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Editorial: Ambition First, As Usual

On June 25, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that the city had acquired a 30-acre spit of land in Queens to build the largest middle-income housing complex since Starrett City in 1974. Situated where Newtown Creek empties into the East River, the Hunter’s Point South project sounded like the best of all possible worlds: a school, 3,000 units of affordable housing for true blue New Yorkers—those cops, firefighters, and schoolteachers that everyone roots for in movies but otherwise ignores—and an 11-acre waterfront park. As usual, however, it was hard not to be cynical.

That great mascot of American independent spirit, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote that every soul must learn from making its own mistakes. But that hardly seems like a game plan where the collaborative business of making cities is concerned. New York is currently glutted with grand plans gone awry, dead in the water, or compromised beyond recognition: Atlantic Yards, Hudson Yards, Moynihan Station, ground zero. They do not inspire confidence that this one will fare any better. Apparently, past errors in judgment—May we cut you another deal, Mr. Ratner?—have only served to fuel a determination to repeat until bankrupt.

The mayor’s press release made no mention of the hurdles and controversies looming at Hunter’s Point South. Even Wikipedia knows that Newtown Creek is one of the most polluted industrial sites in the country, flowing with an “estimated 30 million gallons of spilled oil and raw sewage.” A clean-up plan was not mentioned.

Nor was it disclosed that this largest subsidized project in the city in 35 years is based on creating a specious nonprofit by which developers would be paid in federal tax-exempt bonds rather than municipal bonds, thus avoiding the requirement to include 20 percent low-income housing in the project. (Originally, years before the site was to be the Olympic Village of the failed NYC2012 bid and was called Queens West, it was all going to be low-income housing, a plan that would have paid off nicely right about now.)

But the real purpose of Hunter’s Point South seems to boil down to the mayor’s need to get a move on his $7.5 billion New Housing Marketplace Plan and its promise of 165,000 affordable housing units. Now, 68 percent of those are supposed to be low income, but none of them, it seems, will be at Hunter’s Point South, where the 3,000 units of middle-income housing will be rounded out with 2,000 market-rate apartments.

The mayor did toss in this bone: 3,000 permanently low-income units will be built someplace else in Queens “over the next 10 years,” and an adjacent site will be rezoned to allow for at least 330 low-income units. That’s not much comfort to local residents who have been complaining for years that no one consulted with them about the project, and that the housing qualification of a $55,000 to $158,000 household income is way over their own heads. Once again, city leaders have projected their ambitions on what they see as a blank slate but others know to be an existing and needful community.

In Urban Design (Minnesota Press, 2009), an excellent collection of persuasive essays rehashing the hits and misses in the field, Michael Sorkin describes post-Moses urban planning in New York as “the ongoing willed incapacity to think comprehensively.” To which one might add: “or to learn from one’s own mistakes.”

A version of this article appeared in AN 12_07.08.2009.

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With Virgin Eyes
Computer rendering of 17th Century Manattan (2008).
Markley Boyer/The Manahatta Project, WCS

Mannahatta/Manhattan:
A Natural History of New York City

Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
Through October 12

In the opening pages of Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas states that the physical form of New York City is the product of a self-conscious urge to rewrite the past in order to serve a particular vision of the future. Writing of the pre-European New York, he asks, “What race first peopled the island of Mannahatta?” Quoting the 19th-century historian Peter Belden, he answers, “They were, but are not,” victims of a vast, fictitious plot in which barbarism gives way to refinement.

As recounted in Koolhaas’ delirious reality, European settlers erased all traces of the island’s pre-existing civilization, replacing it with “a city renowned for its commerce, intelligence, and wealth.” According to Koolhaas, the outcome of this Darwinian survival of the fittest, the New York we know, love, and hate, is the product of a “cyclical restatement of a single theme: Creation and destruction irrevocably interlocked, endlessly reenacted.”


Split Rendering of Manhattan of today and the 17th Century. 
Markley Boyer/The Manahatta Project, WCS
 
 
Though the exhibition Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City, on display at the Museum of the City of New York until October, appears at first glance to have nothing in common with Delirious New York, the exhibit self-consciously attempts to influence the city’s future by including the landscape eulogized by Koolhaas. The feat of recreation is accomplished using historic maps and the modeling tools of ecological science. The result is a computer-generated vision of Manhattan as it appears on the sunny September afternoon, four hundred years ago, when Henry Hudson first set eyes on the island. The beautifully rendered images depict a land of abundance covered by pure green forests, washed by clear flowing streams, and ringed by sparkling wetlands: an ideal habitation for both man and beast.

The ecologist responsible for this Arcadian vision, Eric A. Sanderson, is careful to state that the imagery should not be seen as a call to return Manhattan to its primeval state, but rather as a visualization tool that reveals “something new about a place we know so well, whether we live in New York or see it on television, and, through that discovery, to alter our way of life.”

Consequently, the exhibit challenges the viewer to see the contemporary city as “a place shaped by the relationship between nature and people.” In order to function as good stewards of this ecological heritage, we, individually and as a society, must realize that the “principles of diversity, interdependence, and interrelativity operate in a modern mega-city much as they do in nature.” The clear implication is that this newfound understanding will enable the people of New York to re-envision the future as a sustainable ecological reality.

