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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Shanghaiing of New York

UPDATED NOTES: SHoP, with new partner Vishaan Chakrabarti, has made an interesting proposal for a promenade on Park Avenue, exactly the type of reexamination of NYC streets that the Bloomberg administration started and that needs to continue under the next mayor. It's a clever use of turn lanes, but turn lanes are a sub-urban road element that have no place in a dense urban midtown where fewer than 10% of the workers arrive by car.

The administration was right to fight for a Manhattan congestion zone, citing studies that these high-volume traffic corridors are bad for the health of those who live and work on them. Since Albany won't allow that, an alternative is to slow down roads, which will discourage rather than encourage driving. Until recently, New York had almost no turn lanes. Until we brought sub-urban road standards to the city, all avenues were two-way, with significantly wider sidewalks. Reverting to those standards would reduce traffic in the city. And nothing would do more to reduce pedestrian fatalities than to lower speed limites to 25 mph.

Eighty per cent of Manhattanites don't own cars. Most tourists come without cars. All but a handful of Manhattan's streets should be low-speed streets. Sub-urban style arterials like Third Avenue that encourage suburbanites to drive in and out of the city are out of place, unhealty, and dangerours for pedestrians. For Upper East Siders, Third Avenue is a neighborhood shopping and dining street, not an arterial.

Last but not least, Richard Florida has clearly shown that what the Creative Class at Google wants is NOT glass towers, but the mid-rise streets of Silicon Alley.

DRAFT NOTES for future use about the Bloomberg administration's determination to drastically upzone Midtown Manhattan. I've voted for Mayor Bloomberg three times, who''s been a good mayor. There are, however, three areas where I disagree with his administration:

  1. The idea that catering to what financiers and the super-rich want is usually best for the city
  2. The belief that promoting mega-development by mega-developers is usually best for the future of the city
  3. The belief that promoting an alliance of mega-developers and Starchitects is best for the future of the city


Scene from The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers
An SOM / MAS Proposal for Grand Central

SLOWLY, the citizens of New York are catching on that during the Bloomberg administration's time in office, life in the city has become much harder for many who are not part of the 1%, or at least selling them services. Part of this Super Luxury World are the anti-urban mega-developments designed by Starchitects, and the anti-urban and unsustainable Platinum LEED glass towers built by mega-developers with $90 million pied-a-terres that cast shadows on the rest of us.

Before this global economy rose, there was a time when it seemed the new glass towers arriving in New York were changing the look of parts of the city into Houston-on-Hudson. It's often been said about their dumb shapes that they looked like they were never taken out of the boxes they were shipped in, and their mechanically repetitive facades had all the visual interest of graph paper. The boring and unimaginative designs clashed with New York's tradition of great stone towers with dramatic tops and pedestrian-friendly bases. We were told we needed these "Class A" towers (i.e., with very large floorplates and sealed windows) in order to succeed as a modern city (because Houston and Wichita are more modern than New York).

During the Bloomberg administration, architectural fashion changed. The minimal three-dimensional relief that gave some of the old Class A elevations a slight play of light and shadow for a little visual interest was abandoned for flush building skins that made the buildings look shrink-wrapped (not a good thing). The city encouraged developers to hire Starchitects for "avant garde" twists and turns in the massing, and then gave the developers substantial height bonuses for complying (examples, Atlantic Yards and One57). Win Win for Starchitects and the developers, Lose Lose for the city and its citizens. The combination of mammoth size, bad streetscape and Starchitecture makes it seem more like New Shanghai-Dubai than Houston-on-Hudson.

Shanghai and Dubai are two of the most visible of the twenty or so cities around the world that are playing musical chairs in a competition to be world financial centers. What's rarely discussed is that for some cities this will turn out to be a Ponzi Scheme. Yes, banks want large clear-span trading rooms, but there are a limited number of institutions that need enormous trading floors. What the very large floors give most corporate tenants is cheaper space per square foot, although many of the workers suffer from a lack of daylight. The chief executives and their bonuses benefit more than the rest of the employees.

Even less discussed is how much the bases and the buik of the these buildings diminish their physical surroundings. We are supposed to think they're wonderful:

Design is, frankly, part of a long term strategy for New York City to compete on the global stage. Great design, innovative, challenging design, keeps a city young, and vibrant and compelling, It shows that a city importantly is open to change, entrepreneurial thinking and creative engagement. Density, diversity, tolerance and aspiration are all quintessential New York City qualities, that are translated through the language of city design, and are key to attracting city investment.

- Amanda Burden, New York City Planning Commissioner, October 2011

That's well said, with all the right touchstones. The problem is that it somehow equates the interests of plutocrats and global capitalism with progressive thought and economic and social mobility. These are the same interests that almost bankrupted the country in 2008 and had to be bailed out, and the same interests that control many of the votes in our House of Representatives. And we know now from books like Plutocrats that social and economic mobility in America have gone way down during the last decade, because of the way the top one-tenth of the 1% (.01% of America) have consolidated their wealth and power.

