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Oy, Danny, What a Mezuzah!
Some of the greatest architects happen to be Jewish, such as Frank Gehry, Louis Kahn, and Robert A.M. Stern. Some are unabashedly so, and none more than Daniel Libeskind. The Polish-born accordion prodigy of two Holocaust survivors, Libeskind made his name designing for the Chosen People, beginning with his first and arguably best work, the Jewish Museum Berlin. Others have followed, such as the Felix Nussbaum Haus, the Danish Jewish Museum, the Wohl Center at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and, most recently, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. As if that weren't enough, Liebeskind has now designed a mezuzah for that same museum. It was probably only a matter of time before this happened. (For the Goyim and non-New Yorkers out there, here's a handy explanation of what, exactly, mezuzot are.) Michael Graves designs toasters for Target, Daniel Libeskind judaica for the synagogue gift shop. It's important and good work, too, if you can get it, and probably pretty fulfilling. After all, Kahn's most meaningful project, at least to the architect himself, was his unrealized Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem. After the initial eye-roll induced by the thought of a Libeskind mezuzah, the true disappointment sets in. This was an opportunity for one of our (the world's and Jews') better architects to have made a really nice mezuzah. Instead, we get a glorified tchotchke no better than a Guggenheim-shaped coffee mug, another piece of pewter junk lying around the museum gift shop enticing foolhardy tourists. The problem is that Libeskind gives in to his worst habits with the mezuzah. While his work strives for poetry, looking to embody words, phrases, and ideas in concrete and steel, he too often has a tendency to take such metaphors too far. In the case of the Contemporary, "l'chaim," meaning "too life," is said to be the inspiration, and the form of the museum comes from the Jewish word/symbol/expression chai, a move that constrained the building as much as it enabled it. Instead of taking his inspiration for the mezuzah from mezuzot or some other Jewish source and creating a truly unique and worthy piece, Liebeskind clings too literally to the museum itself. It looks as though he just grabbed the nearest massing model and nailed it to the doorpost. Which is perhaps the one thing that makes this mezuzah quintessentially Libeskind's: Just like his architecture, it's impossible to tell which way is up.
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Madame Tussauds Hollywood
Because it only occupies half the allowable space, the new Madame Tussaud's has plenty of roof for an ample public plaza.
Dori Thies

RoTo Architects and the John Ash Group have broken new ground in Hollywood. The courtyard building they have just completed on a corner site adjoining the Chinese Theater may be the first piece of architecture on Hollywood Boulevard to look forward as well as back. RoTo principal Michael Rotondi grew up in LA and remembers coming here as a kid to catch a movie and hang out with friends. He wanted to recreate the feeling of sociability and spectacle he enjoyed then by designing a building that was contemporary in expression but deeply rooted in tradition and place.

Happily, the owners of the site shared his vision. Larry Worchell and Steve Ullman have long had a stake in Hollywood and wanted to do the right thing. They asked RoTo to give them a signature building that would occupy only half the maximum allowable volume. In contrast to the overwhelming bulk and blank street facades of the Hollywood and Highland mall to the east, the new building is modestly scaled, and its two three-story wings frame a sizeable plaza. This public space picks up on the tradition of the Chinese and Egyptian theaters, set back behind forecourts that would serve as gathering places before a show or to accommodate a crowd for a gala premiere.

The owners stayed the course for ten years as the first anchor tenant (the now bankrupt Frederick’s of Hollywood) dropped out, and Madame Tussauds took the principal space. One can debate whether waxworks are a classier attraction than sexy lingerie, but the eponymous madame established herself in London 220 years ago, and celebrity replicas have enduring appeal, particularly in a surreal place like Hollywood. Movie stars shopped and dined on Hollywood Boulevard during its brief heyday; today’s tourists must make do with look-alikes.

The architects had to negotiate a jungle of regulations—from the gauge of handrails to street openings—while maintaining the integrity of their design. Hollywood Heritage (a bunch of nostalgia buffs who seek to preserve the past and favor historical pastiches) tried to derail the project, as they had with Hodgetts + Fung’s recreation of the decrepit Hollywood Bowl. Miraculously, most essentials of the design remained unchanged, though a pedestrian arcade linking front and back was sacrificed to provide more enclosed space.

Frederick’s had wanted to put its wares on view. Tussauds preferred solid walls to achieve a controlled environment, though visitors enter through roll-up glass doors, and a lofty retail space to the east is fully glazed. The solid walls are clad in gray-brown zinc scales with projecting fins to create a play of shadows, and a folded screen of perforated metal spans the height difference between the two wings, tying the composition together. The main wing is tapered in plan, and clad in bowed walls of dark brick on the Orange Avenue frontage. Rotondi’s invention and Ash’s expertise in preservation fused to create a subtly modeled structure that is neutral yet has presence.

