“See exquisite images capturing the indomitable spirit of NYC as photographer Jake Rajs celebrates the city’s newest landmarks—Time Warner Center, Hudson River Park, MoMA sculpture garden and more—placing them in the context of famous highlights such as Rockefeller Center, the Brooklyn Bridge, Lincoln Center, and Times Square.” 92Y Tribeca
The Living City: N E W YO R K’S H A B I T O F R E I N V E N T I O N
Introduction By Philip Nobel
"IF YOU’VE MADE IT ANYWHERE, you must make it here. That was the attitude of New York at the turn of this century toward the work of the world’s greatest architects. Watching as other places were enhanced with the newest and best buildings, the city examined itself, regretted the absence of novel structures that capture the imagination, and it began to summon the architects famous for making them: the greats of the profession, young and old, none of whom had yet made a mark on New York. Those architects heeded the call; they have come in droves, changing the city into a showcase of contemporary architecture—a crucial part of what is new in New York today.
It was not always so. As recently as 2000, it was a major event when a corporate cafeteria was completed on a low floor of a Times Square skyscraper—an astonishing buzz accompanied the opening of the private space in the Condé Nast headquarters. Newspapers and magazines ran reviews of it at a length and intensity that would have done justice to a world’s-tallest tower on the skyline or a concert hall on a public square. Something extraordinary had happened: Frank Gehry, that son of Los Angeles and toast of the world, had finally built something in Manhattan.
The heights of excitement reached then over an intensively decorated lunch room (for it was no more) had a lot to do with its architect; two years after the opening of his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Gehry was at the top of his game, the brightest star in a profession increasingly defined by its roster of stars, and anticipation was mounting that he would someday focus his attention here. But the reaction had as much to do with the peculiar habits and psychology of New York: the city goes about building and rebuilding itself in its own timeworn way—often at the mercy of risk-averse developers and the reliable, unchallenging architects they favor—and its citizens, at least that portion of the whole that is conscious of the architecture around them, had at the time succumbed to a sense that the place was becoming second-rate. We watched as striking new buildings were completed in smaller, less dynamic cities all over the world. We fretted as paragons of the local scene—Richard Meier, say—were given the opportunity to share their particular genius with the suburbs of Rome but not Fifth Avenue or Chelsea. We coveted distant work by notable architects based abroad—British technologists, surreal young Dutch, Japanese masters of the minimal, intellectual French—who seemed to be defining the public presence of the new century everywhere but in the city that had so long served, that prides itself in serving, as the measure of cultural novelty for the world. A new era was dawning, a new breed of architects was proposing a thousand new looks for it, and the city with new in its name was still building itself out of old stuff. A certain cadre in New York lamented, Why can’t we have the new stuff here?
Flash forward a decade to October 2010 and the opening of Norman Foster’s Sperone Westwater Gallery. The high, narrow construction on the Bowery is a solid example of the innovation-minded modernism that has earned Foster a reputation for reliable good taste and decades of city-shaping commissions from Berlin to Hong Kong. The building even has a flashy, look-at-me-Manhattan feature—a huge red elevator running up and down the facade behind a wall of glass—that should have had cameras uploading and local pundits pounding out raves on their keyboards at first glance.
Reviews were written; obeisance was paid to Foster’s ample fame. But there was a decided lack of the lovable, neurotic, excessive carnival of adulation that New York City can conjure in an instant for the big events that really catch its fancy. One of the most celebrated architects on the planet had built an interesting new building downtown and we heard hardly a peep.
Of course, by 2010, Manhattan already had a Foster: the diamond-trussed headquarters of the Hearst Corporation on Eighth Avenue. It also had two new Gehrys, two quirky residential towers by the French architect Jean Nouvel, and a pair of Renzo Pianos, out of one issued each day, no less, the crucial musings of the New York Times. A gorgeous glass-fronted apartment building designed by the hip Swiss duo Herzog & de Meuron had settled in three blocks north of the Foster Gallery. One block to the south was the shimmering new home of the New Museum, the first New York building by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, doing business as SANAA, a firm whose faraway work (Japan, Ohio) had long stirred local jealousies. By then Manhattan even had its first three Richard Meiers (and Brooklyn a massive fourth). Local art-scene legends Liz Diller, Ric Scofidio, and Charles Renfro were updating the mid-century modern mishmash of Lincoln Center—and with James Corner, a landscape architect, the office had reimagined a defunct elevated railbed on the West Side as a popular destination for high-minded strolling. Stalwart New York firm Polshek Partnership (now Ennead Architects) straddled the High Line, as the new park is known, with a striking neo-brutalist hotel. Even Shigeru Ban and Neil Denari, designers with hard-won reputations for reclusiveness—and what says genius more?—did their part, each building a residential condominium in West Chelsea. Bernard Tschumi, known as a revolutionary when he first moved to the city decades before, had completed his first commercial project in Manhattan, a curious blue glass tower on the Lower East Side. The California maverick Thom Mayne, famous for his radically layered constructions, realized his first New York building not too far away on Cooper Square; next door, Carlos Zapata, a slick Miami-bred stylist, offered up a twisted hotel. Both rose in the shadow of the late Charles Gwathmey’s most outré local building, a condo on Astor Place that was his last, best attempt to keep up with the bubbling international scene. Those final four downtown novelties were each but a stone’s throw from the Norman Foster gallery. It was lost in the crowd.