The exhibit begins with an interactive display. One click and an aerial view of the current urban grid transforms into an image of long-ago ecological abundance. A topographic map of Manhattan dominates the center of the space, and functions as a display screen for the cultural, natural, Native American, and ecological history of the island. But the real heart of the exhibit is a Muir web, a set of computer-generated connections between the ecologies that once composed the Manhattan landscape.

Consisting of abstract lines that converge and cross to define dense, multi-dimensional landscape communities, the web emerges from simple relationships such as “squirrels eat nuts.” Even though the relationships lose some of their dynamic power when rendered in two dimensions, the resultant forms clearly illustrate the complexity of the natural environment. A quote from Jane Jacobs is used to relate this natural complexity to healthy urban growth: “Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration.”

Mannahatta’s modeled reality is a harmonious vision that showcases the best of nature’s resilience and abundance. Here, sylvan ecologies synergistically combine to create a gentle mythology of the island’s natural history. There is no Sisyphean struggle between creation and destruction. As I viewed this algorithmically derived Arcadia, I couldn’t help but wonder how much different the images and the exhibition would be if the true depths of the growth and decay cycles that govern the forms of nature were plumbed, as the artist Robert Smithson did when he pictured himself one million years ago, “alone on the vast glacier covering Central Park.”

In the silence, he wrote, one would not sense the glacier’s “slow, crushing, scrapping, ripping movement as it advanced south, leaving great masses of rock debris in its wake. Under the frozen depths where the carousel now stands, you would not notice the effect on the bedrock as the glacier moved itself along.” Smithson’s vision, carefully documented with historical and Polaroid images of Central Park, oscillates between creation and destruction. Though a less nominally beautiful vision of nature, Smithson’s embrace of destruction as the necessary seedbed for a lively, diverse, and creative growth is perhaps more truthful.

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Protest: Lisa Kersavage
The Municipal Art Society's counter proposal for Admiral's Row, which retains all possible historic buildings.
Courtesy MAS

It has been a rough few weeks for Admiral’s Row, a collection of historic buildings on the edge of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In response to the Yard’s plans to purchase the land and demolish all the historic buildings—making way for a Fairway-sized grocery store and other retail and industrial uses—the Army National Guard Bureau recently recommended that only two of eleven historic structures must be preserved. That is far fewer than the Municipal Art Society and other groups like the National Trust for Historic Preservation had recommended. And on June 19, one of the buildings, Quarters C, collapsed after a month of unusually heavy rain.

The Row’s future may look grim, but the Municipal Art Society of New York remains optimistic that it is still possible to preserve and reuse more than two of these remarkable buildings. Despite the collapse of Quarters C—an outrage given the National Guard’s mandate to protect these historic resources—the Guard’s own studies show that most of the other buildings are structurally sound and can be rehabilitated. And MAS has developed six site plans that show it is possible to preserve the buildings and also provide the community with a grocery store it so sorely needs. In other words, there is no need to choose between preservation and produce.

At the heart of our plan is a respect for the Row’s irreplaceable historic fabric. Located at Flushing Avenue and Navy Street, the site includes 10 houses, constructed from the mid-19th century until 1901, which housed high-ranking naval officers until the early 1970s. An adjacent timber shed dates from the 1830s, and is believed to be the only mid-19th-century survivor of this building type among Navy yards throughout the United States. Long and narrow, the shed’s form made it ideal for storing ship masts as they cured.

Together, these residential and naval service buildings are incredibly significant to the Navy Yard, the borough of Brooklyn, and the history of the U.S. Navy. Although Admiral’s Row and the timber shed have been allowed to deteriorate for forty years, they retain a great deal of both exterior and interior architectural detail. In fact, a National Guard report found that the Admiral’s Row district retains an extremely high level of historic integrity.

The structures were used and maintained by the Navy until the 1970s, when the Navy Yard was closed. New York City subsequently purchased the majority of the Yard from the federal government, with the exception of this parcel. The National Guard now wants to sell this property to the city, which will lease the land to the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation.

The Guard’s recommendation that only two of the eleven historic buildings be preserved stems from the Section 106 process, which is a federally-mandated review that requires federal agencies to study the impact of their actions upon important historic buildings. As part of the process, the Navy Yard disclosed their plans to develop the site with a 65,000-square-foot grocery store (approximately the size of the Fairway in Red Hook), a large surface parking lot for at least 300 cars, and additional retail and industrial space on the site. Throughout the process, Navy Yard officials have maintained that they can only proceed with the development if they demolish all of the historic buildings.

While MAS agreed with the Navy Yard and local residents that a grocery store was needed in the area, we did not agree that the best plan was to create a suburban-style store set in a sea of parking. Given that the historic buildings occupy about 25 percent of the six-acre site, we were certain that alternatives could be sought that allowed for both preservation and development.

Last fall, MAS—a consulting party in the Section 106 process—presented six different alternative plans, demonstrating that it is possible to retain the historic buildings while also allowing for the construction of the supermarket and new retail and industrial space. By reconfiguring or reducing the parking, and shifting the location of the new buildings, a greener and more pedestrian-friendly site could be achieved.

