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Riverside South, like so many of Donald Trump’s projects, is not particularly known for its architecture. Beginning in 1997—after decades of plans, deals, and legal wrangling—the first of nearly a dozen faux-Park Avenue towers began to rise above the West Side Highway. In 2005, Extell Development bought the final undeveloped parcels at the southern tip of the project. But instead of more bland luxury, Extell announced last fall that Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Christian de Portzamparc would be designing the project, which was unveiled earlier this year as Riverside Center, a soaring, crystalline complex spanning four city blocks.
COURTESY REspective architects
And yet Portzamparc’s plan is already facing skepticism from locals, and not only because it is 800,000 square feet larger than previously allowed. Ever since NBC abandoned Trump’s plans to build new studios on the southern most plots, planners and community groups have been devising alternatives. While Extell is in no way required to embrace these plans, it must now contend with them, as was the case during a September 30 roundtable at the Center for Architecture.
While the half-dozen medium- and high-rise towers crafted in Portzamparc’s sculpted style are the most notable piece of the plan, the architect insists the most important part is what happens at the street. Working with landscape designer Signe Nielsen, Portzamparc has broken the predominating superblock and carved it into quarters. The idea is to incorporate the project with the city’s street grid and create view corridors through the project to the river.
The designers draw 60th Street into the project, heightening access and street activity. But the street terminates halfway through the site, where it is met by a 1.5-acre park. This is partly practical—the grade change is 28 feet, rather steep for a roadway—but also a public gesture. To create visual continuity with the street, a shallow reflecting pool runs the length of the park. “It was a way not to create an enclave and also to flow with the Manhattan grid, which allows a variety of architecture,” Portzamparc said. He added that the open space, which reaches 3.2 acres when plazas surrounding the buildings are included, is larger than that at Lincoln Center.
The buildings themselves will contain some 3.1 million square feet of development, and though their exact configuration remains to be determined, Extell has been promoting a school, grocery store, and movie theater as lacking public amenities that could find a home in the base of the towers. Above them would be a mix of luxury apartments, hotel rooms, and possibly affordable housing. “We see it as an exclamation point to the rest of Riverside South,” Nielsen said.
Like Portzamparc, his interlocutors focused considerably more attention on the ground than the towers above them. The Riverside South Planning Corporation, a non-profit that oversees the original master plan for development, also advocates the continuation of 60th Street, but it proposes a wall of towers on the north side with the creation of a public park on the block to the south. Not only are they skeptical of how public the park at the center of a major development would be, but Paul Elston, president of the corporation, said it would be less stifling on McKim, Mead & White’s old IRC power station on 59th Street. The corporation has proposed transforming the Con Ed-owned building into a cultural institution akin to the Tate Modern.
The Coalition for a Livable West Side proposed an approach similar to that at Gramercy Park. A public park would be created first running north-south in the middle of the site, with four development plots surrounding it—two east of the park, two west. Finally, Paul Willen, one of the architects of the original plan, abandoned the corporation’s plan for something he said was more reasonable. He proposed leaving Portzamparc’s plan intact, except eliminate a mid-size tower at the middle of the complex, thus reducing its overall balk and opening up the IRT station.
Nielsen said these approaches were unfeasible, however, because they ignore issues such as creating a certain critically New York density and that 59th Street is a major Department of Sanitation route, to which the park should not be exposed. “These were things we were aware of, but we could not consider them,” Portzamparc said.
What shape the project takes will begin to be decided this winter, when the developer said it would initiate the public review process—it needs a special waver to deviate from the original plans for a studio, as well as to seek greater density. While the local community board has yet to take a position on the project, Page Cowley, an architect and co-chair of the board’s land-use committee, said the considerable community outreach undertaken by the developer has been heartening.
As for the designs, Cowley said that while they are impressive, many questions remain. “Schools, parks, and cars are probably bigger concerns than the architecture here,” Cowley said. “Because it’s bound to put a strain on other resources in the neighborhood.”
A version of this article appeared in AN 17_10.21.2009.
“An interior designer colleague recently joked that there has to be a special place in hell for lighting designers,” said Doug Russell, founder and principal of the DUMBO-based lighting design firm Lighting Workshop. “He’s kidding, I hope, but there’s something there, in that lighting designers can over-complicate projects that are ultimately about creating clean, well-lit spaces.”
COURTESY TPG Architects
Founded in 2006, Lighting Workshop’s portfolio masterfully encompasses retail, residential, and live/work spaces, demonstrating Russell’s pursuit of a “qualitative economy of light” through an intuitive, empathetic approach that tailors environmental design to the client’s needs.
