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Eavesdrop: Alissa Walker

TRUTHINESS IN ARCHITECTURE

On a recent episode of the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert told a tale familiar to all Eavesdrop readers: planned improvements to his studio—cue rendering of hotel-rollercoaster-waterslide-disco, set at a 45-degree angle—were hit hard by the financial slump and had to be abandoned due to lack of funding. But the economic downturn has not only put America’s most ambitious construction projects like his on hold, said Colbert, it’s completely taken the U.S. out of the running when it comes to great architecture! Naming Tom Wright’s Burg Al Arab hotel in Dubai and Norman Foster’s Crystal Island in Moscow as structures currently kicking America’s collective architectural butt, Colbert was looking for answers from someone. That person was the evening’s guest, New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger. “What are Americans even doing in the field of architecture that’s in any way exciting?” Colbert asked. “We’re doing everything because our architects are building those buildings,” said Goldberger. “So we’re making all the money off of them, we’re not wasting any money putting them up.” (Well, technically British architects are making all the money, of the two Colbert mentioned…) “We’ve got the best skyscrapers anyway,” said Goldberger, naming the Chrysler Building as “everyone’s favorite building in the world.” Uh, it’s pretty and all, but at 78-years-old, is that really the best he could come up with?

But then Colbert asked the question we’ve been waiting for someone on Comedy Central to answer all these years: How do we know what’s best when it comes to architecture? We almost fell off our La-Z-Boy in anticipation, but sadly Goldberger named the hyper-obvious Frank Gehry (“he does these amazing shapes”) and then, perplexingly, he name-checked Rem Koolhaas and his China Central Television Headquarters! Come on, Paul, you couldn’t name at least one new project that’s on American soil? We prefer Colbert’s solution for raising the profile of American architecture instead: “We need to build big buildings with high asses and huge tits!”

BYE, BYE DI!

Here’s a little shakeup from the middle of the country that has rippled all the way to the coasts: After eight years as director of the Design Institute, Janet Abrams abruptly departed the program at the University of Minnesota on June 27. In an email, Abrams announced—rather mysteriously, we must say—that she will pursue an undisclosed new chapter of her career starting in the fall. Since 2000, when Abrams became its first full-time director, the Design Institute has anchored a burgeoning Minneapolis design scene while amassing a global network of collaborators, publishing several books and a journal, holding design camps for the K-12 set, and organizing a major conferences and summits. But oddly, Abrams won’t be replaced. The Design Institute is closed, effective immediately. (Calls to her phone number at the Institute were redirected.) Although praised by the design community, a source tells us the program suffered from chronically low funding and a lack of support from the university.

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Las Vegas Is Learning
Courtesy MGM Grand Mirage

Las Vegas has become a barometer for architecture, though it’s usually a little bit behind the times. It was all glamorous modernism in the 1970s, but by the 1990s, local developers here were obsessed with postmodern fancies that brought the world close, and down to size: The Venetian had its own Grand Canal, and the Paris arrived with a scaled-down Eiffel Tower, while New York, New York went so far as to put maintenance staff in uniforms like those worn by Sanitation workers in the five boroughs. At the turn of the century, developers moved toward upscale, lifestyle-oriented resorts and boutique hotels like the Wynn and the Hotel at Mandalay Bay.

Now another shift is underway: The MGM CityCenter, still under construction, is creating iconic buildings in a dense, mixed-use environment. Believe it or not, Vegas is selling urbanism—or at least a local version of it—and taking a page from cities around the world by using big-name contemporary architects to generate interest.

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Remembering Jan Pokorny, 1914-2008

JAN HIRD POKORNY ASSOCIATES
 

Architect, preservationist, and teacher Jan Pokorny, who died on May 20, straddled not only fields, but worlds. With a sensibility shaped by history—he came from Brno, Czechoslovakia, the birthplace of Sigmund Freud and site of Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House—Pokorny impressed all with his generous cosmopolitanism in a long career spanning Prague, Detroit, and New York. AN asked two who knew him as colleague and mentor to share their impressions.

Michael Devonshire
partner and director of conservation
Jan Hird Pokorny Associates:

Jan Hird Pokorny began his architectural practice in Prague in 1937 upon graduation from Prague Polytechnic University, emigrating to the United States via Sweden after the fall of Czechoslovakia to the Germans in 1939. He then completed his master’s degree in architecture in 1941 at Columbia University, where he would later teach.

During World War II, Jan worked in Detroit as an architect for the Leo Bauer firm, converting Ford automobile factories for production of battle tanks. After the war, he spent two years with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and then established his own architectural practice in New York City in 1947, quickly branching into industrial and academic architecture and establishing himself as a nuanced architect for public and institutional structures. His first major preservation project was the restoration of Schermerhorn Row at the South Street Seaport, completed in 1983.

I joined Jan’s firm in 1986. When he asked me if I would work for him, I said yes, but that I could not start immediately. I told him I had planned a four-week trip to India, and he scrunched up his face—at this time I thought he was about to rescind his offer—then he said, “No, no, four weeks will not do”—long pause—”you must spend at least six weeks in India!”

