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Thread: Big Book for a Big City

  1. #1

    Default Big Book for a Big City

    Big Book for a Big City

    November 8, 2006

    Simply put, Robert A. M. Stern's "New York 2000," together with its four preceding volumes, represents the fullest and finest historical account of any city ever attempted. In all, these volumes constitute more than 5,000 full-sized pages and more than 10 million words, consecrated to the architectural and urban development of New York from the aftermath of the Civil War to the present day.

    For Mr. Stern, an internationally renowned architect, and for his several co-authors (Jacob Tilove and David Fishman in the latest volume), the secret to success is that there is no secret at all. You look in vain for any trace of parti pris, any causes to promote, or scores to settle. Instead the authors start at Battery Park, make their way uptown, and then to the outer boroughs, describing in a fluent and co-ordinated narrative each noteworthy building they encounter, so long as it falls within the chronological constraints of their respective volume. More than just a gazetteer of individual buildings, however, the book begins its discussion of each of the city's districts with a magisterially detailed and insightful inquiry into the larger historical context of that part of the city, before it proceeds to the specific projects.

    The evolution of Mr. Stern's magnum opus on New York was no more straightforward than that of the city it covers. It began in 1983 with "New York 1900."Representing the most thorough single-volume treatment of Gotham architecture between 1895 and World War I, it was nevertheless a far humbler and smaller undertaking than the volumes that followed. After that came "New York 1930," which covered Gotham architecture between the wars. Almost double the size of its predecessor, its sheer mass represented a leap into a categorically higher level of urban historiography. But it was only with the next volume,"New York 1960,"which covered the history of the five boroughs from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s, that the authors hit upon the formula that would guide all subsequent volumes: a staggering and oceanic immensity that puts before you, with an anatomist's minuteness and an astronomer's wide-angle view, the entire architectural record of this great city. The success and the cultural consequence of that volume were such that the authors went back to write "New York 1880"and forward to write this latest volume (Monacelli, 1,520 pages, $100), which takes us up to 2006.

    Now most general histories of New York, or of any other city, have traditionally limited themselves to the biggest and flashiest monuments and to the broadest outlines of urban development. In those narratives, dull buildings that are not attributable to a major architect or a major historical circumstance, become invisible. They are not part of history: They evaporate into their functionality and are never quite seen. The genius of Mr. Stern's project is to understand that every building is interesting, if not architecturally, then surely historically.

    Consider how this book treats the Upper West Side, an example I choose arbitrarily. Most books on contemporary New York would limit their discussion to the new Time Warner Center and the Rose Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History. Both of these are surely included in the current volume. Indeed, the former has its own chapter, more than 30 large pages, with more than 40 illustrations, treating in detail the contentious genesis of the design, the finished project inside and out, the competition for the revamping of the fountain in Columbus Circle, the collateral issues of 2 Columbus Circle, and the refacing of the Gulf & Western Building. But as it moves up the West Side, the book's sweeping purview includes not only Lincoln Center, Columbia University, and Trump Place, but also the smaller, less conspicuous projects that really define the urban fabric of our city: Apartment houses like Costas Kondylis's 279 Central Park West and Frank Williams's Alexandria on Broadway and 72nd Street; public institutions like the Jewish Community Center at 334 Amsterdam Ave. and Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School on West 93rd Street, and various urban renewal projects around 100th Street.

    In their concentration of less "iconic" buildings, these five volumes represent more than an education: They represent a revolution in the way readers perceive and even inhabit a city. Each artifact of the urban landscape, from the humblest row house to the tallest skyscraper, from the design of streetlamps to the width of road-beds, seems to have been zapped with the lifeforce of intentionality. In a city, everything, for better or worse, is there for a reason. Everything represents a conscious and deliberate decision and coalesces, with 20 million other details, into a unified and legible, if not entirely systematic, totality. That is the unspoken "idée mere" that is enshrined in this latest volume, as well as in its four predecessors.

    Put into practice, this approach to cities will be experienced by New Yorkers as a series of shocks of recognition. Just sifting through almost 2,000 illustrations (most in full color) the reader is apt to be jolted by the sight of hundreds of fixtures of his daily life that he had imagined to be almost acts of God, structures of no importance, that were simply "there." In addition to such major architectural monuments of the past 30 years as Philip Johnson's AT&T Building and the new Museum of Modern Art, these less visible projects are illustrated with lavish citations from contemporary critical, journalistic, and cultural commentary.

    Let it be said that this latest volume departs from its four predecessors in the way the authors have allowed themselves on occasion a not unwelcome trace of sarcasm that was not there before: In a subchapter on critics, for example, the authors quote at generous length from a parody written in the style of Herbert Muschamp, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Times. They conclude by noting that "No one could parody Muschamp better than the critic himself, even if he did so inadvertently."

