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A famous experimental college flourished in Black Mountain, North Carolina, from 1933 until it closed in 1957. Josef Albers taught there for 17 years, while Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer designed one of their first U.S. commissions and Buckminster Fuller attempted his first dome structure at the college. Last October, at its Lake Eden campus, Adam Void and Chelsea Ragan—artists who had settled in western North Carolina—invited a group of 18 colleagues to join them in planning a school inspired by Black Mountain College. Less than a year later, with guidance from the group, Void and Ragan launched a call for faculty, organized a curriculum, gathered tuition from students, and rented a building for a month-long experiment in community and education.
Black Mountain School—not officially affiliated with the original college—is founded on the proposition that higher education is caught in a perpetual spiral of increasing tuition and institutions unable to adapt to students’ needs. “In the face of extreme tuition cost, corporatized profit-driven learning, and a one-size-fits-all curriculum that defines the limitations of public and private higher education, we are presenting an alternative,” reads the school’s online prospectus. “A non-hierarchical approach to organization, self-directed study in a wide range of subjects, as well as communal activities and events combine to provide students and teachers with the ability to learn from one another openly in an inclusive environment.”
This summer, a group of around 100 artists, designers, and teachers came together in the rented lodge at the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly—Black Mountain College’s campus prior to Lake Eden—to launch the experiment, share cooking, cleaning, and administrative duties, and participate in courses that ranged from guided hikes, identifying wild plants, and “relinquishing self,” to more structured lectures on the histories of hip-hop and contemporary art. Then, as now, the school’s location in Black Mountain, 15 miles east of Asheville—on a campus where the alternative community coexisted with Christian summer camps—placed it in the nexus of cultural change dominating local and national politics.
“We think we’re kind of in that time right now where we’re in between worlds,” Void said. “Something is coming, but we’re not quite sure what. But we’re definitely a part of that transition.”
Educators and students traveled from all parts of the country and as far as London and Quito, Ecuador, to participate in courses like the Gilles Deleuze–influenced “A New Image of Thought” by New York–based Alexander Chaparro, “No Math Architecture” by New York artist Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels, and “Analog Data Management” by Clocktower program director Joe Ahearn.
“I came here not knowing what the plan was, but knowing there was a lot to be learned by what happens when people start things fresh,” said Ahearn, who participated in last year’s planning session and also helps organize Brooklyn’s Silent Barn alternative space. “At the same time there’s a degree of accountability that’s placed on the whole thing by its connection to the history of the space and to Black Mountain College.”
This author taught a course that proposed to use building-scale video projection as an urban interventionist medium to interact with the surrounding community in western North Carolina. It turned out that in March, after the class was submitted, the state legislature passed a regressive law prohibiting transgender people from using gender-appropriate bathrooms.
“I applied just at the point when I wasn’t aware what was going on,” said Luan Joy Sherman, a student from Savannah College of Art & Design. “I don’t think it had been signed into law yet. When I crossed the border it felt really heavy and it felt really violent. As a trans person I’m not welcome here, I’m not recognized here, I’m not valid here.”
The class opened up discussion within the school about the bathroom law and gender identity and framed a collaborative action in public space that would address the question directly. The students connected with local advocacy groups Tranzmission and Southerners on New Ground, and Sherman and filmmaker Adam Rush, another faculty member, quickly designed text-based projection installations intended to create a safe public space in downtown Asheville for sharing information and expressing solidarity with the trans community. On a Saturday evening in late May, students and faculty gathered on a slope of grass to view the projections while passersby stopped to chat and drivers honked in support.
“I feel really healed now,” Sherman said. “In a short period of time I’ve gotten over the hump of something that’s really big and is the biggest experience with personal injustice that I’ve ever felt.”
Void and Ragan hope to continue the experiment in the coming year. It was not without its controversies—more than one artist showed work that many considered racially insensitive—and the school will eventually need a stronger pedagogical theory to become more than an education-themed artistic residency. But like the original Black Mountain College and independent architecture schools like the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, Terreform’s ONE Lab, and many of the “radical pedagogies” throughout history, it clearly responds to a perceived need for an alternative to the current model.
The Perelman Center
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Designed by W Architecture
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Just Share It
Portland and Nike launch branded bike share program
Make No Small Plans
Inside the diverse practice of Chicago- and Philadelphia-based PORT Urbanism
It is sometimes difficult for people who encounter PORT Urbanism’s work to know whether the projects are hypothetical or practical urban proposals. Despite this confusion, PORT would tell you that all of its work is practical, if not sometimes fantastic.