With over 15 years of experience in both environmental and product design, Russell’s expertise carries his growing practice from fixture to effect without needlessly stacking watts or costs. “We’re more interested in the emotional properties of light than its quantitative aspects,” said Russell. “Rather than focusing exclusively on the measurements of light and space, we’re trying to bring out all of the magic that the architects envision and the client is looking for.”
With lighting projects that have included both hedge funds and sales floors at Bloomingdale’s, Russell especially treasures designing residential spaces. “There’s something really personal about working with a homeowner,” said Russell. “You have to think about where you’re going to sleep, where you’re going to eat, and how you’re going to raise your kids.”
Lighting Workshop’s recent work on a 2,500-square-foot Upper East Side condominium challenged Russell to effectively illuminate the client’s impressive art collection while maintaining the intimacy of the family’s living space. To create a diffused sense of daylight throughout the largely windowless space, soft washes of light fall from a dropped ceiling and across floating wall planes.
Other clients, such as Flavor Paper, an artisanal wallpaper company that specializes in handmade silkscreen designs, required both atmospheric and technical solutions. Flavor Paper’s four-story wallpaper compound in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, includes a ground-floor production studio, a second-floor showroom, and a third- and fourth-floor series of residential units.
The production facility features a mirrored ceiling slotted by a series of high-color-rendering fluorescent lights that span a mirrored wall at the rear of the studio, creating the appearance of an infinite stretch of printing tables. “The mirrored ceiling allows you to step into the wallpaper that you’re printing,” said Russell. “We spent a lot of time figuring out how to integrate the lighting without a glare while still providing very even high-color-rendering light across a work plane.”
A relative newcomer, Russell continues to discover new challenges for the firm’s core competencies. A recent assignment to illuminate a presentation center touting Madison Square Garden’s (MSG) upcoming renovation and new luxury boxes required the designers to recreate the experience of being at a great concert or basketball game—complete with kinetic sights and sounds. “The whole experience is very choreographed,” said Russell. “As MSG’s people explain the facility, the lights and the roar of the crowd are triggered and follow you through as the tour unfolds.”
Their largest LED project to date, the MSG presentation center employs an array of LEDs that color shift according to a series of theatrical cues, which are in turn coordinated with an audio and video system. To help them achieve this high-wire integration, Russell and his team turned to Barbizon, an international theatrical lighting firm with control systems expertise. “It’s very humbling for a designer to say, ‘I don’t know how to do this’,” said Russell. “It’s not like dimming an incandescent lamp where you just lower the voltage. It’s digital—ones and zeros and bits of computer code.”
Whether tackling the conventional or the cutting-edge, Lighting Workshop remains committed to the user experience. “Every client’s different,” Russell said, “but we’re trying to keep it simple while celebrating the aspects of light that can be fun and satisfying.”
Tillett Lighting Design has been around since 1983, when founder Linnaea Tillett parlayed her theater background into a practice for lighting private fine art collections. In the past ten years, however, her firm has become known for the civic and landscape work it has produced in collaboration with such high-profile talents as Maya Lin, Toshiko Mori, Michael Van Valkenburgh, and Lebbeus Woods.
“I was raised in New York City,” said Tillett, “and have always been interested in the urban environment and what makes a safe-feeling street.” In 1990, she put her firm on hold and entered a graduate program at City College, studying the fundamentals of perception and, over the course of the next decade, earning a PhD in environmental psychology. “I wanted to learn more about how we understand our environment, how we understand fear, and the difference between fear and excitement. I was trying to get to the bottom of the psychological effects of lighting in a space.”
Tillett got a chance to put this training into practice in the late ‘90s, when she answered an RFP issued by the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT was looking for designers to light a neighborhood and study its effects. Tillett chose a particularly desolate stretch of New Lots Avenue in East New York. Using inexpensive decorative fixtures, the firm lit a path from the elevated subway to the area’s two main landmarks: a church and a library. In the year following the installation, library attendance and circulation increased, and pedestrians reported increased comfort while walking home at night.
One of the most important lessons that Tillett took away from the East New York project was that too much light can be a bad thing. The “crime light” typical of such underserved neighborhoods—glaring floodlights more suitable to lighting a stadium than a streetscape—can end up working against residents’ sense of comfort. “We now ask the question, ‘Why light?’” said Tillett. “That’s a question that doesn’t get asked enough. It’s not just a question of energy, but of why do it at all? We want people to meet outdoors at night in a civilized way, to create a sense of enchantment that will draw people to a place and keep them there. Maybe in certain cases we need to take away lighting.”
