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On October 22, The Architect’s Newspaper hosted a roundtable conversation with Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe; Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden; Design and Construction Commissioner David Burney; and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. With the mayoral election just a few weeks away, the commissioners discussed their priorities, upcoming initiatives, how they work together and apart, and above all, their shared determination to make high-quality design and professional involvement a priority in an ambitious administration that came to office in boom times and is now facing a prolonged recession.
The Architect's Newspaper: The High Line has turned out to be hugely popular. What have you learned that might work elsewhere in the city or in your departments?
Amanda Burden, Department of City Planning: One of the important elements is that you see the city from a completely different vantage point, close enough to see people’s faces down below, but far enough to feel a little removed from the city. I don’t think we would have imagined it that way if we hadn’t seen it completely planted, prompting the notion of a meadow in the sky, but now people are looking differently at barren tracks and barren roads as if they too might be something very special for the city.
David Burney, Department of Design and Construction: What did Jane Jacobs say about how the function of the city was to offer a multiplicity of choices? I think that’s something that applies especially to New Yorkers who really respond to anything unique and out of the ordinary. Finding those treasures and uncovering them and transforming them through some kind of adaptive reuse is a New York phenomenon, and part of the explanation for the High Line’s popularity.
Adrian Benepe, Department of Parks and Recreation: I think something going on very much like that is what Janette [Sadik-Khan] is doing in the streets. The only time that I ever experienced the middle of Fifth Avenue was during a parade. Overnight, she has created all kinds of new experiences on our streets.
Janette Sadik-Khan: We are looking at our streets differently. We are looking at them as valuable real estate instead of one-dimensionally. For 40 years, we spent a lot of time, energy, and money creating utilitarian corridors that really maximize car usage, and now we’re reimagining our streets as the real estate they are and taking a look at how we can use them differently.
Benepe: The other day I got through Herald Square faster than I ever have before. It’s counterintuitive, but by closing down some streets, things do move more smoothly.
Sadik-Khan: My big takeaway from Times Square is that when we did it, we figured out how to make it wonderful in terms of conditions, but we hadn’t planned for programming. So we came up with the idea of beach chairs and ended up going to a discount hardware store to get them. It looked like it was a brilliant move, but it was very short and quick to happen. People spent so much time thinking about the beach chairs, and not the project, that I think a strategy going forward for the city is to put lots of beach chairs out for whatever project is going on, and people will only talk about the beach chairs.
That brings up a hot topic among architects and designers. What other kinds of temporary or not-quite-permanent design plans do you see happening?
Benepe: An interesting thing at Brooklyn Bridge Park is, of course, the great Michael Van Valkenburgh design about to open. But long before the actual construction started, back when we knew we were going to have the Waterfalls art exhibit, Susannah Drake—a landscape architect from the area—did a pop-up park overnight that was hugely successful. It just shows how almost any space in New York can be a public space. We can do these insta-spaces, see how they work, then bring in the architects. But I think the real key to any long-term success is having good architects and landscape architects.
Janette, do you agree?
Sadik-Khan: We were trying to give the notion of a greater, greener New York really quickly. I think New Yorkers are tired of waiting decades for projects to happen. We wanted to show what a different approach to transportation is about, using paint, planters, and plastic markings. But we also did work with Billings Jackson and Pure+Applied on the designs. We have a very strong design team in the department, too.
Burden: Both Broadway and the High Line have shown that we are finally a city that is providing great spaces for socializing in our public realm. And just by giving people a nice place to sit, they begin to populate places they never thought about populating.
Burney: There are challenges. Look at Astor Place, where they are trying to introduce more seating in an expanded plaza. As often happens, there is one constituent saying, “No we don’t want students here drinking beer.” It’s an education process, and we have to work on that.
Sadik-Khan: New York City is largely a city without seats, and so Amanda and I went over to Copenhagen and met with Jan Gehl, a well-known architect, planner, and designer who has done terrific work making recommendations to transform cities like London, Paris, and Abu Dhabi, and we brought him back to New York to help work with us. He did a public-life survey on the streets, analyzing Broadway, from 59th to Houston streets. First of all, he found that down that whole corridor, about 30 percent is covered in scaffolding. And that’s a nightmare, so we are working with Bob LiMandri at the Buildings Department on a design competition for better urban sheds. The second piece of news was that there was no seating, and there were only three outdoor cafes in that entire stretch. So we’re working on that, now, too.
