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A stroll along Washington Square South provides a good primer on NYU’s approach to development in recent decades. On one side is the park, former stomping grounds of O’Neill, Dylan, and Jacobs. On the other, a stretch of stone-faced institutional buildings, their imposing facades beckoning exclusively to students and faculty with a severity alien to the lively mood that otherwise energizes Greenwich Village. In the bad old days, these buildings were constructed in an as-of-right, piecemeal fashion with little community input.
Now the school is attempting a different approach, creating a masterplan that maps out the creation of roughly six million square feet in the city over the next two decades, an effort university officials said has been rooted in thorough planning and outreach. Yet despite the change in tactics, many in the community remain wary as ever, saying the university continues to ignore local input.
NYU is in fact looking as far away as downtown Brooklyn and Governors Island for opportunities, yet the heart of its plan—and of the university—remains in the blocks surrounding Washington Square Park, known as the Core. The university wants to put nearly half its new development in the area, much of it focused on the two Robert Moses superblocks north of Houston Street: Washington Square Village and the landmarked Silver Towers. By concentrating development in these already dense areas owned by the university, officials say, NYU can avoid buying up more of the Village.
The university and its designers—Grimshaw, Toshiko Mori, and Michael Van Valkenburgh—are proposing four thoughtful, albeit large, buildings that strive to minimize their impact on the neighborhood by peeling back the problematic parts of the superblocks, including serpentine fencing and landscapes, dreary street frontage, and a hodgepodge of circulation paths in order to create a more inviting environment.
Mori said the idea is to work within the logic of the disparate superblocks, where a plan for three slab buildings was abandoned by the original developer in the face of economic challenges in the late 1950s. Two of these Paul Lester Weiner–designed slabs were built, becoming Washington Square Village, which NYU then acquired along with the site of Silver Towers, which were built the following decade. “This is not a tabula rasa,” Mori said. “We’re not replacing the buildings but rationalizing, enhancing, and making them better.”
The first piece of the plan to enter public review will be a tower designed by Grimshaw for the Silver Towers site. Rising to 38 stories (eight more than its neighbors), the new tower will pay tribute to I.M. Pei’s distinctive facades with its own inventive glass treatment. The tower consists of four L-shaped volumes, with two elevated to create transparency and entrances, one for residents, the other for a controversial hotel.
Because the Landmarks Preservation Commission landmarked not only Pei’s three towers but the grounds surrounding them, NYU must seek its approval to build the new tower in line with Wooster Street, which the designers argue creates the best sight lines within the complex. The grocery store at the corner of LaGuardia Place and Bleecker Street would be replaced with an underground garage and a playground on top; the designers could have built here as of right, but prefer not to.
To the east of the towers is the squat Coles athletic center, which would be demolished to make way for the 17-story, Zipper Building, so called for the light wells creating bays in the structure’s upper half. The Zipper would accommodate both a new grocery store and academic space.
The most complicated piece of the plan is at Washington Square Village. The designers are proposing to replace a park and underground parking lot between the extant slab buildings with a two-level, 500,000-square-foot academic building below grade. In the center, a sunken garden would provide natural light into the space inspired, according to the architects, by Dominique Perrault’s Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.
Bookending the site would be two more academic towers, one of which may also include an elementary school, a nod to the community. Rising up to 8 stories on LaGuardia Place and up to 17 on Mercer Street, the buildings are crescent-shaped in a yin-and-yang layout meant to reflect light into the heart of the new quad. NYU intends to take the entire project before the City Planning Commission next year, after Landmarks determines what, if anything, can be built on the Silver Towers site.
In spite of NYU’s efforts, the community is not happy with the ambitious plan. In part, their anger is based on a 2007 promise NYU made not to pursue non-essential development within the Core. NYU counters that it has reduced the amount of its development and concentrated it within a tight footprint. “For them to turn around and stab us in the back so quickly is unconscionable,” one local resident said. “Some of us tried to maintain as much goodwill as possible, but I don’t see how that is possible anymore.”
There is also rage about the proposed hotel and NYU’s apparent disinterest in considering Lower Manhattan because of its distance from the Core. That NYU presented it as a single ULURP rather than phased per project has attracted particular vitriol.
Just as when Moses created these superblocks a half-century ago, the designs on paper meet far different conditions on the ground. The university needs to expand; the community doesn’t want 2.6 million square feet of new development. The density, if not the design, is as of right. This being New York, it just might happen. This being the Village, it just might not.
