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The Hudson Yards development in New York City, which opens to the public this month, is the largest private real-estate project in the history of the United States. A combination of new building technology, political will, and eye-popping infusions of capital has enabled the developer, Related Companies, to summon an entire community out of thin air on the West Side of Manhattan. A commuter rail yard, long considered a prime piece of potential real estate, has been covered with a massive platform, and a new neighborhood composed exclusively of oyster-blue glass skyscrapers is being built on top of it, elevated above the rest of the Manhattan grid. When completed, this neighborhood will feature thousands of offices, thousands of homes, a massive shopping mall, a school, a hospital, a hotel, an arts venue and the world’s most expensive public art installation.

Attempting to piggyback off the allure of the Hudson Yards project proper, other developers have snatched up vacant lots and old buildings in the surrounding area over the past five years and set to work erecting blue glass skyscrapers of their own. They have stretched out the boundaries of this glistening new neighborhood, so that the combined square footage of Hudson Yards and its associated offshoots will be substantially larger than that of the principality of Monaco.

Among many New Yorkers, the development has become a symbol of both transformation and decline—of a city that, thanks to gentrification and the invasion of the nouveau riche, has lost its soul. Jeremiah Moss, author of the book Vanishing New York, wrote that the development had incarnated “a city where everything must glitter, silvery cool.” In the Observer, Related was credited with the “rebirth of New York from a bankrupt dystopia into a glittering place of wealth … losing its character and diversity to a wave of glassy boxes.” Justin Davidson, writing last month in New York magazine, called it a “billionaire’s fantasy city,” “more virtual than real.”

When I first moved to New York, the first towers were still rising, but now I can see the whole cluster from my bedroom window in Brooklyn, and from the street corner where I go to get coffee, and from a hundred other places as well. A recent trip across the Hudson River to New Jersey afforded me a view of them at the water’s edge, huddled together like blue priests awaiting the commencement of a ritual. Hudson Yards looks very little like New York as we know it, that’s true. But if New York is as dead as all the eulogists have been saying, one has to wonder: What kind of zombies are these?

While Related has touted Hudson Yards as New York’s “next great neighborhood,” New Yorkers of all stripes and stations have pronounced it a fortress of capital and a stain on the city—and the construction has been marred by a series of disputes over labor violations, affordable housing and taxpayer subsidization. At the heart of the dispute over what the development means, though, is a question about how new buildings both reflect and relate to the dynamics of a changing city.

The most common story about these changes goes something like this: after World War II, as African Americans and nonwhite immigrants continued to move to urban areas in greater numbers, middle-class whites fled to newly constructed suburbs. There they resided in one- or two-story single-family houses with large lawns in secluded, often gated subdivisions, leaving the newly delineated “inner city” to a black and Hispanic underclass that was by turns systematically neglected and actively besieged. But in the past 25 years, as crime rates in those cities have dropped and new industries have emerged, the young white people who grew up in the suburbs have returned, pushing out minorities so they can reclaim and refurbish their charming prewar apartments.

With the new influx has come a new architectural style. Many of these arrivals have desired the construction of newer and fancier housing, much of which has ended up being some mixture of sleek and chic—matte windows encased in concrete walls painted blue pastels or cool grays. The construction of these fancy buildings and their corollary coffee shops and wine bars has caused housing prices in these neighborhoods to skyrocket, further disadvantaging the working-class populations who used to live in them.

But these buildings are said by their critics to do more than just ratchet up housing prices: they also suck the life out of everything that surrounds them, simply by being ugly. “New York’s great buildings used to be chockablock with beacons, crowns, ornamentation, friezes, and statues,” Kevin Baker wrote in a 13,000-word cover story for Harper’s last July, “The Death of a Once Great City.” Now all we get, he said, are “huge, glassy, dreadful buildings,” or supertall towers that look like “predatory birds.”