“This building is about movement,” said Rotondi, and he has provided visitors with exciting new vistas. A staircase runs up the east side and the rear wall to an overlook, and a catwalk links a rooftop party space in back to a terrace looking over the boulevard. From both these vantage points, the historic skyline of Hollywood snaps into focus, from the fanciful copper piers of the Chinese Theater to the art deco tower of the old Security Pacific Bank, the pylon atop El Capitan, and the richly modeled facade of the Hollywood Roosevelt directly across the street. From this public aerie the tawdry reality of the sidewalk and the lurid signage of Tussauds disappear and the legend of Hollywood is renewed.

A version of this article appeared in AN 06_08.19.2009_CA.

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On Plastic Plants
There is a lot to like about Chicago's Quincy Court, an alley turned public space outside the Mies van der Rohe-designed Dirksen Federal Building that opened this summer. The General Services Administration (GSA) initiated the project to help beef up security around the federal campus, and they can certainly be praised for hiring a design firm to reimagine the space, in this case Rios Clementi Hale of Los Angeles, instead of just bolting a bunch of bollards into the ground. And while the design has a certain whimsy, which may appeal to some, we're having a hard time getting over the giant plastic palms. According to the press release the "sculptural grove" mediates between the monumentality of federal campus and the smaller scale of State Street. The seating and tables are nicely detailed and the project's Pop sensibility is sure to change the way people think about this alley way. But in this age of ecological crisis, and in a city that has made sustainability one of its hallmarks and has worked hard to green the Loop, the plastic palms seem like the wrong message for the GSA to send. Real deciduous trees, after all, provide shade in the hot summer and loose their leaves in the fall when sun is welcome. Ken Smith's artificial rooftop garden at MoMA, which boasts fake rocks, plastic plants, and few environmental benefits, seems like a similar missed opportunity, a one liner that provides intriguing views for neighbors but does little to improve the hardscape environment of midtown Manhattan. Are we being too rigid in our thinking? Should we loosen up and go shopping for some silk flowers?
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The Shed Overhead
Courtesy DOB

New York’s congested streetscapes have gotten a lot of attention by the Bloomberg administration. Now, the Department of Buildings (DOB) and the AIA New York chapter are turning their sights to construction sheds with an international competition to improve these ubiquitous structures. While the all-too-familiar sheds shield pedestrians from debris and rain, they impede the visibility of street-level businesses and create dark corridors at night for pedestrians, and have hardly changed since the 1960s.

The UrbanShed competition seeks designs for a new construction shed outside of the Department of Buildings offices at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street. But the system should be readily adaptable for use throughout the city. “Sidewalk sheds play a critical role in protecting New Yorkers during ongoing construction projects, but they can also hide the city’s breathtaking architecture and one-of-a-kind streetscapes,” said DOB Commissioner Robert LiMandri in a statement. “That’s why we are inviting the leading architects, designers, and students from around the world to develop a new kind of sidewalk shed—one that is not only safe and functional, but is also pleasing to the eye.”

According to the competition brief, there are currently more than 6,000 sheds across the city. “The current standard shed detail is problematic in regard to safety, sustainability, and the streetscape, and has not changed despite the fact that sheds are much more prevalent and up for longer than before,” Rick Bell, executive director of AIA New York, wrote in an email. “Even before the downturn, there were many locations where sheds went up and simply did not come down, hurting shops made less visible and playing havoc with any semblance of reasonable urban design quality.”

The jury will select three finalists from the submitted designs to advance to a second stage, and each finalist will receive a $5,000 stipend. The winner will receive $10,000, and the Downtown Alliance will help to construct a prototype of the winning scheme.

Jurors for the UrbanShed competition include City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, David Childs of SOM, Craig Dykers of Snohetta, Craig Schwitter of Buro Happold, Ada Tolla of LOT-EK, and Jean Oei of Morphosis.

Along with the DOB and AIA New York, the competition is sponsored by the Downtown Alliance, the New York Building Congress, the Illuminating Engineering Society, the Structural Engineers Association of New York, and the Departments of City Planning and Transportation.

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Open: Store
Photographs by Petia Morozov

Le Vigne
35 Greenwich Avenue
Tel: 212-255-0222

Peering into new Italian wine shop Le Vigne after closing time, it almost looks as if the store’s tables and chairs decided to take advantage of their lack of supervision by throwing a party. In the center of the store stands a 25-foot-long, white-painted assemblage of furniture seemingly leaning, twisting, bending, and perching—all with wine bottles akimbo. The brainchild of New York and New Jersey–based MADLAB design studio, in collaboration with the artists’ collective SPURSE, the jumbled edifice actually represents an abstracted map of Italy, with wines located according to where on the peninsula they’re produced. The quirky project also represents a creative response to a shoestring budget—an imperative for 25-year-old owner Carlo Orrico, who quit his job as a sommelier last fall to open his first wine store in a decidedly sober economy. “We loaded up two truckloads of furniture from Goodwill and Salvation Army,” said MADLAB design partner Petia Morozov. “The material budgets were astoundingly low.” Surrendering all creative control to the design team, Orrico ended up with a striking interior without making any major changes to the 600-square-foot space itself, except to strip it down to the hardwood floors, plaster and brick walls, and tin ceiling of its original 1902 state. In that rough-hewn setting, Le Vigne’s surrealist furnishings make wine-shopping seem all the more in tune with Chelsea's nearby art galleries. 

