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So Long, Ray
Courtesy DCP

Today is Ray Gastil’s last day at work. On August 25th, Gastil, director of the New York City Department of City Planning’s Manhattan office, will travel across the country to take a job as Seattle’s Planning Director, marking a return to his hometown. The department has yet to name a replacement for the position.

During his tenure, which began in 2005 when he succeeded Vishaan Chakrabarti, Gastil shepherded through the land use process some of the largest projects in the city’s history. He presided over the rezoning of the Upper West Side, which provided contextual protections against out of character development and provided incentives for new and affordable housing along Broadway. He also worked on rezoning to preserve the character of the Far West Village that was done in concert with historic district designation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, as well as a major contextual overhaul of the Lower East Side, still in process.

But not all of his projects were targeted at preserving a neighborhood’s character. Gastil oversaw the controversial 125th Street rezoning, adopted in April, which, while it fosters economic and cultural development along the corridor, many in the community feared would only increase displacement and gentrification in greater Harlem.

Though the notoriously press-shy Gastil would not comment on his work at the department or his decision to accept the job in Seattle, his boss, City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, had some nice things to say.

"Ray’s wit, intellect and proficiency will be greatly missed, as will his dedication to urban planning, to New York City, and to engaging a generation of young planners,” Burden said in a statement. “Ray brought to city planning a vast expertise of what makes great urban places and ensured that projects large and small contributed to and enhanced the urban fabric and public realm. I personally have benefited from his wisdom, his encyclopedic knowledge of world cities and their heritage, and by his friendship.”

Before working for the city, Gastil was the founding director of the Van Alen Institute: Projects in Public Architecture. He participated on the Memorial Center Advisory Committee for the World Trade Center site, and served as juror and adviser to a number of major urban projects. He also directed the regional and transit-oriented design programs for the Regional Plan Association, and taught urban design seminars and studios at Pratt Institute and University of Pennsylvania.

Gastil received his master of architecture degree from Princeton University, and is the author of Beyond the Edge: New York's New Waterfront (Princeton Architectural Press 2002).

Bracing for the Worst

The Numbers

While it lacks the dramatic symbols of Bear Stearns and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac, the apparent architectural recession may be getting as bad as the one ravaging the financial sector at the moment, at least according to the AIA Architectural Billings Index. The overall index, which surveys the increase or decrease of billings at a panel of firms nationwide, rose slightly for June but still remained on the decline for the industry.

“These numbers are a continuation of weak conditions in the nonresidential construction sector,” AIA chief economist Kermit Baker said in a statement. “Given that inquiries for new project work have not seen much improvement, it’s likely we are several months away from a turnaround.”

In June, the index rose to 46.1, up from 43.4 in May, but only a measure of 50 or above means billings are rising; this change simply means the decline has slackened, though is still falling. The one positive note is that the index continues to rise, from a record 13-year low of 39.7 in March, though given that numbers fell two points from April to May, the gain could only be temporary. Inquiries also rose from a record low of 46.5 last month to 51.8, another positive sign, suggesting interest in new work may be returning.

Regionally, the Midwest remains the one region seeing growth, with a billings reading of 51.8, continuing a trend begun last month. In his statement, Baker called it the one bright spot in the industry. The South has seen steady one to two point growth since bottoming out in March at 45.3 points and has now reached 49.0. The West and the Northeast, however, continue to decline, with scores of 36.1 and 40.7 respectively.

On the ground here in New York, opinions remain mixed. “We’re on major alert,” Fred Bland, a principal at Beyer Blinder Belle, said. He said his firm’s work remains steady but he is beginning to see signs of concern. “You would start to see more highly competitive RFPs and a leveling off in inquiries,” Bland said. “It would be fair to say we are starting to see a little of that.”

Jon Kully, a principal and co-founder of architecture firm FLAnk, said his office actually began two new projects and is looking to hire, hoping to boost his staff of 15 by two to five employees. “It’s hard to say exactly what is happening,” he said. “Everyone is different.” He did add that he and his partner at the firm, Mick Walsdorf, are trying to gauge the market to “find the best talent for the best price.”

Kully does admit that he has been particularly fortunate, given what he has heard from friends. “It sounds pretty bad out there,” he said. “I’m knocking on wood as I say this, but we’re pretty good right now. At the same time, Mick and I, we were talking this morning, and we really think it will be Q1 of ’09 when everyone really sees this hit, when designers start to get laid off.”

Good Housekeeping

In its ongoing effort to reform the Department of Buildings in the wake of the two crane accidents earlier this year, the City Council passed three new pieces of legislation yesterday cracking down on what the council considers minor but important issues within the construction industry. The three bills passed by a unanimous vote of 45-0.