 

The assumption here, shared by innumerable critiques of contemporary architecture in urbane left-leaning publications, is that the buildings fail aesthetically because they are built with bad social intentions. One new Brooklyn development, according to Zach Webb in the Baffler, “produced a metastasizing cancer by quickening gentrification, eroding the complex fabric of neighborhoods to the status of mere way stations, and advancing a homogenizing tide of bleach wood and incandescent bulbs,” while another Baffler writer, Kyle Paoletta, deplored the “bland, shoddy architecture … rolling in along with that tide of bright young coders and consultants.” Journalist P.E. Moskowitz, in their book How to Kill a City, expanded on this line of thinking, showing how in four cities around the country the “discreet, dispersed, and hands-off” process of gentrification was accompanied by “cheaply built concrete condos” and green frosted glass—further evidence that “extraordinary amounts of money, forethought and policy are required to make a place feel so monotonous, sterile, and vulgar.”And in Current Affairs, Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson declared that “for about 2,000 years, everything human beings built was beautiful,” but postmodern architecture had been led astray by such intellectual malaises as “the fear of beauty” and “the fear of tradition.” (The skyscraper, they argued, should be somehow “abolished.”)

The implication of this aesthetic moralism is that even if rents have been rising across the entirety of New York, buildings from before the Seventies (or thereabouts) are remnants of the “real” city, whereas newer buildings are signifiers of its destruction. What existed before whatever exists now was always better because it was built by, and for, better people. In mourning this “old New York,” Baker, Moskowitz and others have invoked Jane Jacobs, the apotheosized urban theorist of what makes cities function and thrive. A self-described “city naturalist,” Jacobs argued neighborhoods should be walkable, affordable, well-connected and oriented around public space for commerce and recreation. Her ideal was heterogeneity: the proximity of different elements to each other was what produced the friction that made cities such wonderful places to live. “Jacobs’s ‘intricate ballet’ of the streets is being rapidly eradicated by a predatory monoculture,” says Baker. Hudson Yards is the ne plus ultra of the phenomenon he credits with the city’s destruction; the towers, he says, “look like battling Transformers.” And they contain clothing stores more likely to be frequented by readers of WSJ.com or theSkimm than Harper’s  subscribers. “What is the point,” he asks, “of paying a fortune to live in a city that is more and more like everywhere else?”

But is this epitaph accurate? New York may have changed, but neither the presence of three hundred more chain restaurants nor the construction of Hudson Yards is enough to make it “more like everywhere else” than it was thirty years ago. The feint of Baker’s elegy is to assume that everything new is aberrant and everything aberrant is new. But the history of New York has always been defined by the audacious reinvention and repurposing of space and structure, and many of the buildings Baker might now seek to bless with landmark status were aberrant in their day.

In his 1978 book Delirious New York, the Dutch architect and urban theorist Rem Koolhaas proposed that the island of Manhattan had become “the arena for the terminal stage of Western civilization” in the twentieth century. Its small size, combined with a number of simultaneous architectural innovations, had produced a “mythical laboratory for the invention and testing of a revolutionary lifestyle.” The essence of Manhattanism was distilled in “the Culture of Congestion.”

The two most important innovations in this regard, the great leaps that created Manhattan and modern New York, were the street grid and the skyscraper. The Manhattan grid was, in Koolhaas’s view, less a way of organizing space than of organizing consciousness. Hundreds of other American cities are laid out in a grid format, but the way the grid so completely blanketed Manhattan’s narrow span gave it a special character, the identical nature of each block creating an infinite number of variations. Koolhaas argues that the skyscraper’s steel frame “liberated” the imaginations of architects, allowing them to build each new floor without any concern for what was on the one beneath it; at the same time, though, the height of the new buildings changed perceptions of the ground below. “The elevator is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy,” he wrote. “The further it goes up, the more undesirable the circumstances it leaves behind.”

As the first skyscrapers went up en masse, they blocked light and even air from reaching the ground—the shadows of some early skyscrapers downtown were so severe that the rents of any buildings that fell in their pall had to be reduced. The man who resolved this crisis, at least temporarily, is one of Koolhaas’s retroactively anointed pillars of Manhattanism. Hugh Ferriss, a St. Louis-born architect, designed the sketches that would later become the 1916 Zoning Law, a regulation of world-historical importance that required skyscrapers to recede as they rose so the city’s streets did not become lightless canyons. The result of this law, the “womb of Manhattanism,” in Koolhaas’s words, was a midtown full of elegant, ornamented concrete skyscrapers.[1]

This era peaked with the construction of Rockefeller Center, started in 1931 and completed eight years later. The project gets an entire chapter of Delirious devoted to it, subtitled, “How perfect perfection can be.” Endowed by oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, the center was an interlinked complex of Art Deco buildings conceived as a magnificent “New Athens”—the center would house umpteen offices, a grand opera, a music hall and a shopping center. The buildings swelled symphonically to a variety of heights, twirling up together toward an iconic central slab. The development was intended to provoke a sense of awe in city dwellers and out-of-towners alike as they hustled to and from their workplaces.

