Tuesday, June 28, 2005
Nicolai Ouroussoff: blinded by ideology
CLICK ON THE PICTURE ABOVE so you can see a larger version of this rendering of a new design for the Lower East Side. Now look at what the New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote about it:
Along with the High Line - which transforms a section of gritty elevated tracks in downtown into a public garden - it represents a clear and much-needed break from the quaint Jane Jacobs-inspired vision of New York that is threatening to transform Manhattan into a theme park version of itself, a place virtually devoid of urban tension. It proves that there are still some in the city who are culturally daring, even if their numbers at times seem to be dwindling.
The "culturally daring" design has earth berms next to a highway, broad, innocuous swaths of grass, and some sort of Asian trees picturesquely placed -- could it be more suburban?
It's not really bad. It is bland, boring and suburban. Why can't Ouroussoff see that? Because like his predecessor at the Times, who hand-picked him, Ouroussoff is an activist advocate for a small group of Starchitects. For Ouroussoff, ideology trumps experience. The critic who writes for "the nation's newspaper" looks with blinders on.
Ouroussoff would tell us the architects he admires are daring, revolutionary, avant-garde architects. But this is an avant-garde with a sell-by date which expired around 1963, when Richard Rogers was just finishing school.
Since that time, Rogers has received (and accepted) two aristocratic titles from Queen Elizabeth, designed one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris, become a rich man because of the demand for his buildings, and become the architectural adviser to the Prime Minister of England and Chairman of London's government panel for architecture and urbanism. He is popular at every leading architecture school, and regularly praised by the New York Times. How revolutionary is that?
"Culturally daring" is architecture-speak for "most people won't like this." It is an elitist excuse for promoting very narrow architectural criteria.
It's an excuse for not tearing down the FDR Drive: "Initially they considered lowering parts of the elevated freeway to ground level, but the cost was prohibitive."
But when it comes to our platinum-plated highway system, the most expensive construction project in the history of the world, nothing is too expensive. Massachusetts and the Federal government just spent $15 billion dollars on the Big Dig, a project which buried 7.8 miles of in-city highway. Cities like Milwaukee and San Francisco have recently torn down highways, replacing them with tree-lined boulevards. New York City pulled down the partially-down West Side Highway, and replaced it with the highway engineer's version of a boulevard. Why does the Bloomberg administration, which has strongly promoted large, expensive development visions like this one, lack the political will to do what previous New York administrations have done when it comes to highways?
The decision to keep the elevated highway on the Lower East Side is a bad one. It is noisy and ugly, and flashing flourescent lights under it won't improve that. Compared with the Bronx Market space under the Deegen Expressway (below), it's low and unpleasant. Anyone who wants better public places in New York, rather than simply more work by Starchitects, can see that.
PS: New York has no "tension"? That's like saying Larry David never kvetches. What Ourousoff really means, again, is "people won't like it."
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Revitalizing CitiesLetters to the EditorThe New York TimesJuly 11, 2005 To the Editor: In Making the Brutal F.D.R. Unsentimentally Humane (Critic's Notebook, June 28), and Seeking First to Reinvent the Arena, and Then the Borough (An Appraisal, July 5)... [Read More]
Tracked on Jul 11, 2005 10:00:31 PM
» A Lyrical Poet / A Blinded Critic from Veritas et Venustas
UPDATE: It seems that previous articles by Ouroussoff have given me similar thoughts. Pierre Chareau's Maison de Verre (Glass House) is a great house. Chareau designed it in the early 1930s, a time in Paris when Modernism was mainly in the future and i... [Read More]
Tracked on Aug 27, 2007 11:40:03 AM
I agree with you that flourescent lights aren't going to help the FDR. But how much time have you spent on the current waterfront, and how much on the renovated West Side? Being someone who thinks leaving New York in the summer is a betrayal of what one puts up with all winter long -- and lacking the means, yes -- I've lived on both sides, and have been an active user of both parks. Say what you want about the plantings on the West Side, it is more dangerous and louder. Lacking neckers or other traffic calming efforts at intersections means that pedestrians are perched without protection on fairly narrow spits of concrete. The FDR generates less noise in my direct experience, and the worst thing about the underside is that most of it is given over to city parking. If the same quality and effort is put into the surface areas that one finds in Hudson River Park, the elevated highway will be fine. As I said in my post, the biggest issue is the relcamation of South Street, which is unneeded, and would provide adequate depth for pedestrian and park space.
