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John Johansen Is 93!
On June 27, Open House New York celebrates one of our last links to the early history of modern architecture with a birthday tribute to John Johansen. Long admired for his intricate concrete forms like the U.S. Embassy in Dublin (1963) and far-out assemblages like Oklahoma City’s Mummers Theater (1970), Johansen has blazed a highly original trail over a career spanning more than a half-century. Educated in Walter Gropius’ first Harvard class—and later marrying Gropius’ daughter Ati—Johansen studied alongside I.M. Pei, Paul Rudolph, and Bruno Zevi, drank heavily with Marcel Breuer and Le Corbusier, learned color theory with Josef Albers and history with Siegfried Giedion, and worked with Gordon Bunshaft at SOM. The only surviving member of the New Canaan–based Harvard 5 (with Eliot Noyes, Breuer, Landis Gore, and Philip Johnson), Johansen is also known for designing some of the most unique private houses on the East Coast. One of them, his own country house—a truncated and translucent fiberglass pyramid in Dutchess County—has now been sold, and John will move out next fall.

As a last hurrah, OHNY is sponsoring a 93rd birthday party for John, and inviting the public to tour the house next weekend, with buses picking up celebrants in Manhattan and driving them to John’s house. Please join Barry Bergdoll, Michael Webb, Lebbeus Woods, Tom Hanrahan, Anthony Vidler, and many others for the special Saturday birthday party.

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The Wing that Soars
The Modern Wing offers views of the city, Millennium Park, and Gerhard Richter's Woman Descending the Stair (1965).
Dave Jordano

Even if you’ve been to every Renzo Piano–designed museum of the last ten years, you may be surprised at how much there is to admire in his new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. Though not without flaws, the addition is Piano’s best museum in America since the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas of 2003, and the best building in downtown Chicago since the John Hancock opened in 1970.

The Modern Wing, like the soaring Hancock, shows Chicago’s ambition. Conceived more than ten years ago, it ended up costing $294 million, and is likely to be the last great museum addition of its kind in America for some time. Its 264,000 square feet enlarge the Art Institute by a third and make it the second largest art museum in the United States. Chicago, no longer really even the “Second City,” is competing with New York again—at least in its mind, and that’s a good thing.


A large Multipurpose space, Griffin Court, forms a north-south Spine in the wing that is filled with natural Light.
Charles G. Young/Interactive Design Architects
 
The addition as seen from the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park.
Charles G. Young/Interactive Design Architects
 
The third Floor galleries, devoted to the Institute's modern collection, are almost entirely Daylit.
Dave Jordano
 
 

The addition allows the Art Institute to show off its encyclopedic collection, which includes its modern and contemporary art, such pieces as a suite of color panels by Gerhard Richter; two rooms for the gown, tissue box, and other odd objects and wallpapers by Robert Gober; and a gallery for the newly-acquired Hinoki by Charles Ray, a trunk of an oak tree on its side, hand-carved out of cypress. You can no longer think of the institute as a limestone building full of French Impressionist works. The wing is a game-changer.

Ten years ago, the Art Institute hired Pritzker Prize–winner Renzo Piano to design a smaller addition on the south side of the building. When Mayor Daley’s plans for Millennium Park, which was to cover over rail yards and parking lots downtown, grew to become Chicago’s most important project since the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Art Institute shifted its new addition to the north to face it. Accordingly, the Modern Wing grew in scope and cost.

Millennium Park, of course, features Frank Gehry’s band shell, waves of undulating stainless steel that reflect light and give the city pure joy. Piano said at the time that his building would engage in a “dialogue” with Gehry’s work, and it has. Gehry’s curving pavilion is directly framed by Piano’s rectilinear gallery windows; outside, Gehry’s steel reflects in the Modern Wing’s glass.

At the wing’s inception, an Art Institute trustee told me, “We’ll have to spend a lot of money on details; but if we spend the money, I know we’ll get a masterwork.” And so they did. The economic downturn after 9/11 didn’t stop the project. Having been called upon to fund Millennium Park, wealthy Chicagoans then ponied up for the museum so that for the first time in far too long, a grand civic monument could be properly conceived and executed in their city.

The detailing throughout the wing is at the highest level. From handrails to wooden floors to ventilation systems, the master architect got much of what he asked for.

The main sensation in the Modern Wing is its light. Piano’s system of louvers on the roof block the harsh southern light, admitting the calmer northern light, filtering it and diffusing it through vellum. The effect comes as close to perfection here as he has ever achieved, creating spaces that are alive yet serene. Looking up, the white aluminum blades are elegant and less fussy than Piano’s recent work in Los Angeles.

Moving the wing to the north side also allowed Piano to open that entire facade with floor-to-ceiling glass. This gives stunningly sensuous views of Millennium Park across the street, while the double-layer glass blocks the noise of the city. When you see people walking in the gardens across the way, it’s as if Piano has taken a masterpiece of the Art Institute—say, Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—and brought it to life.

Other works like Matisse’s large Bathers by a River gain in juxtaposition with the colorful gardens and water elements of the park outside. Constantin Brancusi’s reflective forms by the window engage with Anish Kapoor’s shiny, bean-shaped Cloud Gate outside, one of the great crowd-pleasing pieces of public art in the park. The south wall overlooking a new garden is also glass, covered with integrated thin scrims when it’s not overcast.