IN AN INSTANT, New York City, Manhattan, in particular, had gone mad for what is perceived to be the cutting edge in architecture at a scale not seen since builders first traded brick and stone for steel and glass in the decades after World War II. Judged by the informal precepts of the media- architectural complex—that great design equals great explosions of eye-catching form by a select group of accepted “greats”—the city could now hold its head high. Higher at least than many thought possible during the design doldrums of the late 1990s.
What happened? How had New York City gone from bypassed observer to eager participant in what amounts to a global competition between cities to build the coolest buildings? Certainly, economics played a role, as it must for this deeply contingent art, one that is forever dependent on the timely infusion of capital; many of the projects that popped up around town in the last ten years owe their existence to the real estate boom (their stillborn siblings to the bust). But ready financing alone cannot account for the new, shared sensibility, the wholesale transformation of collective taste, that coursed from design studios to boardrooms to job sites on its way to being made visible in hundreds of new buildings that have altered the look and feel of the city. What changed?
It is important to remember here the writing of Herbert Muschamp, the outspoken architecture critic of the New York Times who died in 2007. “Lunch will be garnished with genius,” he wrote in his review of Gehry’s Condé Nast cafeteria in April 2000, and it was the importation of such architectural genius to Manhattan that defined his mission. In essay after strident, strangely compelling essay, Muschamp wove attacks on the culture and practices of New York developers with pleas to the client-class to recognize—to allow themselves to “desire” as he often put it—the work of a specific group of aesthetically adventurous architects he promoted. In that way—by embracing novel, high-impact architecture—and in that way alone, he would argue, could New York maintain its status as a culture capital in the globalized world. The city still lacks a significant project by Muschamp’s great love, Rem Koolhaas, to gaze at and adore (here we trail Rotterdam and Seattle and Beijing). Iraqi- born, London-based Zaha Hadid, another of Muschamp’s critical darlings, is glaringly unrepresented as well. Hometown hero Peter Eisenman has not yet been given a crack at his native Manhattan. But the current state of the city, intercut as it is with glamorous designs from members of an elite he specifically championed, is in part the late critic’s million-word legacy: we are living in Herbert’s world.
A second factor in the city’s sea change is of a very different nature—not the work of one man but of the civic body reacting to crisis with one mind. Calls for involving fresh architectural thinking in the reconstruction of Ground Zero were heard within days of the attack on the World Trade Center.
Gehry himself was in the city on September 11, 2001, and he visited the barricaded perimeter of the devastation soon after with his client Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Museum. Giddy rumors spread that the two had designs on the place. Muschamp’s appeals for the deployment of what he called “progressive architects” reached a fevered pitch. Still, the first formal efforts to redevelop the site fell into that older, truer New York pattern: a developer hiring a trusted firm (in this case Larry Silverstein and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) to solve the problem from the special perspective of big business. That, of course, given the communal pain, could not stand; New Yorkers and the world demanded an appropriate symbolic response, a healing gesture. But who could deliver it? What was the alternative to what everyone then referred to as “business as usual”? Only the stars.
That was all that architecture culture could offer: an either/or choice between the large, conservative bureaucratic offices and the flashy, globe-trotting designers who were always seen as artists first.
I have argued elsewhere at length that a third way, combining creativity and competence, surface and soul, might have gotten better results; despite the attention given its design; despite the presence now of steel and concrete that will become a museum, an office tower, and a train station by various name-brand architects; despite even the possibility of a Gehry on the site, Ground Zero is not shaping up to be a great inspiration. Taken as a whole, it will be of, rather than alien to, the native building culture of Manhattan. That may be the best result: we don’t want to see the blow to the city that could change its ancient ways. Still, throughout the course of the famously convoluted and contentious process to redevelop the site, in one supersaturated media event after another, the city was exposed to something new: avant-garde designers selling avant-garde designs in expert fashion. It sparked a craving.
