Search results for "waterfront"

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Q&A: Tom Kundig
Tim Bies

Seattle-based architect Tom Kundig had what he would call a “really terrific 2008.” In May he was awarded the Architecture Design Award for the Cooper-Hewitt’s 2008 National Design Awards, and last fall the AIA named his firm, Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, Firm of the Year. Born in California but of mountain-climbing Swiss descent, Kundig spent his formative years in Canada and Alaska, where he first worked as an architect, before turning to architecture at the University of Washington and becoming a partner at Olson Sundberg with Scott Allen in 2000. Kundig quickly became known for his use of natural, sustainable materials and his love for kinetic architecture—designing dynamic elements often powered by antiquated machinery but softened by nature. Kundig talked to AN about the secret to Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen’s longstanding partnership and why Seattle’s architecture might at last be entering a golden age.

THE ARCHITECT’S NEWSPAPER: Some people would say your Cooper-Hewitt win and the AIA Firm of the Year would mean Seattle is finally getting noticed. Do you guys see it that way?

TOM KUNDIG: In the past, I’ve thought that maybe it’s fair that the East Coast and California don’t recognize good stuff is being done in other places. Now I don’t. I think sometimes work flowers out of an area, and regions get a little bit insecure about what’s being generated in their area. But there’s been work coming out of Arizona for a few years now that’s really been terrific. There’s work coming out of the Midwest that’s really terrific. I think there has been some great work that’s come out of Seattle, maybe it’s better right now, maybe it’s going to get even better. 

What about personally, how is your own work evolving?
I think one of the important issues every professional has to think about is how you continue to change and morph and still be true to the core of yourself. And I think that’s a full-time job. It’s a chore but I think people like Glenn Murcutt or Peter Zumthor or Herzog and de Meuron or Steven Holl—and there are others, many others—are able to achieve that recalibration and continue to be inventive. That’s a challenge. 

tim bies

mary randlett

paul warchol
OUTPOST, CENTRAL IDAHO (top); earth house, longbranch, washington (middle); and mission hill winery, westbank, bc, canada (above).

You’re known for your residential work. Are you shifting your focus from that?
I’m working on some things that are different in scale, certainly, from the past. Some urban work, some highrise and midrise that, depending on the economy, might be built. There’s one, Sun Valley Center for the Arts, which is looking for funding right now. It’s really my first small community center; it’s a kunsthalle, basically. 

You’ve become well known for using simple, affordable materials. In fact, you once described something as “dirt cheap,” but in a good way!
Maybe it’s just something that’s important to me, being frugal and efficient by nature. There’s the types of materials, first of all. Leaving them as-is makes them beautiful as-is. And it’s humble, it’s modest, and it’s not indulgent. You basically take a material and let it be what it wants to be. That seems awfully efficient, and yes, dirt cheap! 

You’re also famous for your experiments with kinetic architecture. How did this become a signature part of your work?
When I was a kid I grew up in a mining-logging-farming area, and of course there was a lot of machinery, a lot of practically-designed—and in their own way, beautiful—machinery. And when I lived in Alaska, I would go way out in the country, hiking and mountain climbing, and I would see these pieces of machinery way the heck back there, powered by water coming off the side of a mountain or by wind. The guys who designed these were geniuses! I think as I was developing an architectural voice, I realized there was something similar about building that I found fascinating: that buildings could be changed by people using them. You can literally move walls or furniture and move it on a scale that reminds you that in fact you’re capable—with geometry and physics—of moving these things. 

How did you join Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen?
Jim Olson founded his firm in 1966, and when I came down from Alaska in 1986, of course I knew the old firm, and this new firm that was reconfiguring itself [with Rick Sundberg]. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do because I had my own firm in Alaska and I had started to feel a little more personal about my work. So I joined the firm in 1986 as a test to see if I could work with a group of people and it felt really comfortable. It wasn’t so much that my voice was exactly like their voice, but if you did good work, it was a firm that skeptically but supportively let you use your own voice and develop it.

What’s happening in Seattle architecture that’s exciting?
Hopefully, some of the stuff we’re doing right now. I’ve got some projects I’m excited about, but they’re not built yet. I think there’s some good work going on, but nothing big and splashy like the Olympic Sculpture Park and the Seattle Public Library. Now, those were both out-of-city architects; if we can do something for our own city on that scale, that would be great. The Olympic Sculpture Park would’ve been a dream commission. That integration of the landscape and art in an urban setting—that would have been really interesting to me. Especially in a civic setting, you can’t get much better than that! There are some waterfront projects, too, it’s basically the removal of our viaduct, our Embarcadero, and that could have some interesting possibilities. And of course, Obama’s new infrastructure directive, that could lead to interesting stuff, because during our massive infrastructural building in the 30s, boy, there were some wonderful things being done, from dams to powerhouses to bridges.