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Neutra Strathmore Apartments Threatened
AN contributor Michael Webb not only writes about Modernism, but he lives it: for the last 31 years he has resided in one of the units in Richard Neutra's Strathmore Apartments in Westwood. According to Webb, developer Landventures is proposing to build a five-story block directly across the street from the Neutra apartments, which would block light and views, aggravate the noise and congestion on a heavily trafficked street, and "degrade an architectural masterpiece." He and other residents are encouraging people to attend tommorow night's hearing of the Westwood Community Design Review Board (7pm in the community room A of the Westside Pavilion at Pico and Westwood) to oppose the project. To see what the apartments mean to Webb, check out this essay he wrote about his unit a few years ago: I live in an apartment that feels like a tree house on a hilltop just north of Westwood Village, two blocks from UCLA.  I moved in 27 years ago, drawn here by the timeless beauty of a modern complex that was built in the year I was born—1937. The architect was Richard Neutra, an Austrian immigrant who settled in LA in 1925, quickly won acclaim for the Lovell Health house in the Hollywood Hills, and went on to design 300 modern houses in his 45-year career. Here, he borrowed his ground plan from the traditional bungalow court—a hollow square with an axial path leading through—but placed it on a steep slope with steps in place of a walkway and eight apartments climbing the hillside. Early photos show it as a white cubist sculpture standing alone; the trees that would shield and soften it came later. It proved a tough sell, so Neutra was delighted when Luise Rainer—another Austrian immigrant, who had won two Best Actress Oscars back-to-back—moved into what is now my apartment. She had separated from her husband, Clifford Odets, and was probably trying to elude her fans. In a letter to the architect she explained that she had always thought of modernism as being cold and unfriendly, but now felt a great sense of serenity. Orson Welles, newly arrived from New York, briefly lived across the way with Dolores del Rio, and Fritz Lang is reputed to have installed his mistress in a third apartment. However, the friendly ghosts in mine are those of Charles and Ray Eames, the designers who met at the Cranbrook School of Art, drove to LA in 1941 to pursue their careers undisturbed, and lived here until they built their own house in Pacific Palisades, eight years later. Ray Eames, writing in Mademoiselle, declared: “We live in the most modern house in LA.” For the Eameses, the airy hilltop apartment was a retreat as well as their first workshop, “offering moments of calm and rest and pleasure at the beginning and end of each day,” as Ray wrote. Neutra had provided “a beautifully clean and simple shell [that] imposes no style on the tenants, but leaves them free to create their own surroundings through color, texture, use of area and equipment needed for everyday life and activities.” I inherited a blank canvas and, having little to spend and no certainty I would stay, I camped out with a minimum of furnishings for the first 15 years, leaving doors and windows open through most of the year. The good proportions and abundant natural light were a blessed release from the claustrophobia of an old dark house that my ex wife had chosen in Washington DC. Then came the big quake of 1994, which spared the apartment and spurred me to celebrate the different traditions of modernity it stood for. With the encouragement of friendly professionals, and the participation of talented artisans, I’ve fleshed out the spaces as a tribute to the cool geometry of Neutra and the organic rigor of the Eameses. The goal was to foster a dialogue—enriched by personal memories and enthusiasms—between those giants, weaving together metal and wood, angles and curves, plain and colored surfaces. White stucco walls, ribbon windows with silver trim and a wood-strip floor provide the frame. To avert cabin fever--I often spend entire days at a time in this 1000-square-foot apartment when there’s a book to be finished--I wanted each space to have a distinct character. My bedroom is a homage to De Stijl, the Dutch modernists of the 1920s who enlivened their cubist compositions with primary red, yellow and blue, plus black, gray, and white. Everything in the room is in one of those tones and I felt justified in doing this because Neutra himself used iridescent blue tiles in one of the bathrooms. Waking, I feel I’m in a golden cornfield, with a clear blue sky above, and a comforting red glow behind me. The bed, Eames couch, and chest are black and a Navajo rug adds a splash of