Frank Gehry once vowed never to build in Las Vegas, a place where serious architecture is submerged in a tsunami of kitsch, or fatally compromised by commercial imperatives. Larry Ruvo, who made a fortune as Nevada’s chief liquor distributor, refused to take “no” for an answer. He has been a passionate supporter of Alzheimer’s research since the loss of his father, Lou, to that disease.
Having formed an alliance with a major medical institution, he wanted a building that would be a magnet. He persuaded Gehry that this was a worthy cause and gave him creative freedom to design a research facility linked to an events space that would play a supporting role by generating income from rentals. The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health was inaugurated last Friday.
The new building is located far from the Strip, on the bleak north side of the city just off interstate 15. The small corner site is flanked by a vast and hermetically sealed design center, city offices that resemble a cartoon castle, and a future performing arts center and park. Gehry’s modestly scaled structure holds its own, presenting four distinct but interrelated faces to wide boulevards and parking lots.
The Life Activity Center, as the events space is known, is contained within an irregular cluster of sculptural forms, clad in brushed stainless plates with punched-out windows and skylight openings. This carapace swoops down over a courtyard as a bowed trellis, and the expanded openings cast a pattern of dappled shade over the pavers. A supporting skeleton of exposed steel beams links the public facility to the stacked white stucco blocks of treatment rooms, labs, and a fourth-floor office suite, all lit through expansive bay windows. Reception and a small library open off a breezeway, and the inner wall has panels of aqua, lemon, and red as a foil to the silver and white palette of the complex.
Gehry’s sculpted stainless steel skin, which he first employed at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, has evolved over the past two decades to provide an ever-changing, yet immediately recognizable signature. To dismiss the architect as the metal man is absurd—his preferred material has unlimited expressive potential, and is rarely used in isolation.
At Ruvo, there’s a joyful exuberance and geometric invention that captures the spontaneity of conceptual models. In commissioning the Experience Music Project in Seattle, the client invited Gehry to be “swoopy”, but the excitement was all on the outside, relinquishing the interior to a conventional and claustrophobic set of exhibits. Here, inner and outer are closely integrated, and the rational. The intuitive wings of the building are linked like the two halves of the human brain—an apt image for this institution.
The Ruvo Center is also a reproach to the wasteful ways of Las Vegas, where scarce natural resources are squandered on golf courses, fountains, and blazing signage. Both blocks open up to the north, and the trellis deflects sunlight from a courtyard that is open to breezes from east and west. The small skylights and windows are triple glazed and can be shut off with motorized blinds. Building materials were sourced regionally. The clinic roof is white, cooling is automatically shut off whenever the buildings are not in use, and LED lighting proliferates. The landscaping even does its part, making inventive use of drought-resistant plantings.
This is also a rare instance of an architect exercising total control over a project, installing his own furniture and lighting and selecting the art. But the star of the show is the interior of the activity center, which is a true original, radically different in form and effect from anything that has come before. It evokes an enchanted forest glade, a soaring white billow of foliage, with 199 openings to admit natural light, partially supported on square trunks and angular branches. Two stylized trees are located inside the glass entry wall, which frames and reflects the complex structure over the courtyard.
Beyond this portal, everything seems to be in motion, swaying in a spectral wind that tosses branches every which way. In contrast to the rigor and symmetry of the Walt Disney Hall, this interior is simply an uplifting place to celebrate weddings, raise funds and party. Gehry has liberated his artistry from programmatic constraints and is able to turn gestures into a concrete form. Architecture has been likened to frozen music; here, music is on the boil. Surface and structure combine to tilt, dart, thrust and recede in ways that defy categorization.
Taking a snapshot of New York’s past decade of development is no easy feat, as the Architectural League learned after setting out to capture the cumulative impact of sundry megaprojects and rezonings, name-brand condominiums and newly-seeded parks, and a real estate landscape reeling from the recession.
Katherine Demetriou Sidelsky
In fact, it took nearly 100 photographers, six months, and more than 4,500 images to get a grip on the five boroughs. This visual inventory was amassed by volunteer architects and designers dubbed the New New York Photography Corps, who canvassed every corner of the city in an homage to Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York photo essay of the 1930s. Their group portrait, pared to 1,000 photographs, is on view through June 26 as the centerpiece of the League’s exhibition, The City We Imagined/The City We Made: New New York 2001–2010, installed in a pop-up space at 250 Hudson Street.
“They decided this would be a WPA-type project, offering architects who are underemployed a chance to stay involved, look at the city, look at the changes, and use a skill that probably everybody has—and that’s taking pictures,” said Erica Stoller, director of Esto, the architectural photo agency that advised on the project.