Delta Shelter, Mazama, Washington
Tim Bies


Port Promenade

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Rough Waters
Locals fear the aging marina, once a
courtesy Marina Del Rey CVB

With proposed development in Marina Del Rey that could add more than 3,700 residential units and 630 new hotel rooms, the County of Los Angeles has officially begun a process to determine whether it would adopt recent California Coastal Commission recommendations to limit and examine development and bring the marina’s Local Coastal Plan (LCP) into compliance with the California Coastal Act.

On October 29, the county held a meeting to gather public input about the Coastal Commission’s 67 recommendations—made on October 16—concerning density and urban planning. These included changing land use designations of parks or parking lots; a comprehensive study of anticipated future development; and incentives for free or lower-cost public uses on waterfront parcels. While the county is not required to follow the recommendations, it must provide the commission with a report specifying its reasons for not following them.

As the aging marina—once a bastion of stewardesses when air travel was the sleek new way to travel—has been slated for updates and new development, the county has faced increasingly contentious opposition to its handling of the roughly 950-acre marina, initially financed through a publicly-funded bond measure.

Underlying community objections is the fact that the county both owns the marina’s property and controls all planning in the area. Officials negotiate terms of leases with developers in closed-door sessions, leaving the public and urban planners with little capability to adjust those terms once they reach the design process. The Coastal Commission has therefore been viewed as a non-partisan decision-maker.

“The county is the landlord on every property, and development partner on every property,” noted Steve Freedman, a Venice resident who lives just feet from the marina’s property line. “I think there’s a term for that—conflict of interest.”

Freedman’s assertion is disputed by David Sommers, a spokesperson for County Supervisor Don Knappe, whose 4th district includes the marina. Sommers said the dual role, which dates back approximately 50 years, was “not a conflict,” and all decisions made by the Board of Supervisors are reviewed by several other entities.

But in October, the Board of Supervisors shifted some responsibilities, as well as the meetings of the local review board known as the Design Control Board (DCB), to the county’s regional planning commission downtown. A person familiar with the decision who agreed to speak with AN on condition of anonymity believed the move was partially to limit decisions that ran against developer interests, as in the case of the Woodfin Hotel. initially slated to be situated on protected wetlands. Though the project is now moving forward, the Design Control Board delayed its approval, requiring that its site plan be changed.

In an e-mail to AN, Susan Cloke, the Design Control Board’s chair said, “The recent action, removing site plan and conceptual review from the board’s authority, diminishes our ability to help the marina become all that it could be.” Cloke cited recreational activities like boating, walking, and cycling, essential to producing income for the area, that had been sidelined in favor of residential and commercial development.

“The magnificent thing about the marina is that it was designed as a resort for daily life,” observed John Chase, co-author of the book Everyday Urbanism. “But because the marina is county territory… there is little local control and accountability for the nature and quality of development there.”

According to Gina M. Natoli, supervising regional planner with the County of Los Angeles, the county will address the commission’s recommendation for a comprehensive study of development and the DCB will continue to exercise design review authority after the county has approved site plans. Among those on the DCB are planners like Simon Pastucha, whom Gail Goldberg appointed to the Urban Design Studio to set a design criteria system for walkable streets in the City of Los Angeles.

Additionally, the county’s Department of Beaches and Harbors is planning a study on the cumulative effect of all redevelopment projects that are in the proprietary or regulatory processes, according to Kerry Silverstrom, chief deputy director. The review will study the impacts of such large projects as the 19-story, 424-room and time-share unit Woodfin, large residential projects like a 544-unit apartment complex, and large-scale restaurants, retail, and mixed use.

The county’s October 29 public meeting also kicked off a series of working groups organized to review the Coastal Commission recommendations and report their input to the county’s Board of Supervisors. Natoli anticipates the county will complete its response to the Coastal Commission’s recommendations by October 2009.

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Port Promenade
The promenade will borrow design cues from San Pedro's maritime industrial history.
Courtesy EDAW

A surreal area long dominated by towering steel shipping facilities may be about to get a friendlier, more community-oriented focus. The Los Angeles Harbor Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in October released the Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for their San Pedro Waterfront plan. The 400-acre project is set to replace the Port of Los Angeles' now-relocated industrial ports and docklands along the west side of Los Angeles Harbor's Main Channel with a new promenade, bike paths, park spaces, commercial spaces, and cruise ship facilities.