scarlet. The chest  was designed by architect Lorcan O’Herlihy as a Constructivist composition of cantilevered drawers, some faced with woven steel mesh. Tom Farrage, a skilled metalworker, made the chandelier—a brushed aluminum disc like a full moon, with branching arms that spotlight witty artworks by Saul Steinberg, Claes Oldenberg, and a photographer friend, Jenny Okun. Ingo Maurer’s Don Quixote lamp sits atop a Saarinen side table; a deliberate contrast of klutzy and sleek forms. I spend most of my time in the office—the Eameses’ workroom, where they kept their “Kazam” press and boarded Gregory Ain—so I’ve made it as serene and functional as I could. A broad ash ply worktop wraps around two sides of the room, supported on filing cabinets in the Cherokee red that Wright popularized, and industrial-grade Douglas fir plywood shelves, made by Jim Matranga, Frank Gehry’s favorite carpenter, complete the circuit. The stucco is painted celadon, the ceiling a shade lighter than the walls, complementing the charcoal gray sisal carpeting, two chairs--the Aeron and Gehry’s CrossCheck--and wood Venetian blinds. A row of turned wood bowls occupy the raised glass top of stepped bookshelves, and there’s a forcola (goldola rowlock) hand-carved in Venice by one of the last surviving craftsmen, and a fragment of beeswaxed paneling from an early English Tudor house—a crude provincial copy of a Renaissance model. Also, three vintage photos: Mark Shaw’s shot of the Kennedy’s sailing off Hyannisport in the election summer of 1960, Horst’s surrealist study of a Balmain hat taken in Paris in 1938, and Andreas Feininger’s 1942 view of mid Manhattan, taken from the Jersey palisades with a telephoto lens that flattens six blocks of backlit towers, giving the city the ethereal air of a Japanese ink wash painting. As in the bedroom, there’s a deliberately jarring juxtaposition: Maurer’s whimsical Mozzkito table lamp and Sapper’s rigorous flat screen IBM computer. Handcarved Finnish birch birds dangle from a ceiling light. Black and white vintage photos are a passion I’ve had to curb for lack of wall space. I still believe with Mies that “less is more”—though I’m always willing to consider one more treasure. The hall leading past the kitchen (Neutra’s floor plan is as traditional as his exterior is modern) is hung with shots of Paris in the 1950s, culminating in a classic image by Melvin Sokolsky of a fashion model appearing to float in a plexi bubble on the Seine. In the living room, everything is sensuously rounded—from the molded plywood frames of the Eames and Aalto lounge chairs and a tubular metal sofa by Gilbert Rhode, to the truncated glass oval of the dining table, and the sexy Philippe Starck side chairs. The living room is my laboratory, a place to mix elements and see what the chemical reactions may be, and a place to show off favorite things. A hand-tufted Chinese silk rug, designed by two young Americans in an abstracted wood-grain pattern, is echoed in the wire base of a Warren Platner coffee table and a bamboo sculpture of torqued curves by Syoryu Honda. Bamboo pieces by Kenichi Nagakura—one inspired by a bird’s nest, another by a Henry Moore draped figure—complement the Honda. (A third is pinned to the bathroom wall). Two sculptural paper lamps by Ingo Maurer cast their reflections in Nolli’s map of Rome with its labyrinth of streets and squares. A Richard Serra etching, as violent as an explosion of molten lava, arches over a curvilinear drinks trolley with glass shelves and a goatskin-covered frame that was made in Italy around 1950. An Australian aboriginal painting—a stylized map of white dots—is displayed against a black Eames screen, and the Eameses’ leg splint—mocked up in this apartment in 1942—hangs over the entrance. Finnish glass, metal sculptures, framed photos of Rainer and the Eameses in this apartment, along with fragments of celebrated buildings sit atop wall-mounted book shelves of glass and black-laquered wood. Sixty four steps lead up to my front door, dense foliage shuts out the street noise, and my desk is a few steps from my bed. So it’s tempting to live the life of a recluse, surrounded by books and art, enjoying the play of sunlight through the day, and writing without distractions.  For most of the year I can sit out on the narrow terrace among the tree tops. Sitting there, I reflect on how Neutra’s machine has been swallowed up by its garden, and how the house that was new when the Eameses moved in has become one of LA’s youngest Historic-Cultural Monuments.
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Crit: 41 Cooper Square
The largely off-the-shelf exterior cladding system at the new Cooper Union building gives it a muscular look students would do well to study.
Iwan Baan