After the League summoned interested participants, Esto photographers conferred with the corps, then took part in marathon review sessions to winnow the images down, a process Stoller acknowledges was somewhat unscientific. “A picture has to be full of information, it has to be clear, and it has to look good, too,” she said. “But what I found curious was that we could have sat down with the same group of people and chosen all different images.”
For their part, photographers were obliged to ruthlessly edit their submissions. “I shot more than I ever thought I would—hundreds of pictures,” said Sara Moss, an architectural designer at AECOM who devoted her after-work hours to exploring Lower Manhattan, Bay Ridge, Sunset Park, and the Far West Village. The project, she added, proved a refreshing counterpoint to her day job working on the Second Avenue subway: “It reminded me of the big picture.”
Along with the photographs, the show includes a timeline of development milestones since 2001 and video interviews with notable New York figures. “The third section of the exhibition is a bit more critical,” said Gregory Wessner, digital programs and exhibitions director at the League. “We asked 14 different New Yorkers, from a variety of community, civic, and preservation groups, the same eight questions.” The exhibit also offers opportunities for viewers to comment on all the development, making for an appropriately open-ended urban portrait.
View a slideshow of New New York phtos on the A|N Blog.
Until 2004, Downtown Brooklyn was a checkerboard of gas stations, irregularly shaped parking lots, and blocks of brick rowhouses. But with a rezoning that year, the mile-long stretch of Flatbush Avenue from the Manhattan Bridge to the Atlantic Center mall was transformed, almost overnight, by a parade of luxury condo towers that soon started construction.
Of these half-dozen monoliths, one stands out among the rest. Eschewing the brick facades and square sides that characterize so many apartment buildings in the city, SOM has created a tower unlike any of its immediate neighbors, and even most other buildings in the city, which is precisely what developer Don Capoccia wanted. “We knew there’d be a lot of product coming on the market around the same time,” the BFC Partners principal said, “and we wanted a building that would really stand out from everything around it.”
Devised during the height of the real estate boom, the sleek, sustainable tower called Toren (that’s tower in Dutch) was designed to draw people across the city, not only those fleeing Manhattan’s skyrocketing prices, but those drawn to its unusual curtain wall, jagged shape, and staggered unit layout.
When the housing bubble burst, it was that difference from the norm that guaranteed BFC would have little trouble completing it. It helped that the developer also served as construction manager. “Now, in hindsight, this was still the right decision to make,” Capoccia said. “If we hadn’t, I think we’d be in kind of a jam.”
Toren began as one of those odd-shaped parking lots, acquired in 2006 by BFC after the rezoning. (The firm specializes in emerging neighborhoods, working previously in the East Village in the 1990s and more recently in Harlem.) And in spite of SOM’s limited experience with housing, particularly in the city, Capoccia turned to the firm because he knew one of its principals, David Childs, from their time together some ten years ago on the U.S. Commission for the Arts. Childs directed Capoccia to Roger Duffy, a young partner and one of SOM’s top designers. “How do you go wrong hiring SOM to design a tower?” Capoccia said.
One of the first design decisions Duffy made was to respect the street grid, turning Toren into a rhomboid tower with an almost Flatiron aspect. “We proposed a building that had an indeterminate quality, where you couldn’t tell what exactly the shape was,” Duffy said. This illusion is heightened by the pixilated curtain wall of light and dark glass and dimpled metal panels, which masks the building’s vertical structure without making it look overly tall.
This “camouflaging technique,” as Duffy describes it, was drawn into the building’s composite plinth, where the pattern was repeated with an added depth, at times up to two feet, to provide a dynamic vista for cars passing by. The plinth has the occasional turret reaching up into the tower so the two read as a cohesive object.
Duffy said this approach was essential as the building occupies the entire zoning envelope, unlike, say, Lever House, which was under-built by half. “We couldn’t just create a compelling form,” Duffy said. “Few maxed-out buildings are beautiful objects because zoning isn’t about beauty. But here, I think we really achieved something special.”
Another unusual twist for SOM was the chance to design the building’s interiors, including the “amenities spaces” typical of most luxury condos, and they were fit together in a multifloor Tetris layout not unlike the units, with the fitness room looking down on the pool and a double-height library.
As for the 240 units themselves, there is great variety among them, as SOM created a digital model of the neighborhood and determined the best views for each unit based on their surroundings on all 38 floors. Coupled with the building’s unusual shape, it makes for some unorthodox living spaces. Thus far, the building is 50 percent sold, with penthouse units priced between $995,000 and $1.695 million.