Following a public review phase that ends on December 8, the plan would take about five to seven years to complete. Groundbreaking is set for summer 2010. LA-based Tetra Design is coordinating the project. EDAW's LA and San Francisco offices are developing the master plan, landscaping, and urban design. And Oakland-based Hood Design and Pasadena-based Cityworks are assisting with landscape and urban design. Costs are still being estimated, but the port is setting aside $60 million for the project. The port said the scheme would help revitalize San Pedro in addition to providing much-needed recreation opportunities. According to estimates provided by the port, the plan would provide over 1,000 new jobs, about $38 million in new wages, and about $30.8 million in passenger spending.

The plan's waterfront promenade would include an 8-mile-long, 30-foot-wide pedestrian path stretching from the Cabrillo Bath House at the south end to the Vincent Thomas Bridge to the north. The plan also proposes two new harbors—the 75,000-square-foot Downtown Harbor, and the slightly smaller 7th Street Harbor—to accommodate visiting cruise ships and other vessels. Among the plan's several (and interconnected) new public parks would be the Town Square, at the foot of San Pedro's Sixth Street; the 7th Street Landing, adjacent to the new 7th Street Harbor; and an 18-acre central park that would include an amphitheater seating up to 3,000 people. The area's existing ports of call would be enhanced with 375,000 square feet of complementary development including commercial, retail, and restaurant uses. Finally, the plan calls for two new two-story, 200,000-square-foot cruise ship terminals along the area's outer harbor.

While architectural choices have yet to be made (schematic design begins in January), EDAW says the plan will focus all uses on the water, with a continuous waterfront and various districts within this stretch merging the public realm with the area's already-existing waterfront activities. Part of that, pointed out Sacha Schwarzkopf, senior urban designer for EDAW, is drawing on the existing drama that the channel presents.

"One of the things that San Pedro has to offer is that you can have ships at the curb," he said. "Cruise ships. Tall ships. Industrial ships. Having that sense of awe looking at them is a very unique experience." According to the EIR, plans would also draw for inspiration on the city's "maritime industrial history" as well as on the unique character of San Pedro.

To help people get to all of these new facilities, the plan will include a series of transportation improvements, including the expansion of existing roadways; intersection, landscape, and parking improvements; extension of the Waterfront Red Car Line (which will run parallel to the promenade); and water taxi berthing facilities. And to protect the environment the plan pledges to use recycled water for landscaping; drought-tolerant plants; LEED certification for all buildings over 7,500 square feet; solar power; and pedestrian and bike connections throughout.

Yet to some in the area, these efforts are not enough. Local web site Curbed LA described the plan as a "Disneyesque happy land of shops, tourists, and cruise ships," and pointed to comments by June Burlingame Smith, who heads up a port advisory panel overseeing the waterfront planning. "The current plan is a 'drive-by' plan," she said. "Drive by the waterfront; drive by downtown San Pedro; drive by the museums, monuments, restaurants and shops, to get to a cruise ship where dreams of happiness will be found in faraway foreign playgrounds."

Schwarzkopf disagreed: "We're not trying to make this themed. There wants to be a nice waterfront layer to it, but it has to feel real. San Pedro is about muscle and it's about working ports that are right at your doorstep. It's about honest, genuine development."


