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Lost City in the Woods

Architect and photographer Christopher Payne is fascinated with the afterlives of buildings. A chronicler of ruins, he has photographed disused factories on the East River, the High Line on the West Side, outmoded transit electrical substations throughout Manhattan, and, for the past few years, shuttered insane asylums and state hospitals across the country. Payne’s latest subject is the buildings and landscape of North Brother, a derelict hospital island in the Bronx under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, far removed from the cycles of development and change that are transforming the city. Evidence of habitation and of the island’s checkered history is literally disappearing into the woods.

In the 1880s, the island was home to a contagious disease hospital and was a model of reform-era hygiene and efficiency, earning the praise of the muckraking journalist Jacob Riis. Among its inhabitants was “Typhoid” Mary Mallon, the cook and notorious source of several outbreaks, who died there in 1938. The island was also the site of one of the nation’s worst nautical disasters, the 1904 downing of the steamship General Slocum, which sank just offshore carrying German immigrants on a holiday outing. Nurses and patients on the island rescued nearly 250 passengers, but more than one thousand people died. The tuberculosis hospital was completed in 1943, but was quickly repurposed to house World War II veterans who were attending college in the city through the GI Bill. By 1952, the island became a treatment facility for juvenile drug addicts before being abandoned altogether in 1964.

Today North Brother has largely slipped from public consciousness. It does not, for example, appear on the MTA Subway map: The place where the 29-acre island would be shows only water. “The city has an uncountable number of histories and events that are lodged, hidden away in some archive or someone’s memory,” said Randall Mason, a professor of historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the island extensively. “But things have a way of coming back; they resurface.” He cites the African Burial Ground as an example. “Places become invisible if they’re not used,” he said. The Parks Department classifies North Brother as a nature preserve. Department representatives visit only a few times a year and the public is prohibited because of safety concerns.

While photographing sites for the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, Payne first saw the island from afar. “I felt like I had found a lost city in a jungle, and yet here I was in New York City,” Payne said. His boat, he realized, was too big to get close to the island’s ruined dock. “Here was this lost world, a hundred feet away, that I couldn’t get to.” On a second trip, he found its buildings—a hospital, power plant, boiler, morgue, housing, cistern, and other infrastructure—receding into the landscape. “It’s strange to look at old photos and see how it functioned, how clear it was, a modern, open campus,” he said. “It’s amazing how quickly Nature reclaims what’s Hers.” In his photographs, trees sprout from the foundation line of the solitary staff house as layers of brick peel away from the facades. Brightly painted interiors are visible through the shards of glass in the robust-looking art deco tuberculosis hospital.

For the Parks Department, the island’s most important resident is the Black-crowned Night Heron, a rare bird that has slowly been returning to the region since the passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s. North Brother is part of a chain of small islands throughout the region called the “harbor herons complex,” according to Bill Tai, director of natural resources for Parks. The much smaller South Brother Island came into the Parks portfolio this November, when the federal government bought it for $2 million and turned it over to the city. Acknowledging the island’s history and its crumbling architecture, Tai called North Brother “the most interesting of the heron islands.” He added, however, that “maybe its highest and best use is to preserve it for wildlife.” Parks is sympathetic to the island’s history and the concerns of preservationists, and according to Tai, the department is hoping to do a partial restoration of the dock to make it occasionally accessible for small groups, and has secured $500,000 in funding toward that goal. Restoration of one of the smaller buildings as an interpretive center may be possible, but he noted, “We have very reduced budget forecasts, so it’s not a very high priority.”

In this era of public-private partnerships, piecemeal development, and limited public resources, the state of limbo in which the island sits is not altogether uncommon. The scale and significance of its architecture, once accessible by frequent ferry service, is a disquieting reminder that such limitations were not always commonplace. For Payne, abandoned public buildings hold a particular attraction, not just for the romance of their ruin but as vestiges of civic aspirations long since jettisoned.

Eavesdrop: Alissa Walker

According to The San Francisco Chronicle, the city’s new planning department director John Rahaim is looking for a new apartment after his boyfriend Lance Farber destroyed their shared residence by damaging antique furnishings, smearing the walls with canned tomatoes, and setting a mattress on fire late last month. But this wasn’t just any old PacHeights rental—Rahaim was living at the Dennis T. Sullivan Memorial Fire Chief’s Home, a 1926 landmark sometimes offered to city employees in need of transitional housing. A million dollar bail has been posted for Farber, who fled the scene and was arrested later that night on suspicion of driving under the influence. While support for Rahaim, who was appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom last September, has been overwhelmingly positive, one public official, fire commission vice president Victor Makras, is calling for Rahaim to cover the estimated $30,000 in damages. And Makras would seem an expert on uninhabitable apartments in his role as president of property management company Makras Real Estate: A slew of negative reviews by his former tenants on the website Yelp range from “negligent with security and repairs” to “this is the epitome of a slum lord.”

Architects coast to coast are murmuring about a tower proposed in February for Seattle by Portland-based Zimmer Gunsul Frasca that bears more than a passing resemblance to Robert A. M. Stern’s Tour Carpe Diem announced in January in Paris. The glass towers both feature double-take-inducing faceted facades of triangular planes that angle in and out. While we cross-referenced the employee contact lists of each firm to find out which disgruntled architect lifted the blueprints along with his walking papers, several responses to an newsletter reveal that there are actually several more angles to the story. Keen eyes saw similar angles in Dallas’ Fountain Place byHenry Cobb of I.M. Pei & Partners (1986), I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower (1990), Lab Architecture Studio/Bate Smart‘s Federation Square, Melbourne (2002), even in the under-construction Bank of America Tower by Cook + Foxin Manhattan. Wow, we had no idea that architects were so… multi-faceted.

