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Recession Tales: Harry Cobb
With this conversation at his home office on January 31 with Harry Cobb, a founder of Pei Cobb Freed, AN  launches a series of interviews with architects from different generations talking about their own day-to-day career experiences with downturns in the past. Cobb, now 82, was born during the Great Depression. He based his decision to become an architect on a trip abroad for which his mother managed to save by entering the real estate market. The Architect’s Newspaper: What was the economic situation when you first started working as an architect? Harry Cobb: I graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design 60 years ago and immediately went to work. It was 1948 and I have worked ever since, but I can’t say I know much about downturns and I don’t think my experience is atypical for an architect. According to Wikipedia, there have been eight recessions in the years I’ve been in practice—the first one was 1953–54—and those recessions have occupied 12 of those 60 years. But if you ask me what I remember about them, I’d say not much, because they simply didn’t register in my recollections by comparison with what I would call the vicissitudes, the highs and lows, of practice, which in my case have not even been related to recessions. When, if ever, did you become aware of the boom-bust cycle in building? In the early years, our work was driven by our relationship with William Zeckendorf, Sr. He was an imaginative, energetic, and ambitious developer, and I.M. Pei, Jim Freed, and I worked for him as in-house architects for about ten years. (I.M. had been a critic at the GSD when I was a student.) Zeckendorf was an extraordinarily ambitious entrepreneur and risk-taker. He ultimately went bankrupt, but that was after we had already branched off and established an independent practice. The only period I can recall that the profile of our practice was driven by a downturn was in the 1973–74 recession. It was a big one, and the first to last more than a year. That was the recession that took our firm to Iran. We were active there for four to five years until the revolution, and fortunately, we weren’t working for the government but for private developers. We were also busy because I.M. was in the middle of the East Building for the National Gallery of Art in D.C., which was a very high-profile project. But you can’t sustain a practice on one project, no matter how high-profile. We considered ourselves fortunate when we were approached by those developers from Iran. But interestingly, what I remember most about Iran is not so much about the projects—none of them got built—but about going to Isfahan and Persepolis to see the splendid buildings. In any case, Pei and Freed were more involved with those jobs, and I was just stopping over on my way to a major mixed-use project I was working on in Melbourne, Australia, called Collins Place, which was well underway. But don’t attach too much importance to Iran, it just happened to be where we turned when things dried up here. Did that first experience condition you somehow to try to prepare for the next one? If you’re asking if we felt at risk, I would have to say architects are always at risk. I’ve never known a time since I came to New York when I did not feel we were at risk. I don’t think you can enter into architecture if you don’t have a tolerance for risk, especially if what you are interested in is the art of architecture, not the business. How do you cope? After a while, you realize the sky isn’t really falling and you just live with it. Every practice inevitably has periods of great financial risk—and these may not have to do with recessions. I associate risk instead with projects that were poorly managed, and led us to lose a lot of money—although they might be the same ones that launched our reputation. Sometimes I feel our practice has raised bad management to an art form! What are the events that have shaped your experience? This recession is by far the worst since the Great Depression and is undoubtedly going to register. But the other eight I could not describe as very significant events in my life. The significant events—both for good and bad—related more to what was going on in the practice. No recession could possibly leave a mark on one’s psyche as deep as the problems encountered with the John Hancock Tower [in Boston], or when we spent six years doing a complete overhaul of Kennedy Airport and on the day we finished 900 drawings, the project was canceled. And it was not because of a downturn but because of politics. Those disappointments are much more vivid in my mind. How did the Hancock catastrophe, as you called it, impact your firm? A few years after that episode we were in a sense blacklisted by developers and corporations. We were aware our practice was badly hurt—it was on the front page around the world with these horrible pictures of plywood on the windows. We were considered not safe and that came closer than anything to jeopardizing our existence. But after four or five years, there was a kind of reversal when people said: If those guys are still around, they must be doing something right because they should be dead right now. And we retained the confidence of our clients through the whole episode. In a sense that is the most important achievement of my life—getting that building finished in a way that was not compromised. Did you develop strategies along the way for recovering from setbacks? We’ve never had a strategy, no one has ever gone out on the road to promote work, we’ve just responded to opportunities. We spend a lot of time, of course, in the process of getting work through interviews and, increasingly, through competitions. We’re involved in three major ones right now. We have been fortunate: I wouldn’t call it luck, and you just can’t tell what’s going to come in over the transom. The main thing we’ve always known—you might call it a hedge—is pursuing diversity, both geographically and in types of work. That has always helped to protect us against the collapse of any one sector. How do you feel about this time around? Like all architects, we’re apprehensive, but not in a panic. Partly it’s just a matter of experience. If you live in a profession as long as I have and you are always at risk, you get accustomed to living at the edge of disasters. Someone once told me, or maybe I said it myself: Who speaks of success? Survival is all. And I completely believe that.
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Built for the People of the United States
The Triborough Bridge was built in 1936 with $44.2 million from the Public Works Administration.
Jet Lowe/Courtesy Library of Congress

In 1931, New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt sat in on a roundtable conversation with the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, RPAA members including Lewis Mumford, Benton MacKaye, and Clarence Stein presented the future president with a powerful argument that fallout from the economic collapse of 1929 might be best attacked by following a “new road” of regional planning at a national scale. The governor seemed sympathetic to their ideas, and helped MacKaye launch his ambitious plans for the Appalachian Trail, which began in New York State.

Two years later, when FDR began the historic 100 days of legislation that kicked off the New Deal, the RPAA’s lobbying seemed to have paid off. Roosevelt placed MacKaye in a planning position with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and selected Stein’s partner, Robert Kohn, as the first head of the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration (PWA). But while the RPAA’s progressive goals were embodied in these programs, as the New Deal wore on, its idealism and the scale of its ambition became muddled through political compromises.