When I began working on the Morris-Jumel mansion restoration, which had a tight schedule, I would stay late working on details, construction drawings, and specifications. In most offices, partners would typically make the rounds admonishing staff to “hurry up and get that out!” Jan came up behind me on a particular evening, and I could feel him looking over my shoulder. I braced myself for the “get it out” admonition. Instead, he very gently said, “Take as long as you wish to finish this, just make sure that it’s the best we can do.”

Until three years ago, our office was in Jan’s home and it was very similar to an atelier atmosphere, very unstructured and familial. It was the norm that at everyone’s birthday we would sit at his huge George Nakashima dining room table and have Slivovitz and cake. Often, if one arrived early, Jan would already be at his desk, but in his pajamas!

Richard M. Olcott
partner
Polshek Partnership Architects:

Jan and I spent about 11 years together on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, starting together in September 1996. At 81, he was twice my age when he started and by far the oldest of the commissioners. Nonetheless, he was possibly the most progressive of us all, consistently advocating an enlightened position drawn from a lifetime of experience. That enlightenment came in large part from Jan’s Czech background, having grown up in the famously beautiful medieval and Baroque city of Prague in a country that also has a long and strong modernist history. Jan could move among many such overlapping languages with ease, and with a profound, unfettered understanding of history, coupled with an enthusiasm for the contemporary. You could scarcely find any individual who cared more deeply about architecture, art, music, and literature, and whose manner, bearing, and dress—elegant gray suits, always with a bowtie—bespoke a truly cultured person.

Countless applicants have been the unwitting beneficiaries of that civility, and Jan was always polite and deferential even when delivering the bad news about their designs. He had a low tolerance for stylistic excess and structural inefficiency, and would unfailingly point out such glaring deficiencies and their proper resolution at the first opportunity, the teacher in him coming to the fore. This quality earned Jan the nickname “the Professor” among the commissioners; some would hold back (“Let’s see what the Professor thinks”) until Jan had pronounced the application either promising or beyond redemption. He always provided succinct, elegantly simple summations of complicated problems, on the heels of another commissioner’s long-winded bloviation. We were all guilty of that, but never him.

But the heart of the matter is this: It’s easy to dislike the Landmarks Commission, even though everyone needs it. It’s a world of sniping, know-it-all critics, pontificating architects, scheming developers, and occasionally unhinged preservationists, all with their own agendas. It’s not easy to do as Jan did: to serenely reside above the fray and get to the issues and the truth, and then find the way forward. I will miss that, and New Yorkers will too, whether they know it or not.

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New Scenery for the World's Stage
The U.N. complex comprises three principal buildings: the Secretariat tower, the domed General Assembly Hall -- built in 1949 and 1950 -- and the Dag Hammarskjold Library.
Ben Murphy

The cool modernist ensemble of United Nations buildings that Wallace K. Harrison called a “workshop for peace” will soon be a workshop for long-overdue renovations. After breaking ground last month on the northern lawn of the U.N. complex for a 175,000-square-foot concrete and steel temporary building to house U.N. conferences and the office of the secretary-general until at least 2014, U.N. officials will relocate thousands of staffers from buildings completed in 1950.

Actual work on one of the world’s most recognizable architectural ensembles comes after ten contentious years of preparation and a series of different plans for overhauling the asbestos-filled structures, which have serious leak problems and antiquated mechanical infrastructure. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, security concerns gave greater urgency to planning for any potential attack on the 18-acre site.

In 1998, the U.N. General Assembly, which represents all the organization’s 192 member states, voted to completely overhaul the buildings, which had undergone ad hoc alterations over five decades. An initial plan envisioned renovating the complex section by section while staff remained on-site, to minimize the need to pay high rents in New York’s booming real estate market. An alternate scheme would have involved building a second 35-story U.N. tower on a playground immediately south of the current ensemble. In 2001, an expanded visitors’ center was proposed under the North Lawn. The current plan relies on placing the U.N. leadership and conferences in a temporary structure on U.N. property, which will be demolished after renovation is completed, and locating most of the personnel in leased office space.

The cost for the entire six-year project, called the capital master plan, is estimated at $1.9 billion. The U.N.’s three principal buildings, designed by a team that included Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, and Wallace K. Harrison, were built in 1949 and 1950 for $65 million on land bought for $8.5 million by the Rockefeller family and then donated to the international organization. A fourth building, the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, opened in 1961.

Steven Pressler of Skanska, the construction manager, characterized the ensemble as “old, in need of a facelift,” and called the project “a big demolition job with a lot of asbestos thrown in; then building it back is almost building it like new.” Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering is the lead architect for historic preservation, and R.A. Heintges is consulting on the restoration of the curtain wall. HLW International is developing interior design guidelines and is designing the North Lawn building.

The Woodrow Wilson Reading Room, designed by Harrison, Abramovitz and Harris, holds the records of the League of Nations and is located in the Dag Hammarskjöld Library building, dedicated in 1961. Though not open to the public, the reading room, with its distinctive white pine paneling, will be carefully preserved.