All Renzo Piano museum wings are similar but are not created equal. One may wonder why Chicago did so well. Years ago, I walked through the New National Gallery in Berlin with Piano. He was in awe of the place. It has minimal amounts of glass, steel, and stone, but is elegant, refined, and uplifting to the spirit. It was designed, of course, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a German living in Chicago.

Piano brings some of that back to the Windy City. His exterior is boxy, glassy, and symmetrical like a temple, in the same way that Mies’ was. His slender, white-steel, tapering columns hold up a wafer-like flat white roof that extends out over the galleries; Piano calls it a “flying carpet,” and it’s part of his renowned system of getting natural light into galleries. The roof is Miesian, yet its horizontal thrust also recalls local hero Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style. The platonic cube of the main galleries, with ornament on the side, reminds one of Louis Sullivan’s Midwest banks. Like those, this is a jewel box that contains great treasure.

Piano deftly wove his building into Chicago’s history: He added parallel planes of Indiana limestone walls to complement the Art Institute’s beloved 1893 Beaux Arts building. Piano’s flat facade contains Millennium Park, and his transparent walls allow the grand urban square to transition gracefully from nature and pleasure to city and culture.

Yet not all is right at the Modern Wing. While the main building has a satisfying cube shape, other volumes have been messily added to the east side. First comes the nave-like entrance court, and then another is tacked onto that for more galleries and the restaurant. These feel arbitrary.

Moreover, Piano’s museum gives almost no views of Lake Michigan. Windows or a terrace on the east side would have offered spectacular views of Grant Park and the lake. The Modern Wing is a large intrusion into the “sacred” lakefront parks of Chicago; all the more reason to give back new lake views.

A 620-foot-long pedestrian bridge designed by Piano also mars the project. It blocks the facade, also seems tacked on, and is not well resolved where it meets the adjacent park. The bridge would not be necessary if city authorities had seen the wisdom of closing Monroe Street between the park and the museum, which would also help usher families into the museum.

Piano’s bridge again engages in a dialogue with Gehry, whose bridge in Millennium Park winds left and right like a river. Piano’s is a straight shot up from the park to a third floor sculpture terrace, free to the public, another stroke of civic generosity.

The Art Institute still straddles working train tracks. Part of Piano’s design was to open windows in the existing hall connecting the two parts. He wanted even larger windows, which would have been an improvement.

The museum is rightfully proud of its dignified yet intimate Beaux Arts entrance on Michigan Avenue, which makes Chicagoans feel like they’re going home when they go in, and that makes them feel like part-owners of the collection. Still, many will take Piano’s entrance to the north, which has a more commercial feel. It’s a large space: light-filled, double height, mall-like. Will this change the connection that the next generation feels to the place? Thankfully, the gift shop and cafe in this arcade are not front and foremost.

The Art Institute is seeking LEED Silver certification for the Modern Wing. For a city and a mayor that crow about being the “greenest” in America, a higher level of sustainability could have been achieved.

In the main, though, the Modern Wing is a triumph, with a civilizing presence. Piano has resolved the tension between what he calls a “beautiful fragility” and the need for strength. Power brokers in Chicago felt the city deserved an example of the world’s best contemporary architecture, and they got one.

Lifson and Piano discuss the new museum in an exclusive interview.

The secrets behind the museum can be found just below the surface.