These plans were developed after a visioning session in which community representatives, architects, preservationists, and others came together to brainstorm about ways to save the buildings while furthering the needs of the community and the mission of the Navy Yard. We worked to not only preserve as many buildings as possible, but to promote sustainability and foster small businesses and new employment opportunities. Renderings produced by Andrew Burdick of the studio collaborative and Architecture for Humanity New York illustrated the stark differences between the concept behind one of MAS’s alternatives and the Navy Yard proposal.

So we were disappointed when, on May 27, the National Guard released its recommendation calling for preservation of only the timber shed and one of the houses, Building B. While these are two of the most significant buildings, preserving only two is inadequate. The Guard has made it clear that the preservation of these two buildings is a minimum requirement, and MAS will continue to advocate for more preservation. We are also calling on the National Guard to take three specific steps to help balance preservation and development interests.

Most urgently, the Guard must stabilize the buildings. MAS had known that the collapsed Quarters C, unlike most other Admiral’s Row buildings, had major structural problems due to a fire. That said, we are disappointed that the Guard had not better secured the buildings to protect them from further damage from the elements. The Guard must make necessary repairs to stabilize the 19th-century structures as the process of deciding the buildings’ future moves forward.

Secondly, the National Guard is required by law to sell the land to the city at fair market value—an amount that has not been made public. MAS has argued that requiring the retention and rehabilitation of the buildings will lower the fair market value, thereby freeing up money for the Navy Yard to renovate the historic buildings. We have asked the National Guard to explore this possibility.

Finally, the Guard should require an RFP that incorporates the preservation of more historic buildings. Once the Guard announced their proposed mitigation of preserving two buildings, the Navy Yard moved to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for development of a grocery store on the site. That RFP will be released within the next two months, and will call for the construction of a 40,000-square-foot grocery store (smaller than originally proposed), an employment center, and additional industrial space, as well as the retention and renovation of the two historic buildings. MAS believes the RFP must include the preservation of more buildings.

None of our work in developing alternative plans would have been possible without volunteer support from architects and developers. And now we need help again. During the RFP process, MAS hopes to identify developers who would consider preserving more of the buildings. We also would like to provide potential responders with practical information on how additional historic buildings can be integrated into new development on the site. We could use expert assistance in developing revised site plans specifically tailored to the information provided in the RFP, and aid in identifying tax credits and financial incentives to help fund the preservation of these buildings.

The Municipal Art Society will continue to advocate for New York’s architectural heritage. We strongly believe that more of these very significant historic buildings can be retained and incorporated into this development. Our fight is far from over. We welcome your expertise and advice as our important work continues.

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Nobody at the Wheel

Grim news awaits public projects and the professionals who want to contract for them. Even when New York gets its state government back, the state will be operating without permanent chiefs at its key transportation and development agencies. That impasse, while more bureaucratic in nature than the June 8 coup in the state senate, means little is likely to occur on major development initiatives until 2011


Governor David Paterson
 
FOrmer MTA Director Elliott Sander
 
Former Development Chief MArisa LavGo
 
Courtesy New York State; NY1; Tracy Collins
 

Well before Governor David Paterson lost control of the senate, many of his appointees had already fled their positions. Today, the heads of New York State’s Department of Transportation, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and Empire State Development Corporation are all working under interim status. MTA executive director Elliott G. Sander quit hours after the state legislature narrowly approved a flawed bailout package on May 7. The ESDC’s chief, Marisa Lago, stepped down on June 6. Both agencies steer the fate of Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards, two stalled development sites, and of broader transit spending.

The rush to the exits, said Regional Plan Association analyst Neysa Pranger, “is coming at a very bad time,” since Congress will draft a new appropriations plan for federal transportation grants this fall, and the state will vote on long-term capital plans around the same time. “For the MTA, there aren’t that many candidates out there who qualify, and it’s even harder because the governor is not attractive to work for right now.”

Assuming that the senate resumes its business by early July, it remains doubtful that any of these agencies will have a new head before the gubernatorial election in 2010. Longtime Albany-watchers hesitate even to toss out names. Howard Roberts, head of New York City Transit, scores high marks from advocates. (So did Sander.) Transit chiefs from San Francisco and Atlanta, also well-regarded, seem unlikely to accept a job that may end with Paterson’s in January 2011.

This means big projects will continue without the expertise or the leadership to make them quick or transparent. Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the New York Public Interest Group and head of the Straphangers Campaign, said the refinancing of Atlantic Yards, approved at an MTA board meeting on June 24, will probably be as opaque as any deal the MTA cut before the reformist Sander arrived. Russianoff said interim head Helena Williams seems interested in transparency, but also lacks authority to impose it. “She has limited wiggle room,” Russianoff explained.

Taken further, this stasis hurts the region. When lawmakers vote on capital plans, they may privilege roads and bridges over transit. Deals like the East Side Access project to bring Long Island Railroad commuters to Grand Central Terminal have stalwart advocates and will survive. But the absence of persuasive managers will shrink the scope of transit and transit-focused development, say experts. “The federal dance that goes on requires somebody with the ability to look ahead,” said Pranger. That quality is lacking in Paterson’s Albany.