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Cutting the Nets?
At Monday's Coney Island charrette kick-off, hosted by the Municipal Art Society, a number of stakeholders from the area gave presentations to the design team to help them form ideas for leading the charrette in a few weeks. (To share your own, visit the, which just launched today.) One of the presentations was given by Jon Benguiat, the director of planning and development for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who spoke about Asser Levy Park, a small outdoor amphitheater and park across Surf Avenue from the aquarium, which is getting a dramatic $64 million retractable roof courtesy of Grimshaw. (More on that soon, we hope.) As with all these things, there was a Power Point presentation, and as with all Power Point presentations, the whole thing took some time to boot up. In the interim, Benguiat decided to tell the story of how he became Marty's planning direct, during which he let some shocking news about the Atlantic Yards, or at least the fate of the Brooklyn Nets, slide. But first a caveat: We had considered letting this news go on Monday, in light of the off-hand circumstances and the fact that AN is not one for "gotcha journalism." After all, it would not come as a surprise to most people following the project that it is in trouble, what with Forect City's stock plummeting, its credit rating following suit, and, speaking of suit's, DDDB's got picked up by the state appeals court. Granted the IRS ruled in Bruce Ratner's favor on some tax-exempt bonds, but that's got to be small consolation. However, when reports about the possible sale or relocation of the Nets began to circulate the past two days, as Atlantic Yards watchdog Norman Oder has pointed out, we felt it out duty to relay Benguiat's words. Waiting on Monday for the projector to warm up, Benguiat told the crowd that, when Marty got elected, he had served as the previous borough president's director of land use. Asking if Markowitz was looking for one, the beep-to-be said no, but he did need a director of planning. "Without even thinking about it, I said yes," Benguiat said. "Then I spent the whole night fretting, wondering what I'd gotten myself into." Benguiat said his anxiety only grew when he showed up for the first day of work and Markowitz rattled off the list of initiatives he hoped to pursue: the revival of Coney Island, return of pro sports to the borough, realization of Brooklyn Bridge Park, and redevelopment of the Greenpoint/Williamsburg waterfront. "I won't repeat all the expletives I spewed when I heard this," Benguiat said. "But here we are, nearly all of them complete. I'm not sure if we're going to get the Nets or not. We should have groundbreaking in December, but we'll see." How much Benguiat knows--even Ratner has admitted that the groundbreaking will likely be pushed back due to the lawsuit--is uncertain, but his statement is one of the most dire to come out of the Markowitz administration, which is uniformly unwavering in its support for the project, no matter the legal or financial circumstances. Asked to clarify his comments afterwards, Benguiat declined to comment, instead directing AN to the borough president's press office, which released the following statement from Markowitz:
The current state of the American economy underscores the importance of moving ahead with projects like Atlantic Yards, and I am confident the project will happen. It will create union jobs and much-needed affordable housing, as well as bring professional sports back to Downtown Brooklyn—becoming just the kind of investment magnet that Brooklyn and New York City need right now
Now that the team is in doubt, would the Atlantic Yards project still enjoy the full support of the borough president without one of its foremost reasons for being? Markowitz's office has yet to respond on that front. No word yet from Forest City Ratner, either.
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Seaport Thwart
SHoP Architects/Courtesy General Growth Properties

The most talked-about part of General Growth Properties’ recent presentation to the Landmarks Preservation Commission of a proposal for a mixed-use development at South Street Seaport doesn’t even fall under the LPC’s jurisdiction: A 495-foot-tall hotel/condo tower that is the most visible part of SHoP Architects' design for GGP sits just outside of the historic district. What was on the agenda at the spirited October 21 hearing, however, was the overall appropriateness of the project—which includes four two-story retail buildings, a department store, and other uses on Pier 17—along with a proposal to relocate the Tin Building, the only historic structure in GGP’s plan.

That naturally didn’t stop preservationists from commenting on it, however: “The new tower will have a huge negative impact on the historic district,” Frank Sanchis, senior vice-president at the Municipal Art Society, told the commission. “The new construction would completely wall in the seaport at the waterside with a 42-story skyscraper.”

And so with the tower looming over the proceedings, the rest of the hearing revolved around the relocation of the historic Tin Building and the overall merits of the project. GGP’s proposal for the Seaport involves removing the 1982 mall and replacing it with a series of smaller buildings for retail and hospitality, moving the Tin Building to the edge of Pier 17, and building the residential and hotel tower. The new construction would sit in a series of public spaces and promenades.

The designers argued repeatedly that moving the Tin Building to the end of the pier and out from under FDR Drive would not only give it pride of place within the new development but restore it to its rightful historical site on the waterfront, which was blocked when Piers 17 and 18 were filled in to make way for the mall. “The significance of historic buildings partly resides in their historic context, which, over the years, has been lost to the Tin Building,” said Elise Quasebarth, principal of preservation consultancy Higgins & Quasebarth. Moving the building would also allow for a seamless connection to the East River Esplanade, another SHoP project.

The Tin Building was heavily damaged in a 1995 fire, and little of the existing structure is original. The team argued that this meant there is little of true historic value to displace. “The property owner’s and our intent is to take unprecedented steps in the recreation of the building,” said Richard Pieper, director of preservation at preservation architects Jan Hird Pokorny Associates.

While many of the preservationists did applaud the restoration efforts being put into the project—as well as GGP’s outreach in sharing the project with them during its development—they still took issue with the decision to move the Tin Building. “That so little of the original structure remains is all the more reason to leave it where it is,” Andrea Goldwyn of the Landmarks Conservancy said. “Its historic location is all that’s left of its historic role.”