MODELED AFTER ENGLISH GARDEN CITIES AND COMPLETED IN 1937, GREENBELT, MARYLAND WAS ONE OF THREE GREENBELT TOWNS CREATED UNDER THE FEDERAL RESETTLEMENT ADMINISTRATION.
COURTESY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Greenbelt Town program, which was supposed to change the face of America with a series of highly rational garden cities, was whittled down to three small projects. And the TVA’s initial steps toward creating a “dynamic regional and interregional economy” were soon shed by its director, Arthur Morgan, who steered the authority toward becoming merely a source of electricity for the industrializing south. This tension—between those with plans to use government action and money to transform the country and those who prefer a more laissez-faire approach focused purely on temporary job creation—is very much alive today as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) works its way through Congress. Like today’s stimulus package, the New Deal started as a jobs-creation program, but it gave rise to profound changes in the landscape and culture that were a natural outgrowth of the era’s newfound belief in the federal government’s ability to play a transformational role. As we debate what many call “the New New Deal,” the lessons of the 1930s remind us that a focus on job creation need not preclude a commitment to the broader progressive agenda that made the New Deal so far-reaching.

The New Deal’s largest and best-known agency, the one that became synonymous with the entire program, was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Enacted in 1935, it received more money and attention than any other of the Roosevelt administration’s initiatives. By 1941, the WPA had spent approximately $11.4 billion ($169 billion in today’s money). Of this massive investment, $4 billion went to highway and street projects; $1 billion to public buildings; $1 billion to publicly owned or operated utilities; and another $1 billion that funded initiatives as varied as school lunch programs, the famous Federal Writers Project, and sent photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans out to document the American landscape. By the time it was disbanded by Congress in 1943 as a result of the manufacturing boom created by World War II, the WPA had provided some eight million jobs and had left its mark on nearly every community in America by way of a park, bridge, housing project, or municipal building.


in 1935, the Public works administration allocated $5 million for the original brooklyn college campus.
courtesy brooklyn college

The magnitude of the change created by the WPA’s modernization program was unprecedented among direct federal interventions, and the current recovery bill has the potential to be as, or more, effective. At this writing, ARRA promises $825 billion in economic stimulus, $275 billion of which is tax cuts and $550 billion of which is actual investment. Much of this $550 billion will go to construction projects to bring America’s flagging schools, health care facilities, and infrastructure up to standard and beyond. A recent analysis of the bill from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the following run-down on infrastructure spending: $30 billion for highways, $9 billion for transit, $1.1 billion for Amtrak, $10 billion for science facilities, $3 billion for airports. The list goes on, including appropriations for clean water and restoration of brownfields, but also money for other architecture-related building work: $16 billion for school modernization, $9 billion for Department of Defense projects like VA hospitals and child care centers, and $2.25 billion for rehabilitating public housing.

While the rough balance of funds in the current bill and the WPA evinces a kinship, they will be disbursed in a very different fashion. Harry Hopkins, FDR’s handpicked director of the WPA, worked directly with the states to evaluate and select projects. Other agencies, such as the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA), also had their own directors, their own budgets, and the power to choose how best to spend them. The money in the current stimulus package will be apportioned to the states not through newly created agencies based in D.C.— as was the case in the 1930s—but by existing formulas. These formulas evaluate the needs of various localities by calculating factors that range from demographics, to income levels, to official reports on structures and efficiencies. The formulas have the benefit of distributing funds by objective measures rather than political ones, as goes one criticism of the WPA. However, these measures change little from year to year, and a formula-based system has done little to address infrastructure failings at a regional or even national scale.


the 1940 segment of manhattan's east river drive, sketched by hugh ferriss, received a pwa grant for $4.8 million.
from east river drive (federal works agency. 1940)

What has not changed between now and then is the imperative to choose projects that are ready to start construction immediately. What we might call “shovel-ready” projects were a big part of the WPA agenda, and there were a number of regional plans in place, notably those developed by Robert Moses in New York, that captured an enormous share of federal funds. By 1936, New York City was receiving one seventh of the WPA allotment for the entire country, employed 240,000 people with this money, and was considered “the 49th state” within the WPA. Meanwhile other municipalities floundered in their attempts to draw up plans, and the WPA canceled more than 100 major grants to 11 northeast cities because the blueprints for those projects were not ready. Today’s analog is the “Use it or Lose it” provision in the bill that demands the return of funds if they are not put to work within 120 days. Because of this urgency, many are wary that we will spend $100 billion filling potholes.

There are a few significant projects in New York that promise to make a real difference to the region. One is Access to the Region’s Core, or the ARC tunnel, which will improve transportation between New Jersey and Manhattan. East Side Access, a project that will do the same thing for commuters coming from Long Island, is already under construction, but in dire need of funds. The same can be said for the MTA’s 2nd Avenue Subway project. And then there’s the Fulton Street Transit Center, which promised to become a central element of downtown’s redevelopment before the MTA’s own parlous financial situation put it in jeopardy. These projects, which stand to receive substantial stimulus funding, will undoubtedly improve transportation in the New York region and lay the groundwork for increased demand in the future. But what about transportation between New York and Boston, or New York and Chicago? What about developing a framework for wind power in the tri-state area? What about a comprehensive plan for regional watershed management?


the new deal's heroic ambition is exemplified by the tennessee valley authority's norris dam, completed in 1936.

There is no agency to think about the changing infrastructure needs of the country as a whole. In 2007, a bill was put forth to do just this: The Infrastructure Investment Bank Act would have established a national institution to evaluate project proposals and assemble investment portfolios to pay for them, much like the World Bank does on a global level. The fact that it did not pass Congress speaks to a reluctance in the U.S. to put planning power in the hands of the federal government—the same reluctance that the RPAA came up against in the 1930s.

One of Roosevelt’s first acts of the New Deal, an act some say he first mentioned at that RPAA roundtable meeting in Virginia, was the creation of the TVA. This ambitious project targeted the poorest part of the country, the one hardest hit by the Depression, and took it upon itself to modernize and reinvigorate it. Through a comprehensive regimen of education and infrastructure building—including the construction of 29 hydroelectric dams and even the building of one town—the TVA turned this rural backwater into the nation’s biggest producer of electricity, and one of the backbones of mobilization during WWII. Though it faced determined opposition, and proposals to implement similar regional plans were shot down across the country, the TVA stands as a high water mark.