When you have a strong idea, what do you have to do to make it happen?
Benepe: I think one of the things that liberates all of us to do interesting things is having a mayor and a deputy mayor who think good design is important. Without casting aspersions on previous administrations, I don’t think we’ve had an administration before that thought about urban design at this level—and not only allows it, but insists on it. The Design and Construction Excellence program began in this administration; the Public Design Commission is empowered to insist on good design. They wanted to make it possible for the city to hire great architects and designers who had previously, for whatever reason, been scared away from doing city work, or couldn’t get it, or faced a system that wasn’t set up for them to get it. Now the belief across all the agencies is that we should have great design.
Burden: Each one of us has incorporated the ideas of design excellence. We use it at city planning, because we feel it is the best way to communicate with the general public. All of our rezonings are very complicated—and we just celebrated our 100th one affecting 8,400 blocks—but none of those would have happened, or been adopted, if we didn’t have community consent. So instead of just drawing the zoning map, with me saying you are going to get T64-a—which you’ll vote against, because you don’t know what it is—we have an urban design team that draws all the zoning plans in three dimensions. That’s how we sell, convince, and engage the community with urban design master plans. It’s a much better communicating tool; the feedback we get is much better, and it’s easier to find workable options.
It’s exciting for young architects to see how each of your departments has revitalized design offices. Is there a lot of crossover in what you do?
Burney: We have engaged this whole portfolio of younger, smaller firms that is really unprecedented and very successful, just by changing the method of procurement. If you look at almost any of these projects, there are parks elements, planning issues, and DOT matters, so we sometimes end up discussing even the smallest details for weeks: The guardrail at Pelham Parkway, for instance, comes to mind as an endless discussion.
We are sometimes forced into these dialogues as a result of overlapping jurisdictions. But normally the way it works is that Janette’s design folks are more at the front end of the process, identifying opportunities and doing initial planning, and then it comes over to my department for details of design and how to manage the construction, and then after that over to Adrian. There are many opportunities where we have to get together and engage design firms in the process.
But going forward, I think we need to spend more time on the construction side. We have done well with design excellence, we hire top-quality architects, and we’ve raised expectations for good design. But on the construction side, we are still locked into this very adversarial, sealed-bid process, and we haven’t quite got the quality-based selection process throughout our construction contractors. And so much of our work now is complex, particularly on the building side, where structures are very sophisticated, emerging systems are so complex, and so many sub-trades are involved. If you’re not working as a design and construction team from the very beginning, you’re in trouble.
Benepe: We do need some kind of construction procurement reform, because it is becoming increasingly difficult to build things in New York.
Sadik-Khan: I also think we need to do a better job when we are under construction, managing the impact of that construction on the street. And we are doing a lot of work to up our game, with competitions for art around construction sites. And we’re working with students and design teams on Jersey barriers for roadways. Must they look so ugly all the time? Do we have to have the world’s most hideous sheds casting terrible shadows and creating dangerous spaces around the city?
In other cities like Montreal, they have curtains showing what the building will look like. I mean, we’re a world-class city, and we need to have world-class treatments. Even if it seems like everything is under construction at the same time, it doesn’t have to be so grim.
Burney: I know, let’s close all the streets to traffic to get the thing done on time!
Sadik-Khan It’ll be the shortest third term ever…
Do you see integrated modeling like BIM becoming key to how the city undertakes projects?
Burney: BIM has gained a lot of traction in the design field even at the small firms now, and there are a lot of consultants who specialize in modeling. On the design end, where there’s a lot of integration of mechanical and electrical systems with the architecture, it’s quite well established. It is less so in construction. Bigger firms, the Turners and Tishmans, all have the capability to use BIM and use it to generate schedules and make two-dimensional drawings for their contractors. Smaller contractors are not there yet; the technology is expensive and sophisticated, and it will be several years before it reaches down. It is very much the future, though.
Do you require it?