 

A version of this article appeared in AN 12_07.08.2009.

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Abandoning CAMP
WRNS's proposal for the Contemporary Art Museum of the Presidio, which attempted to disturb the historic fabric as little as possible.
Courtesy WRNS

In an announcement Wednesday, Gap founder Donald Fisher said he was withdrawing his plan for a contemporary art museum in the Presidio’s Main Post. Ever since Fisher first unveiled the renderings of a luminous white box by New York’s Richard Gluckman in 2007, the plan has met with fierce opposition by preservationists, who have objected to a modern building on the historic parade grounds.

Despite several iterations of a new design by San Francisco’s WRNS Studio, which took over the commission from Gluckman and sunk much of the 100,000-square-foot museum below ground, while attempting to make the above-ground portion look like a glass pavilion, it wasn’t enough to quell the dissent.

Gluckman Mayner's proposal, which mirrored the geometries of historic quarters along the Presidio parade ground.
Courtesy Gluckman Mayner

“It’s become clear over the course of the two years that the Main Post wasn’t going to be a good fit,” said Dana Polk, spokeswoman for the Presidio. The decision was influenced by a report issued in April by the National Park Service, which stated that “the new construction will dominate the head of the Main Parade and will negatively impact the setting, feeling, association and historic character of the property.”

According to Alex Tourk, the Fishers’ spokesman, the family is still considering three alternative sites in the Presidio—the Commissary (a building in Crissy Field that is the preferred location for a museum under the 2002 Presidio Trust management plan), an area south of Moraga Avenue (across the street from the current location) and Fort Scott (an open field in the northwest corner of the Presidio)—while also looking at other potential sites in the city and other municipalities. The project, budgeted at $150 million, was also going to include $10 million to turn the parade grounds into open space.

 

 

 

 

Several proposals including one exhibited at 3a Gallery (above, left) and  WRNS's (above, right) sought to hide at least part of their mass below ground, to no avail.
Courtesy 3A Gallery, Wrns

“Mr. Fisher is passionate about the Presidio and leaving his collection as a legacy to the city,” said Tourk. He also said that the Fishers were “thrilled” with the work of WRNS Studio and had no plans to change architects.

The announcement came after the second round of public comments on the environmental impact report closed on June 1; the final report is scheduled for the fall. Other proposals for the 120-acre Main Post are continuing to move forward: a lodge along the eastern edge, the restoration of the historic movie theatre, and a new heritage center. And early this fall, another museum will be opening at the Main Post—the Walt Disney Family Museum, in a former army barracks building renovated by Page & Turnbull.

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Schrager in Chicago
Ian Schrager is coming to Chicago. Crain's reports that the hotelier, known for his high design boutique properties, is looking to buy and renovate the Ambassador East and it’s famous restaurant, the Pump Room. The Gold Coast hotel was built in 1926 has 285 rooms. The restaurant was a hangout for actors and musicians passing through Chicago and is mentioned in songs by Judy Garland and Phil Collins, who titled his album “No Jacket Required” after the Pump Room’s dress code. Perhaps Schrager will hire Peter Zumthor to redesign the hotel.
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A Park Fit For Queens
A rendering of the new park, with apartment towers rising behind it.
ARUP, Thomas Balsley, Weiss/Manfredi/Courtesy NYC EDC

As if developing affordable housing were not hard enough, carving out a slice for middle- and moderate-income New Yorkers is even harder. The Hunter’s Point South project was developed largely to address that problem, and with the city’s acquisition of the 30-acre spit of land just south of the Queensboro Bridge today—along with the release of new plans for the complex’s 11 acres of waterfront open space—this community-in-the-making can move forward.

“With the acquisition of the site and the start of the design work,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said in a statement, “we are setting the stage for the largest investment in permanently affordable housing for our police officers, nurses, teachers and public employees and other middle income New Yorkers.”

The city’s Economic Development Corporation paid $100 million to the Empire State Development Corporation and the Port Authority for the land. It will house dozens of apartment towers similar to those at the Queens West development to the north. Of the 5,000 units that will be created, roughly 60 percent will be affordable, targeted to New Yorkers making between $55,000 and $158,000.

The concept plan for the new park. (Click to Enlarge)
ARUP, Thomas Balsley, Weiss/Manfredi/Courtesy NYC EDC

The project sits on the former site of the Daily News’ printing plant. Originally planned as the third and fourth phases of Queens West, the project stalled during the early ‘90s recession. Revived by the mayor as part of the city’s 2012 Olympic bid, it was later repurposed for affordable housing, and the 30-acre site was rezoned last year.

A key part of the plan is reconnecting Queens with its formerly industrial waterfront. To this end the city hired landscape architecture firm Thomas Balsley Associates, who have brought on Weiss/Manfredi as co-designers of the waterfront parkland. Arup is responsible for all engineering on the site, as well as project management.

“It’s nice to bring a park like this anywhere, but especially nice to bring it to an underserved corner of Queens,” Thomas Balsley said in a telephone interview. The architect happens to have experience in the area, as he developed the open space plan for Queens West.