The buildings they construct around the world wherever they land their private jets are unsustainable and bad for the public realm. Burden talks about them as objects, and their designers think of them as sculptural objects. While the first role of an urban building is to make the urban fabric and to make a good public realm, the space between the buildings (aka "the street"). Streets where people want to be are one of the primary reasons we live in New York.

Periodically, articles will list the most popular streets in New York. Invariably, these are never streets with glass buildings or even Modern architecture. When I was a kid, the streets of Midtown Manhattan were primarily lined with a number of masonry, mid-rise buildings per block. Many have been replaced by large glass buildings that fill the entire end of the blocks along the avenues and then some. They have made midtown a less comfortable and less interesting place to walk. The drastic upzoning the Bloomberg administration is trying to push through before the Mayor's term ends will make it worse. No one enjoys walking at the base of the Bank of America tower on Sixth Avenue.

Richard Florida has documented that the Creative Class is attracted to a very different cityscape. In New York they want to work in districts like Silicon Alley, with with mid-rise loft and masonry buildings, where the sidewalks have more sunlight and fewer people.The twin towers in the image above are the opposite of what they want.

At least as important is New York's historic role as a place where artists and bohemians could afford to live. They contributed immeasurably to the cultural life of the city. Cities need diversity, and benefit enormously from people who create culture, not just consume it.

Jane Jacobs & Philip Johnson 49 Years Ago

More Notes

The ring in the images from SOM is an exhibition deck that moves up and down. Building it would be almost as insulting to Grand Central as simply tearing the station down. Strange that this could be approved during the 50th anniversary of the destruction of Penn Station.

London, Tokyo and other metropolises have created central business districts with forests of skyscrapers in recent years, seeking to meet the needs of globe-trotting corporate tenants. But New York’s premier district, the 70-block area around Grand Central Terminal, has lagged, Bloomberg officials say, hampered by zoning rules, decades old, that have limited the height of buildings. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wants to overhaul these rules so that buildings in Midtown Manhattan can soar as high as those elsewhere.
-The New York Times, October 6, 2012

New York's development community give large donations to New York's political campaigns, and the get lots of power and influence in return. Since Mayor Bloomberg is New York's richest citizen - a politician who uses his own funds to outspend his opponents - before he was elected there was hope in some circles that developers would lose influence during his administration. But it has been a long time since a Mayor has promoted the type of building developers want as strongly as Mayor Bloomberg.

To be clear, there are many factors that have contributed to the great imbalance in incomes we see in New York. Mayor Bloomberg and his policies have obviously not been the cause. But I disagree with many of the things he encourages.


Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else by Chrystia Freeland

V&V: What's Good For Starchitects Is Good For The World
V&V: Glass Schmass & Glass Schmass Redux
V&V: Brought to you by the experts who brought us credit default swaps, the rape of Fannie Mae, the collapse of our economy, interest free bailouts and the mega-bonuses that followed
V&V: Was Dominique Strauss-Kahn Also Raping Our Cities?
V&V: More Signs of the Apocalypse - Paris is the new Dubai

Two of the few places that talk about New York and the .01% are While We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York and Fran Lebowitz's related rant on YouTube.


November 20, 2012 in Architecture, Culture, Current Affairs, New York, Urbanism | Permalink


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The SOM Grand Central Project: New York According to Sauron. The Ring of Power moves up and down and all architecture and civility crumbles in fear. Where is our Aragorn? Our Frodo? Like Gollum, the architectural community sees these horrors, genuflects, and hisses "Yessss, my Precious!"

Posted by: Steven Semes at Nov 20, 2012 9:40:58 PM

Great blog here. As a recent graduate of a "cutting edge" architecture school somewhere in the Northeast, I'm glad to discover that I'm not alone in rejecting the wildly popular method of self-indulgent form-making, that which my professors unsuccessfully attempted to imprint on me.

It really ought to be obvious to architects that almost all of their work will have a positive or negative effect on the public, both viscerally and also for those people who actively use the buildings. The thing about the social responsibility factor that stuns me though is that the criteria that defines what makes a building "good" is not based on careful observation of successful buildings, but rather it is based on the architect's tastes or idealistic notions!

I think it would come as a disappointment to many ivy educated young architects that the criteria that makes a building successful can actually be observed empirically, much like other forms of scientific inquiry. Meanwhile, many architects today won't even look back at their own built works to observe the successes/failures!

The self-indulgent form making technique I was taught is very popular because gives young architects the permission to indulge their fantasies without having to suffer through a disciplinary wake-up call to reality, or without having to concede to a greater good. In short, it permits them to practice architecture like a eight year old would, without having to answer to anyone.

Many of these new buildings in New York, and indeed most new buildings in cities, represent lost opportunities by architects who choose to live inside of dreams.

Posted by: mxthree at Jan 25, 2013 12:28:14 AM