Burney: We do from consultants, but not from contractors because it’s not yet realistic, though it was a requirement on the new 911 Center. Another thing, when we are doing Janette’s work—utilities, water and sewers, power cables, Con Ed data—is getting everything mapped, because in most cases we have no idea what’s under the street. We’re moving to a new program to document and photograph the work before we close the street up. That’ll get mapped onto the GIS system, and then goes into the city GIS forever so we’ll know pretty much where everything is.
Assuming you are all heading for third terms, what now? Is a new vision still possible in a recession?
Benepe: Absolutely. We’ve all taken cuts on our capital budgets, but those cuts are against historic buildups. Even if cut by 30 percent, Parks is still spending 200 percent more than we spent before.
Burney: Plus bids are down 25 percent.
Benepe: I don’t know if this is true for the others, but Parks is in the midst of the biggest expansion in building since the WPA. We’ll have spent $2.5 billion by the third administration, and even with cuts we still have $2 billion in our budget: Fresh Kills, Far Rockaway; the big projects in PlaNYC are all proceeding, as are the $25 to 50 million projects.
The mayor’s office has said that even in the teeth of a recession you want to keep building, because you don’t want the city to lose its vitality. And in Parks, we are still working with an A-list of architects; we have more work than we can handle with our existing resources and consultants.
What’s the top priority for Parks and Planning in the next few years?
Benepe: Getting PlaNYC built, especially the eight major regional parks projects; getting Fresh Kills underway, as it still has $150 million in funding; getting Brooklyn Bridge Park finished and opened; finishing Yankee Stadium. There are also mitigation projects; filtration projects—we still have a very ambitious program and we have to figure out how to get it all done.
Burden: You have to remember planning is for the long term. There are always economic crises, and the goal is to create a blueprint so at the end of the crisis we can channel growth to areas that can handle development, areas that are rich in mass transit. And also it’s important to channel away from other kinds of neighborhoods to preserve qualities there.
For all of us, the citywide goal is to make New York a model for smart growth, livability, and sustainability on the neighborhood and building scale. We want to use zoning to incentivize and facilitate more high-performance, energy-efficient buildings across the city.
Do you see an expanding role for your departments, reaching into new areas?
Burney: Yes. In fact, coming out at the end of November is a new Active Design Guide that we did, working with, among others, the Department of Health. It will be one of the tools for fighting obesity by promoting active mobility. We kind of stumbled into it, but it addresses issues like how to maximize stair use. There’s a lot of research now on designing buildings to encourage people to be more active, by moving stairs forward, making them more attractive. It’s an issue involving all of us at the building, design, transportation, and planning levels.
Where else have you been looking for inspiration?
Burney: I was in Los Angeles and London recently—two completely opposite places—but what struck me about talking to government people in these two cities is how lucky we are with an administration that’s so design-focused. We have a decent amount of control of our own destiny. These other cities are so disparate in terms of who’s in charge. We control quite a lot of the public realm.
Benepe: But we can’t add more land. In the 1930s, if we wanted spaces, we made landfill—we can’t do that now. You have to be courageous, because every time you repurpose a brownfield or build along the water’s edge or take an entire industrial area and make it into a new park, you have to be willing to spend money. And it takes huge sums of money and resources to build a city for the future.
Burney: I think that the battle for a livable city is a constant struggle, every lot at a time, every borough at a time—the libraries, the museums, the parks, the streets, the fire hazards and police stations. Those are the things that kind of come together over time to make a really great-designed city. It’s not one big event, and you’re done.
The ecologist Benton MacKaye once observed that if New York City wanted to change the traffic pattern at Broadway and 42nd Street it would require diverting the passage of goods being shipped from the United States to the rest of the world. Of course, in the 1920s, when MacKaye made this comment, more than 50 percent of all American imports and exports were passing through Manhattan’s West Side docks. Then when shipping containerization required larger storage areas than the city could provide, the docks began moving out of this tangled web of clogged streets and dense urban fabric to the looser spaces of Newark and Long Island.
