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Westward Ho!


COURTESY WEST 8/ROGERS MARVEL, ET AL.

On December 19, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Governor Eliot Spitzer announced that the team of West 8 / Rogers Marvel Architects / Diller Scofidio + Renfro / Quennell Rothschild / SMWM will design the 90 acres of open space on Governors Island. The design will begin the island’s transformation from a disused harbor site to a recreational magnet between the booming Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts. Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff said that once complete, the public spaces will lure visitors from “across the water to experiences [they] could not have anywhere else in the world.” 

West 8, a Dutch firm that has completed similar restoration jobs in Toronto, Utrecht, and Madrid, beat four finalists to create a grand waterfront promenade and trio of public parks on the stretch of the island closest to Manhattan. Field Operations, Hargreaves Associates, REX’s New York office, and WRT led other bids; the REX bid, which proposed a grid of developable lots, drew buzz for its unsentimental take on the broad economic challenges facing the island’s transformation. 

The West 8 scheme focuses on converting the midrise barracks currently on the site into a hilly landscape of rubble and on creating what principal Adriaan Geuze called a “warm enclosure” of 90 acres with a botanic garden behind a 2.2-mile promenade. Geuze drew some notoriety by arriving at a public design presentation this past summer astride a wooden bicycle, but the team’s original idea of providing 2,000 similar bikes for free use by visitors has slipped off the agenda. 

So, for now, have questions about how the improved landscape will encourage private investment for a fuller restoration of the island. The Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC) issued a Request For Proposals for large-scale development plans in February 2006, but after considering the submissions, deemed them financially unfeasible and decided to go forth with the public spaces first (AN 04_03.08.2006, “A Lift for Governors Island”). The New York Harbor School, a public high school currently in Bushwick, was the sole proposal GIPEC approved; it will relocate to the island in fall 2008 or 2009. 

At the announcement, officials talked all about beauty and recreation: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who represents Lower Manhattan, praised the selection for promising green space to an area where “recreation is in short supply.” Both Doctoroff and Lieutenant Governor David Paterson said the public space could match legendary urban parks in Luxembourg, Sweden, and Singapore. 

“As beautiful and expansive as [those parks] are,” said Doctoroff, “Governors Island has the potential to outshine them. If you don’t believe me, walk up to the top of one of those buildings that will be demolished and turned into hills and see the 360-degree views.” 

For the next two years, such views will remain accessible only via scheduled summertime visits while the team prepares a design and GIPEC oversees an environmental impact study. Any eventual full-scale development would follow a Request For Proposals to academic, research, and philanthropic organizations. 

Officials hope the park planning will fix Governors Island in New Yorkers’ consciousness and provide a focus for what Doctoroff calls an emerging “Harbor District” linking Hudson River Park, the planned South Street esplanade and pier playgrounds, the East River Park, and Brooklyn Bridge Park. (Gregg Pasquarelli, whose firm SHoP Architects is masterplanning both the public East River work and the South Street Seaport, served as a juror for GIPEC.) Doctoroff promised that GIPEC, whose chairmanship he will soon cede to Lower Manhattan Development Corporation chief Avi Schick, would reach out to “community residents and other stakeholders” for input on modifications to the design. 

And broader realities, from the city’s crowded political agenda to the complexity of upgrading the island’s infrastructure and transit links, may challenge the whimsy that design jurors praised. But Geuze seems serious about the patience and political savvy his job will require, which means that the wooden bikes may be back. “We need an iconic element to stay in people’s minds in the first years,” he told AN. “It could be a festival that people remember, but maybe bikes could be the draw. It’s simple and pragmatic.” 

Hoist Me Up

At the Engineering Transparency conference at Columbia University in September, Laurie Hawkinson, of Smith-Miller+Hawkinson Architects, quipped that with all the glass we are using these days, how will we ever clean it? Her discussion of window washing began and ended there, but the comment revealed an issue that is a growing concern for architects around the world. As buildings use more glazing and become more complex in form, the systems for accessing their facades—not just for cleaning, but also for repair—have had to keep pace. Not that there have been any major revolutions in access technologies, but architects, one hopes, are taking facade access into consideration much earlier in the design process: If you can build that bravely curved or drastically angled envelope, you had better know how to get up there to keep it looking handsome (in an economically feasible way) throughout the life of the building.

Facade access technology has remained basically the same for the past 40 or 50 years. As was done in the time of the Seagram Building, you still hang a basket over the edge of the parapet, drop it down on ropes, and haul it back up. But two things have changed. For one, never-before-seen building profiles and rooftops crowded with mechanical systems have challenged facade access engineers to fit their machines within tighter spaces while pushing them to attain spans of over 100 feet and drops in excess of 1,000 feet. And secondly, this pushing of the envelope (along with code changes) has brought about a convergence of the systems used in the United States and those employed in other countries.

As with many aspects of the building industry, facade access technology developed along different lines in the United States than it did in Europe. This divergence in approach centered on one essential point: Where to put the hoist that raises and lowers the basket? In Europe they favored mounting the hoist on the roof of the building and powering descent and lift from there, whereas here, with our love of individualism and need to be in control, we decided to put the hoist right in the basket.

Both methods have their virtues, of course, and are suitable for a variety of applications. The machinery for self-powered baskets, for example, is quite a bit cheaper than its roof-mounted counterpart. But roof-mounted systems have become more sophisticated and versatile—employing cranes with telescoping booms and articulating heads—capable of reaching 100 percent of a building’s envelope no matter how curvaceous it may be. This factor alone has made these systems a necessity for much of today’s architecture. A quick glance around the recently completed high-profile buildings in New York, including the Hearst Tower, InterActive Corp’s headquarters, and The New York Times Building, will reveal a spate of these European devices. The roof-mounted systems are also more suitable for tall buildings since they store all excess rope, wire, or other necessary tools on the roof. Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) code states that rope cannot dangle beneath the window cleaning platform, meaning that self-powered systems must hold all excess rope on the basket. And when an elevation is very high, the amount of rope it will take to reach all the way down can begin to outweigh the lifting capacity of standard hoists.

Someone very recently noticed this problem and, despite the grumblings of the penny-pinching American building market, decided to do something about it. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) A120.1-2006 Revised Standard demands that buildings in excess of 490 feet use a system where the hoist is anchored on the rooftop. Of course, the vast majority of buildings going up across the country are well under 490 feet, and the codes that govern facade access, like most codes in the building industry, are self-enforcing and loosely policed. Furthermore, where there is one code that demands you do the utmost, there is another that allows you to put forth the least amount of effort, not to mention upfront capital cost. The International Window Cleaning Association (IWCA) I-14 Safety Standard allows buildings under 300 feet tall to employ boatswain’s, or bosun’s, chairs—basically a plank dangling from a rope on which a window washer sits.