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Hiding in Spammed Sight
We've been bombarded on the blog with increasingly insidious spam over the past few months, which led us to installing CAPTCHA to filter out the bots from the peeps. Hopefully it doesn't cause too much of a problem to all you commenters out there. Meanwhile, as we tried to clean out much of that spam, we came across two particularly compelling comments (not that the rest of you aren't special). The first were these great photos of the Baldwin Hill Scenic Overlook and the second was a particularly poetic remembrance of Max Bond that appeared some three months after his death. You can find both after the jump. An Architect Plans For Peaceful Plains by Frederick B. Hudson The poet Kahlil Gibran hoped that the sons and daughters of the universe not dwell in tombs made by the dead for the living. The native of Lebanon encouraged them to hope that the valleys were your streets, and the green paths your alleys, that you might seek one another through vineyards, and come with the fragrance of the earth in your garments. The lyrical dreams have come to fruition in the career of J. Max Bond, Jr., an internationally known architect whose buildings ranging from libraries to cultural centers in sites as diverse as Zimbabwe and Harlem, New York have included the dreams and aspirations of those who inhabit them. Mr. Bond, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Design School, has for over forty years sought sustainable development for the citizens of the world. Defined by urban planners as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to met their own needs, this concept has found credibility within the United Nations and other allied organizations within the last twenty years. Max Bond started on his quest for this inclusive value system in Ghana in 1964 as an architect for the Ghana National Construction Company. He designed the Bolgatanga Library. He took the needs of the culture in consideration in the design of this project by organizing the space in consideration for the needs of the users of the research facility to meet and share information within the cultural context of African arts and culture. These concerns have marked his work since he feels that the European Bauhaus method of architecture which feels that architecture should be responsive to the needs and influences of the modern industrial world. Bond feels that some housing in Harlem reflects society’s lack of concern for the residents-it is very stark and similar and makes the people in it almost anonymous. He notes that some cities have had to destroy this type of public housing because the social disruption is so intense that it renders life unbearable. “Public housing in Harlem tends to dehumanize the residents It does not make the residents feel that they own the housing. The firms that designed this housing after World War II were not minority owned firms, they went along with the standard concept of the time which was about warehousing people. “In contrast some of the first public housing in Harlem which was the East River housing was designed by a mixed race group of architects in the ’30s was very warm and welcoming to the residents. You enter the houses through courtyards. There is a lot of sculpture in the courtyards which was done by the WPA. It is very humane.” These concerns propelled Bond to establish and lead the Architects Renewal Committee of Harlem(ARCH) in the late 1960s. He was inspired by the presence of brownstones in Harlem which reflected a desire to provide good , stable housing for the middle class in the early 20th century. He and a staff of other architects and lawyers stove to provide poorer community residents with options that they could present to city officials and planning boards as alternatives to establishment plans for renovation and renewal. He encouraged them to consider the effects of neighborhoods plans on the development of neighborhoods. Always the educator, he rose from assistant professor to Chairman of Colu mbia University Graduate School of Architecture and Planning from 1970 to 1985. Among his private commissions during this time was the design of the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He feels that the construction of this building was a prototype of how architects can best serve their community. Jean Blackwell Hutson at first presided over a decaying Carnegie library building where the collection was housed, but through a personal campaign secured public money to construct a new facility after library officials had ignored her pleas for support. Bond intentionally designed the building in 1979 using masonry rather that from glass and steel since more black laborers had skills in these areas. He got very involved in the contracting out of labor to make sure that minority workers got ample share of the work. His design plans specified that the wood used for the paneling and the tables were to be made from a certain type of African wood. When the contractors asks where the wood could be found, he led them to an African company based in the World Trade Center who could supply the wood. No excuses allowed! He says he was able to do this fundamentally because he cared. His concern coupled with a strong advisory board was able to wield influence in the corridors of powers to bring diversity to this effort. When he was asked to design the new university in Zimbabwe, he tried to understand what materials could be supplied locally as well as what concerns were appropriate for the climate there. He designed an environment which provided an updraft which would cool the building during the day with materials that would hold heat during the night for warmth. This is true planning for the future. He also designed the roofs for rainwater collection and reuse. Concerns for maximum use of local labor was incorporated in the design plans. Laborers in the country had been exploited for years by colonial powers and had skills, but they had been denied managerial responsibilities. Bond and his team made every effort to specify use of materials that local natives had worked with in the past, thus creating career paths for local residents. Bond sees buildings as potential magnets for human activity and interaction-his designs for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum reflect his desire for people of good will to meet on common ground for understanding. He recently had significant concerns about the planning process used to rebuild the destroyed twin World Trade Center Towers since he felt that all types of people should have consulted about the use of the land. ” There was an immediate decision to rebuild the commercial use of the land. But all kinds of people should have been consulted about the very use of the land. It could have been a park or anything. Poets, dancers, artists as well as architects should have been consulted about this space which was created by tragedy.” Bond contrasts this exclusive process of land use to the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan where the minority community rose up when the bones of their ancestors were discovered beneath public property. “People demanded change.” A true visionary, Bond is committed to reminding residents of the world’s cities and villages of the admonition of Gibran: In their fear your forefathers gathered you too near together. And that fear shall endure a little longer. A little longer shall your city walls separate your hearths from your fields.
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The Finished Line
Sunset over Hollywood Park.
Alkes/Panoramio

A recent decision by the Inglewood City Council has paved the way for a real estate development to replace Hollywood Park, one of California’s few remaining thoroughbred racetracks. After the council approved a final environmental impact report and zoning change for the $2 billion, 238-acre project on June 3, preservationists and horsing racing fans have been chomping at the bit to stop it.

The proposed project in the densely populated South Bay region of Los Angeles would create a new neighborhood with 3,000 residential units ranging from market rate single-family residences to multi-level apartment complexes. Commercial, retail and entertainment components are also planned, as well as 25 acres of open space highlighted by an existing lake in the center of the racetrack.

An existing casino would be updated and joined with a new 300-room hotel. Affordable housing is not currently incorporated into the master plan, but according to council member Ralph Franklin, the city will consider using the four acres put aside for civic use to develop housing for low-income residents.

A proposed redevelopment plan for Hollywood Park would replace everything but the tower-topped casino in the background.
Courtesy Wilson Meany Sullivan

Wilson Meany Sullivan is the developer of both Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows, a San Mateo racetrack that was demolished in 2008 to make way for a real estate venture resembling the one proposed in Inglewood. But the 82-acre development has come to a halt as a result of the economic downturn and is on hold for the time being. Currently, all that remains of historic Bay Meadows is a mound of concrete rubble.

That’s what worries opponents of the Hollywood Park development. The housing market in Inglewood, like the rest of the nation, has dropped out in the past year and there are already more than 500 homes in foreclosure within the same zip code as the proposed development.

The proposed Arroyo Plaza.
Courtesy Wilson Meany Sullivan

Diane Becker, a vocal advocate of the park and founder of Save Hollywood Park, says she does not understand how the city could allow the destruction of the landmark racetrack in light of what’s happened at Bay Meadows. “I would think any city would love to have something like this [racetrack]. It just doesn’t make economic sense to tear it down. Hollywood Park is too important,” she said.

Becker and a group of Hollywood Park supporters have been lobbying city hall, insisting that the destruction of the 71-year-old track will be a significant economic and cultural loss for Inglewood. Becker said she did not rule out future lawsuits to try to stop the project from going forward. She and the other supporters of the track see the mixed-use development as contributing to urban sprawl, adding nothing of architectural significance to the region.