It was cars, not ships that dictated the next big shift on the waterfront, when Robert Moses decided to locate his modern highway system along the island’s edge. In the 1930s he created the limited-access FDR and West Side highways and until 1973, when a section of the elevated West Side road bed collapsed, those highways defined how traffic moved through the city even as they cut the population off from the most valuable open space in the metropolis, its waterfront.
Since then, much has changed but the relationship of the city to the waterfront is more than ever an essential key to New York’s success. Today we are witnessing the most profound reshaping of our city edges since Robert Moses focused on moving automobiles as quickly as possible around and into the urban core. That model for urban transportation never worked very well, nor did it provide a pleasant environment for those who lived in the city.
The third wave is underway, and its focus is neither on shipping nor cars but on people. We have witnessed a bold series of new designs that still provide for automobile access—like the on-grade and landscaped West Side Highway—while more significantly aiming to open up our waterfront to exciting new uses that are less noxious and friendlier to pedestrians. Modest in scale, but not in transformative power, the new bicycle lanes that circumambulate the island are encouraging people to think about using this healthier, quieter and less polluting form of transportation to commute along our riverfronts, and even as far as Governors Island and beyond.
As we show in this issue, the city is bringing back two long-neglected streets along the water’s edge: Greenwich Street once again passing through the landscape of the old World Trade Center site, and West 60th Street, with its accompanying waterfront park in Riverside South. These new boulevards will not necessarily improve automobile transportation, but they will re-knit long-sundered neighborhoods in the city. It’s nice to see that at long last New York policy is taking the urban lessons of Jane Jacobs to heart and giving priority to the experience of people, not goods or cars.
A version of this article appeared in AN 17_10.21.2009.
A Natural History of New York City
Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
Through October 12
In the opening pages of Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas states that the physical form of New York City is the product of a self-conscious urge to rewrite the past in order to serve a particular vision of the future. Writing of the pre-European New York, he asks, “What race first peopled the island of Mannahatta?” Quoting the 19th-century historian Peter Belden, he answers, “They were, but are not,” victims of a vast, fictitious plot in which barbarism gives way to refinement.
As recounted in Koolhaas’ delirious reality, European settlers erased all traces of the island’s pre-existing civilization, replacing it with “a city renowned for its commerce, intelligence, and wealth.” According to Koolhaas, the outcome of this Darwinian survival of the fittest, the New York we know, love, and hate, is the product of a “cyclical restatement of a single theme: Creation and destruction irrevocably interlocked, endlessly reenacted.”
Markley Boyer/The Manahatta Project, WCS
The ecologist responsible for this Arcadian vision, Eric A. Sanderson, is careful to state that the imagery should not be seen as a call to return Manhattan to its primeval state, but rather as a visualization tool that reveals “something new about a place we know so well, whether we live in New York or see it on television, and, through that discovery, to alter our way of life.”
Consequently, the exhibit challenges the viewer to see the contemporary city as “a place shaped by the relationship between nature and people.” In order to function as good stewards of this ecological heritage, we, individually and as a society, must realize that the “principles of diversity, interdependence, and interrelativity operate in a modern mega-city much as they do in nature.” The clear implication is that this newfound understanding will enable the people of New York to re-envision the future as a sustainable ecological reality.
The exhibit begins with an interactive display. One click and an aerial view of the current urban grid transforms into an image of long-ago ecological abundance. A topographic map of Manhattan dominates the center of the space, and functions as a display screen for the cultural, natural, Native American, and ecological history of the island. But the real heart of the exhibit is a Muir web, a set of computer-generated connections between the ecologies that once composed the Manhattan landscape.
Consisting of abstract lines that converge and cross to define dense, multi-dimensional landscape communities, the web emerges from simple relationships such as “squirrels eat nuts.” Even though the relationships lose some of their dynamic power when rendered in two dimensions, the resultant forms clearly illustrate the complexity of the natural environment. A quote from Jane Jacobs is used to relate this natural complexity to healthy urban growth: “Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration.”
Mannahatta’s modeled reality is a harmonious vision that showcases the best of nature’s resilience and abundance. Here, sylvan ecologies synergistically combine to create a gentle mythology of the island’s natural history. There is no Sisyphean struggle between creation and destruction. As I viewed this algorithmically derived Arcadia, I couldn’t help but wonder how much different the images and the exhibition would be if the true depths of the growth and decay cycles that govern the forms of nature were plumbed, as the artist Robert Smithson did when he pictured himself one million years ago, “alone on the vast glacier covering Central Park.”