The first bill (text) tackles so-called housekeeping violations, basically the order and cleanliness of a given worksite. “There is a direct correlation between sites with housekeeping violations and serious life-threatening accidents,” Council Speaker Christine Quinn said during today’s meeting. “We believe that by policing these sites, we can keep them from going down this path.”

The bill categorizes any housekeeping violations, such as tripping hazards, unsecured material, or unsafe storage of combustibles, as “immediately hazardous,” the highest level of violation. This means that such a violation will trigger a stop-work order and can result in fines if not addressed. Quinn put it simply: “When materials are not taken care of, they can injure people. We want that to stop.”

The next bill (text) addresses problems with vacant buildings, which, if unoccupied for over five years, will be inspected for structural soundness, with follow-up inspections occurring every five years. If violations or unsafe conditions are discovered, the owner is required to address them immediately or face fines.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, the representative for East Harlem and the lead sponsor on the bill, proposed the action after two such buildings in her district collapsed. “When we talk about construction safety, we shouldn’t just be talking about new construction and work sites but also existing buildings, and especially those that have been neglected,” Mark-Viverito said.

The final bill (text) requires that retaining walls be regulated in the same manner as building facades, putting them under increased scrutiny, oversight, and safety restrictions that strengthen the city’s ability to induce necessary repairs. Councilmember Robert Jackson, who introduced the bill, noted that it was long overdue, after the collapse of a retaining wall three years ago in his district, but he was happy to have it finally pass. “This legislation is a no-brainer,” Jackson said.

But if that was the case, then why did it, and all the other recent reforms, require a disaster to finally pass them? Councilmember Tony Avella, an industry critic, chocked it up to politics, adding that a great deal more work remains to be done. “These are good bills,” Avella said, “but there are a number of good bills and initiatives that are languishing in the DOB due to a lack of action on the part of the Speaker.”

A spokesperson for Quinn declined to address Avella’s complaints, but did say: “The bills passed are part of an extensive review of the construction safety in the city. We have passed several bills so far, and several will be passed in the near future.”

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No CAMPing Here?
Courtesy Gluckman Mayner Architects

On July 14 an overflow crowd presented impassioned public comments to the Presidio Trust—a U.S. government corporation established to preserve and enhance the former military post—regarding its Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) proposing options for the future of the Presidio’s central, 120-acre Main Post district.

The audience came largely to address the Trust’s controversial recommendation in favor of the Contemporary Art Museum of the Presidio (CAMP), a modern design by New York firm Gluckman Mayner that would house the extensive contemporary art collection of Gap founders Donald and Doris Fisher. Other plans for the area include a 125-room guest lodge on the eastern edge of the main parade grounds, an orientation center, and an addition to the existing Presidio Theatre.

In a raucous event that extended well past midnight, members of several groups came out in opposition against the CAMP proposal, including the Presidio Historical Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, the nearby YMCA, the San Francisco Democratic Party, and the Green Party. The California Office of Historic Preservation has also spoken out against the plans. Due to the large number of speakers, the public comment period was extended until September 19. A second public session will be held September 15, and a separate meeting related to traffic and parking issues is set for July 28.

Some expressed suspicion that the project was an "inside job" and a foregone conclusion, alluding to the Trust’s membership being dominated by prominent San Francisco real estate and business leaders, and to Don Fisher’s role as a former Trust member. Others criticized the scale and stylistic compatibility of its minimalist design in the historic context of the Main Post. And more brought up the perceived reversal of land use policies outlined in the 2002 Presidio Trust Management Plan (PTMP), and to the possible reconsideration of the Presidio’s status as a National Historic Landmark District.

Supporters of the scheme, including San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, emphasized the importance of the art collection and the generous financial opportunity for the Trust, which would receive a world-class institution from the Fisher family. The cost of the 100,000-square-foot museum has been estimated at around $150 million, which includes restoring one of the adjacent barracks for classroom and administrative uses. In addition, the Fishers would donate $10 million toward the cost of reconstructing the parade grounds. Newsom also expressed confidence that public concerns could be addressed in the review process.

A motivating concern for the Trust is the federal mandate that the 1,491-acre Presidio be financially self-sufficient by 2013, and that the park subsequently fund its future operations. Among the limited set of proposals presented to the Trust through the RFP process, the CAMP design, the Trust has indicated, appears to be the only viable option that would ensure a continuing draw for the park.

An alternate scheme for a History Center presented by the Presidio Historical Association (occupying the same site as the museum) was accompanied by a basic schematic design and program proposal with no collection or funding source identified. The design itself, still fairly vague, features a Spanish-style, pitched-roof building.