Some also pointed to the dangerous precedent such a move could set. “Simply put, a building in a New York City historic district has never been relocated,” Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said. He noted that a handful of individual landmarks had been moved to prevent their demolition, but never to satisfy a developer, something he and others said would become common practice if it were allowed here.

After the hearing, Gregg Pasquarelli, a principal at project architect SHoP Architects, told AN that it was about striking the right balance between reverent preservation and a successful plan to revive the neighborhood. “It’s a matter of understanding the trade-offs,” he said.

In the end, the project may come down to a question of economics. The development team, whose proposal has the imprimatur of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said that it does not wish to ignore the seaport’s historic value, but that something must be done to revive it and make it enticing to locals as well as tourists.

“The South Street Seaport has been an underutilized part of Lower Manhattan for years, slowing its growth and holding the area back from the renaissance it deserves,” said John Skillman, a representative of the Partnership for New York City. Skillman and others said the new development would offer much needed amenities, like grocery stores and locally owned businesses, cultural and recreational space, and a Bryant Park–sized public plaza adjacent to the Tin Building.

Local City Council member Alan Gerson, the one person who could vote down the commission’s decision, expressed serious reservations about the project. “I remain willing and available to work with General Growth and the community to come up with a redevelopment plan that meets the financial needs of General Growth without obliterating the charm and history of this unique district and further separating our citizens from their own waterfront.”

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Waterfalls of Revenue
Though some people were more than happy to see Olafur Eliasson's New York City Waterfalls dry up a few weeks ago, one person who will dearly miss them is the mayor. Standing beneath the Scandinavian artist's massive mirror installation at P.S. 1 yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced with great excitement that, according to a study undertaken by the city's Economic Development Corporation, the falls generated $69 million in economic activity, exceeding the $55 million initially expected and countering criticism that the $15 million project was wasteful. "Art also has the power to invigorate neighborhoods, as you know, and catalyze new investment" Bloomberg said. "That's why we've made investing in culture a major part of our efforts to diversify the economy." He added that this would be especially important in the wake of the collapsing financial sector--long the bedrock of the local economy. While it will likely never reap the dividends Wall Street once did, it is good to know we can put our art to work for us, rather than simply embracing art for art's sake. Other findings of the report include:
  • An estimated 1.4 million people visited the Waterfalls in the 13 weeks it was up this summer. Of those, 79,200 would not have visited the city or otherwise extended their trip, and 590,000 people from the metropolitan area made special trips to view the falls. They drew people from all 50 states and 55 countries.
  • As part of the administration's plan to revitalize the Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts, 23 percent of visitors, or 320,000 people, visited those areas for the first time. Of them, 44,500 were residents of the five boroughs.
  • About 95 percent of all out-of-town Waterfalls viewers participated in at least one other cultural attraction during their stay. About 43 percent of visitors attended one or more Broadway shows; 42 percent attended a visual art, photography, or design museum; 34 percent visited a history museum; and nearly 27 percent viewed a public art installation other than the Waterfalls.
  • Circle Line Downtown offered between 25 and 30 tours a day, with sell-outs on many tours, particularly during its evening cruises. Between June 26 and October 13, more than 213,000 passengers bought tickets for Circle Line Downtown's Waterfalls tour, Zephyr and Shark boat tours that all went past the Waterfalls.
  • The Public Art Fund's official Waterfalls website,, received more than 512,000 visits between January and October 2008. More than 6,000 photographs were posted to Flickr, 1,200 blog posts were written, and 200 videos with 235,000 viewers uploaded to YouTube. [Here's a personal favorite because, you know, who doesn't love models.]
  The full report [PDF] Video of the press conference

Raft of Legislation

Despite almost all the talk at City Hall yesterday being dedicated to the electoral aspirations of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the City Council still managed to pass an important piece of legislation that bolsters waterfront planning efforts, along with two other new laws that create a mixed-use development in Harlem and protect a small slice of affordable housing in Chelsea.

From a planning standpoint, the first piece of legislation is the most impressive. It calls for the creation of a comprehensive waterfront plan, prepared by the Department of City Planning each decade, beginning in 2010. Back when New York’s waterfront was largely dedicated to commercial uses, it, along with the entire harbor, was overseen by the New York-New Jersey Port and Harbor Commission. Now, with the city finally returning to the waterfront with parks, projects, and follies, some two dozen agencies have taken a stake.