In the silence, he wrote, one would not sense the glacier’s “slow, crushing, scrapping, ripping movement as it advanced south, leaving great masses of rock debris in its wake. Under the frozen depths where the carousel now stands, you would not notice the effect on the bedrock as the glacier moved itself along.” Smithson’s vision, carefully documented with historical and Polaroid images of Central Park, oscillates between creation and destruction. Though a less nominally beautiful vision of nature, Smithson’s embrace of destruction as the necessary seedbed for a lively, diverse, and creative growth is perhaps more truthful.
photograph by lotte hansen
Organized by the Graduate Program in Urban Design at the City College of New York’s School of Architecture, Urban Design and Landscape Architecture, the annual Lewis Mumford Lecture has become an intellectual rite of spring for urbanists, architects, and students of both. The series was founded in 2004 by Michael Sorkin, the graduate program’s director, and launched with a lecture by Jane Jacobs, followed by an equally inspired roster of speakers including Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, and David Harvey, the geographer and economic theorist.
On March 12, novelist and filmmaker Paul Auster delivered the sixth Mumford lecture, reading excerpts from several novels. Before he read, Auster confessed he never understood the interest of architects in his work, but described his own long fascination with Mumford. “I first read The City in History in my early '20s,” he said. “The book was a revelation to me, offering a new perspective on just about everything. Mumford was both a deep and broad thinker, a very rare combination; a delicate writer; a passionate humanist; and a fearless articulator of his own original insights. He writes about human beings both from the outside and the inside.”
It was a description that could be applied to the novelist himself. But it was Michael Sorkin’s introduction, reprinted here, that perhaps best pinpointed the liaison between literal and imaginative urbanism.
Paul Auster is a master of the topological novel. His remarkable popularity among architects and urbanists truly springs from the spatial preoccupations that infuse his work, a quality it shares with such cartographers as Calvino, Borges, Robbe-Grillet, Hitchcock, Chandler, Kafka, Poe, and other designers of habitats for the nearly ineffable. Each of Auster’s books provides a set of calipers, a measuring instrument for both the palpable and the metaphysical dimensions of space.
That space more often than not is New York, an immense Rosetta Stone for decoding motive and meaning. Is there a more direct and compelling image of translation or a more succinct metaphor for the way cities produce meanings than the series of strolls taken by Peter Stillman in City of Glass, in which the blocks of the city become the tablet on which, letter by letter, words are spelled out for the pursuing detective, Quinn? The urban unconscious is structured as language and pattern. Space is character.
Despite the seemingly purposeful drive of these two walkers, the pervasive and much-observed importance of chance and coincidence in Auster’s work also firmly links his project to the city. Cities are accident machines, generators of random encounters with people, places, objects, and self. Life as lived or constructed builds a narrative route through this collusion of unexpected and familiar events.
Auster has a remarkably fine sense of the Janus of liberation and nightmare that these accidents engender. His power as a storyteller is both in constructing a singularity—one passage through time, space, and emotion—and in throwing it into radical doubt, a condition of unreliability that loops back to reveal the ultimate unknowability of the city itself. That Auster’s work so teems with allusion and filiation and with the intertextual also evokes a remarkably urban condition.
The clarity of Auster’s own relationship to specific forms, incidents, and authors refracts this recombinant urbanity into colors both strange and familiar. Behind this spectral variety, there is an umbra of noir. Auster’s deep immersion in the detective novel does not simply produce a city as a set of suspicious behaviors, clues, dead-ends, and pregnant enigma; it locates it at the crumbling reaches of modernity, the limits of the rational city produced by the fragile clarities of deduction.
As with any confirmed New Yorker, Auster fills this landscape with scenes of alternative “life styles,” roadmaps to escape. In his frequent evocations of Thoreauvian isolation and self reliance—snug houses in Vermont, caves in the Western desert, concealing thickets in Central Park, imaginary countries in South America, or just cars on the road—his novels are deeply utopian and constantly threaten, as utopias will, to lapse into nightmare. Walden easily becomes the Unabomber’s hut.