When we got word that SBE Entertainment Group (owners of trendy LA restaurants, clubs, and other real estate) CEO Sam Nazarian was named to SCI-Arc’s board of directors last month, we only had one question: How long until Spencer Pratt goes back to school for his masters in architecture? Let us explain. SBE’s got a recurring gig on the is-it-real-or-is-it-fake docudrama The Hills (it’s fake), one of the hottest shows on television, since star Heidi Montag“works” there. Watch closely (because you know you want to) and you’ll notice SBE-affiliated institutions like the Philippe Starck-designed Katsuya fleet seem to appear on-screen a little more frequently than other LA locations. Therefore, it’s only logical that next season will see a fascinating plot twist that results in a scantily-clad catfight in SCI-Arc’s parking lot. Or Nazarian could help out the unemployed Lauren Conrad, who left her “job” at Teen Vogue at the end of last season. Maybe there’s an opening in the SCI-Arc publications department? 


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And Then There Were Four

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Brookfield’s Manhattan West. COURTESY SOM

Since the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced five bidders to buy air rights over its Hudson Yards that span the lower West 30s from 10th Avenue to the river, the Brookfield Properties bid has stood apart from the others. It rejected the MTA’s guideline to create a platform over the yard, arguing that it could keep the rail lines in service by locating buildings on the avenues and their entrances at street level. It also employed 11 architecture firms, including SHoP Architects and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, in a proposal that won the affection of members of the local community board and passersby at the MTA’s December exhibition. All of this has made the developer’s decision to abandon the bid raise eyebrows in the architectural community.

One reason that Brookfield may have dropped its scheme is that it violated the city’s 2005 zoning for the eastern portion of the site, meaning that a fresh rezoning would likely add at least 15 months to the schedule.

“Everyone who has worked on this will tell you they would like to relook at that zoning,” said a source associated with another bidder, who asked for anonymity. “I thought Brookfield’s proposal was entirely feasible from an urban design point of view, and there were good, intelligent principles in it.” 

Those principles may yet drive some of the site’s planning. It will take at least a decade to build out the project, and no developer will want to sink a lot of capital into it without knowing the prospects for Moynihan Station just to the east. So most observers (and some participants) expect players to lean on or borrow from each other in executing the project. That means Brookfield could get back in, as an investor in a single building or by virtue of its control over the site’s eastern gateway.

Brookfield recently secured $105 million in predevelopment financing for Manhattan West, a 5.4 million-square-foot mixed-use project featuring twin SOM skyscrapers. That project, on a deck from 9th Avenue to Dyer Avenue, will abut Hudson Yards, so Brookfield will still affect how construction crews, buses, and pedestrians eventually cross from Moynihan Station (or Penn Station, if it doesn’t change) into the Hudson Yards site.

The local community board and other well-organized civic groups in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen have advocated a plan integrating Moynihan and the Brookfield site into plans for Hudson Yards. Their advocacy has already led the MTA to release design proposals to the public: After the authority selects a bidder, support for the Brookfield idea may bring that model back into the picture. 

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The Hudson Yards version of the SOM towers.COURTESY ARCHIMATION

“We’re all wondering whether there’s going to be room for change in urban design,” said someone who has participated in the bid process since last year. “The community itself is looking for it. The problem is, I don’t think anyone is going to take the time to build consensus.”

Governor Eliot Spitzer, at a February 28 speech, promised resolution of Moynihan Station’s unsure financing: MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said the agency will consider bids this month. As economic assumptions change, Brookfield’s choice to sit out the term-setting on Hudson Yards may prove wise later on if zoning problems make the project seem less financially; it doesn’t mean the company won’t get involved at a later point. 



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Krens Leaves: What's Left?



Last month, Thomas Krens, the man who defined the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for two decades, announced he will no longer be running the place. 

Like much of what Krens and the Guggenheim have proposed over that time, his public resignation was vague and tentative. Krens will stay on as an international adviser, and he will coordinate the construction of the planned Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a cultural complex of buildings designed by Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, with smaller structures by such younger architects as Greg Lynn, Ben van Berkel, and Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture. The Guggenheim shares its site with the Louvre’s grand Persian Gulf outpost. 

As Krens gives up his day-to-day duties, he leaves a Guggenheim molded in his image and an indelible imprint on museums internationally. Krens pioneered the creation of international museum outposts with the high-profile Guggenheim Museum Bilbao that made Frank Gehry a mainstream celebrity. The Guggenheim now has some half-dozen outposts, depending on how you count them, and the practice has been copied by the State Hermitage Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and more recently, by the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou. 

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Krens gave the Guggenheim over to unlikely objects, like motorcycles and clothes, both in shows funded by interested manufacturers like BMW and Armani; cars by Cai Guo-Qiang are now in the 5th Avenue atrium. He also took art and high-profile architecture to gambling casinos in Las Vegas (with another project planned for a casino in Singapore, initiated without telling his trustees) and he transported art from under-funded Russian museums to western audiences that were eager to pay to see it. 

Yet the man who sought “positions” in regions all over the world left some flops in his wake—in Rio de Janeiro, where public outcry over construction costs stymied a Guggenheim by Jean Nouvel; in Taiwan, where a Guggenheim master plan with buildings by Gehry and Hadid never got past the models; in downtown Manhattan, where a Gehry mega-museum died after 9/11; and in Guadalajara, Mexico, where a Guggenheim skyscraper by Enrique Norten hasn’t been mentioned again since its trumpeted announcement almost three years ago. 