In fairness, the IWCA standard was targeted at building owners who were not equipping their roofs with any system, an all too common phenomenon that led to workers tying off to vent pipes and then falling to their deaths. Liability concerns aside, facade access consultants, as a rule, do not recommend bosun’s chairs. “Facade access isn’t just about window washing, but about building maintenance,” said Keenan Potter of Lerch Bates, one of the country’s largest facade access consulting firms. “In bosun’s chairs you can’t replace glass, just wash windows.” His point is an important one for those who think about the life cycle of buildings. While expensive, the price of sophisticated facade access systems is nominal when compared to overall building costs. And they get even cheaper when you consider that in 15 to 20 years, when your mullions begin to leak, you won’t have to cover your building in scaffolding just to patch it up.

Eavesdrop: Anne Guiney

DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC CRITICISM
We are mere footmen in the hallowed halls where architecture criticism is practiced, but this has never stopped us from grumbling about the generally ho-hum nature of so much of what we read. Where’s the fire, the brimstone? To the ramparts, mes amis! Épatez les blowhards! We were thus delighted to see that the magic circle has opened just enough to admit none other than David Byrne, he of the Talking Heads and King of Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade. Welcome, dear sir! On the very day that the New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff gave readers an ambivalent walk-through of his employer’s shiny new tower, Byrne did the same on his blog journal.davidbyrne.com, but from the flaneur’s street-level view. His entry shows that the citizen-critic is off to a roaring start, and is underwhelmed, to say the least: “The Gray Lady gets a punk haircut, is how I would characterize it.” He proceeds to ponder the changing nature of news (hurrah, Wikipedia!) and writes, “I can’t help but look at this new skyscraper and think, ‘They sure are optimistic ‘bout print journalism.’” Meanwhile in Midtown…

ALL THE CLICHÉ THAT'S FIT TO PRINT
As we idled our way through the Sunday paper a few weeks ago, we stumbled on a 16-page advertorial section devoted to the glories of, you guessed it, the New York Times building! As we read storylets with snazzy titles like “West Side Story,” “Taking Care of Business,” and “The Media is the Message,” we grew ever more puzzled. We’re all for tooting our own horn, but who was this supposed to convince? And what, exactly, were they selling? Newspapers are great? The Times is forward-thinking? Midtown is cool? Overwhelmed by these questions, we quickly took refuge in the Sunday Styles section, where all was right in the world: Ivy Leaguers still marry Ivy Leaguers, and expensive handbags are still really, really important.

GUTTER, WE HARDLY KNEW YE…
In other non-news, our dearly departed, always self-satisfied, and often impolitic ally in innuendo, the Gutter, made a brief return! Readers of the real estate blog Curbed were treated to a rambling walk through Red Hook, complete with a garden of flowery language. Very little in the way of gossip, but a sight for sore eyes nonetheless. Aaah, Gutter, we are lonely without you.
 

Send blogs, bloviating notes, and scandal to EDITOR@archpaper.com

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Naval Battle Along East River
Courtesy SHOP Architects

When SHoP Architects unveiled schematic plans for the East River Esplanade at a meeting of the waterfront committee of Community Board 1 on October 22, the designs became the latest component of the battle over the future of the city’s waterfront. After years of dereliction and neglect, the city has finally cleaned up its rivers, and both people and fish are returning, thanks in part to a string of parks that now ring the city. While most people seem pleased with this, the city’s maritime community is not. For them, SHoP’s plans are just the latest slight in an ongoing fight over the soul of the city’s rivers.

It would be hard for anyone to deny that SHoP’s proposal is a vast improvement over what it will replace. Running for two miles underneath FDR Drive from the Battery north to East River Park, the East River Esplanade will replace a wasteland of worn-down bricks and asphalt strewn with broken glass. It will provide restored views of the waterfront and pavilions for public space. The question for the city’s mariners, though, is whether or not it will be inviting for boats.

“You probably mentioned planters 60 times, boats never, and ships twice,” Lee Gruzen, chair of SeaportSpeaks, told SHoP’s Gregg Pasquarelli at the committee meeting. “For 350 years there has been a kind of excitement on the waterfront. This makes us couch potatoes. I want to do something new you can’t do anywhere else.” The biggest concern is a rebuilt Pier 15, which has two levels, one for watercraft and one for recreation. SHoP sought to carve out pieces of the pier to expose its foundational structure. The pier in part resembles a fractured hill, covered in jagged slopes and topped with trees that will no doubt startle those driving by on the FDR. Julie Nadel, chair of the waterfront committee and a member of the Hudson River Park, called the designs more of the same. “They forgot to do the part where the boats dock,” she told AN. “It’s a very good, fanciful design, but it doesn’t do what it was asked to do, which is provide a place to dock a boat. Until it does, the plan is a failure.”

Pasquarelli insists these fears are unfounded. “They’re just staking out their position,” he said. “It’s a schematic design, and you can’t make judgments based on that. Just because I haven’t specified the cleats yet doesn’t mean there won’t be sufficient access.”

“Boating is one of our top priorities,” he added. “They’ve got 50 percent of the site, they just don’t realize it yet.”

While nautical access may still be in dispute, there is no question the plan vastly improves connections to the water from the land. This begins with the “calming of South Street,” Pasquarelli said. “It will become a typical New York City side street.” There will be one-lane in each direction with the remaining pavement given over to a 12-foot bicycle lane separated from the street by a planted berm.

Cyclists are set apart from the promenade by the FDR’s concrete pylons. Beneath the overpass stand glassed-in pavilions that serve a range of potential public uses, from shops and cafes to dojos and galleries. Beyond that is a 60- to 120-foot boardwalk edged by 30 to 40 feet of landscaping and a final 20 feet of boardwalk. A sinuous railing provides protection and, at its widest points, a table complete with bar stools. At night, these features are illuminated by light reflected off the FDR’s girders.

Most of these features disappear at the cross streets, where SHoP has devised what Pasquarelli called “get downs.” Part step, part aquatic amphitheater, their true purpose is to provide unblocked views of the water down the area’s historic slips. “It reminds you that this is a place where ships used to come right up into the city,” he said.

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Subcompact Hybrids
Designed by Openshop|Studio, this compact structure contains the family bedrooms and a futon that can slide out the side for guests.
craig mccormick

Architect Adam Hayes often refers to one recent project as “the thing.” Indeed, it’s hard to put a name to the faceted structure he and his firm, Openshop|Studio, designed as part of an extensive interior renovation of a Brooklyn loft. A sculptural-looking, perforated form, it resembles some sort of alien pod or perhaps a rough gemstone.

It may look wild, but the structure is intensely practical. CNC-milled plywood ribs provide structural support for the orientedstrand-board-clad facets, which contain a tight configuration of rooms, including a study, kid’s room, master bedroom, bathroom, and myriad storage nooks. Outside the pod lies a conventional loft space, its airy quality and sight lines only minimally disturbed by the blobby form in the corner. (Hayes compares the overall effect to a blimp in a hangar.) The efficient use of space and inexpensive materials helped them meet a budget of $109 per square foot in the 1,200-square-foot space.

