supports the message we've been pushing for a long time, that buildings are a part of the solution. It's finally sinking in and they're taking action about it."
The proposed cap-and-trade system is still at the heart of the new legislation, as the funds it will raise will go to support many of the new building programs. The most expansive piece of buildings-related legislation is the establishment of a new national building code that sets minimum standards for energy usage in all new and existing buildings. States either have the option of developing their own code or applying the national one, but they must include a 30 percent reduction in energy usage within 18 months of the bills passage, a 50 percent reduction by 2014 for residential buildings and 2015 for commerical building, and an additional 5 percent reduction every three years through 2030.
The bill also has numerous provisions calling for federal agencies and federally managed housing to meet or exceed the new energy standards. Another program that could mean a good deal of work for architect is new energy efficient standards for retrofitted builidngs. And in addition to energy, there are new water efficiency standards for buildings, appliances, and products. "There are a number of market barriers that must be overcome to make green building affordable, but these new standards will help spur that shift," said Jason Hartke, the director for advocacy and public policy as the U.S. Green Building Council.
The bill is not all federally mandated sticks, either, as their are plenty of carrots to encourage a voluntary transition. An Energy Star-like building rating system is being proposed to label new construction so owners and operators know the energy usage of their buildings. (One of the biggest loses for the bill was the removal of a requirment that existing buildings also be labeled.)
Another program that has green building advocates especially excited is the Green Resources for Energy Efficient Neighborhoods Act, which provides incentives to financial institutions to offer generous loans to projects that use sustainable technology and smart growth practices. The program also creates a demo program at HUD to develop cutting-edge green systems for its housing projects, turning them into sustainability laboratories.
Furthering the green-for-all message, there are grants for affordable housing developers to include efficient systems in their projects, and another program gives credits to mobile home residents to trade in their current models for newer, more efficient models. And because all these new buildings and products must be created to satisfy all this new demand, there are a number of programs providing funding for product development and educational programs for designers, contractors, manufacturers, and building operators.
The bill now awaits its companion in the Senate. Initially, a vote had been expected by the end of the session, but the healthcare bill has taken up most of the Hill's political oxygen, and despite hopes for at least a draft of the bill before the August recess, it now looks like even that will be pushed back to the fall. Still, without jinxing it, Goldberg expects something comparable to the House bill. "It could very well be stronger," he said. "There was a lot of support on the other side. It could be stronger or about the same. Or it could always be a wash."
A version of this article appeared in AN_07.29.2009.
Pilings in empty lots behind dilapidated chain-link fences. Foundation pits filled with rainwater. Steel frames of five-story condos rusting, with no sign of further construction in sight. A walk around Williamsburg, Brooklyn is enough to tell you that its future is on hold.
According to a recent report by the New York City Department of Buildings, there are currently 18 stalled construction projects racking up citations and blighting the landscape of this North Brooklyn neighborhood and its sister district, Greenpoint. The view from the street, however, suggests that the number is much higher.
This signals a significant turnaround for the development hotspot. As recently as 2008, the picture was sunnier. The hip neighborhood, once the province of artists and students, was beginning to draw a larger contingent of families. The waterfront—an industrial landscape of garbage transfer sites and warehouses—was being transformed into a green swath by the opening of East River State Park and the city’s soon-to-come Bushwick Inlet Park. The future seemed wide open for continued growth.
A quick look at the numbers gives an immediate sense of the optimism that once imbued the area, as well as how much that optimism has faded. According to Aptsandlofts.com, a residential real estate broker, 2,818 new apartments will hit the Williamsburg market by the end of this year. Next year, the brokerage expects that number to hold, with 2,766 new apartments coming on line. According to real estate appraiser Miller Samuel, in 2008, buildings in Williamsburg and Greenpoint were selling for an all-time high of $668 per square foot on average. But in the first quarter of 2009, the average price had fallen to $519, a number likely to fall further.