After the Interstate Highways Act of 1956, the federal government covered 90 percent of costs for road construction, like the 1963 Alexander Hamilton Bridge.
Jack Boucher/COurtesy Library of Congress

The only time in American history that the federal government has been able to enact a national plan was through the Federal Highway Act of 1956, a project whose skeleton was drafted by the NRA during the Depression. While many today dispute the merit of this program, it is instructive to note that the only way Eisenhower was able to sell the highway act to the country was by declaring it vital to national security.

Today we face not nuclear Armageddon but a danger that could, in the long run, prove all the more crippling: our national infrastructure on the brink of collapse. It seems time to draft our own “new road,” one designed not just to pull us out of economic crisis, but also to lay the groundwork that will carry us undiminished into the future.

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CCTV Hotel Ablaze (UPDATE)
Images and reports are spiraling out across the Web of a fire taking hold at the hotel adjacent OMA's CCTV Tower. (Building calls it the TVCC tower.) Details, at least in English, remain slim, but a translation of Chinese reports suggest the fire broke out at 9:21 p.m. local time, or just after eight o'clock this morning in New York. A call to OMA's New York office did confirm that the fire was in their building, which is still under construction, though all further inquiries were directed to the Rotterdam HQ. According to the translated reports, the site is swarmed with fire trucks and emergency responders who are struggling to keep the blaze at bay due to a shortage of water. The Times is reporting that Beijing had been full of fireworks throughout the night as part of lunar New Year celebrations, suggesting a probable cause for a fire that, the Times says, took all of 20 minutes to race from the ground floor to the top of the building. No official word anywhere yet as to the cause of the fire, if anyone was in the building, or if there have been any casualties. The BBC has some video of what can truly be described as an inferno (via Archinect). When we saw the fire, two things immediately came to minde: the tragic fire in August 2007 at 130 Liberty Street (could smoking construction workers be to blame?), as well as the demise of another Dutch master's work, Ben van Berkel's Villa NM, which burned down last year in a mysterious fire. We'll keep you updated as we learn more. Hopefully China correspondent Andrew Yang, who kept stumbling upon the CCTV tower and building paranoia over the last year, can shed some light. UPDATE: So far, only a rote release from OMA HQ, though they are presumably flooded right now, and probably as confused as the rest of us:
The Office for Metropolitan Architecture has learned that there has been a serious fire at the Television Cultural Centre (TVCC), the building adjacent to the headquarters of China Central Television (CCTV). The TVCC building was due to open in mid-May and contained a hotel, a theatre, and several studios. As we learn more about this tragedy, we will advise the public further.
In a podcast on the Times's website, reporter Andrew Jacobs essentially ruled out the fireworks thesis he initially posited on the paper's website, as well as surmising that the building was almost certainly damaged beyond repair. He also said the fire was creating quite a psychic stir in the city:
I think it’s very symbolic for Beijingers as an architectural pair. And then the other kind of layer that is the fact that it’s happened on the last day of the New Year. The fire’s still burning, and it’s just about midnight here, so ringing in the new year with this kind of disaster is very inauspicious, at least in the view of many Chinese. A lot of people in the crowd couldn’t help note that and this was just not a good omen for the new year.
He also questioned the Beijing fire department's ability to fight high-rise fires, though as we've noted above, that is even a difficult proposition here in New York. The Times is also reporting now that the fire is believed to have started around 8:30 p.m. local time, though possibly as early as 7:45 p.m. Bloomberg is reporting a representative for Mandarin Oriental--the operator of the 241-room, 522-foot tall hotel--saying that no one was injured. The AP quotes a gloomy OMAer at the site:
Erik Amir a senior architect at building designers OMA said the fire had destroyed years of hard work. "It really has been a rough 6-7 years for architects who worked on this project," said Amir, who rushed to the site after hearing of the fire. "I think it's really sad that this building is destroyed before it can be opened to the public," he said.
UPDATE 2: AN contributer Aric Chen reports. UPDATE 3: Little new news thus far, though people continue to push the fireworks allegations, including the Washington Post. Its report does include a good deal of news from the state news agency, chinanews.com, including that there are still no confirmed casualties, though seven firefighters have been hospitalized. The Post also reports that while fireworks are normally illegal in downtown Beijing, a reprieve was given for this year's New Years celebrations, though no explanation is given as to why this year was any different than those in the past. The Post also carried this rather poetic firsthand account:
"The building was like an oven, red inside," said Hu Jing, a 26-year-old paralegal who works in a building opposite the CCTV tower and noticed it burning just after 8:30. "In less than twenty minutes, the fire had engulfed half the building. Within half an hour, all of it was on fire. I thought, there goes billions of dollars, just burning."
Jeff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG airs an idea we'd been thinking of for much of the day, as well, that this was the rather literal pop of the construction bubble that has patronized architects, for better or worse, over the past few years:
Amongst many, many signs that the building boom has come to an end, from gridlocks of cars abandoned at the Dubai airport by fleeing workers to massive holes in the urban surface of Chicago, to entire architectural firms going out of business, to delayed towers and theme parks on pause, none seem quite as explicitly apocalyptic as the sight of OMA's CCTV complex – that is, the part of it known as TVCC, containing a luxury hotel – roaring with flames.
We still think it was the crane accidents last year that signalled the end, but this certainly comes in a close second. And LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne makes two interesting points on the paper's arts blog:
The architectural composition of the complex as a whole -- which I toured with Scheeren over the summer, and which I argued in a year-end piece "already ranks as the most significant piece of architecture of our young century" -- depends on the shorter hotel tower, which is known as TVCC. It is the hotel, in fact, that helps give the main tower its strange, shifting sense of scale. From certain angles the smaller section -- no shrimp itself at 34 stories tall -- looks like the tail of the big tower's dragon, from others like a fleeing creature about to be devoured by the CCTV's gaping mouth. [...] Potent symbolism aside, though, I'd be very surprised if the hotel weren't instantly rebuilt. The Chinese leadership has understood the graphic power of the CCTV complex -- the way it suggests a modern, ambitious and innovative new China -- from the earliest stages, and it seems highly unlikely it would allow the charred remains of the hotel to stand for any extended period. This is particularly true given Chinese sensitivity around the idea that its economy is rapidly losing steam. So there's likely to be no drawn-out, painstaking investigation of the wreckage by some Chinese version of the FBI or ATF. As soon as the last ember is out, I'd guess, the bulldozers will be clearing the site to begin again. Even in a global slowdown -- perhaps especially in one -- construction in China can operate at lightning speed.
UPDATE 4: Agence France Presse is reporting that one of the seven injured firefighters died in the hospital tonight: "Zhang Jianyong died early on Tuesday morning at a hospital in Beijing from toxic gases he inhaled while fighting the fire, Xinhua said, citing the city's fire control authorities." The Chinese authorities are now also suggesting fireworks, and not workers, may be to blame for the fire:
The official news agency quoted a city government spokesman as saying initial reports indicated firecrackers set off to celebrate the Lunar New Year, China's most important annual festival, has caused the fire. Firefighters found remnants of firecrackers on the roof of the burning building, Xinhua said. The agency had earlier quoted a witness saying the blaze appeared to have been sparked after fireworks landed on top of the hotel building.
According to the AP, the fire was put out "early Tuesday morning. And with the sad and happy news that the fire has been extinguished, it is hopefully time to build again. I can't help but think about a conversation I had earlier today with Alan. I asked if this was really as big of news as it seemed, or if we were simply particularly attuned to it because some big-name architect was involved. Would this still be making all the front pages were it just some regular old building, one in which almost no one was hurt? Of course not, Alan replied. Just look at The Huffington Post, he said, where the headline screams, "Rem Koolhaas Tower In Beijing Goes Up In Flames." Design hasn't been so notable since Philip Johnson was on the cover of Time. Just look at some of the 225 (225!) comments on HuffPo:
  • This is terrible for the people injured and Rem Koolhaas who is the consummate professional architect.
  • Holy balls that looks insane.
  • Notice how it did not collapse like WTC #7 which was the same size. Thats because it was brought down with demolitions. On BBC and CNN they said it had collapsed but it was still standing and not 'pulled' yet. More proof 9-11 was an inside job and that demolitions had been set up in the towers for weeks. Unbelievable the media establishment is afraid to tackle this...or is it?
  • this must be a testament to the extremely high building standards they have in china, just like the high standards they maintain for food, drugs, manufacturing, environmental and agriculture.and to think that's where some are planning to send the last american manufacturing jobs while the 'brainier' jobs go to india.
Okay. So half the comments were about the fire itself, and the other half were 7 WTC related, or jokes about Chinese construction standards. Still, whether it is a product of the building boom or some other design phenomenon, there is no denying that architecture has indeed entered--and hopefully not exited--a golden age, where the work of Gehry and Nouvel and Herzog & de Meuron are celebrated worldwide. An age where good architecture by-and-large triumphs over the bland and banal. An age where people look up. Far from being a symbolic end, look to this as a new begining, a time for more reasonable, even-handed, well-meaning buildings. Not to say this and others weren't. On the contrary. It's just that, in these harder times, we can only hope the cream will continue to rise, from the ashes, with the phoenix, etc, etc. And that, somewhere, Rem Koolhaas is, if not smiling, at least smirking. Keep fighting the good fight. UPDATE 5: Perhaps we've spoken too hopefully too soon. Our man in China Andrew Yang sends along a portentous message:
It was really gut-wrenching to see TVCC burn like that, itself like a firecracker. I woke up to read that one firefighter was killed in the blaze and several others injured. The Chinese media are so far not even reporting it. According to Shanghaiist.com, a notice was sent to all major organizations by the government to stop reporting the fire last night. As to the cause, a lot of people are speculating that it was caused by fireworks. There are three major firework nights during the Chinese New Year--one on the eve of Chinese New Year, one five days in, and the third was just last night, on the first full moon of the cycle. During the festival, people can buy July 4th-grade fireworks all over China, and fire them off, literally next to buildings, on roads, on sidewalks--they light them up just about anywhere. Of course the cause of the fire is still not known, and may not ever ascertained, since this matter is something that the Chinese government is going to be controlling very closely.
UPDATE 6: Day Two round-up, including an apology from CCTV, whose fireworks celebration--rather ironically celebrating the new buildings--caused the fire; reports of a local media blackout on the issue; and some critical takes on the fire.
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Postopolis! Comes to LA
You remember Postopolis! don't you? The reality show-worthy architecture blog-a-thon that sequestered five bloggers for five days at the Storefront for Art and Architecture two years ago? Well, hold onto your laptops, kids, because Postopolis! is back and promises to be bigger, better, bloggier and more exclamation-pointy than ever before...because it's coming to LA, baby! Geoff Manaugh announced the lineup today and it's a doozy; six bloggers hailing from Sydney to San Fran (and including Manaugh himself, who we know is still an Angeleno at heart): —David Basulto from Plataforma Arquitectura and ArchDaily (Santiago, Chile) —Jace Clayton from Mudd Up! (New York City, USA) —Régine Debatty from we make money not art (Paris, France) —Bryan Finoki from Subtopia (San Francisco, USA) —Dan Hill from City of Sound (Sydney, Australia) —Geoff Manaugh from BLDGBLOG (San Francisco, USA) Postopolis! will still be sponsored by the Storefront (who had temporary digs here last year) and the lovely folks at ForYourArt as part of the LA Art Weekend. From March 31 to April 4 at a TBD location, the bloggers will post at a feverish, around-the-clock pace. Students from local architecture schools will be hired to monitor feeding tubes, administer 20 oz. Monster energy drinks on the hour and empty their bedpans as needed. In addition to the ancillary interviews, presentations, lectures, panel discussions, and slideshows that we saw last Postopolis!, Manaugh promises: "This time it will be all that plus more art, film, and music, a larger international scope, hopefully several Spanish-language events and lectures, hopefully at least one minor earthquake." We'll try our best to deliver on that last one.