Missing in both the SEIS and the furor of public comments was any serious critical discussion of Gluckman Mayner’s building design, a contemporary interpretation of the site that emphasizes the formal geometries of the Main Post. The vertical mullions of the curtain wall echo the white-columned arcades of the surrounding military barracks, while the horizontal striations of the masonry walls and filigree patterning of the shading louvers deliberately recall the texture and scale of Presidio barrack construction. The orthogonal face of the scheme gives a defined terminus to the parade grounds, which will be restored from their current status as a sprawling parking lot.

Design architect Richard Gluckman admits that early press images raised questions about the design, appearing as an aloof white box isolated from its context. Subsequent studies reveal careful attention paid to situating the building within the architectural context of the Main Parade.

The Trust and National Park Service’s 2002 Cultural Landscape Assessment of the Main Post noted that the "site’s overall historic integrity is grounded in a rich but fragmented record of continuity and change." In distinction to the History Center’s historical palette, Gluckman argues that "using a contemporary architectural language to differentiate the new structure from the old respects the integrity of both."

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House of the Issue: Taalman Koch
Eight rooftop solar panels provide electricity and hot water.
All images Art Gray

It’s hot, dry, brown, and dusty—and for some, a personal paradise. Welcome to the California high desert, where a pair of Los Angeles-based architects, Linda Taalman and Alan Koch, have finished construction on their own 1,100-square-foot getaway.

An experiment in hands-on minimalism, the house sits on a remote five-acre site in Pioneertown—just beyond the northwestern boundary of Joshua Tree National Park—and two hours east of Los Angeles. A husband and wife team, Taalman and Koch bought the land in 2006, and with the help of friends and family, built much of the house themselves.

It’s a project they had been contemplating since moving their design firm, Taalman Koch Architecture, to Los Angeles from New York five years ago. The couple, who met at Cornell and founded OpenOffice arts + architecture, relocated shortly after completing the design and renovation of the Dia:Beacon museum in Beacon, New York, in 2003. Their move west was precipitated by a desire to experiment with new building materials and construction techniques, and to have a more direct role in seeing buildings they had designed come to life.

THE OPEN LIVING ROOM FEATURES A HANGING FIREPLACE AND STEEL ROOF (above). Beneath the solar panels, THE HOUSE offers LARGE OVERHANGS FOR SHADING (below).


 
 

The Off-grid iT house is the result of the couple’s latest experiment in mixing prefabricated and on-site construction techniques. The aluminum framing, steel roof, cabinets, and 3-form bathroom walls arrived ready to install, while the concrete foundation and electrical and plumbing systems were fabricated to meet site-specific needs.

Since the house is two miles away from the nearest electric tower, Taalman and Koch engineered an off-the-grid power system that includes eight solar panels, four of which are on the roof and provide electricity, while two additional panels serve as the house’s solar water heater.

A sizable overhang shades rectilinear floor-to-ceiling windows, some of which are patterned with a vinyl decal grid that functions both as a shading device and a privacy screen. The strategy for enclosing the living quarters is equally low-tech: the bedroom area is nestled between a small hill and a cluster of acacia trees. A pair of outdoor courtyards completes the rectangular floor plan, creating the same sense of easy indoor/outdoor living popularized by modernist architects working in California during the 1950s and ‘60s.

The house was designed as a kit around a modular floor plan, with open sections that can be shifted or mirrored to meet the client’s space and privacy needs. Taalman is unsentimental about the notion of site specificity, believing, as many modernists did, that architecture can become more accessible by way of being more generic and, in turn, more easily reproduced. The iT house may seem one-of-a-kind, but the firm has built three others just like it in Villa Park, Paso Robles, and Three Rivers, near Sequoia National Park.

“The idea of the house is that ‘iT’ can be whatever one wants it to be, it’s up to you to fill in the blanks,” explained Taalman.

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Spin City
Bicycles awaited takers outside the Storefront for Art and Architecture.
Ian Volner

After a quiet start last year, the second annual New York Bike-Share Project kicked off an expanded program on July 10 that included depots at four sites downtown with 30 bikes in all, available at no charge for a half-hour spin from rack to rack. The stations were located outside City Bakery near Union Square, at Birdbath Bakery’s two branches in the East and West Villages, and at Storefront for Art and Architecture on Kenmare Street, and attracted steady traffic, according to volunteer staff from the Forum for Urban Design, which co-produced the project with the participating locations.

The five-day pilot program was the latest development in the ongoing campaign to increase bike ridership in New York. Successful municipal bike-shares abroad have paved the way for a bike-friendly city, one where thousands of bicycles stationed at hundreds of racks would offer residents a practical alternative to the automobile—a vision long shared by local groups like NYC Bikes and Transportation Alternatives, both sponsors of this year’s trial.