The future of the waterfront is also in question. The State Parks Department cut its funding for East River State Park from $169.1 million to $112.1 million earlier this summer, and the New York City Parks Department cut its budget by $57 million, most of which was earmarked for Bushwick Inlet Park.
One thing making the downturn harder on North Brooklyn than on other parts of the city is its high concentration of new construction, said Miller Samuel CEO Jonathan Miller. Formerly a light industrial zone, the neighborhood has been deluged with residential units. In the last two years, new buildings have accounted for 75 to 85 percent of all sales in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, he said.
The problem starts with banks. A new rule prohibits Fannie Mae from guaranteeing mortgages for units in buildings that haven’t sold 70 percent of their units. And because Fannie Mae considers New York to be a real estate market in decline, that number goes up to 75 percent. With banks scrambling for their own survival, few are willing to take risks, especially on real estate. For new buildings, in particular larger developments like the Northside Piers or The Edge, reaching that figure is an increasingly daunting task.
As a result, smaller, better-funded buildings are still selling well, said Leah Ellis, an associate at Kutnicki Bernstein Architects. But many of the big buildings with over 100 units are struggling, she added, and developers are getting nervous.
The banks play another role in the woes faced by North Brooklyn developers. Architect Karl Fischer, whose firm has designed many of the modern condominiums that typify recent development in the neighborhood, said that one distinguishing characteristic of the Williamsburg real estate market is that many of its developers are not established or capitalized enough to withstand the downturn. First, they get squeezed by the banks, and then they paint themselves into a corner where they lose control of the property to banks that refuse to lower unit prices to sell.
In a sea of price cuts, no building illustrates this nightmare scenario as well as Warehouse 11, a Karl Fischer-designed, 120-unit development on Roebling Street. Construction on Warehouse 11 is 95 percent complete, and it’s in foreclosure, with the developer owing $50,766,000. The bank has pulled all sales listings for the individual units, and in May hired brokerage Massey Knakal to sell off the building’s senior debt. Massey estimates that the building’s potential gross annual rental income could be as high as $4.1 million.
With sales heading for a dip as low as $350 per square foot, developers and their architects are resorting to survival tactics, from rethinking the finishing touches to buying cut-rate treadmills for the fitness room. Many buildings have already gone from being condos to offering some or all of their units as rentals, Ellis said. Some developers are also retooling their condominiums as dormitories or eldercare facilities. In one luxury condo in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a desperate developer went one step further, renting out the unsold units in his building to the city as housing for homeless families. While that’s an extreme example, it’s clear to most developers holding unsold units in Williamsburg that something has to give.
The city may call it Midtown West, but the corner of 8th Avenue and 41st Street certainly doesn’t feel like Midtown. The monochromatic New York Times tower has nothing in common with the lights of 42nd Street, and the new Eleven Times Square, with its relatively rectilinear offices atop layers of scrolling screens, has nothing in common with the Port Authority, which has spawned a brand-name, low-price hotel district just to its south, where McSam and the Lam Group have squeezed shiny buildings onto narrow tenement lots. And that’s only one clash of cultures between the titans in this so-called neighborhood.
The first three blocks, 33rd to 36th, are scheduled to open in 2013, when No. 7 riders could exit a Toshiko Mori teardrop-shaped station at the base of the park-slash-boulevard to be designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). There are two LEED-certified office buildings in development, Extell’s World Product Centre and Moinian’s 3 Hudson Boulevard, that would open at the same time if both financing and tenants appear.
Then there’s the biggest site, the Hudson rail yards. Construction on the eastern yard could start anytime (once Related signs a contract with the MTA), with buildings ready in 2015, but now is clearly not that time. The company has a new plan—released this spring as part of the ULURP review for the site—designed by KPF with MVVA as landscape architect, that has received favorable reviews from the community for putting streets back in the superblock and breaking the open space into smaller, more purposeful parks.
Like the road to Hell, New York’s Cooper Square has been paved with good intentions. With the nation’s greatest design school, The Cooper Union, as landlord or neighbor, and with the city’s noblest civic structure, (the school’s landmark 1859 Foundation Building as renovated by the inimitable John Hejduk) casting its magnificent shadow, architects faced with nearby sites have visibly tried to raise their game. And have, mostly, failed.