Cinema Plaza.
Courtesy Wilson Meany Sullivan

But Kevin Tyrrell, a principal at L.A.-based Quatro Design Group, believes his design team is running a different race. (In addition to Quatro, the designers include Cooper Robertson & Partners of New York and San Francisco-based Baldauf Catton Von Eckartsberg. Mia Lehrer + Associates developed the landscape design.)

Tyrrell sees the development as urban infill and a way to intimately stitch together neighborhoods that are currently separated by the expansive grounds and asphalt parking lots. He says the team chose to focus on a variety of typologies rather than a specific architectural style in an effort to create a diverse aesthetic that might appear to have grown more organically. They emphasized the relationships between buildings, streets, and greenways, placing less prominence on the car.  “The plan creates walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods with a lot of open space,” Tyrrell said.


A postcard of the racetrack from the 1940s, during its inaugural decade.
Courtesy Metro Library and Archive/Flickr

In regard to the opposition to the project, Tyrrell said the designers take their responsibility very seriously. “There is the potential to have a major impact on a city,” he said. “We see this project for the transformational potential that it has.”

A few zoning issues remain to be resolved by the Inglewood City Council, such as rezoning the site away from commercial recreation, and approving proposed general land use amendments. A final public hearing on July 8 is expected to resolve these matters. Once finalized, Hollywood Park will remain open at least one more year, or until construction on the development can actually begin.

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Unveiled: Lincoln Building
Green screens provide shade, cooling, and a little bit of color to a hopeful project in a downtrodden neighborhood.
Courtesy Brininstool + Lynch

Located in the northeast corner of Syracuse’s Near Westside, the Lincoln Building is scheduled to be the first completed project under the initiative funded by Syracuse University and New York State to revitalize the dilapidated neighborhood. Collaborating with Syracuse University School of Architecture, the Syracuse Center of Excellence, UPSTATE, and other local consultants and community members, Chicago-based Brininstool + Lynch redesigned the turn-of-the-century brick warehouse as a commercial and residential facility targeting a LEED Platinum rating.

Firm principal Brad Lynch described the four-story building, which will provide a live-work space for visiting artists and musicians, as a “pretty basic loft conversion” aside from the numerous green technologies it will integrate. A green roof system will allow up to 15,000 gallons of rainwater to be collected in an underground cistern, meeting nearly 25 percent of the building’s annual water demand and piping the excess to the site’s rain garden.

A green screen attached to the north, south, and west sides of the facade adds to the building’s energy efficiency with the shade its plantings will provide, but is more important as a symbol of the Near Westside’s future. “It’s more of a billboard for what’s happening with the building and the neighborhood in terms of technology,” said Lynch. “The most important thing is to revitalize the energy of the neighborhood by getting as many people in there as possible.”

Architect: Brininstool + Lynch
Client: Near Westside Initiative
Location: Syracuse, New York
Completion: July 2010

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A MASterwork Outing
We just got our invitation to the Municipal Art Society's annual MASterworks awards. Contained therein are the heretofore unannounced winners, as well. (You can find all four after the jump.) Sadly, the party is invite only, but it's at the new glassy, glamorous Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons, so if nothing else, you can wander by Tuesday night and press your face to the glass, making puppy-dog eyes at we revelers therein. It'll be the perfect Oliver Twist/recession moment. If you're lucky/pretty, we might even sneak you in the side door. Best New Building: The Standard Hotel, by Polshek Partnership (Read our feature here.) Best Restoration: The Lion House at the Bronx Zoo, FXFowle Best Renovation/Adaptive Resuse: Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, Lyn Rice Architects Neighborhood Catalyst: Times Square TKTS Booth, Perkins Eastman/Choi Ropiha (Read more here.)
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A Hole In Dubai
Construction projects are dropping like flies everywhere you look, falling in the water deader than Air France Flight 447. It's gotten to the point that when a major milestone is met on a significant piece of architecture there is cause not only for rejoicing, but commentary by the architectural press. And lo, our latest great happiness comes (yet again) from the Arabian Desert: In the city of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, work has completed on the structural frame of O-14, an office building somewhat redolent of a block of swiss cheese. Designed by the New York City firm Reiser + Umemoto, the structure makes a significant departure from the otherwise glass-curtain walled edifices of this arid city by the sea. It's exterior is composed of a perforated concrete bearing wall, which does double duty as a shading device, protecting the building from the blazing middle-eastern sun. For a full low down on O-14's uncommon framing system, as well as more construction photos, see our 2008 feature on concrete.
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Public Art New York
East Coast Memorial, Gehron and Seltzer (1963)
Francis Dzikowski

Jean Parker Phifer’s just-published Public Art New York has the friendly, down-to-earth feel of a travel guide.  And it would indeed make the perfect accessory to a walking tour of New York City: it's colorful, packed with photographs and maps, and organized by neighborhood.   