Posted by: miss representation at Jun 29, 2005 10:04:55 PM
I've been under the FDR Drive on the LES a few times, but not recently. I've taken several groups to see the West Side park around Perry Street (we often look at the Meier buildings), and I haven't minded the noise, although I certainly mind the width of the lanes and the waist-high "curbs." I'll compare the two sometime this summer.
I've also spent a lot of time by and under the Deegan near Yankee Stadium, and by and over the FDR near Carl Schurz Park and the Cherokee Flats, and I've found the West Side Drive a lot better.
The tearing down of in-city highways is an important step. If we spend a tiny fraction of what we've spent on construction and maintenance, we will have much better cities.
The original conception -- The Townless Highway and the Highwayless Town -- was much better than the vision foisted on us by the highway engineer.
Posted by: john massengale at Jun 29, 2005 10:45:27 PM
John: Do you think a better approach to the elevated highway issue might be the French approach-building new workshops, storefronts and even public buildings and streets-in the current dead zone? My only concern with the remove the freeway movement is that too many of the surface streets (even if called "boulevards") are quite noisy and unpleasant. I have no New York experience, but 19th Avenue in San Francisco (as well as the Oak/Fell "pair" are awful, awful streets, They are not major visual barriers like a freeway would be, but having all that traffic spewing exhaust at street level may not be ideal. I don't know the answer to this....:)
Posted by: Brian Miller at Jun 30, 2005 11:48:00 AM
Not to deny, of course, that removal of the Embarcadero Freeway was an unbelievable benefit to everyone in the city except, allegedly, a few Chinatown tourist trinket vendors who claim their business went down due to poorer access.
Posted by: Brian Miller at Jun 30, 2005 11:51:33 AM
What French examples do you mean? With the exception of roads along some rivers, the French have usually kept highways outside their cities.
Posted by: john massengale at Jun 30, 2005 12:20:56 PM
I thought I'd read somewhere-maybe it's the Peripherique around Paris-that they incorporated shop space into the freeway overhead. Sorry.
I may be wrong on that-but what do you think about the practicalities of integrating the freeways back into the urban fabric? There may be serious difficulties, but it's an idea.
Posted by: Brian Miller at Jun 30, 2005 12:37:44 PM
Mostly it's tai chi asian residents and also fishermen down there. I don't mind the elevated fdr as it gets the noise off street level. I'd like to see a crit of the "details" like no dog runs, how the bike lanes are positioned as to not have walkers creating constant crash potential. ect.
Also once again, no place to cook out because new yorkers can't be allowed to actually enjoy themselves can they.
Posted by: morty cleveland at Jun 30, 2005 3:37:46 PM
Traffic noise -- and safety -- is slightly better around Perry because the lights are timed more tightly. Once you approach Canal, you have tunnel traffic issue, and between Canal and Chambers it a drag strip: wider, louder, and less sidewalk (particularly at Harrison, where the BMCC has placed temporary office and classooms as a result of damage to Fiterman Hall).
I didn't think about the maintenance aspect to elevated roadways, but I also wonder if the typical cost benefit equation should be recalculated when considering the benefit that you might get with more net surface areas to share between traffic and pedestrians.
As to the Paris example, you can look at the Chinatown markets as an interesting reuse (underside of the Manhattan bridge). I've also see similar proposals for other bridges, though that doesn't help the park and public space issue (and we don't really need more trinket kiosks or mall space, considering how barren South Street Seaport is).