Tillett is currently working on two civic projects that take the approach of using as little light as possible. One is a pedestrian and bicycle bridge that crosses a six-lane freeway in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tillett is installing LED strips at the edges of the pathway that will wash the expanded metal mesh tube enclosing the bridge in a peachy, watermelon-colored glow inspired by the color of the sunset on the nearby mountains.
The firm is also involved in a Federal Aid project to revitalize Syracuse, New York, by reinforcing the five-mile-long connective corridor between downtown and Syracuse University. Tillett has proposed coating specific nodes along this path with highly reflective material that will be illuminated with one watt of light, creating a series of bold markers along the way that highlight pedestrian spaces, bike paths, and public transportation.
Tillett Lighting Design has not given up its private clients. The firm supplements work in the public realm by lighting hospitality and residential spaces. “The private work gives a flow and stability to the office,” explained Tillett. In addition to the financial benefits, these projects feed the civic work both creatively and technically. “You can work more freely with private clients,” she said. “There are no codes or bureaucracies to deal with, and they often ask naive questions that lead to really innovative outcomes.”
For the Milne-Ojito Residence, a Soho loft, the clients needed a divider between their living room and sleeping area. Working with artist Joan Waltemath and architecture firm I-Beam Design, Tillet created a sliding glass door coated with phosphorus powder that glows cerulean blue. LED strips embedded in the door’s framing feed the phosphor, while mirrors and iridescent material in the glass further augment the lighting effect. “The difficult thing with phosphorus is color, but the technology is getting there,” Tillett said. “The next question is how to use it in a public space.”
When the real-estate industry went into deep freeze, word had it that developers would use their recessionary downtime to get planning approvals in line for the uptick to come. And sure enough, New York’s City Planning Commission had a marathon day yesterday, approving the Related Companies’ Hudson Yards project and Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment, the rezoning of the Broadway Triangle in Brooklyn, new approvals for Jean Nouvel’s MoMA tower, and—the biggest surprise of the bunch—the announcement that the city was moving ahead on acquisition of the final stretch of the High Line.
The High Line news came just after commission chair Amanda Burden voted in favor of the re-rezoning of the western portion of the Hudson Yards, which had been designated for a stadium in 2005 as part of the city’s Olympic bid. Burden perked up noticeably when she made the announcement, declaring, “The vision of the High Line will not be realized until it extends all the way from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street. That’s why I’m pleased to announce that the city is preparing an application to acquire the final piece of the High Line.”
Burden added that she expects the process to be completed by the end of the year, at which point it will enter the public review process. The continuation of the elevated park, the first phase of which opened to great fanfare earlier this year, has been an open question throughout the Hudson Yards development process. While commensurate open space was required, some developers bidding on the project wanted to replace the High Line with a new park north of 30th Street, arguing its preservation would make building the deck over the rail yards more difficult.
Related, which took over the project after Tishman Speyer backed out last year, was ambivalent about including the High Line in its plans. The developer did seem to warm to the idea as the commission increasingly indicated that was the direction it was leaning, working language supportive of preservation into the rezoning in September. Until today’s announcement, though, nothing was assured.
Peter Mullan, vice president for planning and design for Friends of the High Line, said after the announcement that he was excited by the news, but more work remains. “This does not guarantee preservation, but it’s the beginning of the process to ensure preservation and the most significant and concrete step in the process,” Mullan said.
The city must now come to an agreement with CSX, the national railroad operator, to purchase the final stretch of track. No previous deal had been made because the tracks would have been demolished under the stadium plan, and then the city was unsure what action the developers would take.
As for Related’s massive project abutting the High Line, the commission approved changes to the 2005 rezoning, replacing the stadium with one commercial and seven residential towers surrounded by acres of open space, by a vote of 12-1. This will be a part of the completed Hudson Yards, which also includes a parcel east of 11th Avenue that was rezoned in 2005 for commercial and residential use.
The commission made some changes to the Related plan for the western yards that was certified in May, following criticism from the local community board and the borough president. In further deference to the High Line, one tower at the project’s southwest corner that would have straddled the elevated park has been pushed back and its height reduced, though it still overhangs the tracks by 50 feet (the Standard rises 30 feet above).