Like the road to Hell, New York’s Cooper Square has been paved with good intentions. With the nation’s greatest design school, The Cooper Union, as landlord or neighbor, and with the city’s noblest civic structure, (the school’s landmark 1859 Foundation Building as renovated by the inimitable John Hejduk) casting its magnificent shadow, architects faced with nearby sites have visibly tried to raise their game. And have, mostly, failed.

The heart of the building is an intricate stairway meant to encourage mingling.
The vertical corridor recalls a partially cored apple.
the structural elements gird the central stair to exorbitantly visual effect.
All photographs Iwan Baan

Rem Koolhaas’ and Herzog & de Meuron’s unbuilt Astor Place hotel collapsed in anxious hype and resistable ugliness. Charles Gwathmey’s glassy residential tower for the same site was met with critical jeers, though its geometrical clarity and quirky elegance will stand the test of time. Carlos Zapata’s nearby hotel slouches toward Miami. Even Smith-Miller + Hawkinson’s local coffee shop, sly and steely, was eventually defaced into a B-list Starbucks. The greatest local modern building remains Rolf Ohlhausen’s 1990 dormitory tower, which through color and profile suggests a belltower to the Foundation Building’s basilica.

Into this fraught setting arrives a new academic building by Los Angeles architect and recent Pritzker Prize–winner Thom Mayne, with New York collaborator Gruzen Samton. The result is a remarkable combination of excess and restraint. It consolidates into a smallish 100-foot-by-180-foot-by-120-foot volume (along the east side of 3rd Avenue at 7th Street), a dense array of labs, classrooms, and studios for Cooper’s schools of Engineering, Humanities, and Arts.

Like a partially cored and peeled apple, it features a dramatic void within (a steep four-story staircase below a narrow five-story atrium, lined by a swoopy glass-fiber-reinforced-composite matrix that’s like a 3D-modeling software mesh come to life), and a semi-detached skin without (a finely-perforated stainless-steel weather screen, masking a standard glass curtain wall behind). As with Mayne’s 2004 Caltrans headquarters in Los Angeles, the decoratively-patterned exterior screen folds expressively, features automated solar shading, and makes the building look bigger than it is.

That screen is one of many ingeniously adapted panel systems and off-the-shelf components deployed throughout this tightly programmed and budgeted building. A sturdy mechanical vocabulary of tread plates, meshes, and brackets ennobles the steel vernacular of laboratory tables, studio stools, and lockers. All this rewards the imagination of those (many of them Cooper graduates) who contemplate entire buildings assembled from the Sweets or McMaster-Carr catalogs, and allowed these highly technical 175,000 square feet to come in at a reported $150 million.

It also results in a legibility that, in this setting, becomes a form of teaching. But while there is a financial economy between the ingenious moves and the expressive ones, the conceptual economy is less clear. It’s unpleasant to recall those precisely calibrated structural or technical details while observing others, such as the massive steel tubes that flail around the central staircase railings, whose effect is exorbitantly visual. This may be precisely the wrong lesson to expose to budding engineers and artists, of all people: that the architectural component of a building is an expressively decorative cloak (like the screen wrapper or the atrium lining) that brushes up against its essential body but is visibly surplus to it.

Noting the artsy (or “architecty”) bits of the building, one can’t help erasing them in one’s mind while retaining the intricate spatial composition and technical élan, and conclude that the result might be stranger and stronger—with some provocative breathing room for the transformations and appropriations that the nation’s brightest art and engineering students will wreak over the semesters. One can imagine a building whose greatest visual effect is to frame and incite the visions and emotions of generations of students, more than to preserve the singular signature moves of any one man or moment.

Nevertheless, the place packs a punch. The what-the-hell casualness of some of the geometries and gestures may prove a tonic to the self-seriousness of local architecture culture and Cooper Square itself. The monolithic affect and formal self-reference evoke the micro-monumentality perfected for academic and public buildings in another era and idiom by the likes of Roche, Pei, and Stubbins.

The willful or thoughtful double-take gags—the folds, gashes, and swoops—visibly insist that someone, somewhere, was trying to do something. Which, by the raised standards of Cooper Square (and especially by the reduced standards of Manhattan, where a perpetual perfect storm of mendacity, provinciality, density, and complexity undermines attempts at architecture worthy of a global capital), is almost heavenly.

A version of this article appeared in AN_07.29.2009.

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A Grander Concourse
The city's proposal envisions apartment towers and waterfront open space as a focal point of the Lower Concourse rezoning.
Courtesy NYC DCP

Designed by Alsatian-born engineer Louis Aloys Risse, the Grand Concourse in the Bronx was modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and boasts one of the highest
concentrations of art deco architecture in the world. But not all of the great boulevard’s five miles are so distinguished. Along the southern tip, stretching from 150th Street to the Harlem River, gas stations, auto body shops, and disused lofts predominate, remnants from the area’s industrial past.

A map of the recently approved rezoning.
The city hopes to transform the area's disused waterfront.
Historic loft buildings will be preserved, some as residences, others as factories.
Now, the city hopes to transform this stretch of Mott Haven into a modern-day, mixed-use, mixed-income community—a 21st-century version of Risse’s vision—through a rezoning plan approved by the city council on June 30. The plan, which covers a 30-block triangle where the river bends, calls for a mix of preservation and new construction to create market-rate and affordable housing and some manufacturing, while opening up parts of the waterfront for the first time in decades.