Would New York City open itself at last to the work of cutting-edge architects? Many of the development battles that did so much to protract the debate over the future of Ground Zero revolved around that question. Whether they were better equipped than standard-issue architects to solve the raft of physical and emotional problems at the site was a question less often asked. In the end, it was largely moot; SOM retained the commission for the major building, Freedom Tower, now known, in homage, as One World Trade Center. With its gently tapering glass facades and exceptional height, that building will be a stirring sight when it tops out, certainly at dawn and dusk, but it will not likely challenge observers’ preconceptions about what is possible in architecture. Perhaps nothing at Ground Zero will. Still, the high-profile involvement thereof that other kind of architect—most of all through the vocal presence of Daniel Libeskind, who for a time controlled the master plan of the new World Trade Center—got surprising results in surprising places. In the years that followed, evidence piled up at construction sites all over town: New York’s developers sensed the dramatic shift in public taste. They shed old habits. Stars were sought out and hired. Star buildings rose. The results, some glorious, some not, some nearly so, fill these pages.
It remains to be seen whether the new architecture of New York will make a better New York; none of the buildings so well captured here by Jake Rajs can match the Department of Transportation’s recent creative work—taking over major streets with bike lanes and pedestrian plazas—in catalyzing a salutary transformation of public life; none can equal the esthetic reach of the city’s coordinated newsstand and bus shelter program (or even the authorless decision to swap LEDs for incandescent bulbs in traffic lights). No structure, however brilliant, can reshape the city as profoundly as the miles of new parks that have opened along the Hudson and East Rivers. Moored in place, lording over a single corner (at most four), a given work of architecture is at a disadvantage to change the world.
Not even a wholesale shift in architectural taste, however stunning and universal, can compete with planning policy as a factor in urban transformation. And the nature, the quality of individual buildings matters far less in New York than elsewhere.
Here lies one secret of New York City. In any smaller place (and in this sense, they are all smaller), a new building is always, proportionally, that much more of an addition to the skyline. In Boston or Philadelphia or Seattle, one very poorly conceived building might actually “ruin” the look and feel of the city. There isn’t enough mitigating context to compensate for an architect’s bad day. The balancing mass isn’t there. But it’s not just size that insulates New York from the foibles of those who would add to it—and here, like a casual tourist, I really mean Manhattan—but shape. Our single word city doesn’t do much to help us distinguish between the many forms an instance of urbanism can take. The French do better, with two. The word ville connotes a default urban condition, like most of Paris; it means what we mostly mean when we say city. A second term, cité, like the eponymous island in the Seine, is reserved for places that are built up as unified architectural compositions, seamless conglomerations, bastions of buildings that read as a single construction. The outer boroughs, where they aren’t nakedly suburban, tend strongly to ville—an uninterrupted conurbation; brownstone Brooklyn is a good example. Manhattan, of course, is all cité. The entire island, river to river, is the work, the whole, the object that bears interrogation by the eye, the subject of the story, the thing a resident cherishes, what visitors come to see.
Any new building in Manhattan—and this applies equally to a glassy midblock condo and the tower rising at Ground Zero that will be the tallest in the land—is, when seen in context, mere ornament. A bauble among baubles. A knickknack on the shelf. In the images that follow you will find everywhere the power of that shelf—what everyone simply calls, though there are several of them, “the grid.” Manhattan is an unforgiving place to build. Observers sometimes speak of an architect being defeated by New York—not just by the political hurdles, the labor unions, the difficult site conditions (bridging this or that bit of infrastructure, hemmed in on all sides by whatever came before), the clashing, entitled neighbors, the absurd expense—but in some occult way by the city itself. What
defeats architects, all of them in time, is the grid: the relentless reiteration of Manhattan’s primal fact, the powerful reassertion of the whole’s priority over the parts, a force that puts even the most extravagant building in its place. To marvel at the Flatiron Building, to revel in the clashing angles of Times Square, is to recognize the power of the grid in the breach by exalting Broadway’s crisscrossing aberration. Grand Central Terminal, too: it is a unique carbuncle, sited as it is, breaking every rule, in the center of Park Avenue. The grid has a life of its own. March 22, 2011, marked the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Commissioner’s Plan, the map that laid out, in an unprecedented act of optimism and hubris, Manhattan’s numbered streets and avenues, the emphatically stretched rectangles of its endless blocks. The Internet crackled that day with birthday wishes—a telling focus of celebration by those who understand what makes New York New York. It’s the grid, stupid, the hive-mind seemed to say. Long may it reign.
TODAY THE GRID is host to a new New York—shinier, curvier, pointier, and with a much fancier architectural pedigree than the previous New York, itself one of so many old New Yorks stretching back to the city’s first stirrings as a playground for ambition. The new New York is prone to bold gestures where its predecessor liked to play it safe. It is urbane, fashion-conscious, worldly. It revels in uncanny surface effects. It has moments of surpassing beauty. It is a bit more like other places. Above all, it is photogenic. But look close in these photographs and you will see another New York. Not old. Not new. The eternal New York: built from the ground up to outlast any momentary eruption of difference, laid out from scratch to live always as an armature for what comes next."
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― Thich Nhat Hanh, Touching Peace: Practicing the A