Some of the challenges inherent to that vision have already arrived stateside. This month’s bike-share follows the announcement last spring that Washington, D.C. would introduce a European-style SmartBike of its own. That rollout, however, is behind schedule: There’s been difficulty integrating the new electronic kiosks with existing infrastructure. “I’d like to say we’ll be up and going in two weeks,” said District Department of Transportation’s Jim Sebastian, “but I’ve been saying that since May.”

In a shift away from Mayor Bloomberg's public skepticism about the feasiblity of bike-sharing in New York, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has recently signaled a greater commitment to exploring the idea. On July 7, NYC DOT issued a Request for Expressions of Interest for companies or organizations that could initiate and run a large scale program.

Forum for Urban Design executive director Lisa Chamberlain hopes the current experiment can prove the practical value of bike-sharing for New York. And it might do just that. The program attracted a daily record of more than 60 riders on Saturday, July 12. And Chamberlain reports that one man stopped to inquire about the rack on First Avenue, telling volunteers he was late to a meeting on the West Side. He grabbed a bike, sped westward, and deposited it at the Seventh Avenue Birdbath, arriving at the office with minutes to spare.

Editorial: Fresh Resolve at the WTC

Last week the Port Authority made headlines when it came clean about the need to rethink budgets and timelines for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, but it may have been the least surprising piece of news New Yorkers have had in a long time. What was noteworthy, however, was the straightforward but detailed analysis of the existing sticking points and a commitment to a more pragmatic and hard-nosed approach to moving forward.

At the request of Governor Paterson, Port Authority director Chris Ward and his staff conducted a review of the rebuilding process to date, and they produced a report that is well worth reading. It will be particularly interesting to those who find it hard to keep on top of who is in charge of which building, or which architect’s work is getting scaled way back due to budget problems; i.e., about 7,999,995 New Yorkers. The report emphasizes the interconnected nature of all 26 major projects, and identifies 15 issues that must be resolved before any reasonably accurate budget or schedule can be drawn up. According to the report, this new budget and schedule could not—and should not—be released until the fall, since it will take at least that long to coordinate updated information. That may seem like yet another delay, but it will be time well spent, especially if the new numbers are accurate and lead to progress. The last thing we need is to be told once again that things are moving along nicely, thanks very much, and it’ll all be grand.

The Pataki “groundbreaking” for the Freedom Tower was a particularly cynical example of that kind of wishful thinking—the July 4, 2004 ceremony to lay the cornerstone coincided neatly with the Republican National convention, but not with anything in the construction plan. (Two years later, it was shipped back to Hauppauge, Long Island, so that site work could actually begin.) Governor Paterson referenced that stunt at the press conference announcing the Port Authority’s report, saying, “We’re not going to give any phony dates or timetables at this point and then follow it up with phony ribbon-cuttings and encouraging words and no follow-up.”

Follow up has always been the problem, and one of the major issues that has prevented it is the enormous (and sometimes competing) agencies and interests involved. One of the report’s most interesting conclusions regards governance, and the fact that there is currently no single decision-making body. It calls for both a steering committee that would make the call when programmatic conflicts arise, and a site logistics authority that it likens to an air-traffic controller, coordinating the complex logistical issues on-site.

This new tack toward transparency and pragmatism is particularly refreshing after the Kremlinesque secrecy of the old LMDC. It has called fresh attention to the fitful progress at Ground Zero, but if Ward can institute the suggestions he and his staff have outlined, that progress should be a lot smoother.

Eavesdrop: Alissa Walker

TRUTHINESS IN ARCHITECTURE

On a recent episode of the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert told a tale familiar to all Eavesdrop readers: planned improvements to his studio—cue rendering of hotel-rollercoaster-waterslide-disco, set at a 45-degree angle—were hit hard by the financial slump and had to be abandoned due to lack of funding. But the economic downturn has not only put America’s most ambitious construction projects like his on hold, said Colbert, it’s completely taken the U.S. out of the running when it comes to great architecture! Naming Tom Wright’s Burg Al Arab hotel in Dubai and Norman Foster’s Crystal Island in Moscow as structures currently kicking America’s collective architectural butt, Colbert was looking for answers from someone. That person was the evening’s guest, New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger. “What are Americans even doing in the field of architecture that’s in any way exciting?” Colbert asked. “We’re doing everything because our architects are building those buildings,” said Goldberger. “So we’re making all the money off of them, we’re not wasting any money putting them up.” (Well, technically British architects are making all the money, of the two Colbert mentioned…) “We’ve got the best skyscrapers anyway,” said Goldberger, naming the Chrysler Building as “everyone’s favorite building in the world.” Uh, it’s pretty and all, but at 78-years-old, is that really the best he could come up with?