Changes were also made to the open space, which had been described as “too Bryant Park” by the board. Now, it will be more tightly integrated with the surrounding buildings, along with more seating and other minor changes. Burden also announced the assent of the School Construction Authority to develop a new primary school within the western development. Related could not be reached for comment about these changes.
“They heard everything we said,” Lee Compton, former chair of Community Board 4, told AN after the vote. “They did not agree with everything, though, and we’re going to continue to fight for them.”
The major sticking point, and the reason for the one dissenting vote, is affordable housing. “This project will contribute a number of important, positive aspects to the borough,” commissioner Karen Philips said. “But I am concerned by the lack of onsite affordable housing.” Related has pointed out that 600 units will be created off-site, but Compton said that those were promised during the 2005 rezoning. “To take credit for them would be double dipping,” he said. The community hopes to sway the City Council to require the developer to include more affordable housing, ideally within the site, when the council votes on the project in the next 50 days.
Things did not go as smoothly for Related’s Kingsbridge Armory, an old military hall in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx that has lain vacant for 15 years. The developer wants to turn the massive 57,500-square-foot building into a mall, including a 60,000-square-foot grocery store, which has drawn fire from two local grocers that fear it will put them out of business. Four commissioners sympathized with this issue and voted against the project, though it was still approved by 8-4 with one abstention.
During the meeting, the room was stormed by about two dozen unionists who have also been fighting Related for wage guarantees, along with the borough president Ruben Diaz, Jr., who was in the audience. The commission did not comment on this issue, but pressure will no doubt be brought to bear on the council. “I vote yes on this item trusting that progress on this project will continue,” commissioner Richard Eaddy said.
Another contentious community project was approved yesterday, this one with little uproar. Despite an alternative plan with the support of some 40 community groups, the commissioners approved the city’s rezoning application for the Broadway Triangle 11-1 with one abstention.
The commissioners who did speak up embraced the position of the community board, which argued that a good plan—with contextual zoning and nearly 1,000 potential units of affordable housing—was created in the worst of ways by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which largely ignored the community in the process. “We have had these issues with HPD in one manner or another in the past,” commissioner Irwin Cantor said. “I hope we don’t see HPD making similar errors in the future.”
As for Jean Nouvel’s midtown tower, it had already been approved in September, when the commission unexpectedly chopped 200 feet off the top, leaving it at 1,050 feet. Then, at City Hall two weeks ago, the council decided further changes needed to be made to the street-level facade, which had been more of a concern to the community all along.
Despite a personal plea from Nouvel to restore the full height of the tower, the council instead referred it back to the commission after reducing the hotel square footage from 150,000 square feet to 100,000, which eliminated the requirement for a loading dock on 54th Street. (The council also requested that MoMA make the wall to its sculpture garden more transparent and community friendly, something that has been a bone of contention since the expanded MoMA reopened in 2004, though that changes was not under the purvey off the commission.) The changes were approved unanimously, and the council is now expected to vote on them in the next few weeks.
Chicago’s answer to the High Line begins to take shape this fall, with the City of Chicago’s selection of a team helmed by Arup North America to transform a disused, elevated rail line into the Bloomingdale Trail.
Running for 2.7 miles along Bloomingdale Avenue in northwest Chicago, the rail line is owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway but has been unused for years, and is now rife with weeds and debris. Despite the project’s basic similarity to Manhattan’s High Line, which opened this spring on the dense, mixed-use West Side, the Bloomingdale Trail will be a mile longer and will pass through four residential neighborhoods with a range of income levels.
Also unlike the pedestrian High Line, the Bloomingdale Trail may become a pivotal part of the city’s network of bike trails, judging from public visioning charrettes conducted by Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, a nonprofit formed to serve as the trail’s stewards. “What we learned from the charrettes was that walking and biking were neck-and-neck in terms of how people wanted to use the trail,” said Friends board president Ben Helphand.
The trail’s program will be the focus of the first phase of planning, which will start early next year and take about 18 months. That time will also be spent sorting out property holdings along the trail and conducting structural analyses of the 37 concrete viaducts that support the rail line. “None of the viaducts are in severe shape, but all would need at least some upgrading,” said Brian Steele of the Chicago Department of Transportation. Although the city has acquired $3 million of federal and local funding for the design process, securing funding for construction will be a central aim in the coming months as well.
Arup’s team impressed the city with its resume of related projects (the team includes Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, currently working on the Brooklyn Bridge Park), their mix of global and local experience (other partners include Chicago-based Ross Barney Architects and Burns & McDonnell engineers), and their dedication. “We purposefully didn’t specify which team members should come to the interview because we wanted to see who showed up. Would the people from out-of-town bother to come?” said Janet Attarian, project director for the Chicago DOT.