Sustainability was also a high priority, including standard features like low-e glass, but the team also sought out innovative solutions, such as preferred parking for hybrid cars and a cogeneration plant in the building. The hope is to achieve a LEED Gold rating. “I think in this down market, this attention to detail has helped him do well,” Duffy said. “So many of these new buildings, they call them ‘luxury’ and they’re not. But here, I think it truly fits.”
The Man Next Door
Directed by Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat
Museum of Modern Art
Roy and Niuta Titus Theater
1 11 West 53rd Street
New York, New York
Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65th Street
New York, New York
At the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in January, architecture was extolled, implicated, or otherwise showcased in several premieres. Last Address, a 9-minute elegy directed by Ira Sachs, depicts the facades of the final residences of New York City artists who died of AIDS. 12th & Delaware, by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, profiles identical buildings at an intersection in Fort Pierce, Florida, one housing an abortion clinic, the other a pro-life headquarters, which are often mistaken for one other. I Am Love, by Luca Guadagnino and starring Tilda Swinton, takes place in the polished rooms of the Milanese villa of a wealthy industrial family, whose scion plans to meet Herzog & de Meuron.
But if a prize were given for best performance by a building, it would go to the Argentinian feature The Man Next Door, directed by Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat from a script by architect Andrés Duprat. That building would be the Curutchet House in La Plata, Argentina, Le Corbusier’s only residence in the Americas.
The Man Next Door starts with a bang—literally. The opening features a split screen depicting a white stucco rectangle on the left and a field of black on the right. The relentless banging of a sledgehammer on the black side exposes a widening hole. Simultaneously, on the left side, the white stucco cracks. We’re on both sides of the wall at once.
The noise awakens Leonardo Kachanovsky, a 40-ish furniture designer, who sleepily shuffles across his Le Corbusier–designed residence to investigate. He passes a Corb chaise longue, Philippe Starck's transparent Louis Ghost chairs, and a Cristián Mohaded Biblioteca Cons slanted bookcase, and makes his way down the house’s signature ramp to discover illegal construction work underway next door.
A new window is being pounded out of a solid exterior wall to “catch some rays” —in full view of Leonardo’s rear facade.
The interaction that ensues between Leonardo, the world-renowned industrial designer—his award-winning Konchanovsky Chair (actually, the Batti-designed Placentero Chair) was named “seat of the year” at the fictional Stockholm Biennale—and his charismatic bruiser of a neighbor, Victor, strangely both affable and threatening (and decidedly lower-class; Leonardo calls him a troglodyte) is at the heart of this comic but trenchant film.
Who hasn’t feared a nightmare scenario involving an aggressive next-door neighbor armed with a construction crew? Disruptions at all hours, invasions of privacy, aesthetic heresies? The Man Next Door stirs the pot further, adding conflicts of class and social status to those of substance and style.
Leonardo, the ostensibly self-satisfied Renaissance man, endures a litany of daily assaults. There’s his whiny bourgeois wife, Ana, who runs her yoga studio on the top floor, a circle of needy design students who bring models of Mies-derivative chaises for his evaluation, even a daily parade of architectural pilgrims who gather outside his landmark home. Then there’s his sullen teenage daughter, who is more charmed by the finger-puppet shows Victor stages in the makeshift proscenium of the questionable window aperture than the lame efforts of her priggish father.
We follow Leonardo as he shows off features of the Curutchet House to his students: the poplar tree in the courtyard around which the house is built, the brise soleil on the front facade, the modular system based on human scale. He takes us up and down the ramps, into the bedrooms, offices, kitchen, and terraces and through the double-height living space, the site of a wonderfully pretentious scene of listening to avant-garde music with an artsy friend, appreciating the “random thumping” in the music delivered by a “sub-woofer” when in fact it’s Victor’s industrious hammering.
Kidnapping is not unknown in Argentina and Leonardo hires a security expert. With a landmark house with no gate, easy street access, glass everywhere, cheek-by-jowl with adjoining houses on small lots, security is a tall order. And he refuses to install bars that would mar Le Corbusier’s design.
The Curutchet House, which starts off as emblematic of Leonardo’s perfectly constructed life—he even makes “designer chicken” for his guests—fractures in its meaning as The Man Next Door unfolds. It exposes his vulnerabilities and also his arrogance, selfishness, weak self-control, and ultimately, impotence. When the home is broken into by thieves, the separate actions of both Leonardo and Victor reveal the true nature of each man. Significantly, this takes place on Le Corbusier’s ramp.