But then Colbert asked the question we’ve been waiting for someone on Comedy Central to answer all these years: How do we know what’s best when it comes to architecture? We almost fell off our La-Z-Boy in anticipation, but sadly Goldberger named the hyper-obvious Frank Gehry (“he does these amazing shapes”) and then, perplexingly, he name-checked Rem Koolhaas and his China Central Television Headquarters! Come on, Paul, you couldn’t name at least one new project that’s on American soil? We prefer Colbert’s solution for raising the profile of American architecture instead: “We need to build big buildings with high asses and huge tits!”

BYE, BYE DI!

Here’s a little shakeup from the middle of the country that has rippled all the way to the coasts: After eight years as director of the Design Institute, Janet Abrams abruptly departed the program at the University of Minnesota on June 27. In an email, Abrams announced—rather mysteriously, we must say—that she will pursue an undisclosed new chapter of her career starting in the fall. Since 2000, when Abrams became its first full-time director, the Design Institute has anchored a burgeoning Minneapolis design scene while amassing a global network of collaborators, publishing several books and a journal, holding design camps for the K-12 set, and organizing a major conferences and summits. But oddly, Abrams won’t be replaced. The Design Institute is closed, effective immediately. (Calls to her phone number at the Institute were redirected.) Although praised by the design community, a source tells us the program suffered from chronically low funding and a lack of support from the university.

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Las Vegas Is Learning
Courtesy MGM Grand Mirage

Las Vegas has become a barometer for architecture, though it’s usually a little bit behind the times. It was all glamorous modernism in the 1970s, but by the 1990s, local developers here were obsessed with postmodern fancies that brought the world close, and down to size: The Venetian had its own Grand Canal, and the Paris arrived with a scaled-down Eiffel Tower, while New York, New York went so far as to put maintenance staff in uniforms like those worn by Sanitation workers in the five boroughs. At the turn of the century, developers moved toward upscale, lifestyle-oriented resorts and boutique hotels like the Wynn and the Hotel at Mandalay Bay.

Now another shift is underway: The MGM CityCenter, still under construction, is creating iconic buildings in a dense, mixed-use environment. Believe it or not, Vegas is selling urbanism—or at least a local version of it—and taking a page from cities around the world by using big-name contemporary architects to generate interest.

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Remembering Jan Pokorny, 1914-2008

JAN HIRD POKORNY ASSOCIATES
 

Architect, preservationist, and teacher Jan Pokorny, who died on May 20, straddled not only fields, but worlds. With a sensibility shaped by history—he came from Brno, Czechoslovakia, the birthplace of Sigmund Freud and site of Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House—Pokorny impressed all with his generous cosmopolitanism in a long career spanning Prague, Detroit, and New York. AN asked two who knew him as colleague and mentor to share their impressions.

Michael Devonshire
partner and director of conservation
Jan Hird Pokorny Associates:

Jan Hird Pokorny began his architectural practice in Prague in 1937 upon graduation from Prague Polytechnic University, emigrating to the United States via Sweden after the fall of Czechoslovakia to the Germans in 1939. He then completed his master’s degree in architecture in 1941 at Columbia University, where he would later teach.

During World War II, Jan worked in Detroit as an architect for the Leo Bauer firm, converting Ford automobile factories for production of battle tanks. After the war, he spent two years with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and then established his own architectural practice in New York City in 1947, quickly branching into industrial and academic architecture and establishing himself as a nuanced architect for public and institutional structures. His first major preservation project was the restoration of Schermerhorn Row at the South Street Seaport, completed in 1983.

I joined Jan’s firm in 1986. When he asked me if I would work for him, I said yes, but that I could not start immediately. I told him I had planned a four-week trip to India, and he scrunched up his face—at this time I thought he was about to rescind his offer—then he said, “No, no, four weeks will not do”—long pause—”you must spend at least six weeks in India!”

When I began working on the Morris-Jumel mansion restoration, which had a tight schedule, I would stay late working on details, construction drawings, and specifications. In most offices, partners would typically make the rounds admonishing staff to “hurry up and get that out!” Jan came up behind me on a particular evening, and I could feel him looking over my shoulder. I braced myself for the “get it out” admonition. Instead, he very gently said, “Take as long as you wish to finish this, just make sure that it’s the best we can do.”

Until three years ago, our office was in Jan’s home and it was very similar to an atelier atmosphere, very unstructured and familial. It was the norm that at everyone’s birthday we would sit at his huge George Nakashima dining room table and have Slivovitz and cake. Often, if one arrived early, Jan would already be at his desk, but in his pajamas!