The renovation is just one of a number of New York residential projects making creative use of limited resources. In this expensive, overcrowded city, many clients are asking architects to be ever more ingenious in planning living spaces; in effect, they want something out of nothing, or at least not much. Openshop|Studio and several other young firms are helping their clients tackle both problems by designing unconventional but highly efficient, flexible hybrid spaces.

Not long ago, John Hartmann of Freecell Architecture did some design work for a client who isn’t much of a cook and loathes clutter. As a result, the client decided he’d be just as happy with a part-time kitchen in his 450-square-foot Manhattan studio. Freecell designed a giant, piano-hinged door-cum-cabinet that swings closed when that kitchen area isn’t in use. Though Hartmann says the unit rolls easily enough, even he is still a bit incredulous at the concept. “Most people would say, ‘What is this? I have to roll a 200-pound door to get to my refrigerator? This is insane!’“ he says.

Movable parts were also the name of the game in a more ambitious project by workshop/apd. Within the spacious confines of a 2,400-square-foot Midtown loft, the firm designed a smaller cube in which all of the living functions interlock. It contains a study; two bathrooms; and a kitchen, which features a sliding door that offers division from the adjacent living area as needed, as well as a table that can slide out from a slot under the countertop to create an informal breakfast nook. Nearby, two bedrooms can be easily converted to three, by pulling apart a central pair of wheeled doors in opposite directions. The entire effect could be described as “a kind of an interactive box,” says principal Matt Berman. “You’re pushing and pulling on this thing from each side and interacting with it in different ways.” Designing such a flexible space was strategic, since the architects designed the space for a developer on spec, without knowing who the eventual inhabitants would be. The strategy paid off, since the loft sold quickly, says Andrew Kotchen, another principal at the firm.

“A lot of our projects deal with this idea with collapsing activity programming into more efficient spaces, and it’s clearly stemmed from doing a lot of New York interior renovations, because space is so finite,” Kotchen says. “The more efficient we can be in the way we use and configure our space, the more sustainable that environment will be,” he adds. “It’s more compact, uses fewer materials, costs less, and so on.”

For architecture- and furniture-design firm 4-pli, one innovative project stemmed from a client’s complaints about her husband’s clutter taking over their open loft. “She wanted to literally contain his mess; to give him a space where she didn’t have to see it so they didn’t have to fight about it,” says partner Jeffrey Taras.

Using Baltic birch plywood to help keep within a $20,000 budget, the firm crafted dividers that double as storage spaces for books and other materials. The husband’s office pod has a striking curve that’s smooth on the outside but lined with shelves to help contain his clutter. The 1⁄8-inch-thick plywood doesn’t provide much sound insulation, but it did let the architects bend the wood into graceful, organic-looking shapes. A ladder leads up the outside of the office to a guests’ sleeping berth on top, which doubles as the wife’s writing area. Another wavy divider features shelves on the living room side and a smooth surface on the master bedroom side. A matching wardrobe in the bedroom offers yet more storage space. Naturally, highly customized projects such as this one and Openshop|Studio’s carry their share of headaches. Openshop|Studio’s faceted form required more than one hundred individually cut pieces for the geometrically irregular surfaces. Likewise, the varying forms of the structural ribs had to be custom milled on a CNC cutter. 4-pli’s design was an experiment in how much 1⁄8-inch thick plywood can bend. In the end, the design for one of the panels in the office pod had to be redone because the wood wasn’t pliant enough for the original design’s double curvature, says Bill Mowat, another of 4-pli’s four partners.

“I think, in a way, this project was our most intensely experimental project,” says Taras. “For the most part, it worked out…but we learned a lesson; we wouldn’t experiment this much in a single project now.” The project was a learning experience that led them to launch a fabrication branch, Associated Fabrication. For their Odd Couple clients, it was a step toward peace and quiet.

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Delirious Newark
Downtown Newark
Courtesy Regional Plan Association

When two poodles sauntered from a freshly converted apartment house in downtown Newark this summer, it made the news. No, the dogs weren’t in any trouble, they were merely tethered to a well-heeled woman out for a stroll: a perfect specimen of that species beloved to real estate brokers, the highrise urban dweller. For New Jersey Business magazine, which reported the incident, they are a sign of better things to come.

As Mayor Cory A. Booker swept into office in 2006 on a platform of radical reform, he vowed to make Newark a “national standard for urban transformation.” And in June, he took a big step forward by appointing Toni Griffin as director of community development, charged with rebuilding the planning machine of New Jersey’s largest metropolis nearly from the ground up.

To many New Yorkers, this city of about 280,000 on the Passaic River has long been a tattered way station, glimpsed from passing Amtrak trains or en route to Newark Liberty Airport. But beyond the image of shells of buildings and broken windows is what planners call a robust urban infrastructure primed for a new half-century of growth. Though Newark’s population had dwindled dramatically from its peak of more than 440,000 in the 1930s, a boomlet since 2000 made it the fastest-growing major city in the Northeast. With commuter-friendly transit links to New York, dormant development capacity, and ample urban amenities waiting to be tapped, the Booker camp is betting hard on Newark’s future.

“With the coming of the Booker administration and changes in the region, Newark is in quite a different position than it was a few years ago,” observed Max Bond, partner at Davis Brody Bond. “As housing in New York gets more expensive, more and more people are looking at the possibility of living in Newark. In the regional context, there really are terrific opportunities.”

Shortly after the 38-year-old Booker came to office, he delighted planners by sitting down with the Regional Plan Association (RPA) and volunteers like Bond to draft a vision plan that would knit together the 100-odd neighborhood studies, urban renewal plans, and sundry agendas that had been moldering in City Hall file cabinets. This remarkable document, the product of dozens of planners, architects, city and state officials, and faculty of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, sprang from a three-day charette in 2006. With groups brainstorming about specific projects—from airport economic growth to the new downtown arena—a focused plan emerged: Revamp the 17-year-old masterplan. Overhaul the 1960s zoning ordinance. Ban sky bridges. Establish rapid-transit bus routes. Make mixed-use a mantra. At public meetings presenting the report, administration officials got an earful from residents keen to put Newark’s plans into practice.

Enter Griffin, who grew up in Chicago and studied architecture at Notre Dame, as well as at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (where she is now a visiting design critic). Launching her career at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Chicago office, she gravitated to planning and was hired to direct planning and tourism development for New York’s Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation. She then moved to Washington, D.C., where she oversaw large-scale redevelopment for the city’s planning office, taking charge of downtown, waterfront, and commercial corridors. She later served as vice president and director of design for the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, helping to make 2,000 acres along the Anacostia River corridor into a model for rebuilding inner cities. She is known for hitting the ground running.

"As an architect,” Griffin said, “my training is in problem-solving and in building. I see planning in the same way. I’m not interested in doing plans that sit on the shelves.”