Auster is brilliant at evoking our contemporary urban dystopia: lives without money, confined to single rooms; the stable balance of human relations torn apart or imprisoned by numbing regularity. He is a lapidary recorder of our anxieties, from the petty annoyances of the everyday, to insomniac nights, to the maw of loneliness, to the scary fluidity of identity, to the always lurking possibility of cataclysm.
Perhaps the reason so many Auster characters wind up in Brooklyn is the search for that elusive mental Arden that the borough seems to represent, a touchstone of the author’s fundamental optimism. Auster inhabits our city, its bars and stationers, bookshops and subways, its parks and sidewalks, its Chinese restaurants and candy stores, with a typical New Yorker’s sense that in the recursive folds of the city, the universe is embedded. And it’s a universe and a city that produces not just fear and trembling but sublime joys, the intensities of love and friendship, the pleasures of the street, the satisfactions of a cup of coffee or a good cigar—the happy accidents that are the great gifts of good city life.
Auster reads the city to write it; he is one of our most creative urbanists.
Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture and the head of an expansive New York practice, was recently awarded the tenth Vincent Scully Prize given by the National Building Museum (NBM). The award was established in 1999 and recipients have included Jane Jacobs, the Prince of Wales, Phyllis Lambert, and the Aga Khan.
It has been a banner year for Stern: Along with the Scully Prize, he was recently chosen by President George W. Bush to design his presidential library, he won a rave profile in Vanity Fair for his luxe condo high rise 15 Central Park West, and he oversaw the rededication of Yale’s once-dilapidated Art and Architecture Building as Paul Rudolph Hall, named for the building’s designer who was also Stern’s former teacher and predecessor as dean.
99 Church Street
The award is also something of a vindication for Stern, who came to his New Haven deanship a decade ago amid griping that he would, like his immediate predecessors Thomas Beeby and Fred Koetter, sacrifice his academic role for the lucrative returns garnered by his firm, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, which had cornered the market in crowd-pleasing, historicist design.
“Nobody who would be appointed to a job like dean of the Yale School of Architecture would be above some criticism,” Stern said in an interview a few days after the award ceremony. That said, he added, “I do feel people have responded amazingly well to what I have been able to accomplish.”
Things were not always so rosy. In 1998, at the urging of Scully, a legendary architectural historian and Stern’s former mentor, Yale President Richard Levin chose Stern as dean after a selection committee had rejected him, only to meet with at times outright derision from many corners of the architectural community. Reed Kroloff, then editor of Architecture, dismissed Stern as a “suede-loafered sultan of suburban retrotecture, Disney party boy, and notorious academic curmudgeon.”
Indeed, while Stern had developed a national reputation as an academic and a practicing architect, if he was famous he was also infamous, and increasingly pigeon-holed: as a narrow-minded historicist, as a political reactionary, as a corporate architect who enjoyed the art of the deal more than the art of building. He sat on the board of directors at Disney, even as he criticized architects he thought too enthralled with trendy styles and ideas.
“There were many on the faculty who wondered, wasn’t Bob a little too strong-minded to be dean,” admitted Levin at the Scully Prize gala dinner, held in the NBM’s cavernous central hall in Washington, D.C., on November 13.
Onlookers feared that he would refashion Yale in his image at precisely the moment when the school was in desperate need of renovation—suffering from a B-grade faculty, an inferior physical plant, and an ignorance of computer-assisted design. Ten years later, Yale has made a comeback, an achievement even his erstwhile detractors credit to Stern. “Bob has done an extraordinary job at Yale,” said Kroloff, now director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum. “He is among the very best deans in the entire country. He will probably by remembered as the best dean in Yale’s history.”
Stern did a particularly good job importing full-time and visiting faculty who clashed with his own conservative views on architecture, including Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, and Greg Lynn. “He made it clear that a school of architecture cannot be a dean’s studio,” said Levin.