Balsley described the new park as a seemless progression from the man-made to the natural, as it transitions from open recreational fields, concession stands, and an urban beach into lagoons and picnic lawns. But rather than create signage making these uses explicit, the designers are taking a more intuitive approach, letting the landscape direct the users. There is also a linear park that reaches up one of the central streets, creating a clear link between the park and its new neighborhood and helping to drawn residents in.

Details of the Promontory and Linear Park, with conceptual inspiration.
 
 
The Green, a massive ovoid lawn, will be a focal point, while the playground and basketball courts located just north, in the Grove, will be dotted with trees to emphasize a remove from the city beyond. To the south are tighter paths and more passive recreation. A small peninsula is where native species begin to take over, leading to a 25-foot-high promontory created by infill originally trucked in to make space for the printing plant. “That’s an elevation one does not experience in any park on the East River, so we wanted to keep it intact,” Balsley said.

While most of the park’s waterfront edges will be protected, get-downs will allow direct access to the water. In at least two places, paths will be built up to provide observation decks, as will the roof of the multi-use building just to the Green’s south. On the southern tip, at the mouth of Newtown Creek, will be a kayak launch. Balsley said the mix of uses would be similar to those in his work on Riverside Park South.

“We’re not dictating much,” Balsley said. “We think people find their own spots, and our job is to set the stage for that to happen.
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John Johansen Is 93!
On June 27, Open House New York celebrates one of our last links to the early history of modern architecture with a birthday tribute to John Johansen. Long admired for his intricate concrete forms like the U.S. Embassy in Dublin (1963) and far-out assemblages like Oklahoma City’s Mummers Theater (1970), Johansen has blazed a highly original trail over a career spanning more than a half-century. Educated in Walter Gropius’ first Harvard class—and later marrying Gropius’ daughter Ati—Johansen studied alongside I.M. Pei, Paul Rudolph, and Bruno Zevi, drank heavily with Marcel Breuer and Le Corbusier, learned color theory with Josef Albers and history with Siegfried Giedion, and worked with Gordon Bunshaft at SOM. The only surviving member of the New Canaan–based Harvard 5 (with Eliot Noyes, Breuer, Landis Gore, and Philip Johnson), Johansen is also known for designing some of the most unique private houses on the East Coast. One of them, his own country house—a truncated and translucent fiberglass pyramid in Dutchess County—has now been sold, and John will move out next fall.

As a last hurrah, OHNY is sponsoring a 93rd birthday party for John, and inviting the public to tour the house next weekend, with buses picking up celebrants in Manhattan and driving them to John’s house. Please join Barry Bergdoll, Michael Webb, Lebbeus Woods, Tom Hanrahan, Anthony Vidler, and many others for the special Saturday birthday party.

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The Wing that Soars
The Modern Wing offers views of the city, Millennium Park, and Gerhard Richter's Woman Descending the Stair (1965).
Dave Jordano

Even if you’ve been to every Renzo Piano–designed museum of the last ten years, you may be surprised at how much there is to admire in his new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. Though not without flaws, the addition is Piano’s best museum in America since the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas of 2003, and the best building in downtown Chicago since the John Hancock opened in 1970.

The Modern Wing, like the soaring Hancock, shows Chicago’s ambition. Conceived more than ten years ago, it ended up costing $294 million, and is likely to be the last great museum addition of its kind in America for some time. Its 264,000 square feet enlarge the Art Institute by a third and make it the second largest art museum in the United States. Chicago, no longer really even the “Second City,” is competing with New York again—at least in its mind, and that’s a good thing.


A large Multipurpose space, Griffin Court, forms a north-south Spine in the wing that is filled with natural Light.
Charles G. Young/Interactive Design Architects
 
The addition as seen from the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park.
Charles G. Young/Interactive Design Architects
 
The third Floor galleries, devoted to the Institute's modern collection, are almost entirely Daylit.
Dave Jordano
 
 

The addition allows the Art Institute to show off its encyclopedic collection, which includes its modern and contemporary art, such pieces as a suite of color panels by Gerhard Richter; two rooms for the gown, tissue box, and other odd objects and wallpapers by Robert Gober; and a gallery for the newly-acquired Hinoki by Charles Ray, a trunk of an oak tree on its side, hand-carved out of cypress. You can no longer think of the institute as a limestone building full of French Impressionist works. The wing is a game-changer.

Ten years ago, the Art Institute hired Pritzker Prize–winner Renzo Piano to design a smaller addition on the south side of the building. When Mayor Daley’s plans for Millennium Park, which was to cover over rail yards and parking lots downtown, grew to become Chicago’s most important project since the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Art Institute shifted its new addition to the north to face it. Accordingly, the Modern Wing grew in scope and cost.

Millennium Park, of course, features Frank Gehry’s band shell, waves of undulating stainless steel that reflect light and give the city pure joy. Piano said at the time that his building would engage in a “dialogue” with Gehry’s work, and it has. Gehry’s curving pavilion is directly framed by Piano’s rectilinear gallery windows; outside, Gehry’s steel reflects in the Modern Wing’s glass.