Sources close to the museum say that before Krens stepped down, the Guggenheim struggled to find a replacement for the museum’s director, Lisa Dennison, who left last summer for a job at Sotheby’s. Her job is still not filled. Now the Guggenheim may have to search for two executives, just as the Metropolitan Museum of Art is seeking to hire a replacement for outgoing director Philippe de Montebello. 

Insiders say that the Guggenheim Board and any future director will refocus the museum away from expensive architectural globalism and toward its New York site and its neglected collection. The rhetoric echoes an approach suggested by Peter Lewis, the insurance tycoon and former board chairman, who left the board in 2005 after Krens refused to abandon plans for more expansion. Lewis was the Guggenheim’s most important donor since the death of its founder. After leaving, he kept his promise to fund the conservation of the Frank Lloyd Wright pavilion’s exterior on 5th Avenue. To date, the combined Guggenheim board has failed to match Lewis’ generosity. 

Krens’ new role will free him to make deals and leverage real estate gambits with Guggenheim art, forgoing the administrative duties that were never his strength. It could also free him to work on behalf of other museums, and Krens could turn out to be an even bigger global brand than the institution he ran for 20 years. The architects, artists, and oligarchs in his circle are his personal capital, not the Guggenheim’s. 

To believe Krens, cities are still lining up to build and run a Guggenheim, or something that looks like one. Yet back on 5th Avenue, the over-extended and under-endowed institution that Krens leaves behind is already scaring off potential successors. 



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Water Works
Low-lying harbor zones are vulnerable to even modest storm surges. Areas flooded by Category 1 storms are shown in dark green, Category 2 in light green, Category 3 in orange, and Category 4 in red.

One tenth of an inch may just be a splash. But sea level in New York creeps that much higher every year, and worsening climate impacts could make that splash several feet deep by the end of this century, meaning a soggier future for nearly one million of the region’s residents who live within three feet of the spring high-water mark. Factor in worsening storm surges, and today’s 100-year flood zone may well become a 10-year flood zone—wreaking $350 billion in damage to New York City under the severe scenarios the state’s Emergency Management Office is now studying. 

“If you look where major development projects are going in New York, many are located right in harm’s way,” said Klaus Jacob, the outspoken Columbia University expert on sea-level rise, pointing to condos sprouting in Williamsburg or Columbia’s Manhattanville campus, sited at a vulnerable low point near the Hudson River. “That campus will start to look like Venice in a hundred years,” he warned. 

London has its Thames Barrier. Dutch cities are fortified for the 10,000-year storm. But New York? “Coastal cities around the world that intend to be around for the next hundred years have done incredible work,” said Michael Fishman, founder of the consulting practice Urban Answers. “In North America, we have very little to show.” 

That is starting to change as architects, ecologists, and engineers grapple with a hybrid of structure and landscape that is well-suited to the world’s rusting wharves. Some call it aquatecture—a new, blue alternative that is catching up with the green building movement as the next wave of sustainable urban design. “It’s not a building, not a pier, not a boat,” said Fishman, who teaches a waterfront studio at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP). “It’s part water, part wildlife. Major development around the world is going to embrace this adaptation of post-industrial megastructures.” 

In our wet new world, the postapocalyptic attitude is this: Bring it on. “Existing waterfront wetlands are going to be swamped,” said structural engineer Guy Nordenson, who is studying the consequences of sea-level rise with a multidisciplinary team that won the American Institute of Architects’ 2007 Latrobe Prize. They’ve hatched a radical proposal to revamp Upper New York Bay with an archipelago of hundreds of islands that would temper the destructive energy of storm surges. The proposal, which won a $100,000 award and will be refined in the coming months, presents a larger vision of New York Harbor as a focal point for regional development, like St. Mark’s Basin in Venice—a watery Central Park for the coming century. 

Designers in New York and beyond are taking small steps toward Nordenson’s grand aquapolitan vision. A pair of projects from Boston-based Stoss Landscape Urbanism shows how modest interventions in the marine edge can prove paradigm-shifting in their own right. The firm lets flood conditions have their way with a waterfront site at Erie Street Plaza, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at the confluence of the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan. In the midst of a rough-edged working waterfront, the park contends with lake levels that rise and fall by as much as 6 feet over roughly 20-year cycles. Stoss’ solution was to slice slots into an existing steel bulkhead, allowing high lake levels to inundate a new zone of native grasses and revive a marsh condition long obliterated by industry. 

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At Bass River Park in West Dennis, Massachusetts, Stoss’ carpet of hillocks (below) fuels the free play of complex ecologies. Rising lake levels nourish a new marsh (above) at Milwaukee’s Erie Street Plaza, by the Boston-based Stoss. 

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It also makes a larger public point. “We’re allowing people to engage with this momentary high point of the lake cycle, so that it becomes very much an actor in the experience of that open space,” said principal Chris Reed. A similar strategy informed Bass River Park in West Dennis, Massachusetts, a 2.5-acre parcel that rests on land that was once salt marsh. Stoss designed zones of red cedar, sand plain, wet meadow, and salt marsh, each of which vies for botanical dominance amid changing climate variables. “We’re building in resilience and flexibility from an ecological standpoint,” Reed said. “No matter how high or low the sea level is, there are places where these individual plant communities can thrive.” 

Showcasing water’s presence in the urban landscape required a complex approach for Margie Ruddick of Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT), who has helped lead the design for a one-acre park at Queens Plaza. Working with artist Michael Singer, designers created a permeable paving system that features runnels with weep holes to collect water from paths and open spaces. A rain garden at the base of the Queensboro Bridge captures bridge runoff during storms, directing it to lush plantings. Below grade, a lozenge-shaped subsurface wetland detains water once it has filtered through street-level plantings. But working with water requires updated design chops. WRT and collaborators Marpillero Pollak Architects, who won a 2008 AIA New York chapter design award for the project, note that architects need to embrace a more unruly aesthetic. “A couple of years ago this project would have looked incomprehensible to a lot of architects,” Ruddick said. “There’s a kind of terror of things that don’t look organized and orderly.” 