Even before Arup’s work begins, the nonprofit Trust for Public Land will create regular access points to the trail by acquiring adjacent parcels of land, which are becoming destinations in their own right. “I think of the trail as an archipelago because it has so many emerging parks along it. It’s already spawned four completely new green spaces,” Helphand said.
A version of this article appeared in AN 01_10.14.2009_MW.
In recent months, signs have popped up in the windows of townhouses and storefronts from Carroll Gardens to Park Slope. On them, a blue whale spouts a plume of heart-shaped water, the copy below declaring: “Gowanus Canal/Super Fund Me.” Many locals, it would appear, are hoping the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will make good on its April announcement that it was considering naming the canal a Superfund site.
It may not come to that, however, as the city, fearing the stultifying effects Superfund status could have on development in the area, has rushed to create its own plan for cleaning up the canal, which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg unveiled Friday at a press conference at a pump house on the banks of the Gowanus. “This is just the beginning of a process of cleanup that will go much quicker than three years of fighting through the Superfund process,” Bloomberg told reporters.
The city’s plan, which was developed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has two components: three capital projects to improve current mitigation measures and a city-run program that would get polluters to pitch in on cleanup, a strategy the city considers less acrimonious than the litigation-driven Superfund program.
The largest of the capital programs, which will be paid for with $150 million in existing city capital funds, is the installation of four new pumps to handle combined sewer overflows during storms. The pumps will increase storm water capacity from 20 million gallons per day to 30 million, helping to keep sewage-tainted water out of the canal. A new mile-long pipe will connect to a pollution treatment center in Red Hook to help clean the water. Both systems will reduce combined sewer overflows into the canal by 34 percent.
The other major investment is in a century-old water tunnel that pumps in fresh water from Buttermilk Channel to help improve the canal’s water quality and mitigate sewage and other pollutants. The single water pump, which broke down in the 1960s and was not replaced until 1999, will be replaced by three new pumps, boosting fresh water in the canal by 40 percent, from 154 million gallons per day to 215 million. Finally, the top 750 feet of the canal will be dredged, as the area is sometimes exposed during high tide, giving off noxious odors as a result.
But these are only mitigation measures. The real problem comes from the decades of pollution and contamination from the factories, cement plants, refineries, and runoff along the two-mile canal. To address these issues, the city has devised the second component of its plan—what it is calling the “alternative cleanup plan.” It calls for using the federal Water Resources Development Act, which provides matching funds to responsible parties for helping cleanse the canal. Bloomberg said companies would be eager to help because it “settles once and for all their liabilities” without resorting to court cases. There is no timeline yet, but the mayor said the cleanup could be completed within a decade from its start, “a relatively short time for these sorts of things.”
This alternative plan [PDF] would deploy a range of measures to clean up the canal, from addressing runoff from upland polluters to dredging and capping the canal bed, shoring up crumbling bulkheads, and planting decontaminating flora and fauna—all of which would be paid for by polluters and the federal government, and not the city.
But the key to staving off Superfund may be the city’s willingness to give the EPA an oversight role, including the right to step in if the city’s efforts prove insufficient. It was unclear how standards would be set or met between the city and the agency, but the mayor stressed that it was preferable to the decades it could take to get a cleanup underway with the Superfund program, killing various development projects and a neighborhood rezoning in the process.
The EPA is currently reviewing the city’s plan. Repeated calls to the agency for comment were not returned, but a decision about designating the canal a Superfund site is expected sometime this fall.
Joseph Seebode, deputy district engineer of the Army Corps' New York District, said the main difference between the city and the EPA’s approach was one of restoration versus remediation—gradual improvement versus top-down containment. “What the EPA is doing is, they’re looking at this in a different way,” Seebode told AN. While the city and the Corps would allow for development and activity concurrent with cleanup, the EPA would shut everything down. Seebode declined to say which was the safer approach, only that all avenues have to be studied.
Asked if the city would have undertaken the plan were it not faced with the impending threat of the canal being named a Superfund site, Bloomberg admitted the city should have taken action sooner, but at least it was making an honest effort to clean the canal quickly and thoroughly, unlike the EPA.
