New York

Charles Gwathmey, Dead at 71

29293642.jpgWe don't do obituaries at Tropolism, but this death is worth mentioning. Charles Gwathmey died August 3rd in Manhattan. Mr. Gwathmey was the target of derision in my very first published article, so I like to think of him as my entree into the world of writing. His work's promise is something I still think bears repeating. One key project I was unhappy with. Some other minor works seemed undercooked. But he created some triumphs (see the New York Times slideshow for this, they hit the major ones) and his hand at renovation/additions was an important first example in how to expand a famous building without either wimping out or trying to speak over the star performer. What remains, of course, is his influence.

Poster Designers, Get Ready

CUPMPPposter.jpgCUP, Tropolism's favorite NYC urban activist group, is at it again. As you may know, they publish a smart poster every few months announcing their initiatives; the poster is called Making Policy Public, or MPP. This time around, they are partnering with some innovative groups; most interesting to us is FIERCE (or Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment; yes the acronyms are fatiguing). FIERCE is probably most known for their organizing of youngsters who hang out on Christopher Street and on the Village piers, and have been harrassed by both West Village residents and the police alike. But like the piers themselves, the crowd has evolved, is better organized, and even has its own mission statement. And, now, involved in the conversation about the development of public space. My, how the children have grown.

CUP has issued a call for designers for the next MPP poster. If you were looking for a time to get directly involved in these conversations, I am here to tell you that that time has arrived.

Atlantic Yards: The First Post

missbrooklyn.jpgAtlantic Yards by Frank O. Gehry: we never liked it. It might be too big. It was a stadium for basketball, a sport we just don't care about and whose only reference point for us is "Madison" "Square" We Knocked Down Pennsylvania Station For This Pile Of Crap "Garden". It had open space on the roof that was accessible by only residents of a bunch of towers. But, it was Frank O., and it was glassy, and it was interesting. It would have densitized (densified?) a neighborhood, adding (more) life but also more traffic, congestion. It was going to amplify the city, this ever-pregnant corner of Brooklyn where it seems like something great should be built but is actually where nothing great has been built, and along with that building would be all the side effects that greatness brings: dirt, noise, change, conflict, and many messy conversations. In short, it was urban.

I took a wait and see attitude: the drawings and models looked somewhat great, but it was difficult to understand how it was going to interact with Brooklyn. Folks were up in arms about it, but these days you have to judge these things for yourself, because what with the internet and all, folks yell about everything in this town, as if every concerned citizen is a self-appointed Jane Jacobs, and every little brick repointing project a city-destroying commission by Robert Moses. Judging for yourself: it is the very purpose of Tropolism. It is what Tropolism means. Watch as the Atlantic Yards Project unfolds, better drawings come out, the project makes its way through court, and something happens, so that you can find your time to weigh in.

What happened you all know, or can easily find out: Gehry designed something awesome, the developer, Forest City Ratner, got all sorts of tax breaks and court victories, many riding on the fact that that particular design was going to be built. Then it turned out that design was too expensive, so Gehry redesigned it and it was less interesting. But OK so what, the central idea was still there, and it was still Frank O.

05gehry_600.jpgThe recent replacement of Frank Gehry as the architect of the project isn't the problem with the new Atlantic Yards design, although Nicolai Ourousoff's reaming article would imply otherwise. Ellerbe Becket doing a super simple and cheaper-design version of Gehry's design would have worked just fine, given that they followed his floor plan and massing outlines to the letter. Instead, the project has simply been redone, shorn of its residences and shops and now it's simply become one of those deadening black holes in the city, just like "Madison" "Square" "Garden". It's a classic, bald-faced bait-and-switch, which is a cute New York way of saying that Forest City Ratner are crooks. They have stolen the public's patience and benefit of the doubt in exchange for their own personal profit. The effect of which is that this part of Brooklyn will be dumb and cold and dead until 2050 when some even more stupid gyration will have to happen in order to renovate the dumb thing that might get built right now.