Editorial: Think Again

Architects have been on alert ever since Obama declared on December 6 that he aspired to a building plan as ambitious as any the country has ever known—or at least that is what architects wanted to believe they heard. In reality, it wasn’t actually so much about new buildings as possibly new transportation, and not even so much about new railroads or high-tech mag lev—with their attendant stations and hub development—so much as about prosaic road and bridge repairs.

The high hopes for a vast and visionary infrastructure push that would translate into a wave of architectural design have gradually faded. A January 20 article in The New York Times put it bluntly: “Big transformative building projects seem unlikely.”

And still the air of opportunity persists, bolstered by the lists of 10,000 schools to be updated, 90 ports to be secured, 75 percent of federal buildings to be weatherized, and 1,300 waste-water projects to be built. (Remember what stunning work Steven Holl and Yoshio Taniguchi did with those water and waste plants?) At some point the “private sector” is also supposed to kick in with a $100 billion investment in clean energy projects, some of which will have to be three-dimensional.

The brute fact is that—like the shot of adrenalin to Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction—the $825 billion stimulus package has to be delivered fast and straight to the heart of the problem: joblessness. Even fast-track architecture doesn’t normally operate at that speed. Some advocacy groups, namely America 2050, a national coalition of regional planners, scholars, and policy-makers focusing on innovative ways to solve infrastructure, economic development, and environmental challenges, is warning that the money must not be spent all at once, but rather in phases that allow for strategic planning, job training, construction, and engineering evaluations.

And that’s where architects can regain some ground. In a timely book about the relevance of architects, Architecture Depends (MIT, 2009), Jeremy Till, the dean of architecture and built environment at the University of Westminster in the UK, says that architects have to shelve the notion that they are in the business of solving problems where the answer is almost always new construction. 

For if architects are not part of first imaginings, he writes, they are already hopelessly out of the game: “It is normally assumed that the most creative part of design is concerned with the building as object, hence the fixation with formal innovation, but it may be argued that the most important and most creative part of the process is the formulation of the brief.”

Many architects are already aware of this and have reprogrammed their practices to address a wider spectrum of analysis—of social usage, of historical relevance, of fiscal viability or even geological context—well before design takes place. More architects, the whole profession actually, needs to become better known for what planning theorist John Forester calls “sense-making” rather than form making. Cedric Price famously said that the best solution to an architectural problem may not be a building. And never has it seemed more imperative to the welfare and survival of the profession that architects make themselves known as designers of options, instead of icons.

Eavesdrop: Sara Hart

AN is thrilled to deliver the Eavesdrop baton—oh, dare say cudgel, do!—into the dextrous hands of Sara Hart who has long impressed many with her wickedly apropos sense of humor. We count on you all to slip her innuendo-loaded emails, secret handshakes, and any floating info aching to land in print.

PENGUINS IN THE POOL ROOM
The Penguin Club lives! Seen at the Four Seasons on inauguration night was a reconvening of the so-called Penguin Club, the group of once-young avant-garde architects whom Philip Johnson had regularly hosted for all-male, black-tie dinners at the Century Club from the mid-1970s onward. The lineup of aging superstars included, among others, Michael Graves, Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey, Harry Cobb, Jacquelin Robertson, Bob Stern, Steven Holl, Bernard Tschumi, and Jorge Silvetti. Conspicuous by his absence was charter-member Penguin Peter Eisenman, but conspicuous by his presence was Graves, whose enormous motorized wheelchair necessitated the group’s dining at a long table in the northeast corner of the Pool Room, rather than in the private space they had requested. According to Four Seasons co-owner Alex von Bidder, these events are an ongoing series, though they are not bankrolled, as had been widely speculated, by a bequest from Philip Johnson, whose entire estate along with the art-auction proceeds of his late longtime partner, David Whitney, went to the endowment for the Glass House.

NEW BLOGS IN TOWN
A new architectural/design blog has arrived to entertain and inform you. Edited by design writers (and AN contributors) Eva Hagberg and Ian Volner, Edificial (edificial.com) is the latest addition to Breaking Media’s stable of sharply written industry-specific blogs, which includes Above the Law, Fashionista, and Dealbreaker. The content will be gossipy, but it will also include back stories about projects, people, deal-making, and all kinds of design extranea. According to Hagberg, the editors plan to critique the critics and introduce new voices. “We’ll present the up-close play-by-play and the long view,” she said. “There will be roundups, link dumps, and essays. Edificial will be personal, political, and polemical.” No doubt it will be all of those things and, if successful, make money for Breaking Media. Best of luck! Meanwhile, over in the serious and sober nonprofit world, the Architectural League of New York went live with its own blog on January 5. Underwritten by the NYC Cultural Innovation Fund of the Rockefeller Foundation, Urban Omnibus (urbanomnibus.net) will feature “multimedia content to showcase design innovation, critical analysis, and local expertise” with the aim of encouraging “a more inclusive, more sustainable, more beautiful city that could be.” Bring on the multimedia. We’re parched!

Send tips and page views galore to eavesdrop@archpaper.com

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Hotels On The Rise
Nikolas Koenig

Standard Hotel

Impresario André Balazs has set necks craning and tongues wagging with his structurally brazen, Polshek-designed tower over the High Line. That Balazs has transformed this high-visibility site into public accessibility—with a sprawling street-level plaza and elevated public spaces designed to connect directly to the High Line—makes the Standard all the more noteworthy. Julie V. Iovine takes in the view.
 