Digging in on the first phase of Newark’s masterplan, Griffin convened a team including SMWM, Phillips Preiss Shapiro Associates, Justice and Sustainability Associates, and Chan Krieger Sieniewicz to define a vision that will lead to a more proactive and transparent planning process. Staff will also draw on the RPA’s draft vision plan and local design firms with the aim of revising the master plan and zoning ordinance for the 24-square-mile city, a task expected to be a multi-phase, multi-year effort. To build a central planning department out of what had been, in the James era, splintered among varied boards and offices, Griffin also aims to beef up her own staff, now home to four planners. “I want to hire a mix of planners with design backgrounds, designers with planning backgrounds, and economists,” she said.

Shifting to more immediate goals, the Booker team has targeted downtown residential development as a priority, citing 1180 Raymond Boulevard, a long-vacant Art Deco office tower in the heart of downtown. Recently converted into 317 rental units, it is rapidly filling with, yes, the aforementioned poodles—and just the commuters the city hopes to attract. (Eighty percent of the tower’s occupants work in New York.) “We’re aiming to build upon the trend started by premier new residential buildings like 1180 Raymond Boulevard,” said Stefan Pryor, Newark’s deputy mayor for economic development. Pryor, who led the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation through its forced quiescence before arriving as a high-profile hire for the Booker administration, is actively working on projects that have been thwarted by Newark’s outmoded regulations. He cites the city’s incoherent zoning rules as a persistent problem for developers who want to convert commercial buildings into housing. “There are side yard requirements and backyard requirements and onerous parking requirements,” he said. “We are going to eliminate those.”

Bringing momentum downtown is New Jersey Transit’s mile-long light-rail link between the city’s two major transit hubs, Newark Penn Station and Broad Street Station. Opened in 2006 at a cost of $207 million, the line connects New Jersey Transit, Amtrak, PATH trains, and the city’s subway. It will hopefully extend residential and retail growth north across I-280, and to the two gemlike Mies van der Rohe towers known as the Pavilion Apartments. Opened in 1960, along with a third Mies apartment building near Branch Brook Park called the Colonnade, the towers today look lonely amid Colonial-style townhouses built on the site of the Christopher Columbus Homes public housing project, which were razed in 1994 after becoming a symbol of neglect and poverty.

Back near Broad Street, which Griffin sees a as focal point for the 45,000 college students who attend Newark’s five colleges and universities, there’s the Barton Myers-designed New Jersey Performing Arts Center, widely hailed as the project that put Newark back on the map when it opened in 1997. “It’s an area that can help to change the whole image of the city and brand it as a waterfront downtown,” Griffin said. Work has slowly progressed on the Joseph G. Minish Passaic River Waterfront Park, which would stretch north from the dominantly Portuguese and Brazilian Ironbound district (and its swinging tapas bars) to the downtown core. Griffin looks toward a teeming, two-sided waterfront along both banks of the Passaic; plans are already progressing across the river in Harrison, where the first phase of a development with 1,800 residential units, a soccer stadium, and a riverfront park is under way.

For many watching Newark’s redevelopment, the most bothersome legacy of the James administration may be Prudential Center, the city’s new downtown arena. Branded a boondoggle by Newarkers who questioned its $375 million price tag and prospects (it is home to the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils), the arena was nonetheless under construction by the time James left office. Mayor Booker, who once denounced the project as a “betrayal of the public trust,” has determined to embrace the squat, brick-and-glass behemoth, which opens this month with a ten-night stand by Bon Jovi. Ever the optimist, Griffin thinks the arena could catalyze restaurant and retail development just as the MCI Center (now Verizon Center) did for Washington.


The city’s hottest vehicle of change, however, is less likely to be Bon Jovi than the Port of Newark, because it has one thing Newark needs most: jobs. The city is closely studying how to redevelop land and capture job opportunities at the port, which employs relatively few locals. A similar strategy is taking shape around the airport, which Griffin suggests could be groomed as an “aerotropolis,” surrounded by efficient business and residential nodes. “Cities like Dallas are looking at neighborhoods around airports,” she explained, “and developing them as attractive places to live.”

Newark’s real estate boom has had unintended effects. As the market revived in former no-go neighborhoods, suburban-minded builders found a cheap formula to fill empty blocks: the Bayonne Box. A source of consternation to Newark planners, the narrow, three-story house has deep setbacks, vast curb cuts, and car-forward frontage (“a machine for parking,” growled one planner). The now-ubiquitous Bayonne Box is anathema to a rich and lively public realm, and Griffin’s team is looking to tweak zoning regulations to reduce curb cuts, hide vehicles, and create greener front yards. Her office has also drafted guidelines for new housing typologies, and will be hiring architects to test those concepts throughout the city. A similar program is under way to check the growth of car-centric shopping hubs. “We want to look at guidelines for how mixed-use town centers can fit back into the fabric of Newark,” she said.

Community groups, long inured to promises, are guardedly optimistic about their city’s future.

“So far Ms. Griffin has been sensitive and responsive to what we see as critical issues,” said Richard Cammarieri, chair of the master plan working group for the New Community Corporation, a network of citizen groups. “The biggest challenge is going to be ensuring that the planning process is in fact internalized for the entire city government. Everyone really has to buy into this.”

Longtime Newarkers have an endearing knack for looking at the bright side. “At least we have a planning department now,” Cammarieri dryly noted, “which we’ve never had before.”

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Of Photography and Fame
Weston, Byles & Rugolph's Roberts Residence, Malibu, California (1953)
Julius Shulman/Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust

In the realm of architectural photography two figures stand alone in terms of their impact on how we view, consider, and consume images of modern design and architecture. Ezra Stoller on the East Coast and Julius Shulman on the West Coast are the acknowledged masters of their discipline, influencing a generation of younger photographers, including myself. Shulman, who will turn 97 in October, continues to produce and occasionally still accepts the odd commission.

Architectural photography, often brilliant in technique, can be staid in concept. Most architects who commission photographs are not looking for individual expression, but rather a well-crafted document of the subject building. Julius Shulman’s images defy this formula and although he will forever be identified with West Coast pioneers in architecture such as Richard Neutra, John Lautner, and the architects of the Case Study Houses in Los Angeles, his iconic photographs have burned themselves into the popular imagination, transcending their subject to become objects in themselves, independent of the buildings they depict. -Richard Barnes

Richard Barnes: How did you get started on a career in architectural photography, at a time when there was really no established field of work in photographing architecture?

Julius Shulman: My architectural work began when I met Richard Neutra by chance in March 1936. I had been going to UCLA for five years and spent two more years up in Berkeley when I realized this wasn’t what I wanted to do. Here, I had spent several years walking through the campus and going to lectures without any direction in my life. I was living with a friend in a two-bedroom apartment—$25 a month, by the way—when one morning I woke up at 3:00 a.m. and the thought entered my mind, ‘Julius, you better go home.’ It was a signal.

But I did have a little Vest Pocket Kodak from my parents. Then by chance this young man, an apprentice in Neutra’s office, said he wanted to show me a house that had just been completed by Neutra. I said, ‘Who’s Neutra?’ I had never met an architect before but I went to the house—it was the Kun House—and took six snapshots with my little Kodak, made some 8x10 prints, and gave them to him. Immediately after that, this fellow called me up and said, ‘Mr. Neutra loved the photographs and he’d like to meet you this coming Saturday.’