Atlanticeastbig.jpgThere is some crap glassy entrance so that yes 50,000 people or whatever can stream on through on their way to basketball a few nights a year, but nothing else except a huge box stadium. We get it. The roof looks like a basketball. This is the opposite of great architecture: this is cheeky architecture trying to get on our populist good side, while simultaneously sucking all the life out of our home city. There is no add here, only subtract: subtract money, subtract street life, subtract public conversation, subtract density.

And our great omission has been to not bring up, years ago, that this was a possibility all along. That the devil in Gehry's plan was that if Gehry didn't do his design, and someone did even and almost-version of his design, then the effect would be this drek. Our apologies for being quiet. It won't happen again.

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U.S.A.'s Venice Biennale Pavilion Comes Home


[photos courtesy of Rain Yan Wang]

Earlier this month, the U.S. Pavilion from the 2008 Venice Biennale opened at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at the New School. Into the Open: Positioning Practice attempts to realign architectural thought towards socially relevant issues. All sixteen studies ask us to “reclaim a role in shaping community and the built environment, to expand understanding of American architectural practice and its relationship to civic participation”. Highlights include Teddy Cruz’s examination of the border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana as well as Laura Kurgan’s view of incarceration through Architecture and Justice.

Upon entering the gallery, we found the exhibition’s rhythmic series of text intensive pilasters to be a bit daunting and overbearing. The models and graphic components receded into the background as they were clearly overshadowed by the bold text. However, as the evening wore on, the exhibit’s true potential emerged. Within the niches of the display’s formal structure, patrons were invited to contribute their own personal touch. A tertiary artistic endeavor superimposed itself upon the gallery. The interactive quality served the dual purpose of contextualizing the exhibit while reminding us of the continually shifting dynamics of the social order.

Posted by Saharat Surattanont.

Tropolism Films: Brooklyn DIY

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Last week’s world premiere of Brooklyn DIY brought a motley crowd of artists, performers, and groupies to MoMa. Through interviews and photographs, the film documents the “creative renaissance” of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Employing an ambiguous timeline, the narrative favors subjective experience over specificity. However, the disjointed “mapping of memory” is grounded by focusing on a handful of seminal moments that defined the neighborhood.

Right this way for the full film review...

Biloxi Homes

On August 29, 2005, Katrina made landfall in Biloxi, Mississippi. It was their 9-11. In an effort to help rebuild the city, the Biloxi Model Home Program paired design professionals with families affected by the disaster. “This program approaches reconstruction that facilitates good design solutions by standardizing processes and partnership strategies as opposed to standardizing design.” Last week, Architecture for Humanity New York sponsored a happy hour honoring the volunteers who journeyed south for the “blitz build” week.

The evening’s presentation felt more like a Peace Corps event. The testimonials ranged from the hopelessness of a distressed neighborhood to the “foreignness” of the regional cuisine. The consistent sentiments were the personal bonds established between fellow volunteers. For a moment, I had forgotten that they were speaking of a US city. The stories concluded with the tale of a local resident who made a point to hug all 70 plus volunteer that came down for the week.

It became clear to me that it wasn’t just about rebuilding homes. It was about restoring a neighborhood.

Posted by roving NYC correspondent Saharat Surattanont.

Tropolism Lectures: Gentrification Begins

washmews2.jpgGentrification, suburban sprawl, homogenization----we all have our takes on it. Inflated rents, overpriced restaurants, and multiple Starbucks are the clear symptoms. At the Municipal Arts Society talk at the Urban Center on Wednesday night, Francis Morrone takes us back in time to examine the origins of gentrification in New York City. Strikingly, it may have been started by a handful of progressive and socially conscious women.

Click here to read the rest of the lecture report...

20 Peacocks Shop

We stumbled on L.E.FT's work while writing for Curbed this week. There's a lot of great work there, but innocuously filed under "Interiors" is project #137, the 20 Peacocks shop on 20 Clinton Street on the Lower East Side. We do love our stores. The shop features a set of flip-down shelves that are at once innovative, efficient, and somewhat unsettling. There's a Kafkaesque quality to the design, like entering a dream where something vaguely menacing is going to happen. The storefront study, which is nothing short of brilliant, extends this sensibility by creating a vision device that is as useful as it is unusual. For those of you who have been underwhelmed with everything retail since Adolf Loos did his best work (and who are looking for menswear!), this is your shop.