 


COURTESY cooper square
 

Cooper Square Hotel

New York–based architect Carlos Zapata and famed Italian designer Antonio Citterio have created the latest addition to the fast-transforming edges of Astor Place. By incorporating existing tenements into the tower’s base and layering public and private spaces, hotelier Klaus Ortlieb extends a tradition of suitably incongruous East Village aesthetics. Alan G. Brake checks in.

 

 

 

 

 


 


aaron seward
 
 

Room Service in Gowanus?

Because a quirk in the 1961 zoning code treats hotels the same way it does factories, some hoteliers are plumping pillows where metalworkers once stamped tin. As demand drives new transient hotels in dwindling manufacturing districts—eight are under way blocks from the Gowanus Canal—job-retention advocates are crying foul. Matt Chaban investigates.

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Cooper Square Hotel
A paneled library-lounge offers homey comfort at this urbane hotel.
Courtesy Cooper Square Hotel

Buildings by well-known architects are transforming the shaggy edges of Cooper Square and Astor Place, once the domain of college students, homeless people, and Cube-spinning hangers-on. The latest addition, the Cooper Square Hotel, is a striking juxtaposition of old and new, with 19th-century tenements incorporated into its base and a curving, contemporary tower above. The building, designed by New York–based architect Carlos Zapata with interiors by famed Italian designer Antonio Citterio, engages with its context but makes a few clean breaks, as well.

“We wanted to create an architecturally significant building to reflect the changes in Cooper Square,” said Klaus Ortlieb, managing partner for the hotel, referring to the architecturally ambitious new buildings associated with Cooper Union. A new academic building by Morphosis is rising next door to the hotel, and the curves of Gwathmey Siegel’s condominium building at adjacent Astor Place are visible from its rooms. A new mixed-use project designed by Fumihiko Maki is also planned just two blocks away on the site of the school’s engineering building.

Unlike the developers of those buildings, however, Ortlieb and his partners chose not to clear the site. After initially planning to demolish three tenement buildings, one of which includes protected artists’ apartments, they reversed course and asked Zapata to redesign the building, incorporating the tenements into the new building’s base and creating a contemporary form above. Two apartments, one of which is home to a well-known poet, remain, and are now accessed through the hotel’s main entrance. In retaining these buildings, the developers avoided a messy public fight, which could have tainted the hotel’s relationship with the famously cantankerous neighborhood. (Zapata is no stranger to controversial additions to historic buildings: His most famous project remains the renovation of Chicago’s Soldier Field, designed with former business partner Benjamin Wood.) The hotel’s sleek glass tower, built by Sciame,  is narrow where it joins the base and swells in the middle before tapering again at the penthouse level. This Miami-meets-McSorley’s relationship between old and new is interesting and somewhat jarring, but could be read as another iteration of the clashing of styles and repurposing of found objects that has long defined East Village aesthetics. The planned landscape design by Nathan Browning, which will include a large dining garden wrapping around the rear and side of the hotel, may help to bring these opposing sensibilities into greater harmony.




The tower (top) has a corporate flavor distinct from the tenements at its base. the spare guestrooms (above) offer sweeping views of the neighborhood.              
courtesy cooper square
 
 

Inside, Zapata has woven a complex and layered sequence of public and private spaces into the narrow site. Bar and restaurant patrons can enter just to the left of the main hotel entrance. The bar area has a curved ceiling covered in black subway tile that forms the underside of a 20-person stadium-seating screening room. Behind the bar and restaurant, bordering on 5th Street, the outdoor garden and dining area will be accessible to both guests of the hotel and restaurant and bar patrons. In the back of the garden, a stair and catwalk lead to an elevated outdoor bar built over the base of the building.

On the interior, Citterio used natural materials such as slate flooring, with pieces hand-broken in Italy and shipped to the site, and warm walnut panels in the lobby and the lounge-like library, which is carved out of space from one of the tenements. There is no reception desk, but attendants hover close by and will instantly know your name and preferences. Patterned glass with an abstracted leaf motif lines the elevator core. Citterio designed almost all of the furniture, which was then produced by B&B Italia in a palette of black leather, wood, and steel (a few other pieces, such as seating from Herman Miller and Poliform, are interspersed). The library and the guest rooms are stocked with used books provided by the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, which are for sale with all proceeds benefiting the nonprofit service provider. A Persian rug in the lobby and subtle floor and side lamps round out these chic but comfortable spaces. “We wanted it to have a residential feel,” Ortlieb said.

The rooms have an even quieter appearance, and here all of Zapata’s glass and the location really pay off. Set on the square on one side, where the Bowery and 4th Avenue meet, with the mostly low-rise East Village on the other, the rooms have spectacular views both on the lower levels and upward. On the lower levels, the church steeples, rear yards, and rooftop gardens of the neighborhood provide endless fascination for the eye, while on the upper floors, the entire city, including the outer boroughs and the banks of New Jersey, open up to view. Inside, Citterio’s pieces have clean lines, and the bathrooms have large windows with fritted glass and no curtains, offering both views and privacy. “The bathrooms are very important,” Ortlieb said. “You spend most of your waking hours in a hotel in the bathroom.”

While the rooms—145 in total, ranging from small, 225-square-foot rooms to junior and full suites—are luxurious without being flashy, none will compare with the two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom 21st-floor penthouse suite, currently under construction. With 360-degree panoramic views and a wide terrace on three sides, the space will surely be one of the most desirable in the city for private events and late-night debauchery.

It is a difficult time to launch a new hotel that caters to “global creatives” in the art, fashion, and entertainment industries. Ortlieb, who worked for both Ian Schrager and André Balazs before becoming a developer himself, remains confident. “Not everyone looks only at prices,” he said. “Especially in New York, there will always be people looking for something a bit more unique. I opened the Mercer [with Balazs] when the market wasn’t strong. Things come around.” He’s confident enough to be planning two additional hotels with Zapata, one in Chicago and one more in New York, though he plans to work with different interior designers on each of these upcoming projects. He does not necessarily think his concept of small, architecturally ambitious hotels will be copied. “These are not inexpensive buildings to build,” he said. “I hope it’s my direction, not the new direction.”