There has been some speculation that the city has taken such swift action because it could be found liable under the Superfund program—not only because of sewage outflows but because of city-owned polluters such as a Department of Transportation cement plant—though the mayor insisted that was not the case. “When these lawyers start, everyone’s going to point fingers,” Bloomberg said. “It’s going to be a boon for the lawyers, but nothing will get done environmentally.”
But Richard Bashner, chair of local Community Board 6, told AN that so long as the canal gets clean, he does not care who is responsible for it. “At this point, we’re delighted to see the mayor and the EPA fighting over who gets to clean up the canal,” he said.
Recent surveys reveal that ﬁfty percent of Americans do not believe in climate change or that it can have devastating effects on their lives. Indeed, of the many catastrophes that could come to pass in Manhattan, one of the most frightening visuals— rising water levels—has long since been co-opted by Hollywood disaster movies such as When Worlds Collide (1951) and its more recent remake Deep Impact (1998). Until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the probability of severe floods seemed more alien than extraterrestrials taking over the island.
Last month, at the H2O9 Forum at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, that shortsightedness was a constant refrain, as was the North Sea Flood of 1953. The latter is surely the most apt historical example to illustrate how regions should not wait for actual disasters to happen before taking action. A tidal surge hit the southwest of the Netherlands—where thirty to forty percent of the ground surface is located at least twenty feet under sea level—and killed 1,835 people.
Today, the Dutch believe ﬂoods are more likely than getting killed in car accidents, though that is actually not the case. The 1953 disaster resulted in the Delta Plan, an elaborate series of dams, sluices, locks, dikes, and storm-surge barriers that protect the region against one-in-ten-thousand-year floods. At the H2O9 forum, the Delta Plan and its revisions were compared with the systems approaches to ﬂood protection in the Hudson Estuary Basin.
Malcolm Bowman, of the State University of New York, chaired a panel with Piet Dircke of Arcadis, an international design consultancy with a focus on environmental infrastructure. Bowman explained that all ﬁve New York City boroughs “as well as the New Jersey coast are subject to mediocre ﬂood threats.” But the region is barely equipped for calamities that can happen once in a hundred years—let alone the ten-thousand-year storms of Holland. (Katrina was a one-in-four-hundred- year storm.) “It’s time New York gets started on its own plan,” Bowman later told AN.
Although the systems put in place in Holland over the past 50 years protect the lowlands, they have also drastically changed some of its ecosystems. Dircke described how the Dutch are now preparing Delta Plan II, a new systems approach incorporating the water system of the whole region while taking the environmental impact of barrier systems into better consideration. The assumption is that the ﬁrst wall of defenses will be breached by the end of the century, and a second wall with a moat between them might provide a better solution than an attempt at rebuilding the original walls.
The lessons the Dutch have learned over four centuries of experience with their own unique landscape have positioned them well in warning other places—namely New York—about the importance of planning ahead. Although climate change is often incremental or too small for us to experience on a day-to-day basis, scientists monitoring water systems in the area do see changes that beg for immediate action.
According to Bowman, considering a more regional approach is a promising start: “Rather than put levees along the Hudson River for 300 miles, why not put a barrier at the Verrazzano Narrows,” he asked. “And it doesn’t have to be all dams and concrete. Building barrier beaches has worked well in the Netherlands, too.” Bowman concluded that the challenges faced by the Dutch now will be New York’s problems in less than 100 years. “And if we aren’t more prepared then, even a little 10-year storm will do devastating damage.”
A version of this article appeared in AN 10.07.2009.
After three decades of dereliction, Philip Johnsonns New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows Corona Park got a recall from limbo on September 15, when state preservation officials unanimously voted to add it to the state and national registers of historic places. The listing will help secure sorely needed funds for rehabilitation, possibly paving the way to reopen the cityys most prominent midcentury ruin. Against the backdrop of the 2016 Olympics frenzy, however, this Worldds Fair relic reminds us that long after the champagne corks and confetti are swept away, whatts left is often a legacy of boosterism and empty rhetoric rather than a viable urban future.
Completed in 1964 as one of the few architectural high points of the Worldds Fair, Johnsonns pavilion was an undeniable hit: More than six million people passed through the ensemble, which centered upon the Tent of Tomorrow,, a colorful plastic canopy pitched atop the worldds largest cable suspension roof. Below was the famous terrazzo map of New York State, based on a Texaco road atlassnow wrapped in chain-link and subject to advancing deteriorationnwhile above soared three observation towers topping out at more than 200 feet and reached by Sky Streakk elevators (now sadly inoperable). Then there was the Theaterama, the only part of the complex to have been reborn following a 1993 renovation and, this year, a $23 million expansion for the Queens Theatre in the Park. Upon the fairrs opening, no less than Ada Louise Huxtable deemed the pavilion a runaway success, day or night,, adding: This is carnivall with class..