I guess I'm embittered and pragmatic. Until the DOT reliquishes control of traffic calming to local entities, I have little hope in reducing the threat and annoyance presented by traffic, and would rather they speed overhead than at waist level.
Posted by: miss representation at Jun 30, 2005 6:39:30 PM
Your narrow aesthetic preferences have sullied your criticism of the project even more so than Nicolai's. Yes, Nicolai has a clear bias towards 'starchitects', but that is where you both miss the point. The true progressivism is in the process, not the result. The plan evolved as a partnership between the design team and the community. The project may be suburban, but after 120 meetings with every possible constituent any project will turn to vanilla. Your ideas sound shockingly similar to the 'tear it down and figure it out later' planning of Robert Moses, not Jacobs. Let's not forget that your precious Parisian boulevard is also known as 9A, a nearly impassable freeway at grade that produces more noise than an elevated roadway, along a 100' barrier to the waterfront. Furthermore, what you failed to mention about Richard Rogers is that unlike other 'starchitects' RRP was established with a constitution that is genuinely concerned with improving the built environment. Sustainable design has been a core principle since day one. But even more significantly, the firm has contributed to things other than the architect's ego and the bottom line with a staff profit-sharing scheme and significant contributions to charity. And, a true sign that Rogers does not belong to the group of architects that you would place him is that he has not received a Pritzker, the ultimate sign of egomania (you haven't been in an architecture school in 15 years if you still think that Rogers is a academic darling). You should make it clearer that your true criticism is of Dr. NO and the particular type of architects that he supports than one of the few plans to come along that will have a significant (positive) impact on the city for years to come.
Posted by: Steve at Jul 3, 2005 2:10:18 PM
What are "my narrow aesthetic preferences" -- the fact that I'm not especially fond of most of Rogers's work? My preferences are demonstrably much wider than his. He's tried a couple of times to get the Labour government to stop traditional design.
Are you calling the DiMaggio highway "my precious Parisian boulevard"? I criticize it as being the traffic-engineer's version of the boulevard. And I link to these books, which show how to do it right. The authors designed the boulevard that replaced the Embarcadero freeway, as well as quite a few others. They teach at Berkeley, but they're not Ivory Tower.
I think the title makes it pretty clear that I'm critical of Ouroussoff. I'm not wild about Rogers either, or this plan in particular.
Re sustainability, Rogers's two most famous early commssions both had to be completely rebuilt, at enormous expense, within 10 or 15 years of construction. The problem was Rogers's concept of putting all the innards of the building out in the open. That made them much more expensive in the beginning, and then they wore out anyway -- how sustainable is that?
BTW, I do like quite a few projects by his former partner Sir Norman Foster, who's also worked on the Labour government to stop traditional design.
Posted by: john massengale at Jul 4, 2005 3:15:10 PM
What is your relationship to the team?
Posted by: john massengale at Jul 4, 2005 4:41:44 PM
Points well taken, but lets be honest, could the FDR at grade ever come close to the boulevards from your references... it is the back door to Moses' public housing and bad corporate towers? In San Francisco an existing urban fabric was stitched together with the revitalization of the Embarcadero. Other than the tiny Seaport Historic District, this type of fabric does not exist in the project area. Without the aid of natural disaster or a time machine, this will always be the case.
An option for taking down the FDR below the Brooklyn Bridge was studied in earnest, but abandoned after those darned traffic engineers insisted that even with the little amount of traffic making loops to drop off CFOs, the total combined roadway at grade, with parking and turning lanes, would be over 150'; pushing South Street out into the water (and into the hands of the DEC, which is the most surefire way to kill any waterfront project). At least with the FDR in place the width of South Street is kept to a minimum, with the addition of a real curb and program under the FDR to invite people to cross it.