The key is making sure the various uses and interests on the waterfront work in concert, not opposition. “With the introduction of this legislation today, we will ensure that New York City never turns its back on the waterfront,” Christine Quinn, the council speaker, said at a press conference. “A comprehensive plan provided to the city every ten years will allow us to best assess the different ways our waterfronts can be used for leisure, employment, and industry.”

Under the legislation [text], which passed unanimously 51-0, the city’s planners must consult with affected local, state, and federal agencies, as well as the public, about their waterfront needs and how resources should be allocated to address them. For groups like the Waterfront Alliance (formerly the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance), it is an important opportunity to finally weigh in on issues that might otherwise be ignored. “One thing near and dear to our heart is a working waterfront,” Roland Lewis, the group’s president, said.

While waterfront access, parks, and development are important, Lewis said, the waterfront’s historic use cannot be ignored. As the economy struggles, the better-paying work traditionally offered near, on, and in the water must be preserved, and with a comprehensive plan in place, it will be easier for such jobs to thrive without impinging on their neighbors. And vice versa. “Nothing against IKEA,” Lewis said, “but you can put an IKEA almost anywhere. You can only do dock work on the docks.” Lewis also hopes it will spread across the river to New Jersey and up the Hudson to “sister cities,” creating “a truly comprehensive plan.”

The council also endorsed a rezoning plan for yet another piece of 125th Street in East Harlem that will create a 1.7 million-square-foot, mixed-use project on three vacant city-owned parcels. Melissa Mark-Viverito, the local representative, said it was a landmark project not only in its scope, but also because the community rejected a developer three years ago, leading the city to take the incredibly rare step of rescinding its development contract. “Since then, we have worked hard with the community to come up with a satisfactory plan, something we have now achieved,” she said.

Covering an area between 125th and 127th streets, from 2nd to 3rd avenues, the rezoning calls for a 30,000-square-foot cultural space, 850 apartment units (600 of which are affordable), a 98,000-square-foot hotel, and 250,000 square feet of office space. Also included are 500,000 square feet of retail space with an emphasis on local businesses, and a mid-block public plaza at the center of the complex.

The council also passed a bill [text] modifying the J-51 tax benefit to include Penn South, a Chelsea co-op that was at risk of losing the benefit due to rising assessment values amid skyrocketing prices in the neighborhood. “By including Penn South in the J-51 program, we are taking the important step of preserving a community that is and will remain a source of affordable housing for thousands of residents,” Quinn said.

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All Rise
P&T Architects and Engineers

Vertical Cities
Hong Kong/New York
The Skyscraper Museum
39 Battery Place
Through February 2009

Hong Kong is a city of seven million inhabitants, most of whom live and work in one of its 7,838 highrises. But the city wears its verticality and density in a way that is remarkably different from that of New York City. It is this difference that Carol Willis, the founder and director of the Skyscraper Museum, examines in Vertical Cities: Hong Kong/New York.

Willis’ show, which runs through February 2009, is the second in a series of three called Future Cities 20/21. The first, New York Modern, examined the New York of the early 20th century as a prophecy of the metropolis that it was about to become; some of that show’s historical materials form the basis for Vertical Cities. Considering the diminutive size of the Skyscraper Museum, the incorporation of earlier exhibitions to develop a story line for the new show can be slightly puzzling for the typical visitor, but it may well stimulate the curious to come back for the third chapter in the Future Cities saga: China Prophecy, an exhibition that will explore the 21st-century skyscraper city of Shanghai.

Vertical Cities zooms in on the more contemporary, rapid-fire model of verticality that Hong Kong offers. The show starts enthusiastically with the stark comparison of two wall-size Google maps of Hong Kong and New York. These not only suggest a story of two waterfront cities that developed from colonial ports into bustling hubs of finance and transport, they illustrate how New York’s model of vertical density, which developed a century ago, has been copied and tweaked in Hong Kong. There, it has become a new urban idiom of verticality, and almost forty years after the start of the city’s building boom, bears visual similarity but spatial differences that are well worth a closer look.

Courtesy The Skyscraper Museum
Hong Kong's vertiginous topography creates a multi-layered island.

Willis may have felt obliged to present visitors with well-known examples of skyscrapers such as I. M. Pei’s Bank of China, Norman Foster’s HSBC building, and Cesar Pelli’s 88-story IFC2 tower, but the show’s narrative focuses more on the spatial qualities that make Hong Kong such an intriguing place. An aerial photo of New York shows a gray hodgepodge of buildings that is equaled in Hong Kong’s gridded area of Kowloon. Both can be highly suffocating, and both feel very 20th century. But whereas Manhattan’s density of 70,000 people per square mile is relieved primarily by Central Park and the odd pocket of greenery carved out by Broadway’s meandering path, the urban experience in Hong Kong can be completely different.