A subsurface wetland forms the heart of WRT’s design for Queens Plaza (above, left); runoff from the Queensboro Bridge feeds a lushly planted rain garden (above, right).

For areas atop a newly graded edge at Brooklyn Bridge Park, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates positioned significant plantings to skirt the 100-year-flood zone. 

If a Category 4 cyclone hits the East River, Brooklyn Bridge Park will be exhibit A of that messiness. But it should still be around. In Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’ design for the new public space, the sharp-edged bulkhead is banished in favor of a more natural riparian edge among adaptively reused piers. Careful thought is being given to storm threats, said principal Matthew Urbanski. “We’ve gone to great pains to shape the land in such a way that the significant tree plantings are above the 100-year flood level, so we don’t get salt-water inundation,” he explained. Beyond a calm-water basin that shelters small islands of natural habitat, a stabilized riprap edge protects against wave energy. Upland hills are planted with meadow grasses and canopy trees, while farther inland, freshwater swales capture stormwater from adjacent asphalt before it reaches the river. 

“There’s a general consensus that we have to start working within the natural systems and reinforcing them,” said David Hamilton, principal of Praxis3, which won a recent round of The History Channel’s City of the Future competition with a proposal to liberate Atlanta’s natural streams from 1,900 miles of buried pipes and catchments. Contending with severe drought in the Southeast, Hamilton’s Atlanta-based team, in collaboration with EDAW, BNIM Architects, and environmental engineering firm Metcalf & Eddy, proposed a series of “waterscapes” to restore the natural watershed and spawn piedmont forest instead of sprawl. Existing drainage systems would be converted into aquifers to store ever-scarcer precipitation. The team aims to develop the idea as a model for drought-prone cities, where bureaucrats are perking up their ears. “When you start running out of water, politicians start paying attention in a hurry,” Hamilton said. 

Breaching New Orleans’ levees would blunt the harm from Mississippi River floods, as in this high-density housing concept from Praxis3. COURTESY PRAXIS3 AND KEAN ARCHITECTS

New Orleans officials might want to consult his firm’s entry for a post-Katrina design competition that rethinks that city’s levee system. Collaborating with architect Lee Kean, Praxis3 proposed breaching floodwalls to create softer berms that ease over a block-size parcel in the Bywater neighborhood. Elevated green space weaves this natural terrain back into the city; a reflecting pool and cistern collect water on site. “The Mississippi River could actually go through its flood stages without doing any damage,” Hamilton said. 

If there’s a bright side to climate change, it may be the opportunity to drag bolder designs out of the closet. “Some of these visionary projects are really legacies of the 1960s and ‘70s,” said architect Lindy Roy, who is studying the impacts of climate change in Africa with her students at Columbia’s GSAPP this semester. “We need to look at things with that kind of breadth. Otherwise, we make the sexy forms, and then all of the environmental stuff gets handed over to sustainability experts and engineers.” 

In ARO’s vision of Manhattan now and in 2106 (left and right), melting polar ice caps make for a much soggier city. COURTESY ARCHITECTURE RESEARCH OFFICE

In other words, thinking the unthinkable can be an adventure. “Our goal is to make people excited instead of terrified,” said Adam Yarinsky, principal at Architecture Research Office (ARO), who is working with Nordenson’s Latrobe Prize team. ARO’s provocative entry for New York’s City of the Future episode did just that, making a virtue out of Gotham’s waterlogged fate. Envisioning low-lying neighborhoods deep-sixed under some 36 inches of water due to melting polar ice caps, ARO designed an optimistic new city for the year 2106, built of thin, pier-like buildings rising above Manhattan’s flooded downtown streets. Kayakers paddled languidly among ruined storefronts, as verdant public promenades bridged the waters overhead. 

Take that, Rotterdam. When the big one hits, we may not be high and dry. But at least we’ll be floating in style. 


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Silver Lining for Pei Towers

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Cover your ears, Jane Jacobs. On February 12, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted unanimously to calendar a public hearing on a Robert Moses–era slum clearance project known as the Silver Towers. The vote is a step toward victory for efforts to save one of New York’s precious postwar landscapes. But neighbors fear this tower-in-the-park could be sorely cramped by New York University (NYU), which is scouring the area for millions of square feet to accommodate planned campus expansion.

With a central courtyard dominated by the 36-foot-high sculpture Portrait of Sylvette, executed from a Picasso design, the Silver Towers are an unusually urbane case of urban renewal. Designed by I. M. Pei & Partners and completed in 1966, three concrete towers sit on a five-and-a-half-acre superblock between Bleecker and Houston streets. NYU acquired the property in 1963 and hired Pei to design two towers to house university faculty and a third tower that is ground-leased to residents of a Mitchell-Lama cooperative housing project. Built of cast-in-place concrete with deeply set windows, the towers pinwheel in plan, shifting on axis to break up what could have been a fortresslike slab into slender shafts that are deferential to the landscape—despite a Houston Street frontage that turns a cold shoulder to Soho.

“In spite of its flaws, there is so much about this design that is thoughtful and sensitive and innovative in a way that too few of its peers were,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which has been pressing for designation since 2003. “In some ways this is the exception that proves the rule.” Admirers cite stylish architecture under budget constraints (all three buildings met city cost-per-square-foot mandates) and particularly welcome designation since an earlier New York project by Pei, Kips Bay Plaza, has been marred by a cinema shoehorned onto the site.

