Welcome to Design City
July 18, 2004
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
AS I read through this book, staring at the 360 pristine photos and illustrations of glamorous proposed and actual New York developments, I remembered a sentiment once expressed by Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe.
Surely the greatest modernist architect living in America, Mies by the late 1960s had become affronted by the treatment of his masterpieces by those who lived in them. He said he couldn't bear to look at his renowned 860-880 Lake Shore Drive towers - the two sublime glass-house apartment buildings in Chicago - because they were such a mess. He wasn't talking about structural problems or even litter - he was talking about the window shades.
Residents had refused to abide by his regulations mandating the precise position of window shades at each hour of the day. Instead, they just did whatever they pleased - up, down, in between, whatever. Some residents even put up colored shades or, horrors, curtains. To Mies's relief, management did make tenants remove the offending materials. People, he commented bitterly, just could not be trusted to maintain a work of art properly.
People aren't seen very much in this mainly photographic celebration of the "New New York." And when they do show up, they tend to look like little computer models dressed in black or white - very trim and glam in a downtown, futuristic sort of way. Messy people and their messy possessions - like books and CDs and old clothes - are nowhere to be found. And there's the rub: People tend not to do that well in sleek gorgeous buildings that are designed for art's sake rather than for them.
In his introduction, Joseph Giovannini notes approvingly that the "magnetic pull unifying the designs" of the projects chosen from over 70 architects "may be the pervasive influence of art as a way of understanding and creating architecture." In the 1990s, he says, "art impregnated architecture as an ideal and practice."
Well, OK. But many of these designs look downright hostile, sometimes hilariously so. Three architectural firms conspired to convert the old steel Knickerbocker Laundry Factory in Sunnyside, Queens, into the Korean Presbyterian Church. The metal roof, says Giovannini, is "perforated and flared like the gills of a shark." It's sort of fabulous looking, but do the prishioners worship serenely below their shark-like roof?
Similarly, the firm of Diller + Scofidio designed a "giant side-winder" for the Eyebeam Atelier/Museum of Art and Technology on West 21st Street. The constant realignment of planes creates its own internal drama, writes Giovannini. Not to mention total confusion as museum goers try to find their way around.
But a few of the projects are sublime. The Rose Center for Earth and Space is one example. Designed by the Polshek Partnership for the American Museum of Natural History, it is a marvel of engineering and beauty that also manages to enchant children.
It replaced the beloved and landmarked but hopelessly outdated Hayden Planetarium that had been built in 1935. Owners of obsolete but landmarked properties from all over the country make the pilgrimage here to ponder what Polshek so brilliantly accomplished.
Giovannini derides the tendency of New Yorkers over the last few decades to insist that new buildings reflect the past. The buildings of Battery Park City, which are probably the best known and liked examples of historicist architecture, are treated contemptuously here for the "aesthetic covenants mandating the so-called New Yorkness of New York." This simply perpetuates, says Giovannini, the ideology that Manhattan look and behave like the Upper East Side and West Side at the turn of the last century.
If the ideas and buildings of Giovannini's "New New York" are to survive, New Yorkers are going to have to be convinced of their worth. This is not going to be easy because most New Yorkers prefer the old New York of Central Park West and Fifth Avenue.
This book is an early revolutionary tract in what's going to be a long, bitter war between historicists championing the "New Yorkness" of New York and post-modernists like Giovannini advocating defiant breaks with the past. Hopefully, New Yorkness will be the victor.
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
©2004 New York Post
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