In Koolhaas’s eyes, this was as good as Manhattan got. The revision of the original zoning law in 1961, driven by a need to accommodate the city’s skyrocketing population in Manhattan and the outer boroughs, allowed for the construction of sheer, fridge-like boxes as well as setback skyscrapers. This constituted the “unlearning” of Manhattanism: upward construction with no regard for the composition of any façade or the relation between the building and the streets around it. Manhattan was still ascending but the public was being left behind.

Hudson Yards is not the first walled-off community built within the Manhattan grid. In the 1930s über-planner Robert Moses (Jacobs’s longtime nemesis) helped build Stuyvesant Town on the Lower East Side, blowing up an entire neighborhood and replacing it with an enormous planned community. Stuy Town explicitly appealed to young families who might have otherwise packed out to the suburbs: the street grid was supplanted by a manicured, middle-class community with sequestered courtyards, its 35 towers arranged around a central oval.[2] A few decades later, the city filled in a section of the Hudson River in order to build Battery Park City on the lower tip of Manhattan. Separated from downtown by a ten-lane highway, the development offered yuppies a secluded community within walking distance of the Wall Street offices where many of them worked.

Both of these developments represent a rebuke of Koolhaas’s “culture of congestion.” Hudson Yards shares a lineage with them just as it does with Rockefeller Center. Like Stuyvesant Town, its construction will destroy much of the neighborhood that existed around it, including plenty of long-running delis and prewar buildings with dentil cornices. And like Battery Park City, it promises residents an escape from the heterogeneity of the city even as it trades on its extreme proximity to it. But one doubts whether even the most committed nostalgist would claim that the construction of Stuyvesant Town or Battery Park City constituted the “death of New York.” On the contrary, the greatness of a city like New York would seem to be that it is too heterogeneous to be destroyed by any one of its component parts—it cannot, by definition, be the site of a “monoculture.”

Hudson Yards is no more audacious than the architectural experiments that created the New York we know today, but like all projects of its size and ambition, reflects, for better or worse, our current society and its tastes. Taking a cue from cities like Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia, which have filled their central parks with iconic art installations and beautiful landscaping, nearly every inch of Hudson Yards seems engineered to deliver aesthetic pleasure. The obsessive use of glass, even as it recalls the haunts of the global elite from Doha to Hong Kong, also provides something beyond the mere signification of wealth. The buildings themselves have already become a huge tourist spectacle. Every day hundreds of out-of-towners snake out along the High Line, over the still-exposed half of the rail yard, and photograph the half-completed huddle of towers.

From the outside, the contents of these buildings—condos, offices, Equinox hotel—are impossible to discern, while from the inside, one can see everything. The buildings actually seem to dramatize this inequality: we cannot get in, but we can stare. Even the central “town square” of Hudson Yards is not, contrary to the press release, what one would call a community space; it is more properly a spectacular space, a place to visit to be seen seeing it. There is a multipurpose arts venue (“the Shed”), but the real showstopper is its enormous retractable metallic shell. The development’s mall is defined by its atrium, a splendor of glass and gold tiers that ushers visitors out toward the central plaza.

The orientation of the neighborhood toward spectacle is most clearly expressed by a $200 million public art installation at the center of the plaza, designed by the British architect Thomas Heatherwick. The piece, called Vessel, consists of 154 interlocking staircases arranged in a sort of inverted cone. From a distance its rust-brown color causes it to resemble a hollow beehive, or a spaceshipMany have pointed out that the installation is a “staircase to nowhere,” but its more obvious spiritual predecessors are the labyrinth staircases of M.C. Escher and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.