“As with all institutions, the last place they wanted to put their scarce resources was in fixing up their own house, so the U.N. delayed the decision, because resources are scarce, and their mission is extremely broad, but after 9/11 it raised the priority of making this project happen,” said Michael Adlerstein, the architect who now heads the capital master plan. Adlerstein had previously been vice president of the New York Botanical Garden and was a student of George Dudley, author of the most comprehensive study of the design and construction of the U.N. Adlerstein’s predecessor, John Frederick Reuter IV, quit two years ago in frustration over the increasingly political nature of the process. “I am interested in building buildings, not ‘selling’ them,” Reuter said. “Perhaps the biggest challenge has been to convince member states, and particularly the host country, that the physical condition of the United Nations Headquarters is not a political matter." 

Selling the renovation has indeed been a challenge. The plan required the unanimous approval of the 192 U.N. member states in the General Assembly, and winning support in New York and Washington was yet another battle. In 2004, the organization held an architecture competition, restricted to Pritzker Prize winners, for a 35-story tower that would provide swing space for staff displaced during construction and eventually house U.N. offices that are now in rental buildings, at below-market rents, controlled by a public firm called the United Nations Development Corporation. Richard Meier, one of those considered, dropped out of the running, calling the cramped First Avenue site inappropriate for a building of that scale. (He subsequently designed four towers nearby on the East River waterfront for the developer Sheldon Solow; these are still in the approvals stage.) The commission was awarded to Fumihiko Maki of Japan, whose sleek grey column was chosen over entries by Foster + Partners and Herzog & de Meuron.









FROM TOP: THE MAP ROOM, WITH ITS RETRO-LOOKING FLAT FILES, IS STILL OF VITAL USE TO SETTLE TERRITORIAL DISPUTES; A RECEPTION ROOM THAT HAS ALREADY BEEN UPDATED WITH A MORE CONTEMPORARY DECOR; CONFERENCE ROOM NO. 5 WILL BE COMPLETELY RENOVATED; THE SADLY OUTMODED BROADCASTING CONTROL ROOM WILL ALSO RECEIVE AN OVERHAUL.
 

The site, however, was a concrete patch called the Robert Moses Playground, and construction required a vote by the New York State Senate to enable “alienation” of parkland, even though the plan provided for a riverbank esplanade of comparable size in exchange. The local New York City Council member, Dan Garodnick, points out that his district has the least parkland in the city.

Elected officials found that attacking the U.N. was even more effective than attacking the French. At the end of 2004, the State Senate delayed a vote, citing a history of unpaid parking tickets by U.N. personnel, alleged anti-semitism, and opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “I view Mr. [Kofi] Annan’s stonewalling on the release of oil-for-food documents to Congress as a potential cover-up for corruption and will use it as leverage to deny passage of state legislation,” vowed State Senator Martin Golden in a letter to the New York Times in January 2006. Golden carried the day. The matter never came to a vote, despite support from Mayor Bloomberg, then-governor George Pataki, and the Bush administration. “It was politics, pure politics,” said Edward Rubin, an architect who chairs the Land Use Committee of Community Board 6 in Manhattan.

In 2005, the ever-opinionated Donald Trump weighed in. After building his Trump World Tower on a site overlooking the complex, he was contacted by the Swedish delegation for some informal advice. He testified before the International Security Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate, and suggested that the U.N. sell its East River campus and use the profits to create a new building on the site of the former World Trade Center. Trump also offered to renovate the original East Side buildings himself for $300 million, warning that U.N. costs (which he said would rise to $3 billion) had been inflated by internal “corruption and incompetence.” Part of the problem, he added, was that the organization would be extorted for short-term office space by New York landlords—”There is no worse human being on Earth, okay?” Trump said. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan urged Trump to bid on the project, but he never filed a bid. “He would only do it if the U.N. were to have offered it to him, and under the rules of procurement, it would be literally impossible to source a project of this size to a single vendor,” said Adlerstein.

Some critics even wondered whether the iconic buildings were worth preserving. “I always found this futurist architectural experiment tacky,” said former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, who was frustrated in his effort to link U.S. support for the renovation to a general reform of the U.N.’s procurement process. “I found the General Assembly [building] to be vaguely fascist,” he added.

Even those who admire its architecture still call the complex a firetrap. In testimony before Congress in 2005, a U.N. official predicted that a serious explosion at the U.N. would spray asbestos throughout the neighborhood. And since it doesn’t even have a sprinkler system, the U.N. fails to meet New York City fire code.

Most of the renovation work, when completed, will be invisible to the visitor, said Adlerstein, although the sleek wood-paneled Security Council Chamber and the General Assembly will get interiors that are closer to their original bright colors than today’s muted seating. Since the manufacturers of some original materials are no longer in business, and certain woods used in conference rooms came from endangered species, approximations will be made, architects say.