With small offices in Chicago and Philadelphia, PORT Urbanism fits into a niche of designers that are not typical urban planners and not strictly architects. As its name would suggest, it works at the urban scale, engaging with city governments and large-scale developers to envision near and far futures for public spaces.
AN visited the firm’s Chicago office, which seats four in a small space on the ninth floor of the Burnham and Root–designed Monadnock Building. The office walls are plastered, floor to ceiling, in bright renderings, small models, site photos, and marker-laden site maps. Partner Andrew Moddrell and two employees make up the Chicago office, while the Philadelphia office is comprised of partner Christopher Marcinkoski and one other employee. Moddrell and Marcinkoski started PORT in 2012. With the support of academic positions at the University of Illinois Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania, they were able to practice on their own terms.
Despite PORT’s small size, it is no stranger to large and complex projects. After being chosen from a request for proposal for a Denver park design with Denver-based Independent Architecture, a NIMBY battle ensued. The project was eventually moved and redesigned for a new park in a neighborhood with a community that appreciated the project. PORT is now moving forward through design development with an improved plan.
Presented at the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the Big Shift envisioned adding a new coastline and additional land east of Millennium and Grant Parks in downtown Chicago. While dismissed by many as too far-fetched, the project struck a chord with critics and the public. “If we had proposed putting an island in Lake Michigan, then nobody would have cared,” Moddrell said. “But when we ground it in the precision of an infrastructural hierarchy and proposed repositioning of Lake Shore Drive, extending boulevards, and turning Grant Park into a Central Park, and pitch it with a straight face, it is not just architects screwing around for other architects.” Moddrell stands by the idea, however grandiose, as a serious, though speculative proposal.
Carbon T.A.P. (Tunnel Algae Park) New York, New York
Winner of the WPA 2.0 competition, the Carbon T.A.P. envisions a carbon-harvesting algae park attached to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. The speculative project proposes to use carbon dioxide released by cars passing through the tunnel to feed algae that can be used to produce oxygen, biofuels, bioplastics, nutraceuticals, and agricultural feeds. Linked to the algae production is a large-scale public space in the form of a swinging bridge. Part of the rationale behind the project is that with the introduction of an innovative industrial infrastructural typology—carbon-reducing algae farms—a new civic infrastructural typology can be realized.
The Big Shift Chicago, Illinois
The Big Shift was originally conceived as an entry to the Art Institute of Chicago’s show Chicagoisms. It was developed further for the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial. The Big Shift proposes to move Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive east and add hundreds of new acres of land in order to expand the city’s downtown and produce hundreds of new acres of park along the lake. Making no small reference to Chicago’s history of reconfiguring its lakeshore, which was mostly fabricated after the 1871 fire, the Big Shift aims to produce trillions of dollars of new real estate. Despite its large upfront infrastructural costs, the plan highlights the advantages of a lakeside park that is three times the size of the current park and of 30 new city blocks of tax-paying, job-producing real estate.
City Loop Denver, Colorado
City Loop is a $5 million public park planned for the City of Denver. Comprised of a continuous ribbon of program and activity space, the Loop is designed to encourage healthy lifestyles and active play. A series of tubes, colorful paths, and diverse activity pods stretch over the half-mile loop, providing for every age group and taste. Along with physical health, the park aims to promote social and cultural well-being as a civic and community space. The full team working on the project is PORT, Denver-based Indie Architecture, Indianapolis-based Latitude 39, Boulder, Colorado–based engineers Studio NYL, Denver-based metal fabricators JunoWorks, athletics consultant Loren Landow, and Tulsa, Oklahoma–based contractors Site Masters Inc.
Goose Island 2025 Chicago, Illinois
In an ongoing collaboration with Chicago developers R2, PORT’s Goose Island 2025 addresses the large industrial Goose Island on the near North Side of Chicago. A planned manufacturing district, Goose Island is now in the middle of a quickly developing part of the city. The island itself, though, has seen little development due to its designation as a planned manufacturing district and the city’s lack of an overall vision. R2 and PORT’s plan looks at the possibilities of the island as it continues as a place of industry, as well as anticipates a future in which some of its land may become available for other programs.
SHoP makes the Brooklyn skyline with a “brooding, elegant, and badass” supertall... There goes the neighborhood?