Though some contend the plan may only spur further gentrification of the South Bronx, it has been widely embraced for its equity. “I think the community as a whole will create an environment for development we have not seen in a long time,” said Cedric Loftin, district manager for Community Board 1. “It creates an opportunity for jobs and housing.”

The heart of the plan transforms the lowrise industrial landscape into midrise residential lots, mirroring the eight- and 12-story apartment houses to the north. In a much bolder move, most of the formerly industrial waterfront is being given over to the type of highrise development that now characterizes the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts, with 40-story residential towers surrounded by parks and open space. A 2.2-acre park is also planned for the upland section of the district.

The Department of City Planning, which developed the rezoning plan, has set aside loft buildings adjacent to MetroNorth and the Major Deegan Expressway as manufacturing facilities that would retain so-called green-collar jobs. Meanwhile, lofts in more suitable areas will be converted for residential use. The plan uses the city’s inclusionary housing bonuses to encourage affordable housing development by offering additional density in exchange for making 20 percent of a project affordable.

But Harry Bubbins, executive director of Friends of Brook Park and a longstanding critic of the rezoning, fears it could have adverse impacts on surrounding areas. “It’s the same cookie-cutter gentrification model the Bloomberg administration has deployed throughout the city,” Bubbins said. He argued there is not enough infrastructure or public amenities to support an influx of new residents.

Chauncey Young, the education organizer at Highbridge Community Life Center, maintained a healthy skepticism about the city’s goals. “Our concern is how long it’s going to take,” Young said. “These are the guys that promised us a park after the Yankees took ours, and still nothing’s been built. As long as they keep their promises, though, this plan can work.”

A version of this article appeared in AN_07.29.2009.

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Prairie Avenue Farewell
The store, now on Wabash Avenue in Chicago, takes its name from an earlier location in the Prairie Avenue Historic District.
Courtesy Prairie Avenue Bookshop

Prairie Avenue Bookshop, one of the stars in Chicago’s architectural universe, will close at the end of the summer unless a buyer steps forward. The shop, the largest architecture bookstore in the United States, has been a resource for architects and the public since it opened in the mid-1970s, and is known for its extensive backlist and vast selection.

Marilyn Hasbrouck, who owns the store along with her husband Wilbert, said that changes in the bookselling market have taken a toll, including competition from online retailers like Amazon and big-box stores like Barnes & Noble.  “Amazon has a clout that is just unimaginable. Their discounts are larger than our costs,” she told AN. The recession, however, has had an even more acute impact. “Everyone knows this is a terrible time for architects,” she said. “People have less money to spend.”

With a color scheme inspired by architecture of the Chicago and Prairie schools, the 9,000-square-foot interior has plenty of room to linger.
Courtesy Prairie Avenue Bookshop 

More like a library than a commercial bookstore, Prairie Avenue’s interior invites long visits. “We wanted visitors to have an architectural experience,” she said. Wilbert Hasbrouck, an architect, designed the multi-tiered store, which includes originals and reproductions of furniture by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Mies van der Rohe, Samuel Marx, and other noted designers.

Hasbrouck said she and her husband are in talks with a couple of potential buyers, but she is not optimistic about the outcome. Without a buyer, the store will close its door on August 31.

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Last Gasp for Gropius?
The demolition of the Michael Reese hospital campus in Chicago, partially designed by Walter Gropius, has been put on hold until after October 2, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will announce the host city for the 2016 Games. Preservation groups are pushing for adaptive reuse of some of the buildings, but the city is determined to clear the site for either an Olympic Village or for private development. The delay, then, probably does not signal a victory for preservationists. It is more likely a calculated move on the part of the city and Chicago 2016 to quiet opposition until after the IOC makes its decision. (Community Media Workshop via Blair Kamin.)
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Coney's Life Boat
The city's redevelopment plans for Coney Island might finally become a reality after foundering for months.
Courtesy NYC DCP

Dominic Recchia, a City Council member from south Brooklyn, has opposed the Bloomberg administration’s redevelopment plan for Coney Island since before it was unveiled a year-and-a-half ago, becoming a major obstacle to the city’s long-running bid to revive his district's oceanfront amusement park.

So when Recchia suddenly endorsed a plan today that had but a few minor differences with the city’s original proposal, it signaled not only that Coney Island may finally be saved from an uncertain future, but also that the developer who owns an important swath of land in the area—and a major Recchia ally—may be on the verge of striking a deal with the city.

“It’s impossible to make everyone 100 percent happy,” Recchia said at a special meeting of the council’s land-use committee this afternoon. “But this plan makes everyone happy enough that we can move forward.” The committee voted in favor of the amended plan 13-2, with a vote before the full council due next Wednesday.