The dramatic change will be in the east and west facades of the Secretariat tower. The leaking, corroded aluminum curtain wall will be removed to replace decaying surfaces and increase its energy efficiency. In the process, a layer of thermal film between the double-pane windows will also be stripped. “The original building was sans film, and had a cooler look. The film underneath the curtain wall had a bluish tint. After removing that film, the building will look more silvery and more transparent,” said Steven Pressler of Skanska.

Transparency—both literal and figurative—has always been an issue at the U.N. Surfing through U.N.-related chat on the web reveals the persistent view that the U.N. belongs to the “why pay less” school. Yet Adlerstein notes that by emptying each building before renovation, the project cut two years off of construction and saved $100 million, which will cover swing space rent in Manhattan and Queens. Additional savings come from the U.N.’s exemption from sales tax. Contrary to Mr. Trump’s belief, the project, he stressed, “was never a runaway train. It was a stalled train. The concern was that it wasn’t moving fast enough.”

But not so fast as to outrun auditors, Adlerstein explained, noting that value-engineering is still in progress. “We are being audited by several different groups at all times… Each member state is entitled to audit us and several do,” he said. “We have eternal audits.” With luck, though, diplomacy will carry the day.

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Shop-ing at the Seaport
Courtesy SHoP

Though it has one of the city’s iconic postcard views, the South Street Seaport falls into that category of attractions that many New Yorkers confess they rarely visit, much like the top of the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. Yet Lower Manhattan is undergoing enormous changes, from the growth of the residential district around Wall Street, the planned transit hub at Fulton Street, to, of course, the World Trade Center site, so the Seaport’s leaseholder, General Growth Properties (GGP), has just announced a proposal to transform the area. The plan involves rebuilding much of the 19th-century structure of Pier 17 and replacing the 1982 enclosed mall with a series of smaller retail, hotel, and event buildings arranged around several public open spaces and promenades.

According to Gregg Pasqarelli of SHoP, the firm hired to design the project, SHoP and GGP wanted to conceive of the new Seaport not as a distinct megaproject but as the extension of a neighborhood. “The festival marketplace was just right for its time, and was the cutting edge of preservationist thinking,” he explained. “Today, the city as a whole is a festival marketplace, and you don’t need to seal off parts anymore. If [original developer] Rouse were to approach the city today with the same project, I’m not sure they’d get approval.”

GGP approached SHoP after seeing its work on the surrounding city-commissioned East River Waterfront plan, which was initially released in February of last year. One feature of that plan is the construction of retail and community buildings underneath the FDR drive, currently not much more than a dark parking lot for buses. These are in turn incorporated into the thinking and design for the GGP Seaport project, in order to create a more coherent and integrated approach to the waterfront.

SHoP's proposal for the South Street Seaport includes a 42-story, 495-foot tower and a public plaza approximately the size of Bryant Park.

The scope of SHoP’s design is significant, and includes both new—and very contemporary—construction, as well as the restoration and move of the Tin Building, the last remaining structure with historical interest on the site of the Fulton Fish Market. Though it has been mostly gutted and incorporated into the 1983 shopping mall, the structure would be restored to the extent possible on the exterior, then moved into the historic district on Pier 17. A 286-room hotel and 78-unit residential building would go up on its site. While the tower’s floor-area-ratio of 17 is as-of-right, it rises 495 feet instead of the permissible 350. Pasquarelli explained that they decided to build taller to maximize surrounding open space and to reduce bulk and maintain views. There is also likely to be some affordable housing in the mix: Project manager Thorsten Kiefer said that one possibility would be to create a mix of affordable and market-rate housing in the restored buildings on Schermerhorn Row, though that plan is still in the germinal phase.

The tower’s design is striking. Three stacked glass volumes are enclosed in an open, lattice-like exoskeletal mesh. (Note to would-be climbers: Each diamond-shaped opening in the structure spans several floors, so it won’t be easy to clamber up.) Pasquarelli described the exoskeleton as loosely inspired by the patterns of the old fishing nets once so prevalent there, but more than that, as a contemporary reinterpretation of the waterfront technologies of pier, cable, and mast.

Like any major project, the GGP/SHoP proposal will face a series of regulatory hurdles, including the Uniform Land Use Review Process, or ULURP, approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the New York City Arts Commission, Community Board 1, and the Department of City Planning. David Vermillion, a spokesperson for GGP, explained that the company is well aware of the enormous efforts of various city agencies to improve the quality of and access to the waterfront, and decided that the time was right to reimagine their stake in it, approaching SHoP specifically in order to coordinate efforts.

Vermillion and GGP may be on to something, because for the last several years, now-former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff staunchly advocated the development of a harbor district, which would include Ellis Island, Governors Island, the revitalized East River Waterfront, Battery Park City, and Brooklyn Bridge Park, and be connected via ferry service. That vision of the waterfront as an integrated and accessible whole is a compelling one, but will need the support and participation from the private sector as well. Pasquarelli, for one, is cautiously hopeful: “It is really extraordinary to see a situation like this, where the city is putting energy and money into reconnecting people to the waterfront, and a private company has decided to join in.” 