If you zone it, they will build, and they will build tall. New York–based SHoP, in partnership with JDS Development Group, revealed plans earlier this year to build 9 Dekalb Avenue, a 73-story, 1,066-foot-tall residential tower fused to the landmarked Dime Savings Bank in Downtown Brooklyn. Last month, the design cleared a crucial hurdle when the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) approved the tower’s design and consequent modifications to the bank.
“There’s a sort of brooding Gotham to it,” noted Gregg Pasquarelli, founding principal of SHoP. “There’s a little bit of badass to it, but it’s quite elegant at the same time. Isn’t that what we all want to be as New Yorkers?” The 417-unit building is clad in bronze, stainless steel, and stone, with view-maximizing interlocking hexagonal exposures. Pasquarelli explained that the facade detailing is such so that when two sides of the hexagon are viewed from an oblique angle, it will resemble one face, a sleeker reference to the grand old New York skyscrapers like Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building.
Michael Stern, founder of JDS Development Group, proclaimed: “The tower will be Brooklyn’s next icon. Brooklyn was really missing that one iconic statement that was worthy of the borough. This building will really put Brooklyn on the map.” Drawing from the landmark on-site, the spacing of the tower’s vertical facade elements mirrors the spacing of the bank’s neoclassical columns. The color and materials palette picks up on the bank’s colorful stone interiors, which will be converted to retail, while parts of the bank’s roof will be used for the building’s private outdoor spaces.
“The downtown rezoning of Brooklyn in 2004 has been very successful. This is a place where the city could handle density. It’s an incredible kudos to the city they upzoned that area, that they thought about tall towers,” said Pasquarelli. At the prow of Flatbush and Dekalb, the building will be visible from all over Brooklyn, and its distinctive facade will reinforce its prominent position on the skyline.
He and Stern enjoy experimenting with exteriors. Referencing the terra-cotta facade on 111 West 57th Street and the cladding on the East River–facing American Copper Buildings, Pasquarelli intimated that developers and architects are obligated to build for the public realm. “Some people get to live in these buildings, but we all have to live with the exterior.”
While preservationists sometimes bristle at the modification of an individual landmark, Gina Pollara, executive director of the preservation advocacy organization Municipal Arts Society (MAS), thinks there’s a larger issue that’s expressed in the development of tall towers like 9 Dekalb. “For us, it’s not really about the towers itself. Most of these supertalls are going up as-of-right. Because they’re not asking for any variance or any change, there’s no opportunity for public comment.” This tower was unusual, she elaborated, because it involved a landmarked structure. “These buildings are so out of context or out of scale with the neighborhood, and there’s no space for public comment until developers release their renderings. There’s no discussion of the cumulative effects these towers are having on public space.”
In an interview with AN, Stern said that he could not react to critiques like MAS’s (which he had not heard about), “but I can tell you that the commissioners had comments ranging from, ‘the best of urbanism’ and ‘flawless,’ and the LPC approved the project unanimously, as did the community board. It’s something we’re quite proud of.”
Pollara would like to see a better conversation around the 100-year-old zoning code, and reform beyond Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability, the recently codified zoning text amendments. “It’s time to make zoning much more transparent—not just to the layperson, but to elected official,” Pollara said. “We need to get in front of the issue rather than being at the mercy of what is being built around us. Preservation in the 21st century is not necessarily rallying around a specific building, but looking at open space, light, air—all of the elements we want to preserve. We don’t want to live in a city that’s created by default.”
Book it to Brooklyn
Claire Weisz on WXY's reimagining of the Brooklyn Strand
From a pedestrian perspective, Downtown Brooklyn and its waterfront have an odd relationship. Despite the Brooklyn Bridge’s looming (literally) presence in DUMBO, the area’s potential to become an idyllic promenade and an active space has never quite been realized.
Now, however, New York practice WXY architecture + design—who specializes in planning, urban design, and architecture–is proposing to connect DUMBO, Downtown, and Brooklyn Bridge Park. As part of a public-private scheme, in collaboration with the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DBP), WXY’s project, the Strand, sets about creating views within the site, giving it an identity while creating a place that puts pedestrians first.
WXY principal Claire Weisz said that the first thing her practice sought to do was to see what connections needed to be reestablished with a focus on who they should serve. “One of the main priorities of the Strand effort is to privilege pedestrians and cyclists,” said Weisz. “We [looked] at what spaces used to connect and then we sought a way to reimagine and provide resources to the public spaces and places that are valued by the people living, working, and studying in this area.”
