An in depth analysis of the Javits Federal Building Plaza at the NE corner of the site (Lafayette & Worth Streets):
Jacob Javits Plaza: Reconsidering Intentions
Text © John Hill
Written for Professor Setha Low's
Ethnography of Place and Space: Landscapes of Fear
at The Graduate Center, CUNY
May 24, 2007
Jacob Javits Plaza is a public space in Lower Manhattan currently occupied by a series of bright-green, painted benches curling around six large mounds covered with small bushes. It is an eye-catching design that carries with it – unbeknownst to most visitors – the erased history of the site, a long-demolished Richard Serra sculpture called Tilted Arc. The success – or lack thereof – of the current plaza design in turn depends upon the minimalist sculpture that preceded it, as the benches and mounds designed by landscape architect Martha Schwartz are intentionally in total opposition to Serra’s artwork.
This paper will attempt to determine the success of Jacob Javits Plaza through the framework of this historical relationship via a historical analysis, a three-part mapping analysis of the space (seating population, movement, and use), and using internet “discussions” about perceptions of the space and the plaza design. These analyses will follow a history of the Federal buildings that created the plaza; the selection, installation, and removal of Serra’s sculpture; the “in-between” period when temporary planters and furniture occupied the space; and the selection, installation, and reaction to Schwartz’s plaza redesign.
Fig. 1 – Plan of Federal Complex
The Jacob K. Javits Federal Office Building and Court of International Trade (later Customs Court) sit on a city block bounded by Broadway Avenue on the west, Lafayette Street on the east, Worth Street on the north, and Duane Street on the south. The complex was completed in 1969 from a design by Alfred Easton Poor, Kahn & Jacobs, and Eggers & Higgins. A western addition to the Javits Building, covering its 41-story, west-facing blank wall, followed in 1977, with the same players involved. The Javits Building “an ungainly checkerboard of granite and glass” (White 72), parallels Broadway, while the 8-story, glassy Customs Court sits in the Southeast corner of the site, linked to the former via a four-story bridge raised one story above the plaza level. Occupying the northeast corner of the site across from Foley Square is Jacob Javits Plaza (aka Federal Plaza, Fig. 1), a product of the 1961 Zoning Amendment that provided bonuses for plazas created via setting buildings back from the sidewalk.
From the beginning, critical reception for the Federal buildings (Fig. 2) and their plaza was poor. Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic for The New York Times called the complex, at the time of its completion, “one of the most monumentally mediocre Federal buildings in history” (qtd. in Stern 163).
Years later Paul Goldberger lamented that “Both are designed with the subtlety of an airport concourse…Foley Square…is hardly given coherence by a pair of clashing boxes,” (qtd. in Stern 163) while Time Magazine called the complex “One of the ugliest public spaces in America. Everything…begs for prolonged shiatsu with a wrecking ball” (Hughes 78). Retroactively discussing the plaza’s pre-Serra state, Goldberger – as Huxtable’s successor at The New York Times – managed to sum up the context the artist faced when he said in 1985: “in a city of bad plazas in front of bad skyscrapers, this is one of the worst. Federal Plaza is a dreary stretch of concrete, punctuated by a poorly placed and poorly de-signed fountain; it was no urban oasis by a long shot” (23).
Fig. 2 – View of Federal buildings from the east
Into this context walked artist Richard Serra in 1979, when the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recommended him to the General Services Administration (GSA) for a sculpture at Javits Plaza, as part of the GSA’s Art-in-Architecture program that set aside 0.5% of a Federal building’s budget for artwork. Six years earlier architect Easton Poor – as part of his Art-in-Architecture proposal – recommended an abstract sculpture in steel or bronze in the plaza (Senie 22); this and the GSA’s established practice of choosing large-scale, abstract sculptures for federal plazas by this time made Serra’s approval a relatively easy one. Regardless, the artist was required to submit concept sketches, which he did in 1980 and which the GSA shortly thereafter approved. This submittal and approval is important because it shows that the Federal government (the client) knew what to expect for the space, though no view was re-leased to the public before its installation. Also important is that the artist and the client made an agreement that commission would be permanent (Serra 4).
On July 16, 1981 Tilted Arc was installed. Twelve feet high and 120 feet long, the 2-inch thick plane of Cor-ten (rusted) steel bisected the tapering plaza space in a gentle east-west arc which, as the name indicates, leaned in slightly at the top of the arc’s concave curve (Fig. 3). From the moment the sculpture was being installed the cries of protest began; Serra recalled the workers actually getting heat as they were installing it (Senie 25). Within a month of Tilted Arc’s installation, Judge Edward D. Re, who worked in the Customs Court, wrote two letters to the GSA requesting its removal. In the second letter, Re argued that the “120-foot wall effectively destroys not only the beauty and spaciousness of the plaza, but also the utility of the plaza, which has been used for ceremonies” (Weyergraf-Serra 26). Re’s comments were out of step with the critics who decried the plaza in its first incarnation, and he began a questionable argument (ceremonies) that lasted throughout the fight to remove the piece.