Richard M. Olcott
partner
Polshek Partnership Architects:

Jan and I spent about 11 years together on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, starting together in September 1996. At 81, he was twice my age when he started and by far the oldest of the commissioners. Nonetheless, he was possibly the most progressive of us all, consistently advocating an enlightened position drawn from a lifetime of experience. That enlightenment came in large part from Jan’s Czech background, having grown up in the famously beautiful medieval and Baroque city of Prague in a country that also has a long and strong modernist history. Jan could move among many such overlapping languages with ease, and with a profound, unfettered understanding of history, coupled with an enthusiasm for the contemporary. You could scarcely find any individual who cared more deeply about architecture, art, music, and literature, and whose manner, bearing, and dress—elegant gray suits, always with a bowtie—bespoke a truly cultured person.

Countless applicants have been the unwitting beneficiaries of that civility, and Jan was always polite and deferential even when delivering the bad news about their designs. He had a low tolerance for stylistic excess and structural inefficiency, and would unfailingly point out such glaring deficiencies and their proper resolution at the first opportunity, the teacher in him coming to the fore. This quality earned Jan the nickname “the Professor” among the commissioners; some would hold back (“Let’s see what the Professor thinks”) until Jan had pronounced the application either promising or beyond redemption. He always provided succinct, elegantly simple summations of complicated problems, on the heels of another commissioner’s long-winded bloviation. We were all guilty of that, but never him.

But the heart of the matter is this: It’s easy to dislike the Landmarks Commission, even though everyone needs it. It’s a world of sniping, know-it-all critics, pontificating architects, scheming developers, and occasionally unhinged preservationists, all with their own agendas. It’s not easy to do as Jan did: to serenely reside above the fray and get to the issues and the truth, and then find the way forward. I will miss that, and New Yorkers will too, whether they know it or not.

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New Scenery for the World's Stage
The U.N. complex comprises three principal buildings: the Secretariat tower, the domed General Assembly Hall -- built in 1949 and 1950 -- and the Dag Hammarskjold Library.
Ben Murphy

The cool modernist ensemble of United Nations buildings that Wallace K. Harrison called a “workshop for peace” will soon be a workshop for long-overdue renovations. After breaking ground last month on the northern lawn of the U.N. complex for a 175,000-square-foot concrete and steel temporary building to house U.N. conferences and the office of the secretary-general until at least 2014, U.N. officials will relocate thousands of staffers from buildings completed in 1950.

Actual work on one of the world’s most recognizable architectural ensembles comes after ten contentious years of preparation and a series of different plans for overhauling the asbestos-filled structures, which have serious leak problems and antiquated mechanical infrastructure. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, security concerns gave greater urgency to planning for any potential attack on the 18-acre site.

In 1998, the U.N. General Assembly, which represents all the organization’s 192 member states, voted to completely overhaul the buildings, which had undergone ad hoc alterations over five decades. An initial plan envisioned renovating the complex section by section while staff remained on-site, to minimize the need to pay high rents in New York’s booming real estate market. An alternate scheme would have involved building a second 35-story U.N. tower on a playground immediately south of the current ensemble. In 2001, an expanded visitors’ center was proposed under the North Lawn. The current plan relies on placing the U.N. leadership and conferences in a temporary structure on U.N. property, which will be demolished after renovation is completed, and locating most of the personnel in leased office space.

The cost for the entire six-year project, called the capital master plan, is estimated at $1.9 billion. The U.N.’s three principal buildings, designed by a team that included Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, and Wallace K. Harrison, were built in 1949 and 1950 for $65 million on land bought for $8.5 million by the Rockefeller family and then donated to the international organization. A fourth building, the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, opened in 1961.

Steven Pressler of Skanska, the construction manager, characterized the ensemble as “old, in need of a facelift,” and called the project “a big demolition job with a lot of asbestos thrown in; then building it back is almost building it like new.” Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering is the lead architect for historic preservation, and R.A. Heintges is consulting on the restoration of the curtain wall. HLW International is developing interior design guidelines and is designing the North Lawn building.

The Woodrow Wilson Reading Room, designed by Harrison, Abramovitz and Harris, holds the records of the League of Nations and is located in the Dag Hammarskjöld Library building, dedicated in 1961. Though not open to the public, the reading room, with its distinctive white pine paneling, will be carefully preserved.

“As with all institutions, the last place they wanted to put their scarce resources was in fixing up their own house, so the U.N. delayed the decision, because resources are scarce, and their mission is extremely broad, but after 9/11 it raised the priority of making this project happen,” said Michael Adlerstein, the architect who now heads the capital master plan. Adlerstein had previously been vice president of the New York Botanical Garden and was a student of George Dudley, author of the most comprehensive study of the design and construction of the U.N. Adlerstein’s predecessor, John Frederick Reuter IV, quit two years ago in frustration over the increasingly political nature of the process. “I am interested in building buildings, not ‘selling’ them,” Reuter said. “Perhaps the biggest challenge has been to convince member states, and particularly the host country, that the physical condition of the United Nations Headquarters is not a political matter." 