Hong Kong’s topography is one of hills and valleys, and aggressive conservation efforts by the government—especially on Hong Kong Island—has led to the development of densities up to 100,000 people per square mile amid generous pockets of tropical green space. Some of these urban zones are New Towns in the modernist sense of the word—filled with isolated residential towers of sixty or more stories overlooking the tropical landscape—and thus feel generic and boring, but these are not the rule. Though it isn’t well articulated in the exhibition’s layout and design, which could have done with a stronger graphic hand, it is the inspired layering of space that makes Hong Kong a worthy case study of the possibilities of such intense verticality.

Willis shows the Mid-Levels Escalator, the world’s longest outdoor escalator that snakes up above the steep, narrow streets of Hong Kong Island, connecting the urban grid to slender towers that are soaring high above. Together with the elevated pedestrian bridges that link the lower-level floors of a series of towers in the financial district, this escalator portrays an exciting horizontal, and even diagonal, connectivity. Adding a layer to the busy street level and underground transit systems, it activates the otherwise cut-off verticality: a successful prototype in practice that cries for further investigation in the designs for future cities all around the world.

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Diving Right In
The new look of McCarren Pool.
Matt Chaban

Hipsters, grab your swim trunks, because the new McCarren Park Pool is officially on its way. Today, the Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously approved plans from the Parks Department to restore and renovate the pool to its Moses-era glory, along with new amenities called for by the community. After a three-year reign as North Brooklyn’s premier concert venue, and three decades of disuse before that, the pool should be back to its intended use by 2011.

The plan, designed by Rogers Marvel Architects, calls for a thorough restoration of the original bathhouse, completed in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration, as well as reconfigured wading and diving pools, a “beach” platform that can accommodate an ice-skating rink, and new year-round recreational and community spaces within. “You have to respect the existing architecture and open space and at the same time create a 21st-century facility,” Jonathan Marvel told AN after the commission voted 7-0 in favor of the project.

Given the pool’s high profile in the Williamsburg community, both new and old, as well as its widespread coverage in the press, the hearing was sparsely attended, drawing only minor criticism from the few preservationists who spoke, all of them in favor but for this minor ahistorical detail or that. “We are sorry to see the Parks Department adopt an agenda that fills so much of the formerly open space with concessions, administrative paraphernalia, and alien attractions,” Christabel Gough, secretary of the Society for the Architecture of the City, told the commission. “It turns a sophisticated design of the 1930s into kitsch with a beach.” One speaker lamented that one walkway would be five feet deeper than its counterpart, disrupting the pool’s symmetry.

Marvel countered that, like all successful restorations, the needs of past and present had to be balanced, a sentiment the commission strongly agreed with. “For the resources the city is dedicating to this, we’re going to need year-round use from this facility,” commissioner Elizabeth Ryan said, responding to attacks on the skating rink. Commissioner Pablo Vengoechea said that the architect’s attention to detail was homage enough. “I think the work is certainly monumental, the amount of work being done to restore this,” he said.

Some feared that the decision to place the swimmers' changing pavilions outside the bathhouse might diminish that monumentality, however. The architects wanted to get them closer to the water and free up interior space for new uses, as well as to create shaded space on the promenade. Though preservationists argued that they distracted from the building’s scale, the commission disagreed. “I was worried they would block the view of the robust building behind them,” Fred Bland, the newest commissioner, said. “But I find they do not cover up too much. The transparency and lacy feel of the design is modern, deferential, and appropriate.”

Marvel said the architects had the good fortune of a nearly complete set of drawings on file at the Parks Department. This is how the decision was made to keep a spray park on the northern side of the pool separate, as drawings and photographs suggested that had always been the case, despite the seeming asymmetry it brought to the overall design. The drawings also allowed for carefully matching new windows and doors that have long been destroyed and boarded up. The designers even hope to peel back decades of graffiti to reveal the original rare bricks, though paint will be used if necessary. “There is a kind of ruggedness of the McCarren complex, and we love that ruggedness but we also want to make it as beautiful as possible,” Marvel said.