I went down to the studio in Silver Lake. I met Neutra who said he’d never seen such photographs and he wanted extra copies. He asked who I was and was I studying architecture or photography? When I told him I was at the university doing nothing, he said, ‘Would you like to take more photographs for me?’ Boom! So on March 5, 1936, I became a photographer.

Were there other architects you met and worked with at the time?


Well, that same day Neutra told me about another apprentice, named [Raphael] Soriano, who’d just done his first house up in the hills above Silver Lake. So I drove up there and met him the same day. We hit it off beautifully; he was sitting on the floor eating a sandwich. He gave me a sandwich; I sat down on the rug and we talked for about two hours. ‘Now that you’ve met Neutra,’ he said, ‘would you like to photograph this house, too?’ And that was Soriano’s Lipetz House with the curved wall looking out over the lake and a grand piano in the middle of the floor because the lady was a pianist. Soriano became famous from the very beginning, and so
my photographs were immediately published.

I went on to meet all the young architects [Gregory] Ain, [Rudolf] Schindler, Pierre Koenig. We were all in the same boat, young people beginning our work. And in 1947 when I bought some property, two acres up in the Hollywood Hills, I hired Soriano who was a good friend by then.

Why would you hire Soriano, and not Neutra?


Soriano was so wonderfully friendly and warm. Neutra was fine, but he wasn’t my kind of person. I did work with him from 1936 until he died and it was through Neutra that I was destined to become a ‘world famous’ photographer. No question about that.

Do you think your images also helped to make him a ‘world famous’ architect?

(Laugh) It takes two, I guess. But I think it was just destiny that I became an architectural photographer. Before I met Neutra, I had no idea, no indication, no inkling of what I was going to do with my life.

But at the time there was no such thing as an architectural photographer. Maybe there were photographers who did commercial work, but you really carved out a whole new field.


Maybe. But in the course of my work I started seeing work published in magazines. Ezra Stoller came a little later, true, in the late 1930s to early 1940s, but up in San Francisco there was Roger Sturtevant—we became good friends— and Ulrich Meisel in Dallas. Then, of course, there was Hedrich Blessing in Chicago; and then, Maynard Parker who was a commercial photographer in Los Angeles. In those days, magazines called commercial photographers. Elizabeth Gordon of House Beautiful called Parker to do her house and he was really good. But, really, there was just a handful of us.

Did you have a sense as you took them that some of your images transcended the documents you were producing for the architects—the view of the two women at Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22 comes instantly to mind? Or was it something about LA the city itself that shaped your approach?

No, I’ll tell you what happened. From that very first photograph that I took of the Kun House, I found I could just catch things on film that we—the architect and myself—didn’t see ourselves or didn’t even realize existed. Benedikt Taschen [publisher of the new book] says I extract the essence of a place.

What about Los Angeles? What was it like when you arrived?

It was a really particular moment. LA had become a mecca for people from all over the world. Everyone wanted to come. Even my father who had a small clothing business and a 75-acre orange grove wrote to his friend, ‘Max! You’ve got to come. The streets are paved in gold’—he meant the orange grove. But back then in 1920 when we came to California from New York, the population in Los Angeles was about 576,000. It was a small town.

If you had stayed out East and, instead of working for Neutra, Ain, Koenig, and the rest, you worked for Saarinen, Gropius, and Mies (although they were later, after the war). But let’s say you’d lived on the East Coast, how would your work have been different?

I wouldn’t have become a photographer! I wouldn’t have been taking those snapshots while I was wandering around Berkeley. I did have a friend who was a writer and he had a nice little office in Rockefeller Center in the 1940s. He said I should open an office in New York. Without any hesitation, I said, ‘I love New York!’ You see, I was born in Brooklyn. But I was already established in Los Angeles and all the architects jumped at me because there was no other photographer who did architecture.

At that level.

At any level.

How did you get along with the individual architects? Did you consider them friends. Did you learn anything from them?


I established close friendships with them all. I seemed to speak their language, not only with my camera. With Gregory Ain, there was something about his architecture that I liked, and my liking the work made me respect it, and as a result I was able to create these great compositions. I could transcend or transfigure or translate what the architect saw in his own work. Something just came through. They didn’t know how I did it; they’d just shake their heads. Even Frank Lloyd Wright wrote me a letter about my photographs of Taliesin West: ‘How did you ever achieve such beautiful photographs?’ Doesn’t matter: the point is, it’s a gift. I was raised close to nature, maybe that’s part of it. My spirit is close to nature.

Regarding your technique, you have a great facility with lighting and also for using people in your photographs. You used color film early on and your images have this naturalness to them which is also, and I realize this is contradictory, strangely theatrical, without seeming forced or over the top.

Can you talk about that?

As a matter of fact, it came home to me just recently when Paul Goldberger wrote in the New Yorker that if I hadn’t become a photographer, I might have been a good lighting expert. And it’s true that one of my innate qualities is knowing how to use lighting. I don’t use it to dramatize but to express what the architect wants. When I line up something, you never see the source of the light, but you do know it’s there.
Most photographers today rely on Polaroids, or computers, to test for composition and lighting before committing the scene to film. You couldn’t do all that and yet you still achieved these amazing results.

Most photographers I knew did not use flash bulbs before the days of strobe lighting. I would use flood lights then put flash lights in to balance the indoor and outdoor lighting intensity. As a result my lighting appeared very natural and balanced. And then I used people—not abundantly but more than most—to occupy the space, not posing, but doing something the space was designed for. Neutra didn’t like it when I started putting in people. He did not want them. He didn’t want anything to attract attention away from his architecture.

I read somewhere that in one of your most iconic and famous images of all—the Kaufman House in Palm Springs—you used people and Neutra wasn’t happy about it. But what makes that photograph really work for me is the figure in the foreground. Were you using her as a “gobo” [go between] to block the light?

Yes! That’s Mrs. Kaufman. And what happened is this: It was a very complex composition and that one photograph took me 45 minutes. I was supposed to be doing the interiors. But when I went out there I saw how beautiful the twilight was, and I knew it wouldn’t last long. Mr. Neutra grabbed my elbow and said we had a lot more interiors to do, but I tore away from his grasp and ran outside to set up the camera. I knew exactly where I wanted to stand.

Inside, the floor lamps and the table lamps were all burning. Outside the sky was beautiful and I asked Mr. Kaufman, who was standing there with Mrs. Kaufman and Neutra, to turn on the pool light. But the light was too intense and it was facing in the direction of the camera so I laid down a mat and asked Mrs. Kaufman to please lie down a moment so her head blocked the pool light. She asked me not to take too long because it was hard propping herself up on her elbow.
I counted the three seconds.

One. Two. Three.

Did Neutra know what you were trying to do?


Not ‘til later.