Mr. Ross's Neighborhood

When The Related Companies swept in to negotiate with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for a 99-year ground lease over the agency’s West Side railyards just days after the winning bidder Tishman Speyer Properties had pulled out, the developer hadn’t had time to tweak its proposal to reflect a changed team. But CEO Stephen Ross told reporters that his company, with Goldman Sachs and other investors backing it, would build towers around straightforward connections from an existing waterfront park, an emerging elevated park, and a planned grand boulevard. Or, as Ross put it, “a great New York neighborhood,” seen through the prism of current planning.

The Related proposal, which no longer has an anchor tenant, includes 440 units of affordable housing (out of 5,500 overall, including condos and townhouses) and a new school. It nods to widespread concerns about maintaining the city’s infrastructure by proposing two cogeneration plants beneath its towers. And it provides public space by focusing on three linear parks: the existing Hudson River Park to the west, the emerging High Line to the south and east, and the planned Hudson Boulevard to the north. Gone, at least from public display at the press conference, is the media-heavy “MySpace Pavilion” that the developer presented last fall when bidders showed off drawings in a Midtown storefront. That idea evaporated when Related lost News Corporation as an anchor tenant in late winter.

“We’re going to have to revisit the plan and adjust it,” said Ross, “but the most important part will be creating a great space and a great park for a great New York neighborhood.”

This is not a team inclining toward risk with a $1 billion investment that requires a $2 billion platform. Instead of the drama of something like the suspension-bridge meadow that Steven Holl designed for Extell Development’s failed bid, the document describes “the look, texture, and feel of a traditional New York neighborhood…with taller, denser buildings around a formal plaza and declining in height and density to the west.”

And instead of Chicago’s Murphy/Jahn leading the masterplanning, Related has named architects who know the territory. Kohn Pedersen Fox, which worked on plans for the Jets stadium that the city proposed for the site in 2003, takes the lead. Other players are Robert A.M. Stern Architects, whose headquarters overlook the site from West 34th Street, and Miami’s Arquitectonica, which designed the Westin Hotel on Eighth Avenue. The wildcard, Amsterdam-based landscape fantasists West 8, are learning the local ropes as designers of Governors Island—another long-delayed project for which Ross’ onetime business partner Dan Doctoroff emerged as a design champion.

As for worries about how to connect the neighborhood to the rest of Manhattan, Ross and MTA negotiator Gary Dellaverson were all smiles at the press conference. Dellaverson insisted that the city “has committed to borrowing [money]” to create a boulevard and extend the 7 subway line into the site: if the 7 extension fails to materialize by 2015, Related gets to suspend rent payments to the MTA.

“Certainly transportation is a key element,” Ross told reporters. “But we’ve been assured that the 7 line will be delivered for this project.”

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Slips Ahoy
The terminal's glass enclosures protect riders from the elements while keeping views open.
Courtesy W&W Glass

On Saturday, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey finally tugged its World Financial Center ferry terminal off of the East 39th Street pier in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where it was being assembled, and towed it to a dedicated anchor point off the Battery Park City esplanade. The five-slip, floating terminal, which began life in a Texas ship yard, is currently undergoing finishing work before a projected opening later this summer, some two years later than originally scheduled. 


 


AARON SEWARD

At its new HOME in Battery Park City (top), the terminal's amenities will include gangway separations for arriving and departing passengers (above), restrooms, and concession kiosks.
 

In addition to finishing late, the price tag on the project exceeded expectations. Total construction costs came to $50 million, up $10 million from the originally budgeted $40 million. BillyBey Ferry Company, which bailed NY Waterway out of financial trouble in 2005 by purchasing half of the company’s boats and routes, will operate and maintain the terminal.

Though ferry traffic to lower Manhattan has dropped off drastically since the post-9/11 glut, when disabled PATH service forced commuters from New Jersey to find other means of transportation, the Port Authority expects the number of riders to increase with the completion of the Goldman Sachs headquarters and the rest of the World Trade Center office towers. The temporary facility currently handles an average of 7,400 weekday passenger trips. The new terminal, which boasts a 22,000-square-foot waiting area, has the ability to handle up to 16,000 passengers an hour. The facility also includes additional seating and improved lighting. As Port Authority officials told AN in 2006, a central goal for the project was to keep it as transparent as possible, so as not to obstruct views of the water.

Comment: A Shaken Neighborhood

When we residents of Yorkville said the crane on East 91st Street would probably kill us one day, it wasn’t something we actually expected to happen. More of a sick joke, really: “Yeah, one day it’ll probably crush a bunch of people, like that one farther downtown.” We’d laugh sardonically and keep walking, figuring it unlikely for such a disaster to happen twice. 

That Friday, I left my apartment near 90th and First at 7:50 a.m.—barely ten minutes before the collapse. Once I heard the news at work, I spent the morning in fevered unproductivity, refreshing Curbed and the Times every few minutes looking for details. Which buildings were damaged? Was anyone hurt? Information came in contradictory bursts: two people were killed, then only one, then two again. My apartment was spared, but the buildings on two sides were emptied as a precaution—I avoided homelessness by fewer than fifty feet.