The current plan calls for an L-shaped amusement park running from the Cyclone to the Parachute Jump, but further negotiations could extend that park three blocks west. Four controversial hotels (in purple) will remain.
Courtesy DCP

The councilmember's about-face offers fresh hope for the city's rezoning plan, which aims to remedy one of the major problems facing Coney Island: The area is largely dormant outside of the summer, when the amusement park shuts down. In addition to creating indoor amusement spaces for year-round activity and employment, the city’s plan endeavors to revive the area with new housing—some 4,500 units—and a series of hotels. The plan would preserve the outdoor amusement traditionally associated with Coney Island on a nine-acre strip of land along the boardwalk stretching from the Cyclone to KeySpan Park.

The problem is that developer Joe Sitt owns 10.5 acres of land in the area, much of it along the boardwalk, and he would rather develop it as highrise towers, as opposed to the city’s plan to place such development to the north and east of the current amusement district. The city has offered to either trade land with Sitt or buy him out, most recently in June for $105 million. But the developer has held out for his original asking price of $165 million, even telling the Post he was through negotiating. That could all change, given Recchia’s new-found support for the city’s plan, as some local activists suggested today.

“Why would Recchia give up his bargaining position if a deal hadn’t been struck?” Juan Rivero, spokesman for Save Coney Island, said after the vote. Andrew Brent, a Bloomberg spokesperson, wrote in an email that there is “no such deal,” though he added, “Important to point out that it's not a done deal until the full council votes.” And Stefan Friedman, a spokesperson for Sitt’s Thor Equities, said, “Thor is currently in talks with the city and expects these negotiations to continue until the full council votes on the rezoning.” Even if a deal has not already been struck, that Thor is back at the table is a promising sign for an eventual agreement.

Any such deal could also end up improving the amusement area, as it would make way for additional open-air amusements along the boardwalk on the three blocks west of KeySpan, something amusement advocates have been clamoring for. Recchia said he would continue to fight for this change, the implication being that with Sitt no longer a factor, and thus less demand for luxury development in the district, the city might return to its earliest proposals, which called for 15 acres of open-air amusements on both sides of KeySpan. The current plan, by contrast, calls for housing to the west.

The other issue vexing advocates is four 15-story hotel parcels proposed for the south side of Surf Avenue within the new amusement district. Recchia said that despite his best efforts, he could not negotiate them out of the plan.

Advocates feared that if the district were too small or too overpowered by its outsized neighbors, it would continue to struggle. If all goes as currently laid out by Recchia, then, the result could be a wash.

“I’m a pragmatist,” said Dick Zigun, the founder of Coney Island U.S.A. “I realize if there’s the opportunity to save even one building or change one block, I’ll take it.” But Juan Rivera, of Save Coney Island, said the amusements "continue to be ignored."

The proposed Wonder Wheel Way, a new street that bisects the amusement district. a portion of It will be removed from the plan as part of recent negotiations, though it will remain as a pedestrian thoroughfare.
Courtesy DCP

The one noticeable, though arguably cosmetic, adjustment to the city’s plan touted by Recchia today was removing part of the proposed Wonder Wheel Way. A new street that would bisect the amusement area, Wonder Wheel Way is intended to create improved frontage for the new indoor amusements, which run the gamut from arcades to bowling alleys to retail stores.

Because of concern from the family that operates the Wonder Wheel and adjoining Dino’s amusement park, the block of the proposed roadway between West 10th and West 12th streets will be removed, though it will continue from West 12th to West 16th streets. But because Dino’s has agreed to make that space a pedestrian throughway, the city’s plan is largely intact, though it could potentially allow for large-scale development in the future.

Beyond this minor change to the plan itself, Recchia did receive some additional concessions from the city: The administration has committed to increasing the inclusionary housing bonus for affordable housing from 20 percent of units to 35 percent, meaning residential developers seeking additional bulk in their projects would have to make a greater percentage of units affordable.

A commitment has also been made to use union labor both in the construction and operation of the amusements, hotels, shops, and apartment buildings that will populate the new district. Both changes were sought in a last minute push by Coney Island for All, a coalition of labor unions and housing advocates, and while the group sees them as an improvement, it would like to see more housing and job security. “There’s been progress made, but we have to stay vigilant,” Kristi Barnes, a representative for the group, said after the vote.

Recchia also negotiated improvements to the surrounding area's troubled infrastructure—sewage overflows during storms and streets strewn with potholes—as well as money for the expansion of the local hospital and school to accommodate an influx of new residents. Money has also been promised for a new ice-skating rink and renovation of a nearby park.

“By the end of the day on July 29, everyone will be happy,” Recchia said.