At the wing’s inception, an Art Institute trustee told me, “We’ll have to spend a lot of money on details; but if we spend the money, I know we’ll get a masterwork.” And so they did. The economic downturn after 9/11 didn’t stop the project. Having been called upon to fund Millennium Park, wealthy Chicagoans then ponied up for the museum so that for the first time in far too long, a grand civic monument could be properly conceived and executed in their city.

The detailing throughout the wing is at the highest level. From handrails to wooden floors to ventilation systems, the master architect got much of what he asked for.

The main sensation in the Modern Wing is its light. Piano’s system of louvers on the roof block the harsh southern light, admitting the calmer northern light, filtering it and diffusing it through vellum. The effect comes as close to perfection here as he has ever achieved, creating spaces that are alive yet serene. Looking up, the white aluminum blades are elegant and less fussy than Piano’s recent work in Los Angeles.

Moving the wing to the north side also allowed Piano to open that entire facade with floor-to-ceiling glass. This gives stunningly sensuous views of Millennium Park across the street, while the double-layer glass blocks the noise of the city. When you see people walking in the gardens across the way, it’s as if Piano has taken a masterpiece of the Art Institute—say, Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—and brought it to life.

Other works like Matisse’s large Bathers by a River gain in juxtaposition with the colorful gardens and water elements of the park outside. Constantin Brancusi’s reflective forms by the window engage with Anish Kapoor’s shiny, bean-shaped Cloud Gate outside, one of the great crowd-pleasing pieces of public art in the park. The south wall overlooking a new garden is also glass, covered with integrated thin scrims when it’s not overcast.

All Renzo Piano museum wings are similar but are not created equal. One may wonder why Chicago did so well. Years ago, I walked through the New National Gallery in Berlin with Piano. He was in awe of the place. It has minimal amounts of glass, steel, and stone, but is elegant, refined, and uplifting to the spirit. It was designed, of course, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a German living in Chicago.

Piano brings some of that back to the Windy City. His exterior is boxy, glassy, and symmetrical like a temple, in the same way that Mies’ was. His slender, white-steel, tapering columns hold up a wafer-like flat white roof that extends out over the galleries; Piano calls it a “flying carpet,” and it’s part of his renowned system of getting natural light into galleries. The roof is Miesian, yet its horizontal thrust also recalls local hero Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style. The platonic cube of the main galleries, with ornament on the side, reminds one of Louis Sullivan’s Midwest banks. Like those, this is a jewel box that contains great treasure.

Piano deftly wove his building into Chicago’s history: He added parallel planes of Indiana limestone walls to complement the Art Institute’s beloved 1893 Beaux Arts building. Piano’s flat facade contains Millennium Park, and his transparent walls allow the grand urban square to transition gracefully from nature and pleasure to city and culture.

Yet not all is right at the Modern Wing. While the main building has a satisfying cube shape, other volumes have been messily added to the east side. First comes the nave-like entrance court, and then another is tacked onto that for more galleries and the restaurant. These feel arbitrary.

Moreover, Piano’s museum gives almost no views of Lake Michigan. Windows or a terrace on the east side would have offered spectacular views of Grant Park and the lake. The Modern Wing is a large intrusion into the “sacred” lakefront parks of Chicago; all the more reason to give back new lake views.

A 620-foot-long pedestrian bridge designed by Piano also mars the project. It blocks the facade, also seems tacked on, and is not well resolved where it meets the adjacent park. The bridge would not be necessary if city authorities had seen the wisdom of closing Monroe Street between the park and the museum, which would also help usher families into the museum.

Piano’s bridge again engages in a dialogue with Gehry, whose bridge in Millennium Park winds left and right like a river. Piano’s is a straight shot up from the park to a third floor sculpture terrace, free to the public, another stroke of civic generosity.

The Art Institute still straddles working train tracks. Part of Piano’s design was to open windows in the existing hall connecting the two parts. He wanted even larger windows, which would have been an improvement.

The museum is rightfully proud of its dignified yet intimate Beaux Arts entrance on Michigan Avenue, which makes Chicagoans feel like they’re going home when they go in, and that makes them feel like part-owners of the collection. Still, many will take Piano’s entrance to the north, which has a more commercial feel. It’s a large space: light-filled, double height, mall-like. Will this change the connection that the next generation feels to the place? Thankfully, the gift shop and cafe in this arcade are not front and foremost.

The Art Institute is seeking LEED Silver certification for the Modern Wing. For a city and a mayor that crow about being the “greenest” in America, a higher level of sustainability could have been achieved.

In the main, though, the Modern Wing is a triumph, with a civilizing presence. Piano has resolved the tension between what he calls a “beautiful fragility” and the need for strength. Power brokers in Chicago felt the city deserved an example of the world’s best contemporary architecture, and they got one.

Lifson and Piano discuss the new museum in an exclusive interview.

The secrets behind the museum can be found just below the surface.