As a refugee of 475 Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, evicted without warning on a frigid January night only months earlier, I sympathized with the displaced tenants of 354 East 91st Street and nearby apartments. That startling moment when the future evaporates, the mind lasers in on immediate concerns: “Who owns a comfortable couch?” and “For how long can I sleep there?” My own sudden homelessness was the reason I moved uptown in the first place, where I assumed structures would be safer.

It was dark when I returned from work that Friday, when I rounded the corner of First Avenue and 86th Street and stepped into a blindingly lit, but eerily quiet, disaster zone. Spotlights and the spinning red flashes from emergency vehicles illuminated the adjacent buildings, where NYPD officers perched to watch the recovery operation.

The following day, I watched four boys play touch football in the middle of First Avenue, the end zones marked by metal crowd-control barriers at either cross street. The avenue remained desolate for days, as if waiting on a morbid parade that never showed up. It is still partially blocked while the investigation continues, and a nearby wine shop and a soccer store have been shuttered all week. 

But for those of us who didn’t lose family or our homes, the strangeness quickly passed. My roommate said he knew normalcy had returned when the taxis, impatient as ever, resumed honking at First Avenue’s newly bottlenecked traffic. Mayor Bloomberg may have displayed shocking insensitivity by saying, “We’re not going to tolerate any rate of accidents any higher than it has to be.” But if a collapsing real-estate market barely slows the skyward race to build new condos, many people suspect that two additional casualties will not stop it either. And at least the construction industry is grumpily accepting the need for greater oversight.

For the moment, many of us rest secure knowing that, when it comes to construction accidents, our neighborhood will probably be the safest in the city for some time. After all, it cannot possibly happen again. Right?

For Buildings Commissioner, Demand the Real Thing

Yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn introduced more than a dozen pieces of legislation targeted at reforming the beleaguered Department of Buildings. Much of the legislation had been introduced last month, prior to last Friday’s crane accident, but among the new initiatives was one of great concern for the city’s designers and for its residents as a whole.

The administration has been trying for some months to alter the requirement that the Buildings Commissioner be a professional engineer or registered architect. The mayor contends that it provides necessary flexibility for running a bureaucracy of the city’s own making, and the mainstream press has begun to agree with him.

As architects and engineers well know, this is fallacious logic, writes Fredric Bell, executive director of AIA New York, in a Protest column in our forthcoming issue. AN presents his argument in full below.

There are 41,000 professional engineers (PEs) and registered architects (RAs) in New York State. One of them should be the next commissioner of the New York City Buildings Department, replacing Patricia Lancaster, an architect who resigned in April.

Some in New York’s City Hall are questioning whether a professional license is needed or even desirable to effectively run the largest and most complex buildings bureaucracy in the country. In answer, architects and engineers have sent mailbags full of letters and emails to the City Council chambers to explain why—with safety concerns on our sidewalks paramount—now is not the time to relax the professional qualifications needed for this difficult job.

Noting that the Surgeon General must be a doctor, and that the Architect of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., should be an architect (although that, too, is currently being questioned by a congressional oversight committee), registered architects and professional engineers were heard chanting “No PEs, no justice” on the steps of City Hall in late May. The commissioner of the Department of Buildings must have the knowledge and experience that comes from being a registered architect or professional engineer. The current city law, which requires this level of tested expertise, is both logical and necessary.

Members of the Council’s Governmental Operations Committee heard many of the reasons why the head of the agency that guarantees safety on construction sites must be trained and tested in how buildings come together, how they rise, and how they stand. The process by which an architect or engineer becomes licensed by the state of New York is arduous, arguably harder than passing the state bar exam. It tests comprehensive knowledge of codes, zoning, building practices, and environmental standards, to name but four of the many constituent issues that are important in neighborhoods from Co-op City to Gravesend, from Midwood to Central Harlem, from Ozone Park to East New York.

Professional architects and engineers have an unparalleled combination of education, on-the-job training, licensure, and professional experience that makes them uniquely qualified to ensure the safety and security of the public. Professional architects and engineers understand the integration of structural, technological, and life-safety elements into buildings to assure their usefulness. Through their training and practice, they are capable of balancing the requirements of building codes with the goals of historic preservation, energy efficiency, sustainability, and accessibility.

In addition to technical training, architects and engineers, by law, are personally responsible for their work and have a fiduciary responsibility to maintain the health, safety, and welfare of the public. As licensed professionals, architects and engineers bring to the task a special degree of commitment crucial to the position of buildings commissioner.

This year, after long deliberations, New York City brought a new and modern building code to fruition, replacing rules mired in 19th-century construction practices. At the same time, in many neighborhoods, people have questioned whether some of the taller buildings going up fit into the context of their communities, and whether development pressures and the city’s double-digit growth have led in some instances to deliberate misinterpretation of zoning regulations. We need an architect or engineer at the head of the department who will interpret and enforce the city’s zoning codes, guaranteeing that political pressures and expediency do not engender neighborhood-busting mistakes.