Selling the renovation has indeed been a challenge. The plan required the unanimous approval of the 192 U.N. member states in the General Assembly, and winning support in New York and Washington was yet another battle. In 2004, the organization held an architecture competition, restricted to Pritzker Prize winners, for a 35-story tower that would provide swing space for staff displaced during construction and eventually house U.N. offices that are now in rental buildings, at below-market rents, controlled by a public firm called the United Nations Development Corporation. Richard Meier, one of those considered, dropped out of the running, calling the cramped First Avenue site inappropriate for a building of that scale. (He subsequently designed four towers nearby on the East River waterfront for the developer Sheldon Solow; these are still in the approvals stage.) The commission was awarded to Fumihiko Maki of Japan, whose sleek grey column was chosen over entries by Foster + Partners and Herzog & de Meuron.









FROM TOP: THE MAP ROOM, WITH ITS RETRO-LOOKING FLAT FILES, IS STILL OF VITAL USE TO SETTLE TERRITORIAL DISPUTES; A RECEPTION ROOM THAT HAS ALREADY BEEN UPDATED WITH A MORE CONTEMPORARY DECOR; CONFERENCE ROOM NO. 5 WILL BE COMPLETELY RENOVATED; THE SADLY OUTMODED BROADCASTING CONTROL ROOM WILL ALSO RECEIVE AN OVERHAUL.
 

The site, however, was a concrete patch called the Robert Moses Playground, and construction required a vote by the New York State Senate to enable “alienation” of parkland, even though the plan provided for a riverbank esplanade of comparable size in exchange. The local New York City Council member, Dan Garodnick, points out that his district has the least parkland in the city.

Elected officials found that attacking the U.N. was even more effective than attacking the French. At the end of 2004, the State Senate delayed a vote, citing a history of unpaid parking tickets by U.N. personnel, alleged anti-semitism, and opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “I view Mr. [Kofi] Annan’s stonewalling on the release of oil-for-food documents to Congress as a potential cover-up for corruption and will use it as leverage to deny passage of state legislation,” vowed State Senator Martin Golden in a letter to the New York Times in January 2006. Golden carried the day. The matter never came to a vote, despite support from Mayor Bloomberg, then-governor George Pataki, and the Bush administration. “It was politics, pure politics,” said Edward Rubin, an architect who chairs the Land Use Committee of Community Board 6 in Manhattan.

In 2005, the ever-opinionated Donald Trump weighed in. After building his Trump World Tower on a site overlooking the complex, he was contacted by the Swedish delegation for some informal advice. He testified before the International Security Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate, and suggested that the U.N. sell its East River campus and use the profits to create a new building on the site of the former World Trade Center. Trump also offered to renovate the original East Side buildings himself for $300 million, warning that U.N. costs (which he said would rise to $3 billion) had been inflated by internal “corruption and incompetence.” Part of the problem, he added, was that the organization would be extorted for short-term office space by New York landlords—”There is no worse human being on Earth, okay?” Trump said. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan urged Trump to bid on the project, but he never filed a bid. “He would only do it if the U.N. were to have offered it to him, and under the rules of procurement, it would be literally impossible to source a project of this size to a single vendor,” said Adlerstein.

Some critics even wondered whether the iconic buildings were worth preserving. “I always found this futurist architectural experiment tacky,” said former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, who was frustrated in his effort to link U.S. support for the renovation to a general reform of the U.N.’s procurement process. “I found the General Assembly [building] to be vaguely fascist,” he added.

Even those who admire its architecture still call the complex a firetrap. In testimony before Congress in 2005, a U.N. official predicted that a serious explosion at the U.N. would spray asbestos throughout the neighborhood. And since it doesn’t even have a sprinkler system, the U.N. fails to meet New York City fire code.

Most of the renovation work, when completed, will be invisible to the visitor, said Adlerstein, although the sleek wood-paneled Security Council Chamber and the General Assembly will get interiors that are closer to their original bright colors than today’s muted seating. Since the manufacturers of some original materials are no longer in business, and certain woods used in conference rooms came from endangered species, approximations will be made, architects say.

The dramatic change will be in the east and west facades of the Secretariat tower. The leaking, corroded aluminum curtain wall will be removed to replace decaying surfaces and increase its energy efficiency. In the process, a layer of thermal film between the double-pane windows will also be stripped. “The original building was sans film, and had a cooler look. The film underneath the curtain wall had a bluish tint. After removing that film, the building will look more silvery and more transparent,” said Steven Pressler of Skanska.