I toured this not-quite-done Vessel, or at least the first few floors of it. It was there, on the site of one trillion future Instagrams, that the project felt visible in its totality: through the Vessel’s lattice I could see one tower, then another, then another all reflecting the sky back at me. The rest of the city, though just a few blocks away, looked like raw material awaiting transformation. Meanwhile the surrounding plaza, landscaped in beautiful sweeps and arcs, spread out like the lawns of Elysium. Above me, everything sparkled. It was from that vantage that the tension of a place like Hudson Yards was clearest—the tension, that is, between how it appears and what it represents. It was impossible for me to look up at the cluster of lazuline towers and not feel disgust at the concentrated wealth they had been created to serve, but it was just as impossible not to be entranced by their surfaces, compelled almost to pull out my phone and take a picture of the assembled whole.

Architecture doesn’t just provide us with shelter from the elements: it also modifies our experience of the world and changes the way we relate to each other. Buildings can control our behavior by accident (a counterintuitive dorm hallway gives a freshman an anxiety attack) or on purpose (a staircase in an art museum draws a visitor toward a centerpiece painting), but there is no question that they can. The architecture of Manhattan—that “laboratory for the invention and testing of a revolutionary lifestyle”— was instrumental in creating the lived experience of the twentieth century.

Hudson Yards appears to strive for an Instagram-mediated amazement—perhaps a fitting ambition for one of the first attempts to create a laboratory for 21st-century experience. But just because the project seems to celebrate indulgence and enshrine inequality does not mean that spectacle itself—the capacity of architecture to transport and transform us—should be considered suspect. If Hudson Yards can make a star-struck rubbernecker of any tourist who steps into its circumference, might the same materials and innovations not be deployed to unite assembled masses, to open people to each other, to elevate their sense of the world?

Others have thought it possible before. The Soviet avant-garde architect El Lissitzky believed even functional structures like a radio tower could achieve this kind of monumental impact, becoming for onlookers a “center of collective effort” that “provides us with a new theater of life.” In the same way, the Catholic Church for centuries designed cathedrals to serve as “the bibles of the poor,” to inspire and teach with their dimensions and adornments. The greatest of these cathedrals, Bramante’s Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, was designed in preposterously large proportions, so that pilgrims would grasp the true dimensions of the room they stood in only as they stepped up to the altar.

Last year I joined Marianne Kwok, a design director at Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), the lead architecture firm behind much of Hudson Yards, on a tour of the development’s crown jewel, 30 Hudson Yards. From an architectural perspective the building is astonishing: one side shoots straight up, while the other recedes at a steep angle back from the street, separating into jagged sections. As a construction elevator carried us up the side of the building, I saw the other towers glitter alongside us before they faded from view. There were no windows or walls on the top floor, just an expanse of concrete with flapping orange mesh around the edges.

Kwok and I peered out over the side, our hands growing numb. From this aerie, more than 1,200 feet above the ground, the other Hudson Yards towers looked puny, and the rest of Manhattan appeared somehow tilt-shifted—incredibly detailed, yet smaller-than-life, the world’s most sophisticated model of a city. Kwok told me KPF wanted the two buildings they designed, 10 and 30 Hudson Yards, to gesture toward one another. “When you look at them in the round, it’s like a work of sculpture—there’s a relationship between the two, but as you go around them, they’re constantly evolving and changing.” I saw something different about the relationship: yes, the buildings danced with each other, but it was a private dance, which shunned the rest of the city.

Lissitzky and Bramante alike saw the potential of architecture to unite a people in aesthetic appreciation even as it allowed them, or forced them, to see each other in new ways. It’s the lost potential for this exact kind of connection that we feel when we contemplate the plutocratic vistas of Hudson Yards, wondering who or what all the money dumped into the development is really for. The ambivalence one feels looking up at buildings like these, a mixture of political disgust and religious awe, comes from the sense that the same monumental scale, the same materials and the same vision, could have been used to say something else.

 

Image credits: Maciek Lulko (CC / BY Flickr); ~Eris~ (CC / BY Flickr)

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Accompanying the text of the law were now-famous sketches showing the theoretical angle at which buildings would have to scale back. The imaginary buildings, drawn in dark charcoal, look like prototypes of Dracula’s castle, and one of Ferriss’s most prescient drawings shows a small man dwarfed by a future skyline full of smoothly angled towers.
  2. Today the neighborhood remains a picture of upper-middle-class seclusion, but its “success” was ill-gotten from the beginning: rather than offer leases to African Americans, the developers and the city kept Stuyvesant Town all-white and built a companion complex for black residents in Harlem. That complex, the Lincoln Houses, was one of the city’s first public housing projects.
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