Alas, that fate could befall Silver Towers, where two adjacent buildings (neither Pei-designed) house the Coles Sports and Recreation Center and a Morton Williams supermarket—both of which NYU owns and has considered for development. Preservationists had called for designation of those low-slung structures as “non-contributing” elements, but that seems unlikely, said Berman. Still, he added, “this gives us greater leverage to say to NYU, ‘You must be respectful and restrained in terms of what you do on those sites.’” (Through a spokesperson, the landmarks commission had no further comment.)

The Silver Towers debate unfolds against the university’s Brobdingnagian plans to add 6,000,000 square feet over the next 25 years. At a January 30 open house, NYU released the first concepts from a team led by design firm SMWM with Grimshaw, Toshiko Mori Architect, and Olin Partnership, who must orchestrate a high-stakes urban chess game to allocate new space among NYU’s core campus and outposts elsewhere in the city.

With few parcels left in the West Village, designers have targeted the Silver Towers block and, to the north, the apartment slabs known as Washington Square Village. With their generous open spaces, those blocks could add 2,500,000 square feet above and below grade, inviting scenarios such as razing Washington Square Village and restoring the street grid to that superblock. Near the Silver Towers, concepts include building at the Coles gym and supermarket sites, and even atop Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape, a quirky miniforest evoking Manhattan’s precolonial flora.

Such audacious ideas have stirred little alarm, perhaps because last month NYU President John Sexton announced a pact with community groups affirming principles such as making development sensitive to building heights and densities. NYU also pledged to relocate displaced public uses nearby. And the university has backed the Silver Towers designation as “consistent with two of the agreed upon planning principles—employing a publicly oriented review process on an NYU project and sustaining the neighborhood’s character.”

With a landmarks hearing expected in the coming months, designers have a delicate task ahead. “The question remains: What is the best way to take advantage of the available square footage on that block in a way that’s respectful of those towers and their potential landmark status?” said Jack Robbins, studio director in SMWM’s New York office, who added that the team is studying options to one of the community’s least-liked scenarios, a tall building at the supermarket site. “I think we all believe there are potentially better solutions in terms of the design and the politics of the community relations,” he said.

That’s good news for Pei’s cooperative tower, where residents overwhelmingly support landmark designation. “We’re going to have to be negotiating with NYU very shortly,” said Paul Rackow, the co-op’s community relations chairperson. “There are alternatives right here on the site. The Coles gym takes up an entire block from Bleecker to Houston. That would be our first suggestion: Build there.” 


Dome Drama

The dome, the whole dome, and nothing but the dome: This was the demand from angry New Yorkers when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) discussed its plans to strip down the design for the Fulton Street Transit Center in a meeting with Community Board 1. “We want the Fulton Street Transit Center built as originally designed, and we want it built now,” said Alliance for Downtown New York president Elizabeth Berger at the February 11 meeting. “We can’t settle for less, and we can’t wait any longer.” 

The MTA first announced its plans to rethink the Grimshaw Architects and James Carpenter Design Associates building at the end of January, when it revealed a paralyzing funding gap (“Folly at Fulton St.,” AN 03_ 02.20.2008). The project was budgeted at $390 million, but the sole bid for construction came in at $870 million. CB1 World Trade Center committee chairperson Catherine McVay Hughes called the towering glass dome that focuses sunlight onto the subway platforms below “an iconic design that the community fell in love with.” 

At the February 11 meeting, CB1 passed a resolution demanding the building it says downtown was promised. “It would be utterly unconscionable,” the resolution reads, “to not build this project in a timely manner after 145 Downtown businesses were sacrificed to assemble the site and the entire population of Lower Manhattan has been forced to navigate around and through this massive dirty construction site for years.” 

The dome would enclose 23,000 square feet of retail space that the Downtown Alliance and CB1 argue is crucial to the process of reinvigorating a neighborhood still struggling after September 11. But CB1 is worried that the city’s priorities don’t match its own. The Transit Center was supposed to open this year, according to Hughes, but it remains in pieces even as other redevelopment projects churn along. “After 9/11, we had meeting after meeting to go over the top priorities for downtown,” said Hughes. “The South Ferry Terminal is almost done, and it was at the bottom of the list, whereas Fulton Street was the top priority.” 

The MTA argues the building itself is just the tip of the iceberg, and less pressing than the mess of train lines submerged underneath it. “Transportation benefits are the most important part of the project,” said spokesperson Jeremy Soffin. That part of the project is scheduled to open in 2010. 

The MTA is in the middle of a 30-day reevaluation of the design and its funding. It hopes to have a revised plan by the end of the month. Meanwhile, the Downtown Alliance has suggested a public/private partnership to help distribute some of the project’s cost overruns. It’s unclear at this point what shape the Transit Center will take, but according to Soffin, “This is not going to be left as a hole in the ground.” 


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Vert En Vertical
Courtesy Atelier Jean Nouvel

On February 8th French architect Jean Nouvel unveiled plans for a 45-story luxury tower in Los Angeles’ Century City, just on its border with Beverly Hills. The building, 10000 Santa Monica Boulevard, is being developed by Irvine-based developer SunCal. 