He has managed to do all of this without sacrificing his practice. He has nearly doubled his firm’s head count to some 300 and completed a series of blockbuster projects, including Philadelphia’s Comcast Center and 15 Central Park West, with another Manhattan tower, 99 Church Street, in process. He was also recently picked to design two new residential colleges at Yale, the university’s first since the 1960s.
Stern is still not without detractors in the architectural world, though few are willing to go on the record, even anonymously, a reflection of the enormous influence he wields. While some of the criticism is aimed at his ability and aesthetic opinions as an architect—writing in New York, Justin Davidson called Stern “an architect who specializes in the best nostalgia that money can buy”—much of it is political.
Stern is careful to define his conservatism as an aesthetic choice, but he has nonetheless been embraced by the Right; the webzine Frontpage boasted that “America’s greatest architect is a conservative.” Few were surprised, then, when President George W. Bush chose Stern to design his library. Nevertheless, Stern’s defenders—and there are many, inside and out of the profession—use his refreshing turn as dean as a newfound defense. Said longtime friend and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, “Ten years from now, I’m sure he will do the Obama library as well.”
When the Danish urban-design guru Jan Gehl visited New York a few years ago, he was struck by how little the city had changed since the 1970s—“as if Robert Moses had only just walked out the door!” But since that visit, as Gehl recalled last night at the Center for Architecture, New York has made a surprising about-face on matters of public space, embracing the ideals of his late friend (and Moses nemesis) Jane Jacobs.
Gehl was holding forth in a town-hall-style meeting with New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who has played no small role in challenging the dominance of the automobile in New York, and who hired Gehl Architects last year to study the quality of public life on the city’s streets. She and Gehl articulated their shared vision for keeping New York globally competitive by making its streets some of the best in the world. “We can’t afford to slip into a Yogi Berra situation,” said Sadik-Khan, “where New York becomes so crowded that nobody goes there anymore!”
Unfortunately, Gehl continued, New York still bears deep scars of Moses’ long reign. His team’s findings (in a report distributed on eco-friendly USB drives, naturally) highlighted telltale signals of poor-quality street life: pedestrian crowding, low frequencies of stationary activities, and low proportions of children and elderly on the sidewalks. Partly to blame are a sad dearth of sidewalk cafes, along with far too much scaffolding and too many shuttered facades. (The stretch of Broadway from Columbus Circle to Houston Street—one of the busiest in the city—has only six curbside cafes, and scaffolding obscures 30 percent of its buildings.) Gehl’s team also deplored the fact that many public spaces don’t link to their surrounding streets and buildings, but instead require a deliberate trip—often across traffic—to reach them.
Still, Gehl expressed unhesitating enthusiasm about the city’s potential. “You are absolutely lucky here!” he exclaimed. “You have such wide streets. So you can have nice comfortable wide sidewalks, street trees, bike lanes. Maybe even,” he allowed with a grin, “also some lanes for the cars.”
And what about the economic crisis? Can we really afford to pour money into prettifying our streets at a time like this? Streetscapes, it turns out, may be just the right focus for urban investment at the moment. “It is very cost-effective for us to make these changes,” Sadik-Khan emphasized. That’s partly because many DOT projects can be achieved at relatively minimal cost—but also because, as Gehl’s research has shown time and again, pedestrian-friendly streets boost nearby property values and deliver more customers to local businesses.
So how far is New York prepared to go toward pedestrian nirvana? When one audience member asked if the city had given any thought to closing off Broadway to cars entirely, there was a smattering of applause—and then came Sadik-Khan’s reply, which more or less translated to fuhgeddaboudit.
All the same, it was impossible not to feel a touch of exhilaration at the city’s new trajectory. “I am quite sure that in her heaven,” as Gehl told the crowd, “Jane Jacobs is looking down and thinking, ‘Finally, my city is on the right track!’”
Executive Vice President of Design and Planning
The Related Companies
From his office on the 26th floor of the Hearst Building, Vishaan Chakrabarti points towards his floor-to-ceiling windows, intent that his guests look out on Clinton, the West Side neighborhood below. “Right out that window is the most protected neighborhood in all of America in terms of zoning and low-income housing standards.” Chakrabarti, who last week was named Executive Vice President of Design and Planning for Related Companies, has been thinking a lot about Clinton—and other neighborhoods that could be keys to preparing New York for tremendous growth in the coming years—as he tries to turn the long-talked-about Moynihan Station into reality. The most important question, he believes, is how to build necessary infrastructure. To stop thinking big “is a wild mistake… Are we going to build the infrastructure that keeps up with all that development? That’s where the challenge lies. We’ve got competitors who are doing that much better—and not just London. It’s Shanghai, it’s Hong Kong, it’s Mumbai.”