Coney Island Drum Roll

All summer long, rumors have swirled around the future redevelopment of Coney Island, generating an atmosphere nearly as carnivalesque as the boardwalk itself: anonymous media reports of city officials’ intentions, tea-leaf readings of ambiguous signals, alarmist claims that Coney is shutting down. Change is coming, but it’s not yet clear in what form.

Coney Island is New York City’s only C7 zone, a special amusement-park category that bans residences, restricts commercial uses, and limits Floor-Area Ratios to 2.0. However, developer Thor Equities saw massive potential for hotels, timeshares, and other new features in the area should the zoning change. Thor purchased 10 acres (over half the amusement zone), hired a design team, and started to float the plan to the public. They may have jumped the gun: The inevitable battles under the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure await the Department of City Planning’s revision of the C7 requirements, serially rescheduled and still under wraps. DCP press secretary Rachaele Raynoff said that no date has been set; Charles Reichenthal of the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) and Community Board 13 anticipates an announcement by early September.

Thor’s plans and the CIDC’s 2005 strategic plan clash on key points. Adding housing to a C7 district, for example, is unlikely; DCP chair Amanda Burden has stated flatly that residences and amusements are incompatible. Whatever ultimately gets built inside or outside the zone, “We’re still going to be here,” said sideshow proprietor Dick Zigun, founder of the arts and preservation organization Coney Island USA. “If you come to the neighborhood and you want something sleazy, we’ll provide it.”

The developer faces accusations of warehousing, flipping, Vegasification, and worse. Chief executive Joseph Sitt has evinced a talent for attracting opposition; speculation about his aims has overshadowed attention to the designs by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn (buildings) and Thinkwell (amusements). Since removing condos from his plan at a June 26 community meeting, Sitt has lowered his public profile. Thor representatives were unavailable for comment for this story.

Citing historic assaults on Coney by Robert Moses, Fred Trump, and others, Zigun sees a classic battle between a speculator’s potential gain and civic resistance to homogenization of “the people’s paradise.” “It’s astonishing,” he said, “how developers still don’t realize it’s more sophisticated to mix old architecture that’s still worth preserving and rehabilitating together with new buildings, creating a sense of culture and continuity.” While working to preserve Coney’s freaky grit, CIDC member Zigun disavows any public position for or against Thor.

All parties regard the “Coney Island’s last season” meme as mythical. Parks Department attendance estimates are around 14-15 million people per year, up from 3-5 milliontwodecades ago;most key businesses have no intention of closing.

What may be in its final season is Astroland. Operator Carol Albert sold the property to Thor in 2006, leasing it back annually, but a 2008 renewal lease remains under negotiation. After listing her rides with Nashville-based amusement broker Ital International, she took them off the market in August; though the unmistakable Astrotower remains among Ital’s offerings at this writing, chief manager Carlo Guglielmi confirmed that sales of Astroland equipment are “suspended until further notice.” Albert’s representative Joseph Carella explained that Thor has informally given her a steep rent increase—roughly 15 times the current payment.

Dennis Vourderis, whose family is the owner/operator of Deno’s Wonder Wheel and has seen plans come and go over four decades, advised that any developer should consider local expertise, economics, and values,avoiding chain-amusement practices. “If you outprice yourself, you’ll be closed,” he said. “What works here may not work anywhere else, and what works somewhere else may not work here.” Outsiders brought in by city officials, he noted, were partly responsible for closures and blight in previous decades, a precedent he hopes Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg will avoid. “The city’s track record—not the current administration, but previous ones—is not any better than Thor’s,” he said. “Not to cause animosity, but at least Thor has a concrete plan.”

Still, any Coney Island veteran develops a skeptical streak. “Until we see shovels in the ground and rides starting to be built,” Vourderis said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Imitation of Life

There’s a rising star in the architecture and design communities. She can build homes so strong, they withstand more than 2,000 times their own weight. She taught Mercedes-Benz a thing or two about making more aerodynamic cars. And in her spare time, she developed a technique for creating vibrant colors with no toxins.

So who is this superstar? You know her already—her name is Mother Nature. Time and again, she’s proven herself to be a master architect and engineer. (In case you’re wondering, tests have shown snail shells can support more than 2,000 times their weight, the streamlined form of the boxfish helped Mercedes-Benz build an ultrafuel-efficient car, and butterfly wings have their glorious color embedded in their structure.) We might feel humbled, but then again, nature’s been at this game a lot longer than we humans, honing her designs through the process of evolution.

As scientist Janine Benyus wrote in her influential book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (1997), “After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival… All our inventions have already appeared in nature in a more elegant form and at less cost to the planet.”

Scientists and technologists have been imitating nature for years to foster innovations in engineering. The strategy is known as “biomimicry” or “biomimetics, ”meaning “imitation of life.” Many architects and designers are catching on, reading Benyus’ book and others on the topic, and some are giving biomimicry a try themselves.

Biomimicry can be applied at various levels: forms (biomorphism), functions, or entire ecosystems. In architecture, mimicking nature’s forms is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Consciously or not, builders of primitive huts echoed the form of a skeleton, crafting simple wood frames covered by animal skins. More modern architects, too, regularly develop their designs visually inspired by organic forms: the curves, tendrils, and floral shapes of Art Nouveau, the spiny spires of Gaudí, the structural vertibrae of Calatrava.

Biomimicry gets more interesting, though, when it goes beyond form. “For us, it’s asking a deeper question of how the natural world does it: not what is the form but what is the function that that form provides,” says Dayna Baumeister, who helped found the Biomimicry Guild, along with Benyus. The group is devoted to biomimicry consulting, education, and research. Best of all, according to the guild, is biomimicry that echoes the workings of entire ecosystems, encompassing principles of adaptability, synergy, and efficient uses of limited resources.

While the deeper forms of biomimicry have more to offer in terms of sustainability and functionality, they’re also more tricky to execute well. “It needs very careful thought,” says Julian Vincent, director of the Centrefor Biomimetic and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath. “When you’re looking at biological systems, they tend to solve problems in very different ways from engineering systems, which is why the area is so interesting. But that means that if you’re looking for an answer, you shouldn’t look for it in the most obvious place.” To even be able to formulate the right questions to ask and the right areas of nature to emulate, “you always need a biologist on hand,” he says.

Despite its potential pitfalls, architectural biomimicry has resulted in some striking successes. The most famous example is the 1996 Eastgate building in Harare, Zimbabwe, which uses natural air conditioning modeled after the air flow in a termite mound. Designed by architect Mick Pearce with engineering by Arup, the office and retail building reportedly saved its owner $3.5 million in energy expenses in the first five years alone.

Biologically obsessed architect Eugene Tsui once designed a house in Berkeley, California, with lighweight, strong trusses modeled after seagull bone marrow and a subsurface solar heating system based on the bone and capillary structures of two dinosaurs, the stegosaurus and the dimetrodon. Grimshaw Architects covered their Waterloo International Terminal in London with glass sheets that overlap like snake scales, to better hug the structure’s serpentine curves.