Joie de Vivre, Mark di Suvero (1998)
 

Still Hunt, Edward Kemeys (1883)
 
News, Isamu Noguchi (1940)
 
Crack is Wack, Keith Haring (1986)
 
All photos Francis Dzikowski
 

But plentiful aesthetic and social insights from Phifer (and the book’s photographer, Francis Dzikowski) make Public Art far more than just a guidebook.  Phifer is an architect who spent five years presiding over what is now the Public Design Commission, where she learned to weigh “the complex interplay between a work of public art and its immediate physical surroundings,” she says in the book’s introduction.  She draws on that experience to talk engagingly about how each artwork contributes to its surrounding architecture and public space -- like the way the whimsical benches in the Jacob Javits plaza counterbalance the adjacent courthouses’ grimness and entice passersby to use the square.

Public Art
is also notable for the breadth of its scope, both geographically (it spans all five boroughs) and conceptually.  Phifer extends the definition of “public art” well beyond the traditional monuments and murals:  some of the book’s most interesting choices are unofficial (like the patterns carved surreptitiously into one Soho sidewalk), temporary (like the lighting that appears on the George Washington Bridge on special occasions), and commercial (like the neon advertising in Times Square).

Photographer Francis Dzikowski may be a silent presence in the book, but he’s a strong one nonetheless.  His photographs are thoughtful works of art in their own right, commenting on their subjects through their compositions.   A photograph of the sculpture "Joie de Vivre" (rebuilt on its Ground Zero site soon after 9/11) offers a reminder of the resilience of the quotidian, the sculpture’s exultant form grounded by an unceremonious heap of garbage bags at its feet. Keith Haring's "Crack is Wack" mural provides the backdrop for a huddled trio of sleeping vagrants, whose presence balances the cartoonish mural with the somber realities it references.

And Dzikowski’s lens is frequently playful, capturing people interacting -- sometimes unknowingly -- with the artworks. The muscled figures in Noguchi's "News," above the entrance to Rockefeller Plaza, seem to be considering an oblivious passerby; a bronze panther in Central Park appears about to pounce on a passing biker; and a photograph of the East Coast Memorial is punctuated by a syncopated pattern of pedestrians, their positioning echoing and riffing on the straightforward rhythm of the granite slabs.

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By UNanimous Decree, Urban is Green
A sublime piece of modern architecture, the United Nations Headquarters is a time capsule that preserves almost intact the spirit of the 1950s. From the head sets to the tapestries, which hide the most breathtaking views of Brooklyn and the East River, everything has the air of an early James Bond movie. On May 13th, however, the UN was looking forward to pressing environmental challenges and their urban solutions, as the host of the second part of the "Conference on Sustainable Urbanization in the Information Age," entitled “The Role of Infrastructure in Metropolitan Development.” Speakers from places and realities as diverse as Mexico, Estonia, Spain, Australia, Kenya, and the UK agreed that urban living is the greenest way to live. “Living well is the only sustainability,” concluded New York’s own Rick Bell, Executive Director of the AIA NY chapter, and that seemed to be the motto throughout the sessions. With the world urban population growing at an incredible pace (I was shocked to discover that my home country of Uruguay leads the world ranking with 91 percent of its population living in urban areas) speakers called for responsible planning, emphasizing the usual topics of density, public transport, affordable housing, and sanitation. What was a surprise, though, was the acknowledgment by many officials that governmental and sub governmental systems were inefficient and over regulated, impeding the implementation of better policies. Conflicts of governance and large bureaucracies, along with poor civic engagement and lack of private and public partnerships make it difficult for all these “good intentions” to be put to practice. When our planet is in peril, it is no surprise that major attention should be taken to cities, after all “urban centers are the ticking hearts of civilization,” to use words of Sarbuland Khan, of the Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies. Also cities are the epicenter of the catastrophic global economic crisis in which we are living, but nevertheless, it is important not to compromise sustainable practices for the sake of reactivating the economy. The US government’s promises to end the economic slump come in the form of a stimulus package for infrastructure, but the kind of infrastructure we plan will determine the way we live and use the cities of the future, so we must chose responsibly. Keynote speaker Under Secretary-General Dr. Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka plead to consider this as an opportunity to instill principles of sustainability into infrastructure development: “The challenge is to integrate economic environmental and social policies to make our cities economically more competitive, ecologically more sustainable and socially more inclusive and gender responsive. It is important to recognize success factors and remove barriers to their replication… we need local action if we are going to achieve global goals.” It is high time we put aside political interests and start acknowledging that these challenges are not part of some dystopian future, but are right around the corner. Let’s just hope those with the power to make these decisions do so wisely.
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The Gatekeepers
The Public Design Commission controls most every detail of most every public art and design project in the city, including the new Grimshaw-designed bus stops.
Courtesy Cemusa

For nearly 35 years, Paul Broches of Mitchell/Giurgola Architects has been working to make Louis Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island a reality. On a recent Monday, he unrolled his drawings in a low-ceilinged City Hall annex before one of the least known but most influential deliberative bodies in New York: the Public Design Commission (PDC). On this afternoon, the engineer Guy Nordenson, one of 11 commissioners, took a typically conscientious line of questioning: “Will the park be high enough above the East River waterline,” he asked, “to endure rising sea levels due to global warming?” You bet it will, said Broches, who counted the meeting as one more modest victory for the quixotic Kahn project.

For Broches and other architects, the Public Design Commission is a customary stop on the road to public-works approvals. But ask many in the design community about the PDC, and you’re likely to draw a blank. Known until last August as the Art Commission, the PDC has maintained an air of mystery even as it exerts a strong influence over the city’s built environment. According to its mission statement, the commission is charged with approving all “permanent works of art, architecture, and landscape architecture proposed on or over city-owned property.” Yet many architects who have presented municipal projects for review are unclear how the commission works, where its jurisdiction begins and ends, and what guiding principles the commissioners hold in shaping the city’s future.