Nouvel referred to the tower, expected to be submitted for entitlements this week, as the “green blade.” And for good reason. The “blade” will have an extremely thin 50-foot depth, permitting north and south glazing for all of its 177 units. Each unit will also be wrapped outside with plants, resting on projecting podiums, giving the building an organic aesthetic and lending living spaces a combination of light, calm, and privacy, a rare combination for this type of building. Nouvel says his firm is investigating two types of irrigation systems for plants: a hydroponic, soil-less system using mineral-rich nutrient solutions (he may work with artist Patrick Blanc, with whom he recently collaborated on a green wall for his Musée du Quai Branly in Paris), or a more conventional soil system. Reflecting the landscapes of Southern California, the north side of the building will be planted with lush greenery and the south side will be planted with desert vegetation. 

“This is the idea of the green city,” explained Nouvel, who noted that the building will reflect LA’s context of “beautiful homes surrounded by greenness.” 

The concrete-framed building will sit close to Santa Monica Boulevard to its north, to engage with the street and to leave room for a 40,000-square-foot garden to its south, which is being landscaped by local firm Rios Clementi Hale. That firm recently completed a study for the Century City Chamber of Commerce called “Greening of Century City,” which suggested more green spaces, a better pedestrian experience, and more sustainable projects. Local councilman Jack Weiss pointed out at the press conference that projects like the new tower are aimed at undoing the original scheme for Century City, which focused on offices, cars, and concrete. The developers hope the building will achieve at least a LEED Silver rating. 

This is definitely not affordable housing. Prices have not been determined, said SunCal, but units will range from about 3,400 square feet to 9,500 square feet, and penthouses will have two stories. The building marks SunCal’s first foray into urban infill. The developer is known mostly for its gated communities and sprawling suburban developments throughout the state. 

“We’ve decided to get in the urban business,” explained Frank Faye, SunCal’s chief operating officer. 

Nouvel’s commission comes shortly after his unveiling of a new 75-story residential tower in Manhattan, adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art. That building’s exposed structure, intricate patterning, and varied morphology makes it one of the most promising new buildings in New York. 

This will be Nouvel’s first project in Los Angeles. The executive architect will be local firm House & Robertson Architects, which has worked in a similar role on projects with OMA, Allied Works, Koning Eizenberg, and Philippe Starck. French architect Olivier Touraine, of Venice-based Touraine Richmond Architects, is also working with Nouvel on the tower. Once the project is approved, construction is estimated to take 37 to 40 months, said SunCal. 

Jean Nouvel

Jean Nouvel  10000 Santa Monica Boulevard

Next Big Thing

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) is designing San Francisco’s largest new development, the 393-acre Treasure Island. As if that weren’t enough, the firm’s San Francisco office is now also working on a blockbuster on the other side of the city: a transformation of Park Merced. If approved, the scheme for the World War II-era housing development will add about 5,700 new units to the 115-acre site, now renamed Parkmerced, tripling the number of apartments there today. Like Treasure Island, the project’s cost is estimated at $1.2 billion. In January, Parkmerced’s owners, Texas-based Stellar Management, filed an environmental evaluation application, effectively starting the planning process and giving rise to vocal opponents from the community and beyond.

The original Park Merced, composed of simple, modernist towers and town houses arranged around varied green spaces, was designed by Leonard Schultze and Associates and built by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which also put up similar complexes like Park La Brea in Los Angeles and Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan. Completed in the early 1950s, it was intended for moderate-income families, many of them from the military. Most agree that its most notable feature was the relationship of its buildings to its landscaping, with its intricate internal courtyards and interrelated terraced patios largely designed by Thomas Dolliver Church, who also oversaw the master planning of UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and the Mayo Clinic.

Stellar Management bought Park Merced in 2005 and has already begun a $130 million renovation. The development’s four-phase plan will retain the largest towers and replace its two-story buildings with four-story units. The plan will also add retail and slightly reconfigure Park Merced’s street grid, create more intimate green spaces, and stagger new buildings to minimize cold winds coming off the waterfront, said SOM partner Craig Hartman, who likens its current feel to a retirement home. He points out that the new buildings will be designed by several architecture firms (as yet, unselected) in a style “that reflects our contemporary culture.”

Hartman also hopes to bring the entire development off the grid and reduce energy consumption by about 60 percent using wind power, solar power, high-efficiency fixtures, water recycling, improved insulation, and co-generation (using existing power sources to generate energy on-site). The new plan will connect the park to public transportation by moving an existing MUNI stop, adding a new one, and providing low-emissions shuttles to BART.

But the intensive scheme, which would radically change this once-sleepy development, has its opponents. Aaron Goodman, an architect at San Francisco’s Studios Architecture and vice president of the Park Merced Residents Organization, the area’s recognized tenant group, complains that the new plans will be unaffordable and will disturb the area’s neighborly atmosphere. 

“The character of the site will be lost,” said Goodman. “I wouldn’t call it charming, but it’s very effective.” Goodman is one of the leaders in an effort to landmark the property, and has filed documents with the city’s Landmark Preservation Advisory Board. Docomomo (International Working Party for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement) is working together with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the California Preservation Foundation, San Francisco Architectural Heritage, and the Cultural Landscape Foundation to get Park Merced placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s highly significant,” said Andrew Wolfram, president of Docomomo’s Northern California chapter, who pointed out that Park Fairfax, also built by Metropolitan Life, is already on the National Register. “We’re not saying it needs to be frozen in time, but its important elements should be preserved.”

Stellar Management spokesperson P.J. Johnston points out that the scheme has been through 63 community meetings, and that many of the buildings on the property are too degraded to save: “It’s a property that’s well beyond its use-by date. It needs to be revitalized and rebuilt.”

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Piano to Build at Ronchamp
Plans for nuns' quarters and a new visitor center at Ronchamp, one of Le Corbusier's most celebrated works, have drawn the ire of the Swiss master's followers.
Ezra Stoller/ESTO

With a plan afoot for Renzo Piano to add buildings to the site of Le Corbusier’s famed Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, a perfect storm of good intentions in conflict is brewing. At issue are ultimately two types of pilgrimage: the original religious one of contemplation and prayer, and the latter-day architectural version. 