Another dispute arose during testimony when some speakers brought up a proposal for a glassed-in, rooftop restaurant, not wholly unlike the architect’s proposal for a hotel atop the Battery Maritime Building. Though the plans had been shown last week to the community and preservationists, a Parks Department official told the commission that the restaurant was not presented today because it would come at a second phase, with a separate review, if it was pursued at all.

As for concerts, Stephanie Thayer, the executive director of the local nonprofit Open Space Alliance, which advocates for park space in the neighborhood, said she remains optimistic for concerts to continue in the pool during the off season—between swimming and skating—as well as during the summer at one of the numerous parks developing along the waterfront. Thayer was also recently hired by the Parks Department, as its North Brooklyn administrator, which could help the new venue become a reality, whether in the pool or elsewhere.

“On a personal level,” Thayer told AN, “I’d like to see it closer to an industrial zone. Three years ago, this area was industrial, but now it’s beginning to bump up against some other spaces. I obviously want it to happen, but the problem is finding the right space. It’s out there. We just have to find it.”

Matt Chaban

The new changing facilities.
An interior view.
Before and after shots of the pool, with minimal changes. The beach/rink can be seen in the foreground of the bottom shot, with the changing pavilions to the sides.
The proposed Second-phase restaurant.
East and west elevations of the pool with glass additions for restaurants.
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Slow Architecture
Jensen Architects' colorful welcome pavilions were created from reclaimed shipping containers, each topped by a full-size, galvanized-steel windmill.
Courtesy Slow Food Nation

Over Labor Day weekend, San Francisco hosted a blow-out celebration of the Slow Food movement, and architects showed up for the party.

Hailed as the largest festival of American chow in history—some called it the “Woodstock of food”—the event was the offspring of Slow Food, the 19-year-old organization that has become a global force for sustainable food culture. Showcasing local tastes, products, and agricultural innovations, the first-ever event drew more than 50,000 visitors to venues throughout the city.

As they hungrily sought out California merlot, charcuterie, and sauerkraut, visitors also found fresh architecture in the form of pavilions built pro-bono by fifteen local firms, tapped by organizers to integrate gastronomy with green design.

courtesy slow food nation
Aidlin Darling Design’s chocolate pavilion (top) used hundreds of shipping pallets to evoke the cacao harvest. Visitors shopped for local wares at Civic Center (middle), while the Taste pavilion hosted most of the architects’ new designs (below).

Participating architects varied from giants like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which designed a “soap box” for farmers to share stories, to smaller practices like Stanley Saitowitz | Natoma Architects, which contributed a bread pavilion, complete with baking area and museum. Also pitching in were socially-motivated firms like SMWM, which built a water station made from recycled water bottles, and also developed the event’s Civic Center master plan. Other participants included David Baker + Partners, who with CCS Architecture designed the festival’s outdoor vendor stalls and eating area, and Jensen Architects (designer of the welcome pavilions), Winslow Architecture (wine pavilion), and Ideo (compost exhibit).

Most of the temporary structures were erected inside a 50,000-square-foot pavilion called Taste, located at Fort Mason, the cultural center on San Francisco’s northern waterfront. There, the reigning design mood was one of critical earnestness. Architect Cary Bernstein designed a charcuterie pavilion, for instance, that displayed the history of meat production through paintings and photography, to educate visitors about the interdependence of food and health. With photomurals of ranches and graphics of chicken feed, Bernstein illustrated the principle that “whatever the animal eats, we eat.” Her pavilion was designed with re-use in mind; even the artworks were re-purposed for permanent display in local restaurants.

Events at other venues reiterated this holistic theme. At City Hall Park, Mayor Gavin Newsom devoted over a quarter-acre to a “Victory Garden,” designed by John Bela, co-founder of the artists’ and designers’ collective REBAR. Modeled on the homegrown vegetable gardens tended during World War Two, the pleasantly unmanicured space demonstrated small-scale food production, particularly backyard farming within the city limits (a movement that will get a boost this year when the group Victory Gardens 08+ gives away 15 free starter gardens in San Francisco).

The scale and enthusiasm for this first-time festival—all major events were sold out well in advance—were not only a testament to a growing respect for environmental interdependence, but to architecture’s role as part of the conversation.

Landscape architect Kevin Conger, of CMG, who assisted with the City Hall garden, noted that “getting our food production closer to the consumer is essential, both so we understand where food comes from, and also so we reduce the carbon footprint of production and shipping.”

Beyond backyard gardens, Slow Food’s use of green materials—reclaimed lumber, hay bales, recycled berry crates, bundles of native California tule reeds—showed that good design can be an essential part of our low-carbon diet.