While much of the Moynihan Station project has focused on the use of the Farley Post Office as the new Beaux Arts home for Penn Station—a nod to the original torn down between 1962 and 1964—Chakrabarti said that anyone who has thought of the bigger picture realizes that more than the station needs to be rehabbed: “There are really interesting questions about why the area around Penn Station never grew the way the area around Grand Central did.” But whatever the causes, he believes the area needs office buildings, hotels, and residential space in addition to the new station. He hopes the Amtrak bill that recently passed in Congress will help people see the need for a vastly overhauled transportation hub on the West Side. Although trained as an architect, he said that design comes lower on the list of priorities when brokering a deal as huge and intricate as the Moynihan Station.
As head of the Manhattan office of the Department of City Planning from 2002 to 2004, Chakrabarti, 42, advocated for the development of the Hudson Yards, a plan that’s still very much a part of his vision of the future city, with high-density housing close to transportation. But a project like that, he said, can only be accomplished through public-private partnerships: “The private sector built Grand Central terminal and the original Penn Station, right? So it always amazes me when I read some of this stuff [disparaging the involvement of the private sector]. I don’t understand people’s lack of historical understanding about how much of New York City is actually built that way.” There’s no reason why Moynihan Station and the Hudson Yards, he said, should be an exception.
The nattily dressed Chakrabarti, development’s answer to Gay Talese, talks and writes a lot about what he sees as misguided ideas about city planning, particularly the notion that big is automatically bad. Call it the Jane Jacobs effect, but a lot of people get nervous when developers arrive on the scene. Chakrabarti understands the instinct to protect a neighborhood’s scale, but he believes that in a world with gas prices heading towards $5 a gallon, we can’t afford to think low-rise anymore. “The idea that you would keep the largest transportation hub in the Western hemisphere— Penn Station, which is busier than all three airports combined —low density is environmentally irresponsible.”
The public is a lot more savvy about planning than even ten years ago, he contends, in part because the doings at the World Trade Center site became tabloid fodder. But he is still frustrated by the small vision of some of his fellow New Yorkers: He cites a woman at a planning meeting who asked him why he kept talking about the growth of New York. “Isn’t New York grown up?” she wondered. That kind of thinking astounds Chakrabarti, who argues that staying still is functionally the same as regressing. “I believe New York is fundamentally much more an Asian city than it is a European one—in its context, in its culture, in the way it builds things… A lot of people don’t want to hear that.”
Still, on recent trips to China, he has been horrified by the amount of demolition: “It is astonishing how much urban fabric has been torn down in inner city Shanghai and inner city Beijing.... They’ve lost their Sohos and Tribecas, while pieces of their West Village are hanging on for dear life.”
But New York, Chakrabarti worries, currently suffers the opposite tendency, with preservation being used as a tool to stop development. At the same time, the criteria for saving buildings have proven inconsistent: Why aren’t more modern buildings being saved, too? And if they are, where is the line drawn between what’s worth preserving and what isn’t? “I think preservation has a place. I think the bigger problem with preservation is that it’s fundamentally an asymptote.” He points to the Meatpacking District as a case in point: What started as an effort to keep the low-scale character of the neighborhood led to zoning that bred a local “Hotlanta.”
Chakrabarti feels that great cities depend upon a balance of infrastructure, density, and preservation. When one of these veers off kilter, its future is in danger. He sees the High Line—he’s on the board of Friends of the High Line—as a good model: “One of my favorite notions about the High Line is that it’s a structure that Robert Moses built and Jane Jacobs would love. I will argue to my death that it’s going to result in the most architecturally ambitious neighborhood in this city and it’s going to do everything she talked about.” Not all of Moses’ legacy is worthy of derision, he said. “It’s just balance.”