The Association Œuvre Notre-Dame du Haut that owns Ronchamp is within weeks of seeking a permit to build a new visitor center, a cluster of 12 habitats for nuns, and meditation space down the slope from Le Corbusier’s 1955 masterwork. And when a building permit is granted, the Fondation Le Corbusier, the Paris-based keeper of the master’s flame, has said that it will sue, reluctantly. “We are trying to make sure the site is preserved for eternity,” said Michel Richard, the foundation’s director. “We are afraid that in 10 years, the sisters will go away and they will be replaced by a B&B.”

“It is the most poetic building by Corbusier,” said Piano in an interview in his Manhattan office. “But he made it to be a place of worship, not just a sculpture. It proves that a secular person could create a place of religious feeling.”

According to association director Jean-Francois Mathey, son of Francois Mathey, who was involved in hiring Corbusier in 1950 to build the chapel (on the site of a 1799 church destroyed by World War II bombs), the idea to invite a group of nuns to live on the site came about a few years ago as a bulwark against creeping tourism. The site attracts some 100,000 people a year. 

“We feared that with so much traffic, the spiritual quality of the chapel—not the architecture itself—would little by little disappear,” Mathey said. “It should be a place of silence and prayer, not a fun fair.” The association decided to invite a “praying presence” of nuns from the Clarissine order (more commonly known as the Poor Clares) who would be tucked into Piano-designed cells on the far side of the hill. Corbusier himself had consulted with the association about adding a monastery, but concrete plans were never developed. 

Since Ronchamp is a cultural landmark, the French Ministry of Culture is required to approve plans for change and they did, unanimously, six months ago. The association, however, did not seek the benediction of the foundation. “That was probably a mistake,” said Piano. There have been three or four meetings between the architect and foundation that Piano described as very helpful, especially about measurements and materials. For its part, the foundation said that it was not flatly opposed to a new program for the site, nor against Piano. “We are well aware that Renzo Piano will take all precautions called for,” said Richard. “They should just build farther away.” 

The association considered several architects besides Piano, including Tadao Ando, Glenn Murcutt, and Jean Nouvel. In the end, the first two were deemed too far away, while the idea of Nouvel was rejected because “he would only design something Jean Nouvel,” said Mathey. “We loved Piano’s museums in Basel and Berne. He is a poet and a philosopher, too.” 

Piano himself was somewhat hesitant, and not because of the complexities of building respectfully next to an icon. After all, he has designed additions to several icons, including Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum (in a preliminary design stage) and Richard Meier’s Atlanta High Museum (2005). But the Ronchamp project is by far the smallest in his office, very sensitive, and with a relatively miniscule budget of $13 million. “There would be no reason to put myself in this funny situation were not a work of passion,” he said. 

Piano did not even start to design until he had walked the site last winter, driving stakes into the ground where it would be possible to build without being seen from the top of the hill where the chapel sits. According to French law, any changes within 500 meters of a designated landmark are open to the scrutiny of the Ministry of Culture, but the grounds around the chapel building are not subject to this landmark protection. Thus, although the new structures will be invisible, they do come to within 60 meters of the chapel. Piano plans to reforest the flanks of the hill with some 800 evergreens and native deciduous trees, spending one-third the entire budget on landscaping. 

Jean Louis Cohen, the preeminent Corbusier scholar who is on the board of the foundation, also walked around the site last summer. “Maybe you wouldn’t see it, but you would feel it,” said Cohen in an interview in which he showed slides documenting the chapel from every possible angle from below the hilltop. “The harmony of the place would be disturbed; it would lose the sense of being a pilgrimage and impoverish the chapel itself.” 

The plan includes a new visitor center to replace the current one—a makeshift pink box at the base of the hill. Renderings show a simple split shed with a dynamic bifurcated roof jutting in directions that echo the swoops of the chapel’s roof. The tilting roof planes would be made of both zinc and green-roof materials, making it appear as if it were rising from the forest floor. It has been positioned to allow people parking their cars to get a glimpse of the chapel up the steep hill. The nun’s cells are even simpler at 120 square feet, bermed into the hillside in the woods just below the knoll’s clearing and invisible from the top. Piano is thinking of giving each cell a high-tech light scoop, similar to those at the High Museum, but here atop 20-foot columns that would draw light through the trees into each cell. 

Mathey explained the opposition is the only barrier to going ahead. “They thought someday of recovering the chapel. Now, since Renzo Piano is going to put his mark on the hill, they don’t like it,” he said. (The foundation was alerted to the association’s plans to move forward by an article [.pdf] that appeard in August in the Catholic newspaper Le Croix.)

Getting a permit to build will not be difficult, as the Ministry of Culture has already approved the plans. Once a building permit is issued, there is a two-month period, something like a marital banns, when the opposed can step forward. “The foundation is well aware that we’ll have to do something,” said Richard. 

While presenting the plans for Ronchamp in his Meatpacking District office overlooking the site of the new Whitney museum he is designing, Piano took a break from simultaneously meeting with representatives of The New York Times about the trees on the roof of their new building and taking an interview with Newsweek about the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. At lunchtime, his old colleague and friend Richard Rogers and his wife Ruth arrived. Asked if this were a project he would take on, Rogers looked incredulous. 

“I am mad, aren’t I?” Piano said, with a laugh. “But I like risk.” 


Piano insists the new buildings will be all but invisible to chapel visitors.