Mayor Bloomberg’s administration and his friends in the City Council have pushed for progressive reform of Buildings Department operations, enforcement, and communications, insisting that building practices be forcefully regulated and made more transparent. The former commissioner, Ms. Lancaster, to her credit, got Buildings Department records out of dusty boxes and posted on the city’s website for all to see. We need an architect or engineer at the head of the department who will provide our communities appropriate scale and comfort, someone who knows about the economic and material determinants of buildings, not just how to manage a large and complicated bureaucracy.

Most importantly, through a wide variety of environmental initiatives including PlaNYC, our elected officials have insisted that New York City attain a greener future and carbon-footprint reduction by, among other things, regulating building materials and construction processes. An architect or engineer at the head of the department will enforce these laws—not just spout greenwash rhetoric—and assure our children and our children’s children that future buildings will help, not hurt, the environment.

There are some, though, in City Hall who insist that the business of New York is business; that any agency, any department, can be run like a Fortune 500 company. They say that good management skills are more important than mere credentials, stale tradition, or a philosophy that knowledge matters. They are half right. This is not about tradition, or a return to the bow-tied past. This is not about credentials or elitism or silly glasses. This is all about professionalism, and the knowledge needed for the person heading the Buildings Department to make the tough decisions when there is nobody else to call, nobody else to consult.

You would not want your kids treated by doctors who learned their medical skills by watching Grey’s Anatomy on television, nor public defenders and district attorneys who learned their legal skills from reading John Grisham novels. You want the real thing for a Health Commissioner and for the public counsel. Just so, you would not want the person who oversees all aspects of zoning, site safety, and the quality of construction in our city to have borrowed his or her word choice from management case studies at Harvard Business School or Brooklyn College.

We need the real thing for our Buildings Commissioner. And New York needs a Buildings Commissioner who not only knows how the government operates, but how buildings stand up.

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Park Problem
Historic Sutter's Fort in Sacramento
Robert English

Although it’s charged with protecting monuments like historic Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento (pictured), the entire California state park system has been listed as one of 11 endangered sites by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The annual list, which has brought attention to over 200 locations since 1988, names places known for their architectural, historical or cultural significance that are in danger of destruction or damage.

Chronic underfunding currently plagues the parks system with only 40% of annual operating costs covered. Extreme budget cuts, including a $13.3 million slash by Governor Schwarzenegger earlier this year ($11.8 million of which was restored in May) have resulted in over $1.2 million in maintenance deferment, which not only ignores proper care of historic buildings, but also structures like campground facilities, many of which have yet to be modernized. California’s is the largest state park system in the country with 278 parks covering 1.5 million acres and 295 miles of oceanfront.

The 2008 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places (in
alphabetical order):


Boyd Theatre, Philadelphia, Pa.

California's State Parks

Charity Hospital and the adjacent neighborhood, New Orleans, La.

Great Falls Portage, Great Falls, Mont.

Hangar One, Moffett Field, Santa Clara County, Calif.

The Lower East Side, New York City

Michigan Avenue Streetwall, Chicago, Ill.

Peace Bridge Neighborhood, Buffalo, N.Y.

The Statler Hilton Hotel, Dallas, Tx.

Sumner Elementary School, Topeka, Kan.

Vizcaya and the Bonnet House, Fla.

 

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Unveiled: Beekman Tower
Frank Gehry's 76-story Beekman Tower will be among the latest to rival the Woolworth Building on the Lower Manhattan skyline.
Artefactory/Courtesy Forest City Ratner Companies

At a sparsely attended press conference today, near the busy construction site, Frank Gehry talked up his first Manhattan residential tower, a structure that is already two stories out of the ground on Spruce Street near City Hall Park.

The event had been cancelled out of respect for the fallen crane on the Upper East Side, but a few journos still showed up for the white-glove event, where mini-burgers, filet mignon crudités, and even cotton candy were served. Ensconced near a table of chiseled Plexiglas models showing the family of reject towers, Gehry seemed more interested in the appetizers than the main event: himself and Beekman Tower.

Renderings depict a gleaming, stainless steel–clad skyscraper of the old school with muscular—almost six-pack-style—undulations rolling up its 76-story sides and setbacks that, Gehry said, “respect the New York building type.” In spite of the shiny envelope, the 1.1-million-square-foot Beekman Tower is not all luxury: the 903 studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments (from 500 square feet to 1,600 square feet) are all market-rate rentals, a rarity among new buildings in Manhattan. Gehry said that he would have liked to use titanium, but it seems that the wonder material is too fragile for New York window-washing equipment. A six-story industrial brick podium (Gehry said to think “Starrett-Lehigh”) will include space for a 630-student public school for grades Pre-K through 3; offices for doctors from New York Downtown Hospital; and 1,300 square feet of retail, for dry cleaners and drug stores, not Jean Georges and Chanel. Two plazas on William and Nassau streets will be landscaped by Field Operations. Gehry himself is still working out the details of the kitchen and bath designs, and the lobby will be beribboned with signature wavy bits of steel, reminding residents that they are indeed renting a real Gehry.