Striking a dialogue and creating a “positive sense of journey” was another key aspect of the scheme. Working with Copenhagen artist group Superflex, a responsive and pedestrian friendly scene was established: Here, functional, yet visually inspiring routes were developed, evoking the cultural and historical aspects of the area’s neighborhoods from Fulton to Farragut and the Navy Yard.
Weisz also spoke of new subway connections and the potential to develop sites around infrastructure, adding how the Gateway to Brooklyn action plan concept “demonstrated the importance of approaching access holistically.” In light of this, Weisz proposed connecting Cadman Plaza East with the walkway off the Brooklyn Bridge, thus protecting pedestrians who “have to dodge traffic at Cadman Plaza West.”
Weisz noted how the dominance of car travel has led to the emergence of “unappealing leftover public space.” Here, she explained, a “continuous city fabric where walkable, bike-able, active streets connect Downtown Brooklyn to the Waterfront” is a necessity from an infrastructure perspective.
While improved circulation is a priority, visual connectivity is also on the agenda. Weisz plans to give landmarks visual precedence to celebrate Brooklyn’s history and improve wayfinding throughout the Strand. As a result, the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges are allocated framed views from within the Cadman Plaza Park, Anchorage Plaza, and Trinity Park, in order to reaffirm the sense of place throughout the Strand.
“The Strand’s identity is linked to not losing the layers of history that made Brooklyn what it is today but adapting them for today’s needs,” said Weisz, who added that creating a “cohesive” identity was discussed with stakeholders.
“The main challenge of the Strand has been demonstrating the potential of spaces that are currently invisible to the public,” said Weisz. “Whether it be spaces around, over, or under highways [or] a new vantage for accessing and experiencing the Brooklyn Bridge, residents can look forward to a rejuvenated place that realizes the potential for the Strand to better connect downtown Brooklyn.”
Views from the 69th
Gensler-designed OUE Skyspace debuts in Los Angeles
Propose Your Plaza
City of Baltimore to open design competition for McKeldin Plaza
The City of Baltimore is hosting a citywide design competition to seek proposals for the redevelopment of McKeldin Plaza in downtown Baltimore. The call follows plans to demolish the existing McKeldin Fountain later this year and the Department of Planning will supervise the open competition.
This follows years of talk about redesigning the plaza, which is currently dominated by the 1982 Brutalist concrete McKeldin Fountain. The fountain stands adjacent to the Inner Harbor area and memorializes former Baltimore mayor Theodore McKeldin, who was instrumental in revitalizing the harbor area in the 1960s.
The Waterfront Partnership recently released plans for “Inner Harbor 2.0,” which will improve the area with new green spaces and pedestrian connections using Brooklyn Bridge Park and Waterfront Seattle as precedents.
McKeldin Plaza is an important fixture of Downtown Baltimore, and a designated free speech zone that was the focal point for the city’s Occupy and Black Lives Matter protests. In addition, the fountain is a historically significant holdout from the Brutalist movement, and its design attracts tourists and office workers from the surrounding area.
The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore supports redevelopment of the plaza into an open space, while many local artists, designers, and architects support its preservation as a public art piece.
The fountain itself has fallen into disrepair, and according to the Downtown Partnership its mechanics are prone to expensive breakdowns that leave it non-functional for months at a time. However, maintenance and enhancements could also go a long way toward revitalizing the plaza while preserving the fountain.
Up until recently the Brutalist design of the fountain matched the nearby Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, which was demolished in 2015. The theater was designed by John M. Johansen and opened in 1967, remaining in use until 2004. After its owners chose not to renew the lease on the building in favor of the newly reopened Hippodrome Theatre, the building fell into disrepair. A new high-rise residential and commercial space is now under construction on the site. Since the demolition of the Mechanic, McKeldin fountain is the only example of Brutalist architecture in Baltimore.
The fountain has its share of defenders, including Baltimore’s City Council president, who introduced a bill to block the demolition last year.
A Change.org petition calls for the postponement of demolition until a new design is approved. Others—including the fountain’s designer—are against the demolition entirely and want to preserve the site.
The Downtown Partnership plans to move forward with the demolition in Summer 2016 pending approval of permits. The fountain and the skywalk across Light Street were recently closed to pedestrians.
The architecture firms Ayers Saint Gross, Mahan Rykiel, and Ziger/Snead will oversee the project and finalize designs. Details about the public competition are still taking shape.