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Room Service in Gowanus?
At Williamsburg's Hotel Le Jolie, rates for a night can hit $300, but they come with a BQE view.
Aaron Seward

New York is a hotel town. Glamorous haunts like the Plaza and the Carlyle are etched into the city’s lore, while boutique newcomers—the Mercers, Maritimes, and Grands—have transformed its social life. The newest category to make its mark is not doing so through cachet, however. More likely to overlook scrapyards and warehouses than Broadway theaters and four-star restaurants, these hotels are the strange progeny of a boom economy and an anomaly in the zoning code. They are, to coin a phrase, the industrial hotels.

“Here’s what you’re looking at—Manhattan Mini-Storage on one side, the Holland Tunnel on the other, and a waste transfer station over there,” said Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, expressing his dismay over the most famous such hotel, the Trump Soho, now nearing completion at 246 Spring Street.

Trump and his partners at the Bayrock/Sapir Organization could just as easily have built to the east of 6th Avenue in Soho proper. But then they would not have been able to create what at 44 stories will be the tallest building between 34th Street and the World Trade Center when it opens this fall. The area, known as Hudson Square, is zoned for high-density light manufacturing, and is full of the mid-rise loft buildings that were once at the heart of the city’s printing industry. But like manufacturing districts citywide, it allows developments such as Trump’s, thanks to a quirk in the 1961 Zoning Resolution that permits hotel construction as of right.

Both industrial buildings and hotels require high-density sites, though for precisely opposite reasons. A manufacturer typically builds out to the edge of the lot to get wide-open floors conducive to machinery and storage. An hotelier, on the other hand, is more likely to choose a taller building with a narrow floor plate so that each room has a window. Any given warehouse and hotel may have identical floor area ratios, but their form and the kinds of jobs they provide could not be further apart.

But beyond the physical advantages of developing hotels in manufacturing districts, there is also substantial demand. According to NYC & Co., the city’s tourism arm, lodgings in the five boroughs averaged an 86 percent occupancy rate since 2004, while the average room rate rose from $210 to $312. And as the city continues to rezone industrial areas like Dutch Kills in Queens, which saw more than a dozen hotels built within an eight-block area in three years, it’s best to get in while land is still cheap.

“We’ve been losing manufacturing at an alarming rate,” said Eve Baron, director of the Planning Center at the Municipal Art Society (MAS). In 2001, she completed an inventory of the city’s manufacturing zones with the New York Industrial Retention Network (NYIRN) and the Pratt Center for Community Development. While the resulting study found a number of development pressures threatening industrial areas, Barron said that hotels never came up. But now they are a serious issue, she argues, because unlike big-box retailers or illegal conversions, hotels tend to be physically out of scale with the buildings in manufacturing areas: “It changes the character of a neighborhood.”

Look no further than Hotel Le Bleu. Opened in November 2007 during the peak of the hotel boom, it briefly charged more than $300 a night, despite being within a block of the famously polluted Gowanus Canal. And yet it’s the first of eight hotels going up nearby. Like its Williamsburg sister Hotel Le Jolie, which charges similar rates for views of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Le Bleu’s style is more Best Western than Biltmore. Still, next to its low-slung neighbors, the eight-story Le Bleu has unrivaled views, albeit of the canal, but also of Manhattan off in the distance. 

Despite cries from manufacturers and groups like MAS and NYIRN, the city sees no problem. “Transient hotels are compatible with commercial and light industrial businesses, and important to the overall economic health of the city,” said Jennifer Torres, spokesperson for the Department of City Planning. “Hotels need to be able to locate where business is conducted, as well as where they can serve demand generated by nearby residential neighborhoods.”

Adam Friedman, director of NYIRN, did acknowledge the Bloomberg administration’s work on industrial retention with the creation in 2005 of Industrial Business Zones (IBZ) that provide protections to companies located therein. But they do not preclude hotels. Friedman points to one NYIRN study that found that of the 23 hotels built in manufacturing districts in the last five years, 12 were built in IBZs.

He would like to see the creation of Industrial Employment Centers, which would require any non-manufacturing use to go through environmental review and approval by the City Planning Commission and the City Council. The council voted in support of such a measure in 2006, but has taken no action since.

Some might argue that with the recession in full swing, the market will move away from such development. According to NYC & Co.’s numbers, occupancy since October has fallen an average of eight percent despite a record-breaking August, when it was at 92.4 percent.

But according to numbers from hotel consultancy PKF, the city has enjoyed 80-plus percent occupancy rates since the late 1970s, meaning the recent boom in hotels is not a fad but the new reality, at least once the city climbs back out of the current recession. In essence, it is the entire city that is encroaching on its few remaining manufacturing zones, and the hotels were just first to get there.

“Of course they’ll be back,” Friedman admitted. “Within a year or two, the market will be strong again, and the underlying issues will still be there—how do you have a manufacturing district like Long Island City so close to somewhere like Midtown Manhattan?”