To its credit, the Parks Department, which owns the structure, supported the historic register listing to help rescue the pavilion. (The complex is also under review as a potential city landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, though no timeline has been set for a decision.) But three decades of neglect is plainly visible to millions roaring past on the Long Island Expressway. Indeed, state officials took the exceptional step of declaring the pavilion a fragile and short-lived resource,, since it does not meet the standard listing criteria of being at least 50 years old.
Todayys Olympiad hopefuls pepper their bid books with talk of long-range planning and catalytic regeneration, but as the world gears up for another quadrennial extravaganza, consider those skeletal towers in Queens. In New Yorkkwhose own Olympic bid, of course, succumbed to rancorous debate over a white-elephant West Side stadiummwe cannt even bother to fix up a work meant to celebrate, in the words of the fairrs theme, Manns achievement on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe..
By turns pathetic and hopeful, the fate of Johnsonns monument rests now in the hands of citizen-preservationists. On October 24, Columbia Universityys Preservation Alumni are sponsoring a volunteer workday to hack back invasive species that have colonized the pavilion, pitching in to salvage its former glory (call the Parks Department at 718-760-6677 for details). Under the tattered Tent of Tomorrow, you too can help conservators collect fragments of the grand terrazzo road map, bits of which vanish with every passing day.
Context is not always fixed, and not always what you expect. A West Village carriage house that’s had the same view since the Civil War may get ultra-2009 neighbors in the space of a year. Shelter Island, often thought of as an enclave of traditional architecture, has waterfront streets where some houses were built in 1970, not 1870. And the Hamptons? Shingle Style is open to a wealth of interpretations.
These three houses, all completed within the last year, and all by up-and-coming New York City partnerships, treat their respective contexts with respect but preserve a questing spirit. There’s no blank-slate modernism—Christoff:Finio hoped to save the historic back facade of the burnt-out carriage house before adjacent construction did it in—but also no maintaining-property-values historicism. None of the architects want to admit a regard for the vernacular, but it creeps through in more abstract ways. There’s a utilitarian aspect to the carriage house befitting its historic supporting role. Both East End manses have the square footage and wood siding of the typical spec house. But their plans twist and turn to make the most of their physical context, the landscape.
“They told us, ‘We want you to work in the vernacular language of houses in Southampton, the Shingle Style, maybe Shaker architecture,’” Pablo Castro of OBRA Architects said of his Centrifugal House clients: an investment banker and a film editor. “It was an uncomfortable moment for us. We’re always trying to run away from the idea of style.” The architects were given a program that kept growing and a budget that was static. While the clients had started small, they soon realized that for resale, the house had to maximize the potential of its five-acre lot. They ended up with seven bedrooms, a four-car garage, and 8,000 total square feet.
COURTESY OBRA ARCHITECTS
Castro and partner Jennifer Lee turned to an early idea they had for the site, “the excluded middle,” a court between house and guesthouse that would channel views toward a neighboring agricultural reserve. They mashed this up with the narrow gabled communal houses of the Shakers and the oversize shingles of a Robert A.M. Stern, cranking the bar into the shape of “a donut somebody had taken a bite out of,” said Castro. “We still liked the idea of a vacant place where anything can happen. The house surrounds a void and spins out”—the centrifugal force—”toward the view.”
The clients liked everything but the curve, so the donut became faceted, with oversize dormers breaking the difficult geometries of the roof (and, to my eye, referring to the “vernacular” of the Venturis). Because of the budget, interiors had to be kept simple, but you catch a glimpse of the Shaker in the play of light on the white walls of the long, turning hall upstairs. The odd angles and extra planes created by the insertion of the dormers increase the possibilities for such effects, and the corridor, which hides the next door or window around each turn, is full of surprises rather than a long march. The house also has three custom soapstone fireplaces, hearths that add another geometry and focus to rooms that stray from the rectilinear.
Outside, OBRA Architects returned to shingles in search of a single material for roof and cladding (copper was their dream, but too expensive). “We wanted one material, one surface to give it integrity as an object,” Castro said. They ultimately chose cedar, board, and batten for the vertical walls, and shingles for the roof. Cedar was also used for the pool house, a double set of right-angle barn-like buildings, one solid, one roofed and sided in off-the-shelf garden lattice. Castro jokes that it is a “freckle machine,” but it’s also another twist on the requested traditional Hamptons architecture.