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Hiding in Spammed Sight
We've been bombarded on the blog with increasingly insidious spam over the past few months, which led us to installing CAPTCHA to filter out the bots from the peeps. Hopefully it doesn't cause too much of a problem to all you commenters out there. Meanwhile, as we tried to clean out much of that spam, we came across two particularly compelling comments (not that the rest of you aren't special). The first were these great photos of the Baldwin Hill Scenic Overlook and the second was a particularly poetic remembrance of Max Bond that appeared some three months after his death. You can find both after the jump. An Architect Plans For Peaceful Plains by Frederick B. Hudson The poet Kahlil Gibran hoped that the sons and daughters of the universe not dwell in tombs made by the dead for the living. The native of Lebanon encouraged them to hope that the valleys were your streets, and the green paths your alleys, that you might seek one another through vineyards, and come with the fragrance of the earth in your garments. The lyrical dreams have come to fruition in the career of J. Max Bond, Jr., an internationally known architect whose buildings ranging from libraries to cultural centers in sites as diverse as Zimbabwe and Harlem, New York have included the dreams and aspirations of those who inhabit them. Mr. Bond, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Design School, has for over forty years sought sustainable development for the citizens of the world. Defined by urban planners as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to met their own needs, this concept has found credibility within the United Nations and other allied organizations within the last twenty years. Max Bond started on his quest for this inclusive value system in Ghana in 1964 as an architect for the Ghana National Construction Company. He designed the Bolgatanga Library. He took the needs of the culture in consideration in the design of this project by organizing the space in consideration for the needs of the users of the research facility to meet and share information within the cultural context of African arts and culture. These concerns have marked his work since he feels that the European Bauhaus method of architecture which feels that architecture should be responsive to the needs and influences of the modern industrial world. Bond feels that some housing in Harlem reflects society’s lack of concern for the residents-it is very stark and similar and makes the people in it almost anonymous. He notes that some cities have had to destroy this type of public housing because the social disruption is so intense that it renders life unbearable. “Public housing in Harlem tends to dehumanize the residents It does not make the residents feel that they own the housing. The firms that designed this housing after World War II were not minority owned firms, they went along with the standard concept of the time which was about warehousing people. “In contrast some of the first public housing in Harlem which was the East River housing was designed by a mixed race group of architects in the ’30s was very warm and welcoming to the residents. You enter the houses through courtyards. There is a lot of sculpture in the courtyards which was done by the WPA. It is very humane.” These concerns propelled Bond to establish and lead the Architects Renewal Committee of Harlem(ARCH) in the late 1960s. He was inspired by the presence of brownstones in Harlem which reflected a desire to provide good , stable housing for the middle class in the early 20th century. He and a staff of other architects and lawyers stove to provide poorer community residents with options that they could present to city officials and planning boards as alternatives to establishment plans for renovation and renewal. He encouraged them to consider the effects of neighborhoods plans on the development of neighborhoods. Always the educator, he rose from assistant professor to Chairman of Colu mbia University Graduate School of Architecture and Planning from 1970 to 1985. Among his private commissions during this time was the design of the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He feels that the construction of this building was a prototype of how architects can best serve their community. Jean Blackwell Hutson at first presided over a decaying Carnegie library building where the collection was housed, but through a personal campaign secured public money to construct a new facility after library officials had ignored her pleas for support. Bond intentionally designed the building in 1979 using masonry rather that from glass and steel since more black laborers had skills in these areas. He got very involved in the contracting out of labor to make sure that minority workers got ample share of the work. His design plans specified that the wood used for the paneling and the tables were to be made from a certain type of African wood. When the contractors asks where the wood could be found, he led them to an African company based in the World Trade Center who could supply the wood. No excuses allowed! He says he was able to do this fundamentally because he cared. His concern coupled with a strong advisory board was able to wield influence in the corridors of powers to bring diversity to this effort. When he was asked to design the new university in Zimbabwe, he tried to understand what materials could be supplied locally as well as what concerns were appropriate for the climate there. He designed an environment which provided an updraft which would cool the building during the day with materials that would hold heat during the night for warmth. This is true planning for the future. He also designed the roofs for rainwater collection and reuse. Concerns for maximum use of local labor was incorporated in the design plans. Laborers in the country had been exploited for years by colonial powers and had skills, but they had been denied managerial responsibilities. Bond and his team made every effort to specify use of materials that local natives had worked with in the past, thus creating career paths for local residents. Bond sees buildings as potential magnets for human activity and interaction-his designs for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum reflect his desire for people of good will to meet on common ground for understanding. He recently had significant concerns about the planning process used to rebuild the destroyed twin World Trade Center Towers since he felt that all types of people should have consulted about the use of the land. ” There was an immediate decision to rebuild the commercial use of the land. But all kinds of people should have been consulted about the very use of the land. It could have been a park or anything. Poets, dancers, artists as well as architects should have been consulted about this space which was created by tragedy.” Bond contrasts this exclusive process of land use to the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan where the minority community rose up when the bones of their ancestors were discovered beneath public property. “People demanded change.” A true visionary, Bond is committed to reminding residents of the world’s cities and villages of the admonition of Gibran: In their fear your forefathers gathered you too near together. And that fear shall endure a little longer. A little longer shall your city walls separate your hearths from your fields.
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The Finished Line
Sunset over Hollywood Park.
Alkes/Panoramio

A recent decision by the Inglewood City Council has paved the way for a real estate development to replace Hollywood Park, one of California’s few remaining thoroughbred racetracks. After the council approved a final environmental impact report and zoning change for the $2 billion, 238-acre project on June 3, preservationists and horsing racing fans have been chomping at the bit to stop it.