From The 24th Floor

US Airways Airbus A320 in the Hudson River, at Battery Park City, from the 24th Floor of Riverhouse.

Crazy Coney

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In what must be the most bizarre, yet most refined, inventive, and weirdly beautiful collection of images yet, the Municipal Art Society has posted a flickr album with a selection of results of their Imagine Coney project. Curbed smartly whittles the results down further for those who can't be bothered to slog through the 36 images in the album. Or favorite is pictured, Historic Path.

WTC Model

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The American Architectural Foundation has donated the original model of the World Trade Center to the September 11th Museum. The Museum has another name but it is ridiculously long and focus-grouped and I refuse to use it. The 7-foot-plus model wonder of the world was constructed by Minoru Yamasaki Associates and has survived because of great care.

I saw this model in 2004 when it was displayed at the Skyscraper Museum and it's a powerful thing. That museum is close to Ground Zero but a bit off the beaten path in Battery Park City. Visiting during the day I had the model to myself. It was a powerful experience: the model was my new memorial. The model is huge, a technical achievement in its own right, not just in construction but in the extreme stewardship needed to keep it in good shape. And yes, it's significant and ironic that a paper and plastic model outlived a huge building complex. It's a powerful reminder of what was lost seven and a half years ago.

24 Hour Guggenheim

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Last night at 6pm, the Guggenheim began its 24-Hour Program on the Concept of Time. Presenters included architects, artists, philosophers, writers, anthropologists, etc. Like any academic conference, lucidity and brevity comingled with pointless meandering. I suppose temporal musings may demand the non-specific thought processes that I saw last night and this morning. Below are highlights from the conference--at least the way I remembered and experienced the moments.

Continue reading and more pictures by roving New York City correspondent Saharat Surattanont.

One Jackson Square: Duly Undulating

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One building that never made the Two Dozen list last year was One Jackson Square. It didn't qualify for two reasons. First, it's too big. I think. The fact checker didn't really track that part down, it just felt too big. Second, it's by a corporate firm, not a celebutante name designer-firm. KPF, they of the Baruch College catastrophe and 333 Wacker Drive (calling 1983, anyone?) do not routinely inspire. The renderings looked cool, but it's KPF. It will underwhelm in the end.

Yet the skeleton and initial touches look kind of sweet. Check out Tropolism's photo album. The curves work, and will certainly add to what was always a poorly defined, terribly dead corner of ChelseaVillage, a corner that could easily be the a powerfully alive hinge between two neighborhoods. We are in love with the scribble curves, and the fact that the bronze colored fascia will only accentuate them. And the floorplans (particularly for the 1-bedrooms, where the bedrooms are accessed by two doors, one a pocket door at the window wall) all look pretty wonderful. This one we'll keep our eyes on regardless of what lists they are on.

Less Stuff Is Better Design

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I know I've been harping about this since I first got the idea for the Two Dozen list in 2004: the Roaring Two-Thousands created a lot of drek by designers because they were "designers", not because the designs were actually great. A lot of my writing has been focused on pushing designers to do better. What better opportunity for designers to really push design when all this money is sloshing around? Why not make things more efficient, more accessible, more inventively designed, and more beautiful, even if it costs a bit more? When the cycle downturns, we'll be happy to get scraps from the woodpile to make our stuff. Since September, most of us have been looking for that scrap pile.

Michael Cannell over at The Design Vote wrote a great article in the New York Times encapsulating these sentiments, looking quickly (as in long-blog-post quickly) at where product designers and architects are going to go from here. He champions sustainability in the production of goods and a good project by Lorcan O'Herlihy architects in Los Angeles that champions density over size of lawn. Welcome to the end of the decade, folks. We couldn't be more thrilled.