As questions about the tower petered out—Gehry himself said there was no architectural derring-do, just “a typical T-shaped apartment block and very efficient”—the conversation picked up when the architect answered a newsgal’s question about “green” with a spirited rejection of eco-friendly fashion. Features like gray water were often just a gimmick, he said, adding that photovoltaics were too ugly and expensive to use all the time.

Asked about his friend and developer Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, and whether he would ever pull out, Gehry declaimed loudly: No! He did admit, however, that he was taking the long view on a project that might require 20 years to complete. “And I am 79 years old,” he added. “So who knows what that means?”

Architect: Frank O. Gehry
Client/Developer: Forest City Ratner Companies
Location: 8 Spruce Street
Completion: 2011

Gallery: Beekman Tower

all images artefactory/courtesy Forest City Ratner unless otherwise noted

Oh, what might have been: Frank Gehry's study models on display at the Beekman Tower unveiling.
Julie V. Iovine

 

 

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Not Again
The damage done.
All Photos by Matt Chaban 

There is no question that today’s crane accident—the second in about as many months, leading to the 14th and 15th construction fatalities so far this year—is a horrible tragedy. And yet from his remarks today at the site of the collapse, Mayor Michael Bloomberg seemed to be suggesting that what happened was merely the cost of doing business.

“Keep in mind construction will always be a dangerous business,” Bloomberg said at a press briefing only a few hundred feet from the tangled mess of debris that lay broken in the intersection of First Avenue and East 91st Street. “Now two crane collapses may look like a pattern, but there is no reason to believe so. We have to have a balance [between safety and expediency] to be able to build in this city.”

Two days earlier, the Department of Buildings released [.PDF] “Revised Protocols for Erecting and Dismantling (Including Jumping) Tower Cranes.” It was a revision of new regulations put in place on March 25, following the first crane accident ten days earlier. The thing is, it did not help much. As Robert LiMandri, the acting commissioner of the increasingly beleaguered DOB, said earlier this morning, all protocols had been followed.

“There was a pre-installation meeting of all the parties concerned, that was on 4/17,” LiMandri told the press. “Three days later, erection began, and department engineers and inspectors were on hand as the crane went up on 4/20 and 4/21. The crane was jumped twice, on 4/22 and 4/27, and it was inspected both times by our engineers.” A flurry of questions followed, the refrain remained, “We’ll have to look into that.”

Everyone—an army of officials and politicians, hordes of local, national, and international reporters, and onlookers both from within the damaged building, 354 East 91st Street, and without—were left scratching their heads. If everything was up to code, then what went wrong?

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer was short on explanations but long on solutions. “I think the Buildings commissioner has done a good job, but he needs more help,” Stringer told AN, just as a woman passed by wearing a dust mask. “We need to have an agency-wide strike force to address these persistent issues.”

Many who lived in the building wore masks in an apparent state of constant fear, or at least uneasiness. One woman, who gave her name simply as Carrie and was leaving the scene with her boyfriend, said that when they felt the building, 354 East 91st Street, shudder from their bedroom on the 18th floor, they immediately knew the cause. “We stare every day out our window at that thing,” she said, referring to the crane. “We used to wave to the guy in the cab. We all knew it was only a matter of time before it came down.”

Another woman, who lives on the seventh floor and was wearing a Princeton ’94 baseball cap, took a slightly more sardonic view of the situation. “I look at it like in The World According to Garp,” she said. “You know, where the plane flies into the building, and he says, ‘We have to live there. It’ll never happen again.’” She added that her biggest concern was making sure her pets and those of her neighbors were okay.

While the deaths of the two construction workers is terrible news, it is also fortunate the accident was not more devastating, like March's, which destroyed an entire five-story walk-up and killed seven. At one point, LiMandri was quick to point out that the crane spared busy First Avenue and countless lives as a result. Then again, and for the second time, it also spared the building that led to the accident.

Tony Avella, the Queens City Council member and frequent critic of the Department of Buildings and the Bloomberg administration, said in a phone interview that nothing had changed since the last accident, and he remains skeptical that it ever will.

“We have to send a message to the construction companies and the developer that we’re not going to stand for this anymore,” said Avella, a candidate for mayor for whom development reform is at the heart of his candidacy. “I don’t know what else to do at this point. I really think we just have to shut everything down. Shut them down until they can prove that this will never happen again.”

Such a proposal could be considered anathema to the development-first Bloomberg administration, but that is pretty much what happened, when LiMandri requested that all tower cranes forgo work over the weekend, with all Kodiak models—the same as the one that fell today—ceasing indefinitely. He also called an emergency meeting of industry leaders for tomorrow morning.

Before he arrived on the scene, Mayor Bloomberg was hosting his weekly radio show. While discussing the accident, he declared, "Nobody wants this economy to grow more than me, but we’re not going to kill people." Maybe there is hope for change after all.

Matt Chaban

The streets surrounding 335 East 91st Street, a development known as the Azure, were swarming with emergency responders after the cab of a crane working on the project fell into a neighboring building, 354 East 91st Street.
 
A half-dozen news helicopters were dispatched to survey the damage.
 
Across the street, two inspectors have a look of their own.