The commission oversaw the expansion of Staten Island's St. George Ferry Terminal, designed by FTL Design Engineering Studio, which includes these pavilions.
Francis Dzikowski/ESTO

The Design Commission’s low profile is all the more surprising, since its operations are effectively hidden in plain sight. “All our hearings and meetings are open to the public,” said PDC Executive Director Jackie Snyder. The commission’s online calendar includes a docket of every project currently under consideration, and recent committee meetings—informal rehearsals for city agencies in the early stages of a new project—have featured everything from the installation of signage for a library book drop in Queens to a comfort station in the Bronx. Public hearings, where official submissions are made and approval granted or withheld, have recently ranged from newsstands on Madison Avenue to the reconstruction of East Fordham Road in the Bronx.

The PDC’s bailiwick has remained largely unchanged since the Art Commission’s creation in 1898. As called for in the charter of the then newly consolidated City of New York, the commission’s first members were appointed for three-year, unpaid terms at the recommendation of the Fine Arts Federation, an independent cultural consortium. The federation nominated one architect, one painter, a sculptor, and three “lay members.” Three additional commissioners were selected by the most prominent cultural institutions of the day: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the New York Public Library. Today, the PDC’s membership breaks down in precisely the same way, chosen by the same process, with one more lay member appointed at the mayor’s discretion and a landscape architect rounding out the group.


James Carpenter designed The Inclined Light Wall for a Polshek addition to the hall of Science in 2004.
Francis Dzikowski/ESTO
 
The Commission Also oversees public institutions, such as the Hospital for Special Surgery, which expanded in 2006
Courtesy HSS
 
One Stone (2007) by cai guo-qiang was conceived in concert with the Bronx County Hall of Justice, by Rafael Viñoly Architects.
Francis Dzikowski/ESTO

 

 

 

The commission’s review powers are much as they were over a hundred years ago. In developing any public works project, every branch of the city’s vast bureaucracy must prepare a series of presentations for the commission. Usually the work of the consulting architect, these presentations follow a three-step process: conceptual, preliminary, and final.

The first two take place during public hearings in the commission’s offices, attended by members of the agencies involved (invariably) and by concerned members of the public (infrequently). The presenter outlines the project’s objectives and design strategies, while the commissioners make suggestions and take a casual thumbs-up, thumbs-down vote. The final stage entails only a submission of project documents. The result is fair and reasonable, according to veterans of the process. “I’ve presented to the PDC many, many times,” Broches said. “Even though the character of the commission changes as the commissioners change, I’ve always found them to be smart, serious-minded, and amicable.”

Some civic construction escapes the commission’s purview: Federal and state buildings fall outside their mandate, and some city buildings are the province of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The PDC also passes judgment on a surprising volume of construction beyond the city limits, like the entire Croton Aqueduct system, with its headhouses, gatehouses, and signposts scattered throughout Westchester County.

Other projects submitted for review aren’t actually being reviewed at all. “Courtesy” reviews are commonplace, delivered by non-city agencies in an effort to garner broad political support. As it turned out, the presenters of Four Freedoms Park, which is to be built on state-owned land, were performing one such courtesy call. “The Design Commission is involved with so many projects on public land in New York, it just seemed eminently reasonable to get their opinion,” said Sally Minard, who has helped spearhead the project.

The commission strives to avoid unexpected—and expensive—design revamps as much as is practical. As Snyder explained, “We usually try to have people come in earlier, so that it’s easier and less expensive for agencies to change designs.” But clearly, the committee isn’t just applying a rubber stamp. At a recent hearing, Department of Transportation (DOT) personnel milled around the PDC’s waiting room, having just finished their “second or third preliminary” for a Bronx highway improvement. More anodyne projects—a public toilet for Prospect Park, for example—are sometimes fast-tracked, given final approval at their preliminary hearing.

So what is the PDC’s yardstick for successful design? “Our goal is not to turn people into clones of us, but to make their project the best it can be,” said Signe Nielsen, principal of environmental planners Mathews Nielsen and the commission’s current landscape architect. The “us” of the moment constitutes a fair cross-section of influential New Yorkers: Other commissioners include architect James Polshek, Paula Scher of Pentagram, and a former director of Forest City Ratner, James Stuckey. “Whether we are wealthy patrons or scruffy academics, professionals or artists,” Nordenson said in an interview, “we share the belief that we can build a discourse about what is good design or not and cut through the bureaucratic yadda yadda.”

At times, New York’s small design world can cause complications. At a recent hearing, Nielsen recused herself for one session as Anne Trumble of Mathews Nielsen gave the preliminary proposal for the firm’s DOT-sponsored redesign of West 125th Street just landward of the Hudson River. The renovation includes moving and resurfacing crosswalks to coincide with Columbia University’s planned satellite campus for the neighborhood. At the advice of the PDC, benches with rounded armrests will be scattered around the site, echoing the looped arches of the Riverside Drive viaduct above.