Some biomimetic projects in the works show promise, too, such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s spongelike design for the Pearl River Tower, a 71-story corporate headquarters. The design won a competition calling for sustainable design thanks to some unconventional thinking by Roger Frechette and his team in SOM’s performative design group. Frechette says they turned to the sea sponge for inspiration because “we found it doing a lot of things we look to buildings to do but without mechanical energy or electricity.” The squishy creatures are superbly engineered to harvest fuel from the sea: They can pump thousands of gallons of water a day, from which they draw their food. Sponges also shelter and protect a multitude of tiny inhabitants, which benefit from the flow of food-bearing water.

So what do you get when you cross a highrise with a sponge? The design for the Pearl River Tower is porous, with four holes that house wind turbines to create electricity from the strong winds that blow above the ground. Defying convention, the tower faces the wind, to better harness its energy; the holes also relieve wind pressure. The building soaks up energy from the sun as well, thanks to strategically placed photovoltaic cells. With these and other energy-saving measures such as radiant cooling, the building’s energy use will be reduced by 58 to 60 percent. Frechette claims it will be by far the world’s most energy-efficient supertall tower when it’s completed in 2009.

In another competition-winning design, landscape architects Grant Associates of Bath, England, designed a grove of “supertrees” as part of a larger future project to develop three parks around a Singapore marina. Reaching around 100 to 180 feet high, they are tree-shaped structures that will serve as homes for orchids and ferns, and shelter the humans below from rain and sun, as real trees do. The plants grow on and through the supertrees’ steel lattice skin. “Current computer analysis studies are investigating a structural design solution for the skin that reflects natural patterns of branching and cellular structures,” says Andrew Grant, director of Grant Associates.

The supertrees also absorb solar energy in a way that’s analogous to their organic counterparts, since they support extensive arrays of photovoltaics and solar thermal panels, he says. Canopies collect rainwater, and the structures even have irrigation and misting systems that mirror natural transpiration. At night, the trees’ high-tech origins are revealed, for they transform into lanterns for the garden.

Kevin Stack, president of Syracuse, New York–based Northeast Natural Homes and Northeast Green Building Consulting, exemplifies biomimicry on the grandest scale: emulating the intricate interworkings of ecosystems. His sustainable strategies recently helped him win the state’s first LEED-H Gold rating, for a residence in Skaneateles, New York.

Stack has been in the sustainable home building business for nearly 30 years, and he recently became immersed in the concepts of biomimicry through reading Benyus’ book and studying at the Biomimicry Institute. He found the concepts eye-opening, especially the emphasis on studying and learning from the ecological systems of the local environment. After examining patterns of rainfall in upstate New York, he found that in an unbuilt area, 30 percent of rainfall goes into the aquifer, 30 percent is taken up by vegetation, and 40 percent evaporates. He now makes sure his buildings don’t disturb those natural proportions.

Stack regards the trees that surround his construction sites as natural capital since they provide shade and oxygen and their roots help manage stormwater, so he treats them accordingly. “We actually hand-dig around their root system when we have to get close, and instead of just excavating roots out of the way, we’ll bend them by hand,” he explains. “If we have to cut a root, we cut it cleanly, and we apply a hormone that stimulates regrowth.” Instead of using materials that would have to be shipped in, such as bamboo, he chooses local ecofriendly materials such as recycled wood from old barns and PureBond, a type of plywood made from local hardwoods using a natural, nontoxic adhesive.

When it comes to green building design, “everyone’s going out, looking throughout the entire world for this special item or technology or material, but the answers are right in front of us,” Stack says. “You just need to pay attention.”

Eavesdrop: Editors

THEY’RE NOT AS DUMB
AS THEY LOOK, KEN…

Ok, fine, so New Yorkers may take a dim view of the intelligence of our West Coast brethren, but Ken Smith is taking it a little far. Smith is the landscape architect for the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California, and he was apparently asked to come up with something snappy to mark the opening of the parks’s first phase, which was July 14. So what did he come up with? A fivestory- tall, 10,560-pound, bright orange helium balloon (which actually sounds kind of cool, since it can carry 30 people at a pop). But surely the symbolism is a little simple-minded, you think; an orange ball for Orange County? Wait, it gets better: “The balloon is an uplifting symbol…for all Orange County, and soon all the nation,” Smith declared in a press release. Balloon? Uplifting? You don’t say! Constant good weather doesn’t addle the brain that much.

KNIGHTED AND DANGEROUS

While we are firmly in the Groucho Marx camp regarding group activities—We wouldn’t join any club that would have us—we congratulate Peter Cook of Archigram fame and HOK on his new knighthood, which was conferred by Queen Elizabeth herself on June 16. But we’re a little worried that all of the Lordy-this Sir-that stuff is going to his head: We have it from a reliable source that he got a letter from Her Majesty’s garter king of Arms (which frankly sounds a little racy to our Yank ears) asking if he wants to bear arms, and he is considering taking said garter king of Arms up on the offer! In a country where even the coppers don’t carry guns! Note to members of the London Olympic Authority: It would be wise to approve his stadium design, and fast!

COLOR US IMPRESSED (OR AT LEAST PINK)

We’ll reserve judgment on his skills as a painter, but Julian Schnabel is clearly a natural at real estate development. According to the New York Observer, the triplex unit atop Schabel’s newly enlarged and violently pink building on West 11th Street is for sale in the $50 million range, and Madonna is a serious potential buyer. U2’s Bono and The Edge were also spotted nosing around. $50 million? Hot pink? Just goes to show that the rich are indeed different from you and we.

SEND STORIES AND GOSSIP (SPECIOUS OR OTHERWISE) TO EDITOR@ARCHPAPER.COM 

Midtown's Dream Team

 

Several weeks ago, in one of the most unique planning exercises in recent city history, six leading design professionals donated their time to collaborate on a day-long charrette in a vacant storefront at United Nations Plaza. They produced a bold new vision for the redevelopment of Midtown Manhattan’s forlorn-looking East River waterfront.

 

Most of the area that the designers focused on, between East 38th and East 42nd streets, is currently a no-man’s land that bears the imprint of a period in planning when cars were given priority over pedestrians. The dominant feature is a nine-acre development site where a Con Edison plant was once located in front of a massive elevated off-ramp from the FDR Drive.

 

The charrette, which was held under the auspices of the Municipal Art Society (MAS), was an effort to harmonize the development agendas for four proposed projects: the United Nations expansion, the renovation of the FDR Drive, the extension of Manhattan’s greenway up the East Side, and the redevelopment of the Con Ed site. “We wanted to bring all the players together,” says Kent Barwick, president of the MAS.

 

On the morning of the charrette, Midtown East stakeholders—including representatives from Manhattan CB6, the New York State Department of Transportation, the New York City Parks Department, and East Side Realty Company, which is redeveloping the Con Ed site with a master plan by Richard Meier and David Childs—made a presentation to the participating designers: Ricardo Scofidio of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Kate Orff of Scape Studio, Margie Ruddick of WRT, Ken Smith of Ken Smith Landscape Architect, Brian Jencek of Hargreaves Associates, and Matthew Urbanski of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. This was actually the first time that their representatives, with the exception of the UN, discussed their objectives in the same room.