All photographs Iwan Baan
Rem Koolhaas’ and Herzog & de Meuron’s unbuilt Astor Place hotel collapsed in anxious hype and resistable ugliness. Charles Gwathmey’s glassy residential tower for the same site was met with critical jeers, though its geometrical clarity and quirky elegance will stand the test of time. Carlos Zapata’s nearby hotel slouches toward Miami. Even Smith-Miller + Hawkinson’s local coffee shop, sly and steely, was eventually defaced into a B-list Starbucks. The greatest local modern building remains Rolf Ohlhausen’s 1990 dormitory tower, which through color and profile suggests a belltower to the Foundation Building’s basilica.
Into this fraught setting arrives a new academic building by Los Angeles architect and recent Pritzker Prize–winner Thom Mayne, with New York collaborator Gruzen Samton. The result is a remarkable combination of excess and restraint. It consolidates into a smallish 100-foot-by-180-foot-by-120-foot volume (along the east side of 3rd Avenue at 7th Street), a dense array of labs, classrooms, and studios for Cooper’s schools of Engineering, Humanities, and Arts.
Like a partially cored and peeled apple, it features a dramatic void within (a steep four-story staircase below a narrow five-story atrium, lined by a swoopy glass-fiber-reinforced-composite matrix that’s like a 3D-modeling software mesh come to life), and a semi-detached skin without (a finely-perforated stainless-steel weather screen, masking a standard glass curtain wall behind). As with Mayne’s 2004 Caltrans headquarters in Los Angeles, the decoratively-patterned exterior screen folds expressively, features automated solar shading, and makes the building look bigger than it is.
That screen is one of many ingeniously adapted panel systems and off-the-shelf components deployed throughout this tightly programmed and budgeted building. A sturdy mechanical vocabulary of tread plates, meshes, and brackets ennobles the steel vernacular of laboratory tables, studio stools, and lockers. All this rewards the imagination of those (many of them Cooper graduates) who contemplate entire buildings assembled from the Sweets or McMaster-Carr catalogs, and allowed these highly technical 175,000 square feet to come in at a reported $150 million.
It also results in a legibility that, in this setting, becomes a form of teaching. But while there is a financial economy between the ingenious moves and the expressive ones, the conceptual economy is less clear. It’s unpleasant to recall those precisely calibrated structural or technical details while observing others, such as the massive steel tubes that flail around the central staircase railings, whose effect is exorbitantly visual. This may be precisely the wrong lesson to expose to budding engineers and artists, of all people: that the architectural component of a building is an expressively decorative cloak (like the screen wrapper or the atrium lining) that brushes up against its essential body but is visibly surplus to it.
Noting the artsy (or “architecty”) bits of the building, one can’t help erasing them in one’s mind while retaining the intricate spatial composition and technical élan, and conclude that the result might be stranger and stronger—with some provocative breathing room for the transformations and appropriations that the nation’s brightest art and engineering students will wreak over the semesters. One can imagine a building whose greatest visual effect is to frame and incite the visions and emotions of generations of students, more than to preserve the singular signature moves of any one man or moment.
Nevertheless, the place packs a punch. The what-the-hell casualness of some of the geometries and gestures may prove a tonic to the self-seriousness of local architecture culture and Cooper Square itself. The monolithic affect and formal self-reference evoke the micro-monumentality perfected for academic and public buildings in another era and idiom by the likes of Roche, Pei, and Stubbins.
The willful or thoughtful double-take gags—the folds, gashes, and swoops—visibly insist that someone, somewhere, was trying to do something. Which, by the raised standards of Cooper Square (and especially by the reduced standards of Manhattan, where a perpetual perfect storm of mendacity, provinciality, density, and complexity undermines attempts at architecture worthy of a global capital), is almost heavenly.
A version of this article appeared in AN_07.29.2009.