The proposed project in the densely populated South Bay region of Los Angeles would create a new neighborhood with 3,000 residential units ranging from market rate single-family residences to multi-level apartment complexes. Commercial, retail and entertainment components are also planned, as well as 25 acres of open space highlighted by an existing lake in the center of the racetrack.

An existing casino would be updated and joined with a new 300-room hotel. Affordable housing is not currently incorporated into the master plan, but according to council member Ralph Franklin, the city will consider using the four acres put aside for civic use to develop housing for low-income residents.

A proposed redevelopment plan for Hollywood Park would replace everything but the tower-topped casino in the background.
Courtesy Wilson Meany Sullivan

Wilson Meany Sullivan is the developer of both Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows, a San Mateo racetrack that was demolished in 2008 to make way for a real estate venture resembling the one proposed in Inglewood. But the 82-acre development has come to a halt as a result of the economic downturn and is on hold for the time being. Currently, all that remains of historic Bay Meadows is a mound of concrete rubble.

That’s what worries opponents of the Hollywood Park development. The housing market in Inglewood, like the rest of the nation, has dropped out in the past year and there are already more than 500 homes in foreclosure within the same zip code as the proposed development.

The proposed Arroyo Plaza.
Courtesy Wilson Meany Sullivan

Diane Becker, a vocal advocate of the park and founder of Save Hollywood Park, says she does not understand how the city could allow the destruction of the landmark racetrack in light of what’s happened at Bay Meadows. “I would think any city would love to have something like this [racetrack]. It just doesn’t make economic sense to tear it down. Hollywood Park is too important,” she said.

Becker and a group of Hollywood Park supporters have been lobbying city hall, insisting that the destruction of the 71-year-old track will be a significant economic and cultural loss for Inglewood. Becker said she did not rule out future lawsuits to try to stop the project from going forward. She and the other supporters of the track see the mixed-use development as contributing to urban sprawl, adding nothing of architectural significance to the region.

Cinema Plaza.
Courtesy Wilson Meany Sullivan

But Kevin Tyrrell, a principal at L.A.-based Quatro Design Group, believes his design team is running a different race. (In addition to Quatro, the designers include Cooper Robertson & Partners of New York and San Francisco-based Baldauf Catton Von Eckartsberg. Mia Lehrer + Associates developed the landscape design.)

Tyrrell sees the development as urban infill and a way to intimately stitch together neighborhoods that are currently separated by the expansive grounds and asphalt parking lots. He says the team chose to focus on a variety of typologies rather than a specific architectural style in an effort to create a diverse aesthetic that might appear to have grown more organically. They emphasized the relationships between buildings, streets, and greenways, placing less prominence on the car.  “The plan creates walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods with a lot of open space,” Tyrrell said.


A postcard of the racetrack from the 1940s, during its inaugural decade.
Courtesy Metro Library and Archive/Flickr

In regard to the opposition to the project, Tyrrell said the designers take their responsibility very seriously. “There is the potential to have a major impact on a city,” he said. “We see this project for the transformational potential that it has.”

A few zoning issues remain to be resolved by the Inglewood City Council, such as rezoning the site away from commercial recreation, and approving proposed general land use amendments. A final public hearing on July 8 is expected to resolve these matters. Once finalized, Hollywood Park will remain open at least one more year, or until construction on the development can actually begin.

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Unveiled: Lincoln Building
Green screens provide shade, cooling, and a little bit of color to a hopeful project in a downtrodden neighborhood.
Courtesy Brininstool + Lynch

Located in the northeast corner of Syracuse’s Near Westside, the Lincoln Building is scheduled to be the first completed project under the initiative funded by Syracuse University and New York State to revitalize the dilapidated neighborhood. Collaborating with Syracuse University School of Architecture, the Syracuse Center of Excellence, UPSTATE, and other local consultants and community members, Chicago-based Brininstool + Lynch redesigned the turn-of-the-century brick warehouse as a commercial and residential facility targeting a LEED Platinum rating.

Firm principal Brad Lynch described the four-story building, which will provide a live-work space for visiting artists and musicians, as a “pretty basic loft conversion” aside from the numerous green technologies it will integrate. A green roof system will allow up to 15,000 gallons of rainwater to be collected in an underground cistern, meeting nearly 25 percent of the building’s annual water demand and piping the excess to the site’s rain garden.

A green screen attached to the north, south, and west sides of the facade adds to the building’s energy efficiency with the shade its plantings will provide, but is more important as a symbol of the Near Westside’s future. “It’s more of a billboard for what’s happening with the building and the neighborhood in terms of technology,” said Lynch. “The most important thing is to revitalize the energy of the neighborhood by getting as many people in there as possible.”

Architect: Brininstool + Lynch
Client: Near Westside Initiative
Location: Syracuse, New York
Completion: July 2010