 


Rendering of a Department of Transportation-sponsored redesign by Mathews Nielsen of West 125th Street at Fairway Plaza; the PDC suggested bench arms to echo the shapes of the viaduct passing overhead.
Courtesy Mathews Nielson

And the commission has had its share of contention. An uproar over the Parks Department’s Washington Square renovation brought crowds to commission meetings in 2005. (To little avail: The project moved forward.) Another episode, described in former commissioner Michele Helene Bogart’s illuminating book about the commission The Politics of Urban Beauty, involved former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, whose enthusiasm for “yardarm” flagpoles and animal motifs led him to circumvent the Art Commission on a number of occasions. This prompted a lawsuit, eventually settled, from Commission President Reba White Williams.

More typically, though, the PDC expressly avoids confrontation. “If the person running the meeting senses there’s a mixed opinion, we table the project,” said Nielsen. These rare differences are ironed out at executive sessions that are closed to the public, and where, according to Bogart, members discuss projects candidly. “When the politics around a project are particularly sensitive, it’s better to have an executive session,” Bogart explained.

Politics do occasionally intrude. Former Commission President Jean Phifer of architecture firm Thomas Phifer & Partners described an attempt in the late 1990s to abolish the commission outright, spurred on by a Staten Island councilman. (Phifer is the author of the new book Public Art New York, which includes the photography of Francis Dzikowski that can be found accompanying this article.)

The commission oversees work of all sizes and uses, including Barretto Point Park in the Bronx, designed by landscape architect Ricardo Hinkle with designer Rachel Kramer.
Malcolm Pinckney/Courtesy NYC Parks & Recreation

Mayor Giuliani interceded on the commission’s behalf, but Giuliani was otherwise less supportive of the commission than Mayor Bloomberg has been. “The difference between now and then is that the commission under Giuliani had no clout,” Bogart said. Mayor Bloomberg’s support of the PDC and of urban design generally has helped bolster the commission’s efforts, as evidenced by his creation, with the PDC’s input, of the Design and Construction Excellence program. One more change under Mayor Bloomberg has been the reassertion of PDC review power in the case of private leases on public land, a move that has helped extend the commission’s reach.

The best evidence of the commission’s scope and vision is in the city’s public works over the past decade. Hudson River Park, the Fulton Street Transit Center, the
Van Cortlandt Park filtration plant—if these can be taken together as signal projects, what sort of design preferences emerge? A clarity of visual language; a clean, muscular sense of materiality; an emphasis on environmental sensitivity. Struggling to sum it up, Nielsen simply said, “I could say it in fancy archi-speak, but it boils down to this: Will I still want to look at it in 20 years?”

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Protest: Save the Memorial Coliseum
Part of what makes the Memorial Coliseum so special is that its massive roof rests on only four concrete pillars, seen here during construction.

This glass box in the center of Portland, Oregon, has hosted performances by The Beatles, Luciano Pavarotti, and Elvis Presley. The Dalai Lama has spoken within its cavernous volume, as did Barack Obama during his presidential campaign. The Trail Blazers, Portland’s beloved NBA franchise, won its sole championship in the building in 1977, and UCLA took home one of its many titles from the venue a decade before that. Allen Ginsberg, while attending the aforementioned Beatles concert, was struck by inspiration and wrote a poem entitled “Portland Coliseum.”

While its cultural history is impressive, that will not be enough to save the venue from demolition: The Memorial Coliseum has been threatened by a proposal to build a minor league baseball stadium in its place. But the structure’s exquisite beauty and refined engineering has motivated a host of architects, sports fans, historians, artists, and design enthusiasts to join together in an attempt to preserve it.

Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and dedicated on January 8, 1961, the Memorial Coliseum was shaped in part by Gordon Bunshaft, the firm’s best-known architect, famous for landmarks such as Lever House in New York. It is one of the more unique arenas in the United States, if not the world, because of its high level of transparency. The 12,000-seat seating bowl is structurally independent from the surrounding glass box, which, in spite of its massive four-block expanse, stands on only four columns. When the bowl’s encompassing curtains are drawn open (something that hasn’t happened in many years), the arena can be flooded with natural light.

An interior shot of the coliseum by  Julius Shulman shows how its unique structure allowed for entirely unobstructed views as well as ample natural light, a rarity in most indoor stadia.
Julius Shulman

In the book Modernism Rediscovered, a photograph by legendary architectural photographer Julius Shulman (taken shortly after Memorial Coliseum’s opening) shows the hockey arena during the day without artificial light. This transparency also extends to the outer concourses. Instead of walking through a rabbit warren of interior circulation spaces closed off from the outside, visitors to Memorial Coliseum enter and exit the seating bowl with panoramic floor-to-ceiling views of the downtown skyline.

The coliseum sits in the Rose Quarter, a loosely knit sports-and-event complex that also includes the larger 20,000-seat Rose Garden arena. Most cities upgrading to new professional sports venues have torn down the arenas they replace. Most recently, Philadelphia tore down The Spectrum, which had a history at least as illustrious as Memorial Coliseum’s—but was arguably less architecturally significant. The Rose Garden, however, isn’t the biggest threat to Memorial Coliseum.

The demolition danger has arisen from proposed changes to PGE Park, another stadium across town. Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Beavers AAA baseball franchise and the Portland Timbers minor-league soccer team, has won initial approval from Major League Soccer to bring the sport to the Rose City. But MLS prefers its teams to play in soccer-only venues. That means Paulson’s baseball Beavers need to vacate PGE Park so it can be converted for soccer, necessitating the need for a new home for the baseball team.