While suburban style has become fairly common on Shelter Island, you can tell from the street that the one thing the YN-13 House is not is a cookie-cutter, shingles-on-steroids McMansion. If that’s context, Michael Morris and Yoshiko Sato of Morris Sato Studio want nothing to do with it. The houses across the street from their two-acre Shelter Island site are the ambitious architecture of an earlier era—Norman Jaffe’s 1972 three-house development, in which one is Corbusian, one Wrightian, and one has the over-scaled shingle roof that came to be Jaffe’s own calling card. “That’s the one we like the best,” Morris said. For their own site, on which they are constructing two 6,000-square-foot spec houses, “we decided to make contemporary forms of our choosing, and to have them fuse into the local ecology by being part of that fabric.”
Boulders unearthed on the site will become retaining walls, and the windows that pop and pock the bleached cedar siding are oriented toward particular points of view and times of day. “In the center, we have a large cut in the volume, so what would be the darkest part of the house has direct sunlight coming in,” Sato explained. The four corners of the main floor all have doors that slide open (an oblique reference to Japanese shoji screens), allowing the landscape in and natural convection to cool the house. “That is a reference to vernacular buildings. There are systems that are useful to understand from the past, rather than stylistic ideas,” Morris said. The floors, made of Kota Brown limestone, will also retain and radiate heat, with their cleft surface suggesting a rougher natural terrain and a certain 1970s au naturel aesthetic.
courtesy morris sato studio
Like the sliding doors, the vernacular Morris and Sato reference is Japanese. The exterior siding is an adaptation of the shitami-bari used on traditional urban houses in Kyoto and Kanazawa, which Sato translates as “downward-facing boards.” The horizontal cladding combines with vertical strips, allowing Morris and Sato to integrate the module on the house’s facade with that of the standing seams on the turncoat stainless steel roof. Rather than looking like a gable, the pitched roof folds down into the house on some sides, creating the illusion of Cubist-inspired flattening. YN-13’s closest neighbor will be their so-called Soula House, which serves as a gateway in the way they have developed the land, bringing the houses closer together and leaving the rest of the site untouched. “There’s a critique of individual houses centered on one-acre lots,” Morris said. “We imagine the site as a proto-urban thing, the buildings working together.”
Christoff:Finio’s carriage house is another exemplary object within its landscape, though a minimum urban dwelling with a footprint of 20 feet by 20 feet and two floors. The architects even shaved a little more off that miniscule square footage to create an “urban garage,” a sliver of space behind a screen of flat steel ribs, each twisted 90 degrees, to provide a useful landing strip for bikes, bags, and garbage, and also a zone of privacy for a front door that originally opened directly onto Charles Lane.
The carriage house is owned by photographer Jan Staller, who lives and works in an 1860 townhouse on Charles Street that now neighbors Richard Meier’s third glassy residential tower and Asymptote’s first. Christoff:Finio had designed a penthouse and terrace for Staller to preserve his view once the Meier building was underway, so when the carriage house was gutted by fire, Staller asked them to build a two-bedroom rental unit between the existing party walls. As he now had a terrace, he no longer needed the 12-foot sliver of backyard, which was turned into part of the architects’ brief for the rental.
“What was fun for us was designing this tiny little house, but making it feel bigger,” said Martin Finio. “We took the terrazzo-ground concrete on the first floor and extended it out into the yard.” The wall-mounted kitchen also runs seamlessly from indoors to out, with teak cabinets and stainless-steel countertops. The windows are big, but for the sake of privacy (as much for landlord as for tenants), they start at the floor and extend up only four feet. The back wall is covered in unusually long slate shingles (more typically used for roofing), three feet by eight feet, which turn into operable louvers for the upstairs bedroom windows. The wall is really only visible from Staller’s townhouse, and Christoff:Finio wanted to give him something interesting to look at, as well as refer to the clapboard siding more typical on a small house. “When you get direct sun on it, the cleft edge picks up light like a line drawing,” Finio said. Since it was to be a rental, the interiors are sturdily generic: white walls, white bathroom, gray tile.
“What’s the vernacular of New York City?” Finio asked. “It’s always frothing and rebuilding. When we started building this project, we had this large glass opening on the front facade at the second level looking out at a brick warehouse. That came down, and Asymptote’s glass started up.” In other words, neighborhoods can change, tastes can change, and so can architectural context. Curtains are forever.