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Ciao, Bryant Park
The AP first reported last night, and the mayor confirmed it earlier today: Fashion Week is departing Bryant Park for Lincoln Center. But not just any Lincoln Center. The new-and-improved, Diller Scofidio + Renfro-approved Lincoln Center. According to Bloomberg--in this case, we mean both the mayor and his eponymous news service, via the latter link above--the festivities will take place at the center's Damrosch Park. We emailed the ever-fashionable "R" in DS+R, Charles Renfro, to get his take on the news:
In general, Fashion Week is one of the most vibrant events that New York has to offer. We are pleased that they have chosen Lincoln Center as their venue. It suggests that Lincoln Center’s efforts to shift perceptions of the facility from elitist acropolis to popular forum have been effective. Those efforts include the redesign of course, but also include more youthful and affordable programming. For heaven’s sake, I saw Sufjan Stevens perform there. And my tickets were free!
Now while we agree with that sentiment, Fashion Week seems to run counter, more exclusive elitism than than inviting populism. Still, our dear Renfro persists:
Like most events at Lincoln Center,  one can purchase tickets to Fashion Week tent shows, though I will admit that price points are higher than the current $20 Met cheap seats. And they sell out fast. Fashion Week is not that different than a Giants game: If you have any desire to go, you can buy a ticket. If you can get one, a seat on the 50 yards line will set you back $700 while a fashion week tent ticket will set you back $150, and all the tent seats are essentially 50 yard line seats.
If you say so. As for the park itself, "We haven’t moved into that phase of the redesign yet," Renfor wrote, and it remains to be seen if, whether, or how Fashion Week might impact the redesign--a rather controversial one at that, because it will remake one of Dan Kiley's more famous landscapes. Best known for free summer concerts--we especially enjoyed Mahmoud Ahmed last year--the new digs will almost certainly be fancier than the former ones, at least after DS+R is through with them. The trade offs: far less subway access--the Times points out that Chelsea Piers posed a similar challenge in 1997--and a departure from the industry's psychic home, the Garment District. Still, the move was inevitable, as Times fashion writer Eric Wilson makes clear:
Although the fashion shows, now operating as Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week to reflect a corporate sponsorship, were welcomed in Bryant Park in 1993, there were frequent clashes with the management company that controls its maintenance and security. The dispute intensified in 2006, when the Bryant Park Corporation announced it would no longer allow the shows to happen in the park, because they were interfering with plans to operate a skating rink in the winter and public use of the main lawn in the late summer.
And so, greener pastures have now been traded for chicer ones.
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Legoland, NY
For those of you who haven't already seen Christoph Niemann's great blog for the Times, "Abstract City"--the expat illustrator renders the city we love in terms of its subway lines and coffee stains--today's post proves to be his best work yet. At least that's the case for those of us whose obsession with architecture began with a pile of LEGO bricks many years ago. (Guilty as charged.) Here are a few of his more architectural pieces, but be sure to check them all out, as his clever renditions are just too good to be missed. Talk about (de)constructing New York.
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Hold the Champagne
Developer Aby Rosen wants to restore the Parke-Bernet Building at 980 Madison Avenue, and then build a Norman Foster-designed addition atop it.
Photograph by Matt Chaban

There is a familiar complaint, from Tom Wolfe on down to the blogosphere, that the fame of one’s architect—particularly in connection with a certain Upper East Side gallery building—entitles the developer to lighter treatment from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. But even if one of the commissioners had not insisted on the contrary at a January 13 meeting on 980 Madison, the verdict the project received should, once again, affirm the commission’s refusal to play favorites.

“I just want to say, addressing some of the comments that have been showing up on blogs and such, that this doesn’t have anything to do with who the developer is, or who the architect is,” commissioner Margery Perlmutter said, referring to Aby Rosen and Norman Foster, the team behind the project. “It’s a good piece of architecture, and that should be encouraged in New York City.”

But beyond Perlmutter’s general approval of the project as it was presented, and commissioner Christopher Moore’s prurient endorsement—“I wouldn’t want to see a timid design,” he said. “If you’ve got a great bottom, you should have a great top.”—the commissioners roundly agreed that the proposal was too tall. Still.


Rosen's team went out of their way to impress the commission, bringing tons of models and samples, including a full-scale mock-up of the aluminum sunscreens.
Matt Chaban
 
 

It has been a long slog for Rosen and Foster, who first presented plans to build atop the famed Parke-Bernet Building in 2006. The 22-story elliptical glass tower they sought to build atop the 5-story, full-block masonry building caused quite a stir, attracting famous supporters and detractors before being voted down by the commission in January 2007.

The team then returned last July with a five-story addition designed to match the proportions of the building below, which was panned by a number of locals who testified against it. Fewer stars turned up on that occasion, including Lord Norman, though Wolfe, who lives across the street from the proposed development, did make an appearance.

When the team returned last week, they presented essentially the same plan, except that the aluminum rods that comprised the addition’s sunscreen had been lightened from a terra-cotta color to one that Brandon Haw, director of Foster + Partners' New York office, described as “champagne,” and a parapet on the top floor had been set back, as opposed to being flush with the street wall as originally proposed.

Every commissioner applauded the considerable thought and detailing that went into the design. “It’s very elegant, as we’ve seen before,” commissioner Stephen Byrns said. But, as most commissioners agreed, there was one major issue. “I think it has a real scale problem,” Byrnes added. The major challenge facing the commission was that they wanted further concessions from Rosen, who had been very patient thus far, at the same time they applauded his desire to restore the old gallery to its former glory.

 


Almost as dramatic as the addition to the parke-bernet building is the restoration work that will go into the existing building.

“The fact that this building has been so screwed up, with the addition of the third floor windows and the changing of the fourth and the awkward penthouse, that buys you a legitimate addition,” Byrnes continued. “The question is, how much of an addition?” The consensus seemed to be two stories, with possible setbacks from there, but the special Madison Avenue preservation district presents a very tight zoning envelope, as Rosen’s attorney pointed out.

"It's the base we should be celebrating here," commissioner Roberta Smith said, referring to the original building, "and we shouldn't even be calling it that. It's not a base, it's the main attraction. The edition needs to be lower."

“The question is, is it reconcilable with the landmarks law we are required to uphold as well as the precedents we set every week?” asked commission chair Robert Tierney. “I think this is achievable, but this is not yet it, and the issue remains one of scale.” Thereafter, the meeting adjourned, and Rosen held a half-hour meeting with his team in a conference room off the hearing room. When he finally exited, he seemed flustered. Asked about the future of the project, he said simply, “We’re studying that.”


Foster + Partners New York Office director Brandon haw presents his firm's plans for 980 madison as commission Chair robert tierney (left) and commission counsel mark silberman look on.
 
 

foster + partners brought so many supplies to its presentation, one preservationist joked that it looked like a rock band was going to perform.