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Comment: Michael Webb
The Architecture of Frank Gehry, organized by Brooke Hodge, at MOCA.
Courtesy MOCA/Squidds and Nunns

When LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) was founded 30 years ago, it was directed by Richard Koshalek, who had been trained as an architect and wanted to show the work of architects alongside top contemporary artists. Major exhibitions on the Case Study House program, Louis Kahn, Franklin Israel, and late modernism were enthusiastically received, but Koshalek had to struggle constantly with his board, which wanted to focus exclusively on art.

Now, years later, it appears that the board has won. Brooke Hodge—the imaginative curator of an exciting Gehry retrospective, as well as the more recent Skin and Bones (on the interplay of fashion and architecture) and inventive smaller shows—has been axed as part of a desperate attempt to balance the budget and remedy a decade of financial irresponsibility. Major exhibitions on Morphosis and the architectural photography of Luisa Lambri, scheduled for the fall, have been abruptly canceled.

On the brighter side, the Architecture + Design Museum (A+D) on Miracle Mile has recently achieved a measure of stability that it lacked during eight years of shuffling from one vacant space to another, always dependent on the charity of developers. Now it has a six-year lease on a spacious storefront in an ideal location on Wilshire Boulevard, across from the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA). At last it can raise funds and plan ahead.

Skin & Bones, organized by Brooke Hodge, at Moca

Director Tibbie Dunbar wants to reach out to schools and the public at large, using digital technology to bring architecture to life rather than relying on architect-designed boards and balsa models. If she realizes her ambitious goals, LA could eventually boast a showcase worthy of its history and potential: an institution to match the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and the best architectural museums of Europe.

The need is pressing. It is a cause for celebration that, in contemporary art, LA has gone from provincial outpost to key hub, thanks to the energy of institutions and individuals, and because artists find it a congenial place to work. But for architects, the picture is still bleak. Often, their work is marginalized or ignored. There is a huge disconnect between the abundance of creative design talent in LA and the timidity or philistinism of the client base. Too often, institutions and public authorities settle for the second-rate. In San Francisco, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake spurred a dramatic renewal. In LA, the 1994 Northridge earthquake produced little but bureaucratic fumbling. Walt Disney Concert Hall was nearly aborted, taking 14 years to realize, and the public realm has stagnated.

Work by major firms, including Morphosis’ Caltrans District 7 headquarters, Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and Coop Himmelb(l)au’s School for the Performing Arts, were seriously compromised. USC is an architecture-free zone for which George Lucas’ Spanish revival film school is a perfect fit. Tepid contextualism is the theme at UCLA, and the fundraising campaign for the $185 million makeover of Pauley Pavilion makes no mention of the original architect, Welton Becket. Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne have won the Pritzker Prize and international acclaim but have secured few commissions on their home base, and other talented firms have had a tough struggle—even before the collapse of the market.

What's Shakin, curated by Brooke Hodge, at MOCA.

Koshalek had the vision to expand the mandate of MOCA to foster enlightened architectural selections behind the scenes, and to bring Art Center out of its ivory tower. For that last achievement he was hounded from his post, and is now directing the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. The munificence of Eli Broad highlights the lack of philanthropy among other super-rich Angelenos. It’s unhealthy to become dependent on a single patron in the arts. In contrast to other great cities, LA is an archipelago of self-absorbed neighborhoods with little sense of the larger whole.

What’s needed is inspiring leadership—of the kind that has spurred a revival of architectural excellence and adventurousness in Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, and even the depressed cities of Ohio. It could be the mayor, the archbishop, university chancellors, CEOs of major companies, or the head of the school board. In every one of those areas, LA falls short.  A vibrant showcase, stirring public debate, exhibiting and promoting the best architecture, cannot make up for an absence of civic pride, enlightened clients, and generous patronage. But it can alert the public to what it is missing. A+D can set a lead and play the role of catalyst.

LACMA director Michael Govan is passionate about architecture, and might be persuaded to make architecture a part of his mandate—as it is at MoMA, SFMOMA, the Chicago Art Institute, and other landmark institutions. The Hammer’s Prouvé exhibit and Lautner retrospective were big hits, and director Ann Philbin has repeatedly demonstrated her commitment to architectural excellence. The Getty now has a department of architecture, acquiring major archives, and its deputy curator Chris Alexander recently convened (with AN) a meeting of 50 curators and activists to encourage them to communicate effectively and form the Southern California Architecture and Design Consortium.

All of these initiatives can advance the agenda. The fragmentation of LA could be turned to advantage if its diverse and scattered institutions were to make common cause. MAK, the LA Forum, the Italian Cultural Institute, and a score of others have distinct perspectives that could enrich the public discourse. A provocative exhibition or speaker or an introduction to the visceral experience of a great building can provide a moment of revelation and enrich the culture of a city that badly needs a lift.

A version of this article appeared in AN 05_07.15.2009 CA.