The coliseum is still a stunning sight to behold, even as its demolition looms.
Matthew Ginn/Homestead Images

Initially, Paulson and Portland Mayor Sam Adams hatched a plan for a baseball stadium to replace Memorial Coliseum. But at a public open house in April to introduce the plan, Adams heard a chorus of opposition. Public and media skepticism for the plan has been overwhelming: Two opinion polls found a more than 8-to-1 advantage for those opposing razing the coliseum. The City Council was set to vote on a plan on April 22, but the mayor postponed the vote indefinitely after it became clear that he would lose 3-2. As of this writing, city planners and Paulson’s advisors are considering several alternate locations for a baseball stadium, though the Coliseum site remains an option.

Even if Memorial Coliseum avoids demolition, it could be significantly altered by future Rose Quarter plans. Although owned by the city, billionaire Blazers owner Paul Allen’s Oregon Arena Corporation (OAC) manages the site. The company has proposed opening an entertainment zone inside the coliseum, pending the removal of its distinctive seating bowl. An open-air music venue has also been proposed, which may reduce the arena to a mere skeleton. Research by William Macht, associate director of Portland State University’s Center for Real Estate, also shows that OAC’s management deal gives the company a financial incentive to break even in operating the coliseum, but a disincentive to turn a profit, contributing to the building’s current disrepair.

While the threat to the Coliseum highlights the difficulties faced by mid-20th-century modernist architecture when seeking acceptance as historically significant, there may also be optimism found in its boisterous defense. In this case, a small but vocal group of architects and activists may have successfully stared down the opposing interests of two billionaire sports franchise owners and a sex-scandal-plagued mayor desperate to complete a major project before a recall campaign this summer. So for the time being, when it rains in Portland, which is often, locals can seek solace in their glass palace.

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Under the Skin
Ernesto Neto has designed a new installation at the Park Avenue Armory.
Lisa Delgado

A Tyrannosaurus rex might elicit awe at the Museum of Natural History, but across town at the Park Avenue Armory, an equally majestic beast has taken up residence. A creation of Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, anthropodino is an arched labyrinth constructed out of wooden “bones” towering several feet high, like the rib cage of some gargantuan prehistoric reptile. The art installation opening tomorrow inaugurates the armory’s new annual program of commissioned artworks for the 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall.

For some artists, the vast expanse of the Drill Hall space might have been “almost terrifying,” according to the armory’s consulting curator Tom Eccles, but Neto had already shown his flair for large-scale immersive works, with similarly scaled sensorial installations in Rome, Paris, and Malmö, Sweden. Neto grew up architecturally savvy.


 
 
photographs by Lisa Delgado
 
 

His father was a mechanical engineer and homebuilder, and as a boy, Neto often witnessed the construction process of his dad’s projects. Nowadays, the artist’s sensuous biomorphic installations, which blur the boundaries between art and architecture, are much in demand around the world. His Malmö Experience filled the entire Konsthall there with malleable Lycra environments shaped for visitors to touch and even sit within.

His latest—and largest—creation, anthropodino, reflects Neto’s fascination with two creatures that have each dominated the planet in their own time: dinosaurs and Homo sapiens. Dinosaurs represent awesome power, “But in the end they were too weak to survive the fast transformations of their own habitat,” Neto said. “This conflict between strength and fragility has a lot to do with all my work… and with the future of our own human civilization on Earth.” Like all of his installations, this one can be seen as “animal architecture,” he added.

The curvature of the Drill Hall’s barrel-vaulted roof inspired the forms of the installation, which consists of two parts: a “labyrinth” with a central dome rising up from the floor, and a canopy with spice-filled tentacles, or “drops,” hanging down from the hall’s iron trusses. Conceived in a different design language, the hanging portion is “not exactly the anthropodino, but a voice of it, a thinking of it, a breath of it,” Neto said.

The fabrication involved an eclectic high- and low-tech mix. Long Island City fabricator Jan Mollet cut the many pieces of birch plywood frame using a CNC mill, according to project manager Richard Griggs. In Neto’s home base, Rio de Janeiro, workers used hundred of yards of Lycra to hand-sew the skins of the tent-like, labyrinthine passageways and central dome, as well as the 190-foot-by-100-foot canopy. The cloth was then shipped to New York and fireproofed.

Right before the month-long exhibit opened, Neto and a team of a dozen helpers worked several days to put the elaborate installation together with a military precision befitting the Drill Hall. First, the canopy had to be hung from hooks attached to the trusses, according to armory president and CEO Rebecca Robertson. The heavy, spice-filled drops were then hoisted into the air using 80-foot articulating boom lifts, and laced onto the canopy by hand.

As for the labyrinth, the arches and central spine of the frame are slotted together by hand onsite, with no nails. It’s designed a bit like a huge version of a toy dinosaur model, curator Eccles said. Next, the wood frame had to be covered with the Lycra skin. Outside the labyrinth are areas devoted to rest and tactile sensations, including a pool filled with 28,000 plastic balls, a soft pink carpet to lie on, and a giant beanbag mattress.

Despite all the preparation, Neto’s installations have sometimes surprised him in the final forms they take. “He plans it meticulously, but it’s weight/counterweight, and it’s stretchy fabric, so when it all drops, he doesn’t 100 percent know how it’s going to work,” Robertson remarked. “It’s very alive, in a way."