The Man Next Door, which won a World Cinema Cinematography Award at Sundance, has its New York premiere at MoMA on March 31 as part of New Directors/New Films, co-sponsored by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It screens again at the Walter Reade Theater on April 1.
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The Houses of Greenwich Village
By Kevin D. Murphy, photography by Paul Rocheleau
New York is a city of neighborhoods. Many appear in fiction, but very few get architectural coverage. Greenwich Village is the exception. As the most storied place in Gotham, the Village has been well researched, has its own historical society, and its streets have been photographed by everyone from Edward Steichen to Annie Liebowitz. Nearly every New Yorker has her favorite haunt, a bistro, bar, or street corner with an indelible memory attached.
One might, then, be nonplussed to find another book on the quaint row houses that make up most of this intimate place of twisted streets and artsy cafes. Kevin Murphy’s new treatment has an advantage that no previous book can boast: beautiful photographs of the interiors of many houses not normally open to the public. As in his previous book on the American town house, the author gets right to the heart of his subject and provides fascinating stories on both the houses and the people who built them. Paul Rocheleau provides the splendid photographs.
The two have chosen 20 of the most interesting houses in the Village and devoted a substantial photo essay to each, with accompanying text. Their book is nicely designed and produced by Abrams, the noted art book publisher. This book would make an excellent gift for your friends with an interest in New York and its architecture.
Murphy’s short essay on the history of the Village covers no new ground, and might well have been more specific about the kinds of houses that were chosen for case studies. It has the advantage of presenting street scenes in historic photos from the collection of the Historic American Buildings Survey in the 1930s, a nice contrast to the vivid color photos by Rocheleau. But most of the interesting narrative is reserved for the individual houses, and there is a lot more behind these brick facades than meets the eye.
Unlike most coffee table art books, this one marries probing, insightful photography with equally analytical text. Since Murphy is a noted art historian with expertise in American architecture, he seldom misses a chance to educate the reader about the subtleties of Federal and Greek Revival details, or the impact of economic development on New York in the 1830s, when the Village had the hottest real estate market in Manhattan.
He points out that the John Grindley house (1827) owes some of its remarkable elegance to the fact that it was built by John Jacob Astor as a means of converting a former country estate, “Richmond Hill,” into a real estate development that presaged the eventual expansion of housing northward on the island. As each house is presented chronologically, beginning in 1827, Murphy is able to relate the social history of the eras to the features and styles of each example. Modest dwellings such as the David Christie house (1824), built for the middle class, are contrasted with lavish houses for “swells” such as Irad Hawley, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Company, whose Fifth Avenue mansion (1852-53) is home to the Salmagundi Club.
The lives of original owners are not the only ones examined, for many houses became significant after the Village was a mecca for artists and intellectuals during the 20th century. An 1827 house was renovated in 1893 to become the studio of Robert Blum, an artist associated with Whistler and early Japonisme America. The design, by Carrère & Hastings, reminds us of the bohemian atmosphere that existed in New York around 1900, when modern art was in a period of gestation on both sides of the Atlantic. The building later served as the studio of the noted architectural painter, Jules Guérin.
At the end of the book are two patently modernist interventions into the fabric of this charming corner of New York, and both seem very much at home. One, designed in 2003, is a clever insertion into an 1801 row house. The other, from 2005, is a new house occupying a small slice in the streetscape. One quibble with this necessarily abbreviated story is that little is said about the period of the “Brown Decades,” from the 1860s until 1900, when many sandstone-fronted Italianate and Richardsonian houses were built in Manhattan. Though the Village was by this time a mature neighborhood, there are significant examples from this period, such as the twin houses designed by Robert Mook at 74 and 76 Perry Street in 1866. Perhaps we’ll see a second volume.
One of the best things about The Houses of Greenwich Village is its intimate, insider’s point of view. Both Murphy and Rocheleau bring us as close as possible to the artifacts and lives of the people who made these domestic environments. My favorite is the restoration/conversion by contemporary photographer John Dougdale of the 1828 Cornelius Oakley house. The contrast between the Greek Revival décor and his wonderful collection of artifacts offers a compelling story of rebirth. Before he arrived, the house had been converted to apartments, destroying its character. He lovingly restored every original room. Today he makes old-fashioned photographs in a charming top-lit studio, just as his bohemian brethren did a century ago.
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