Fig. 3 – Tilted Arc from the Javits Building
In the years after Tilted Arc’s installation and Judge Re’s letter-writing campaign nothing notable happened around the piece, (besides the occasional graffiti) as the initial outcry appeared to wane for good. But in late 1984 Judge Re began another letter campaign (Weyergraf-Serra 27), at a time when the GSA was under different, more conservative leadership in William J. Diamond, who stated that the sculpture “has made it impossible for the Federal and public community to use the plaza” (Senie 28). As the GSA’s Regional Administrator, Diamond called for a public hearing concerning the relocation of Tilted Arc to be held on March 6, 1985, a hearing he chaired and for which he appointed the four panel members (Senie 29, Fig. 4). This highly questionable arrangement did not stand in the way of the hearing being held in that form over three days, in order to hear 122 people speak against and 58 people in favor of relocation. Even though the former outweighed the latter by more than 2 to 1, the panel recommended by a vote of 4 to 1 to relocate the piece (Senie 30).
Fig. 4 – Poster for March 6th hearing
But how does one relocate a site-specific artwork, if at all? And what entails a site-specific installation? This issue will return with discussion of Schwartz’s plaza, but for Serra, site-specificity is not limited to the physical and environmental nature of the location but also addresses the social and political context in which the work is made and situated. Serra addressed the physical context by simultaneously blocking views to and from the Federal buildings (Fig. 5) and extending the arc towards the old court buildings across Foley Square (Fig. 6), though he maintained that the line of the arc allowed the prevailing foot traffic across the plaza (Serra 4). In this last point, he seems to be concerning himself with the public’s needs, though his cutting off of site lines is more confrontational, an overt commentary on the Federal buildings and notions of safety in urban situations, especially New York City.
Politically, Serra is quoted as saying it is the sculptor’s obligation to define their art, “not to be defined by the power structure that asks you…because their notion of beauty and my notion of…sculpture are always, invariably, at opposite ends” (qtd. in Senie 24). This statement, while reinforcing the popular split between contemporary artists and the public, situates Serra’s art in opposition to its physical and political context, in this case an unimpeded open space with a Federal client. Furthermore, due to Serra’s treatment of the sculpture as site-specific, and the agreement with the client that the piece would be permanent, the artist saw its relocation as synonymous with its destruction (Serra 5).
Fig. 5 (top) – Tilted Arc, looking north
Fig. 6 (bottom) – Tilted Arc, looking east
Although Serra attempted to use the legal system (a lawsuit, appeals) to save Tilted Arc, it was removed on March 15, 1989. Shortly after its removal, the GSA filled the plaza with standard-issue planters and benches and reactivated the long-dormant fountain (Fig. 7). The plaza was rededicated on July 6 and used for a summer concert series celebrating the GSA’s 40th anniversary, though this ceremonial use of the space would be short-lived (Senie 96).
Fig. 7 – Plaza shortly after removal of Tilted Arc
In 1992, the GSA undertook the structural and waterproofing repair of the parking garage that sits under the plaza, deciding to redesign it given the considerable demolition required. Even while Tilted Arc was in place landscape architect Martha Schwartz was contacted by the GSA about potentially reworking the space, though nothing came of this relationship until 1993 when the GSA’s director of arts and historical preservation Dale Lanzone announced the plaza’s redesign (Senie 98). He said, “The plaza will be treated very much as a work of art, but it will be a usable space, the antithesis of Serra’s treatment” (Vogel 23).
While the artistic merit of Schwartz’s design will be discussed later, suffice to say here that her solution was definitely the antithesis of Serra’s Tilted Arc. Removing all existing site elements, she covered the site with a curling maze of bright-green benches (about 1,700 linear feet of them) that snaked around six grass-covered mounds emitting steam in the warm months (Fig. 8). Since the plaza’s completion in 1997, the grass on the mounds has been replaced by hardier boxwood shrubs, and the mounds no longer emit steam. Unlike the plaza’s previous occupant, this one is people friendly, particularly to Federal employees who can use the benches during lunch, the primary design consideration (Schwartz).
Also, unlike Tilted Arc’s unexpected appearance, Schwartz’s design was on display in the building lobby before its installation (Senie 100), allowing feedback and time for people to get acclimated to the design. Not surprisingly, there’s been little to no controversy over the design, though at the same time there’s been very little media or academic attention given to the design that won a 1997 ASLA Professional Honor Award.
Fig. 8 – Redesign by Martha Schwartz
A short reiteration of the plaza’s history might read like this: Bad architecture and adjoining empty plaza becomes site of minimalist, confrontational sculpture that’s removed after eight years and replaced the same amount of time later by its antithesis, a playful maze of benches and mounds (Fig. 9). It could be argued that what ends this history, what is there today, was created by a chain reaction of events that started with the original, late sixties buildings. The substandard Modernist architecture and empty, leftover open space were the context for Serra’s Tilted Arc, a piece far from perfect but strong in its reaction to and treatment of its context.
Schwartz’s redesign of the plaza is the Arc’s antithesis, so the plaza is more accommodating to the public, but in turn it fails to engage its context, as discussed in the mapping section below. This isn’t to say that the only way to engage the context was Serra’s, but by narrowly defining what Schwartz could have done with the space – and choosing a landscape architect who takes a Pop or postmodern approach to design – the outcome was more limited that it would have been otherwise.
Fig. 9 – Evolution of Javits Plaza
Observations and mapping of the space involved two site visits, the first one from 10:00am to 11:30am on Friday, April 13 and the second one from 11:45am to 1:00pm on Monday, April 23; each used 15-minute intervals to map the site. The weather on the first visit was cold, cloudy, and windy, so the population of the plaza was noticeably low. The second visit found the weather conditions close to ideal for using the plaza, with temperatures in the 70s, a mild breeze, and a cloudless sky; needless to say, the population was much higher. (Population and movement maps are included in this 1mb PDF file.) What follows is description and analysis broken down into movement, population, and use.