Re: Rogers, I am unable to comment upon the initial cost differences between an exposed mechanical system versus one that is hidden behind a stone curtain wall, but 'completely rebuilt' seems a bit exaggerated and 10-15 years is not unreasonable for mechanical work on a building like the Centre Pompidou. And their lobbying against ‘traditional design’ seems like a natural reaction when seen in context of Prince Charles’ disdain of modern design and the general trend for postmodern pastiche.
Before completely discounting the plan because of a disdain for the 'starchitect', I would recommend taking a closer look when the final report is made available (the content on the DCP website is very old, it should be updated soon).
A lowly CAD jockey/note taker,
Posted by: Steve at Jul 5, 2005 11:24:27 PM
That's interesting about the traffic engineers. They're tough opponents, but they have to be dealt with if we're going to make good places. Boulevards don't have things like
Of course the boulevard as designed by highway engineers will have problems. But other cities like Milwaukee and San Francisco (see the new Octavia Boulevard) have done a much better job than us by using those who know how to design real boulevards.
Have you looked at the street widths they forced on us at Battery Park City, at Trump City (on the Upper West Side) and in the new WTC plan? Do you know that every year there is a study of auto-with-auto and auto-with-pedestrian accidents in NYC, and the amount spent of fixing the auto-with-auto is completely out of proportion with the number of accidents?
The Lloyds and Pompiduo rebuilds were scandals. Dismissing them as normal maintenance when you admit you don't know the facts .... All the custom fabrications required to expose the normally hidden hvac elements to the weather were very expensive in the initial construction. Their design was inadequate, and they required complete rebuild long before the normal lifecycle of a new building.
I say "a new building," because all universities have discoverd that their old buildings have much longer lifecyles than their new buildings. Lloyds and Pompidou greatly accelerated that.
Last but not least, yes a boulevard next to Peter Cooper Village would be better than a highway next to Peter Cooper Village. Most importantly, urban design is for the long term, and we should never assume that the present condition will remain for ever. A boulevard might lead to "liner buildings" around the towers that would urbanize them. This has happened at HOPE VI projects all over the country.
Posted by: john massengale at Jul 6, 2005 9:02:26 AM
Hello. I'm compiling some information about Carl Schurz Park and the FDR Drive -- somewhere I came across the name Maud Sargent in connection with the design of the Park at the time the Drive was built -- but can't trace her now.
Do you have any information about this architect/designer?
Posted by: E. diamond at Oct 1, 2005 1:01:58 PM
Blinded by ideology? I think ideology is an inflated term to apply to someone who who uses his NYTimes column space to indulge in a bitchy whine in response to his critics in the blogosphere.
His Starchitect column takes the cake.
There are numerous examples, in this relatively short article,
of his misdemeanors. Here's one:
" You may not like Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library,
for example, but only a nitwit would argue that the
architect was oblivious to the building’s function.
A series of mismatched slabs wrapped inside a taut,
weblike skin, the form is a bold expression of the client’s
conflicting needs to preserve old books and also to come to
terms with emerging information technologies."
A bold expression of conflicting needs seems to emerge here, but in
the critic. Whether or not we "like" the Seattle Public Library,
many of us -- not one a card carrying nitwit -- would argue that
the building doesn't function well. As neither a practitioner
nor a theorist, Ouroussoff resorts to name calling as a substitute
for answering an argument challenging his assertions. Boldness and
novelty in the visual component of design can't rescue a building that
doesn't "work". Was Koolhaas oblivious to the function of the SPL?
It seems not to have been paramount in the building's design. It works
primarily as a tourist attraction, but not as a library.
Posted by: Michael Sierchio at Dec 21, 2007 12:05:39 AM
Thank you for making comments that only a practicing architect could about Oursoussoff. I wouldn't read an article by a photo critic who has never worked as a photographer. The Times needs to hire someone who is an architect or has been one to write their critiques.
Posted by: SioPhoto at May 11, 2009 6:01:51 AM