Transparency—both literal and figurative—has always been an issue at the U.N. Surfing through U.N.-related chat on the web reveals the persistent view that the U.N. belongs to the “why pay less” school. Yet Adlerstein notes that by emptying each building before renovation, the project cut two years off of construction and saved $100 million, which will cover swing space rent in Manhattan and Queens. Additional savings come from the U.N.’s exemption from sales tax. Contrary to Mr. Trump’s belief, the project, he stressed, “was never a runaway train. It was a stalled train. The concern was that it wasn’t moving fast enough.”

But not so fast as to outrun auditors, Adlerstein explained, noting that value-engineering is still in progress. “We are being audited by several different groups at all times… Each member state is entitled to audit us and several do,” he said. “We have eternal audits.” With luck, though, diplomacy will carry the day.

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Shop-ing at the Seaport
Courtesy SHoP

Though it has one of the city’s iconic postcard views, the South Street Seaport falls into that category of attractions that many New Yorkers confess they rarely visit, much like the top of the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. Yet Lower Manhattan is undergoing enormous changes, from the growth of the residential district around Wall Street, the planned transit hub at Fulton Street, to, of course, the World Trade Center site, so the Seaport’s leaseholder, General Growth Properties (GGP), has just announced a proposal to transform the area. The plan involves rebuilding much of the 19th-century structure of Pier 17 and replacing the 1982 enclosed mall with a series of smaller retail, hotel, and event buildings arranged around several public open spaces and promenades.

According to Gregg Pasqarelli of SHoP, the firm hired to design the project, SHoP and GGP wanted to conceive of the new Seaport not as a distinct megaproject but as the extension of a neighborhood. “The festival marketplace was just right for its time, and was the cutting edge of preservationist thinking,” he explained. “Today, the city as a whole is a festival marketplace, and you don’t need to seal off parts anymore. If [original developer] Rouse were to approach the city today with the same project, I’m not sure they’d get approval.”

GGP approached SHoP after seeing its work on the surrounding city-commissioned East River Waterfront plan, which was initially released in February of last year. One feature of that plan is the construction of retail and community buildings underneath the FDR drive, currently not much more than a dark parking lot for buses. These are in turn incorporated into the thinking and design for the GGP Seaport project, in order to create a more coherent and integrated approach to the waterfront.

SHoP's proposal for the South Street Seaport includes a 42-story, 495-foot tower and a public plaza approximately the size of Bryant Park.

The scope of SHoP’s design is significant, and includes both new—and very contemporary—construction, as well as the restoration and move of the Tin Building, the last remaining structure with historical interest on the site of the Fulton Fish Market. Though it has been mostly gutted and incorporated into the 1983 shopping mall, the structure would be restored to the extent possible on the exterior, then moved into the historic district on Pier 17. A 286-room hotel and 78-unit residential building would go up on its site. While the tower’s floor-area-ratio of 17 is as-of-right, it rises 495 feet instead of the permissible 350. Pasquarelli explained that they decided to build taller to maximize surrounding open space and to reduce bulk and maintain views. There is also likely to be some affordable housing in the mix: Project manager Thorsten Kiefer said that one possibility would be to create a mix of affordable and market-rate housing in the restored buildings on Schermerhorn Row, though that plan is still in the germinal phase.

The tower’s design is striking. Three stacked glass volumes are enclosed in an open, lattice-like exoskeletal mesh. (Note to would-be climbers: Each diamond-shaped opening in the structure spans several floors, so it won’t be easy to clamber up.) Pasquarelli described the exoskeleton as loosely inspired by the patterns of the old fishing nets once so prevalent there, but more than that, as a contemporary reinterpretation of the waterfront technologies of pier, cable, and mast.

Like any major project, the GGP/SHoP proposal will face a series of regulatory hurdles, including the Uniform Land Use Review Process, or ULURP, approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the New York City Arts Commission, Community Board 1, and the Department of City Planning. David Vermillion, a spokesperson for GGP, explained that the company is well aware of the enormous efforts of various city agencies to improve the quality of and access to the waterfront, and decided that the time was right to reimagine their stake in it, approaching SHoP specifically in order to coordinate efforts.

Vermillion and GGP may be on to something, because for the last several years, now-former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff staunchly advocated the development of a harbor district, which would include Ellis Island, Governors Island, the revitalized East River Waterfront, Battery Park City, and Brooklyn Bridge Park, and be connected via ferry service. That vision of the waterfront as an integrated and accessible whole is a compelling one, but will need the support and participation from the private sector as well. Pasquarelli, for one, is cautiously hopeful: “It is really extraordinary to see a situation like this, where the city is putting energy and money into reconnecting people to the waterfront, and a private company has decided to join in.”