 

In many ways the different visions presented appeared to be irreconcilable. For example, some of the stakeholders presented plans showing options for decking over FDR Drive to provide access to the East River. But for the DOT, there are major constraints against building a deck that slopes down to the river, most notably the FDR’s elevated 42nd Street exit ramp.

 

However, the design that was unveiled the following Sunday addressed the various objectives of the different stakeholders. It links together the proposed projects with a 33- to 36-foot-high terrace running from East 38th Street to East 42nd Street, which cantilevers over FDR Drive. A forested hill on the terrace conceals infrastructure, by surrounding a ventilator shaft and covering over the FDR's 42nd Street exit ramp. Access to the waterfront is provided by a pedestrian/ bicycle ramp descending from the terrace across the FDR and another extending across the highway. A six story glass pylon at the river’s edge would house a restaurant and a ferry terminal. “We realized that if this was going to be viable,” said Scofidio, “we would have to please the DOT.” 

A Second Act for the Bam Cultural District

When the Brooklyn Academy of Music decided to throw its cultural heft into remaking its then-dingy neighborhood, it did so the BAM way, i.e., con brio. With a master plan from Rem Koolhaas’ OMA and Diller + Scofidio, and renderings of a state-of-the-art new public library by TEN Arquitectos, the future looked glamorous. And while it took almost nine years, new architects, scaled-back projects, and some political shifts, several significant pieces of the plan are about to go forward. By Alan G. Brake. 

When the Brooklyn Academy of Music burned to the ground in 1903, the New York Times opined, “In short, there has hardly been a great public movement of national import but the old Academy has been at one time or another its principal focus.” BAM quickly relocated from Brooklyn Heights to its present location on Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene where it has enriched the city’s cultural life for more than a century. Over the last ten years, however, BAM has added an unusual element to its portfolio of offerings, and that is neighborhood redevelopment.

In 1998, Harvey Lichtenstein began to move out of his position as the institution’s director, and looked outward at the neighborhood. It wasn’t pretty: The 1970s and 1980s had not been kind to Fort Greene and downtown Brooklyn, and one of the most respected performing arts organizations in the country found itself surrounded by a nondescript mix of parking lots, liquor stores, and not much else. But with a location near commercial hubs and lots of subways, there seemed to be no reason why the area couldn’t come back. Lichtenstein formed the BAM Limited Development Corporation (LDC) as a catalyst for the transformation of the ten or so blocks immediately around the theater into an arts district. The organization hired New York’s Diller+Scofidio and the Rotterdam-based OMA to develop a conceptual masterplan in 2000. Two years later, it held a competition for a Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) branch for the Brooklyn Public Library; the jury chose TEN Arquitectos, and images of an ship-like building were published everywhere.

But things seemed to slow down soon after, and there wasn’t much news from the intersection of Flatbush and Lafayette Avenues. In 2004, WORK AC quietly took over the planning job. “The Diller +Scofidio/OMA masterplan still provides the basis for what will be built,” says principal Dan Wood. Wood founded WORK AC after leaving OMA and continued to be involved in the project. The main innovation of the latest version is shifting the site of the Theatre for a New Audience, a respected Shakespearian company, to Layfayette Avenue, next to the Mark Morris Dance Center and catercorner from BAM, opening up space on Lafayette for a substantial new park with the working name Grand Plaza. Toward the end of the process, WORK AC brought in Ken Smith’s firm to consult on open space and streetscape plans. The Grand Plaza will act as a front door for three of the major cultural institutions, making it a sort of Lincoln Center stitched into the fabric of brownstone Brooklyn. Parking will be built under the plaza and will match the existing number of spaces. “The modified plans allows us to create a park where you want to be, not just a remnant patch,” says Christian Gabrial, a designer at Ken Smith Landscape Architecture.

After the masterplan was complete, the teams switched roles to further develop the open space and streetscapes, with Ken Smith’s team as the prime consultant and WORK as the subsidiary. “A lot of time and energy are going into the streetscape, which will have a key role in pulling the district together,” says Louise Eddleston, a designer at Ken Smith. “The district is primarily residential and with more units of housing going in it will remain that way.” She says the short blocks and intimate scale of the neighborhood have to be understood and used to their best advantage. The firm will present schematic designs to the Economic Development Corporation in the Fall, and hopes to get the contract to build the project.

This is more likely to happen than it would have been even a year ago: Last year, the city, frustrated by the lack of action on the VPA and other projects, stepped in and moved the BAMLDC under the umbrella of the larger and more powerful Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DBP), which includes business improvement districts for Metrotech and the Fulton Street Mall. DPB has close ties to deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff, and this has clearly contributed to the recent up-tick in development activity in the district. “There was a sense in early 2006 that the city needed to step up, not just in terms or time, but also in terms of high-level attention,” says Joe Chan, the DBP president. “Coordinating development with cultural groups is a lot more complicated than private developers.”

The move is yielding results. Though the VPA library was recently declared all but dead by the Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin due to lack of fundraising on the part of the Brooklyn Public Library, several other significant projects are moving forward in the district. Along with the streetscape design, a revised design for the Theatre for a New Audience is in the works by Frank Gehry and the H3 Partnership, and the department of Housing Preservation and Development just concluded an Request for Proposals for a new mixed use building that will house Danspace, the contemporary dance incubator. All of this is happening in the shadow, metaphorically speaking, of Forest City Ratner’s controversial and gargantuan Atlantic Yards development.

But curiously, the fighting around Atlantic Yards seems not to have affected plans for the BAM cultural district, at least thus far. “It’s sort of an elephant compared to an ant,” says Wood. “The BAM cultural district can fold into an existing neighborhood, whereas Atlantic Yards will generate its own.” From the beginning, too, BAM LDC also worked with community groups, local churches, and elected officials to address concerns about rising rents and over development. “There was a call for many opportunities for input,” said Chan. “Gentrification and displacement is the greatest fear.”

Chan, however, sees Atlantic Yards and the cultural district as complementary projects. “Both projects emphasize the development of mixed-income communities,” he says. “They are a part of changing perceptions about Downtown Brooklyn and about catering to diverse and inclusive tastes for art, culture, entertainment, and sports.” Gabrial adds, “The cultural district operates within a web of existing neighborhoods, including Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn. It’s really a linchpin project.”

While coordinating multiple city agencies and cultural groups and meeting fundraising goals has somewhat slowed and altered development, the district’s largely positive reception in the community speaks to the thoughtful and neighborly scale of the project, as well as a flexible, piecemeal approach. The subtle way in which increased cultural programming,open space,and higher density are being woven into the neighborhood could prove to be a model for the borough and beyond. It also shows that Brooklynites aren’t averse to change, they just don’t like to get steamrolled.