The nuns' residences are hidden amid the trees, but a variation on Piano's High Museum light wells will provide ample natural light.

A site plan gives a sense of the location of the nuns' quarters, at left, and the new visitor's center, located near the road at the bottom of the drawing.

A model of the nuns' residences. The orange chimneys are the light wells.

In addition to housing for the nuns, a small sanctuary will also be built amid the trees.

A model of the new visitor's center. As the topography shows, it will be built into the surrounding landscape, like all the new buildings.

One of Piano's signature drawings illustrates the relationship between the residences, their light wells, and the trees.

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A Tall Order
Robert Stern's design for the new hotel/condominium tower to rise at 99 Church seeks to form a counterpoint to the glassy modernism of the World Trade Center towers
DBOX/Courtesy Silverstein Properties

Larry Silverstein’s plans to transform downtown into New York’s next Class-A business/cultural/residential/hospitality neighborhood have long been in the works. This morning he filled in yet another piece of the puzzle. At a breakfast at Cipriani Wall Street, the president and CEO of Silverstein Properties announced that Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts has agreed to operate a hotel and condominium development at 99 Church Street, a mere two blocks from the World Trade Center site. The agreement with Four Seasons solidified funding for the project and Tishman Construction is scheduled to begin erecting the new structure in June, with completion expected in early 2011. 

Silverstein also unveiled renderings of the project, which is being designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. At 80 stories and approximately 912 feet tall, the limestone- and cast stone-clad building will be the tallest residential structure in New York when it is complete. It will also be about 120 feet taller than the Woolworth Building, Cass Gilbert’s ineluctable 1913 Gothic Revival skyscraper, on whose block it sits. This proximity raised concerns from many observers, who worried that the taller building will overwhelm this icon of New York architecture. “I think it’s a good neighbor,” Robert Stern told AN. “It will be taller, but it’s like in color, and its fenestration pattern and needlelike shape are comparable to the Woolworth Building’s.” 

Prior to the release of the renderings, observers also questioned whether the new development would follow the glass-clad uber-modernism of the World Trade Center towers or if it would defer its vocabulary to a previous generation of New York skyscrapers, exemplified by the Woolworth Building. Stern’s response seems to ride this line. “It’s modern in that it’s up to date, but it’s not modernist,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s not in any way intending to be a Gothic building. It will have a strong but subtle presence on the skyline and, I hope, provide a good transition.” 

A landscaped public plaza will run behind the building between Park and Barclay streets. Also, all of the project's amenities (lounge, restaurant, health club, spa) will be accessible from the street on the first four floors. ROBERT A.M. STERN ARCHITECTS / COURTESY SILVERSTEIN PROPERTIES

Occupying the first 22 floors of the building, the hotel will consist of 175 rooms, a restaurant, lounge, and spa and health club with a 75-foot pool. The residential portion of the building, consisting of 143 luxury condos, will share these amenities, and Four Seasons services will be available to homeowners. The project will also add a landscaped through-block public plaza between Park and Barclay streets. 

The project will rise on the former location of Moody’s Corporation. In November 2006 Silverstein purchased the 441,000-square-foot building, built by Moody's in 1951, for $170 million. Moody’s subsequently moved its headquarters to Silverstein’s 7 World Trade Center. Demolition began in October 2007. 

This project is only one among many new residential and hotel projects underway in Lower Manhattan. According to the Downtown Alliance, which advocates for business and property owners in the area, more than 5,400 new residential units are in development and more than 3,700 new hotel rooms are currently under construction or planned. The alliance also estimates that 1.27 million unique hotel guests will stay downtown beginning in 2009. 


This diagram, which faces north, shows the sections of the building devoted to various uses. ROBERT A.M. STERN ARCHITECTS / COURTESY SILVERSTEIN PROPERTIES

Stern designed the building's fenestration pattern to resemble that of the Woolworth Building's. It is also similar in color and in profile. 

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Where the Art Is

For everyone from the culturally adept Manhattanite to newbie New Yorker, 
the ManhattanArtNOW map will be an invaluable tool and spur to discovery. Three years in the making, cultureNOW’s two-sided 90-inch-by-18-inch art map is the largest survey of artwork, collections, and art resources in Manhattan to date, consisting of nearly 1,500 works of art in public spaces. In addition to documenting artwork in commonplace settings such as museums and galleries, the art map promotes the idea of the city as an urban gallery by including art in churches, cemeteries, hotels, restaurants, schools, hospitals, and courts. Pieces range from a Pablo Picasso Mercure reproduction at 1251 6th Avenue to eagle gargoyles on the Chrysler Building.

The map is categorized by the type of work (art in museums, landscape, or architecture) or by its medium (sculpture, relief, mural). Artwork is organized alphabetically by artist on the front of the map and geographically on the back. Because the map is organized this way, an observer can look up “Keith Haring” to find all of that artist’s works on view in Manhattan or search by location, such as “the West Side,” to find artwork in a specific area. Art-rich areas, such as Chelsea, are enlarged on the bottom of the map.

Abby Suckle founded cultureNOW in 2002 as a response to the events of September 11, in an attempt to demonstrate the cultural resources of downtown Manhattan. Previous projects include five editions of the DowntownNOW map. According to Suckle, “We thought it would be really interesting to document all of the public art in New York City. What we found was that there is a lot more out there than we initially thought.”

The ManhattanArtNOW map is the first phase of cultureNOW’s larger project to map art in all five boroughs of New York City. A guidebook will soon follow.

ManhattanArtNOW is available for $14.95 at, Urban Center Books, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Center for Architecture. The map is also viewable online, and a comprehensive, searchable database featuring more than 1,000 pieces of art will soon be available.