    The one glaring and obvious omission from this volume is ground zero and the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site, whose earlier incarnation was so ably discussed in "New York 1960." Clearly the authors found the CREDIT subject too fluid, too massive, and too proximate to be undertaken at this time. Indeed, they make almost no mention of September 11, 2001, and its aftermath, except for a brief epilogue in the last three paragraphs of their narrative. Beside a nocturnal image of two beams of light rising above the skyline of Lower Manhattan, they write that "After the attack on the Trade Center, the grieving city stumbled, but soon enough began to rebuild itself and move on. That story of the city's rebirth is for others to tell."

    One hopes they will change their minds and revisit the subject in "New York 2030."

  2. #2

    Default Wall Street Journal


    New York, New York
    A historian's tour of the Big Apple's architectural core.

    Saturday, November 25, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

    NEW YORK--Manhattan gridlock got you down? It helps to take the long view. "There were traffic jams in the 1880s. You couldn't get from midtown or the fashionable area of Murray Hill to Wall Street in less than an hour," says architect and historian Robert A.M. Stern. "The richest people, the Rockefellers and Morgan, took the Elevated [train] down to Wall Street because there was no other way to do it."

    Founder and senior partner of his own firm and dean of the Yale School of Architecture, Mr. Stern knows something about the long view. Since 1983, he has been writing a history of New York City's architecture and urban fabric. Four volumes have already appeared: "New York 1880" (covering 1865-90), "New York 1900" (1890-1915), "New York 1930" (the interwar years) and "New York 1960" (World War II to the bicentennial). They range in length from 500 to 1,400 pages, but the latest, "New York 2000" (Monacelli Press, $100), outdoes them all. Covering 1976 to 2000 and written, like the others, with the assistance of co-authors, it runs to 1,520 pages--and nearly 11 pounds. It landed in bookstores, dainty as a wrecking ball, earlier this month.

    Interviewed in a sleek, minimalist aerie that serves as his "writing room" two floors above his architectural offices in the West 30s, Mr. Stern says that the terror attacks of 2001 and their aftermath might have made a more logical stopping point. But he opted for the millennium when he realized that the story of rebuilding Ground Zero was "a psychodrama that's going to go on forever."

    Will there be a "New York 2030"? Maybe, although by then "I'll be 93 or something like that," he observes.

    Building by building, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, borough by borough, Mr. Stern's five books trace New York's rise from prosperous but provincial city--limited to Manhattan island and largely bounded by 42nd Street and the waterfront--to the sprawling, five-borough world capital it is today. They paint a picture of a city in flux, an urban palimpsest undergoing a perpetual, 140-year makeover that shows no signs of stopping. The comment made by one observer in 1866 could almost be the city's motto: "A new town has been built on top of the old one, and another excavated under it."

    One surprise is that the qualities we variously celebrate and rail against today aren't of recent vintage, but were in evidence within the first decades after the Civil War: the city's infectious energy; its magnet status to those in search of opportunity, be they immigrants or transplants from other parts of the country ("Why did John D. Rockefeller move from Cleveland?" asks Mr. Stern, rhetorically. "He knew he had to be in New York."); its role as a financial center; the congestion, the overbuilding and the middle-class flight; the insistent pressure to expand outward; and the primal need to conquer distance and height through unheard-of feats of engineering. "The story stays the same, but the characters are always new," notes the author.

    A recurring theme throughout the series is New York as America's "representative city." That will be bitter gall to those in the hinterlands who already think New Yorkers are too full of themselves by half, but Mr. Stern briskly ticks off his arguments. "It is the financial capital of the country. It is the cultural capital. And now it's the media capital. It is also the part of the country that has the richest representation of the diversity of the country," he says. "And it has these amazing institutions which, though they are New York institutions, are really national," like the Metropolitan Museum and the New York Public Library.

    Lastly, he says, New York has things that no other city in the U.S. has, at least not in the same way. "Frederick Law Olmstead built in many places," says Mr. Stern. "But Central Park is incomparable." Case closed.

    He cites three major turning points that helped propel New York into the city it has become. One is infrastructure. "The Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, the Elevated railroad at virtually the same time, made it possible to move around." Then there were "the extraordinary contributions of immigrant groups." Also technology. "The steel frame [in 1889] and the elevator in [1870] combined to make it possible to build at extraordinary densities."

    And how. Those two innovations unleashed a race for height that by the first quarter of the 20th century had turned New York into Skyscraper City. The drive reached fever pitch in the 1920s, when one designer proposed a tower for 42nd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues that would have been 1,208 feet tall--a mere 142 feet less than the World Trade Center would attain 50 years later.

    Of course, there have been turning points of a different kind. Though New York's near-death experience in the mid-1970s, when it narrowly averted bankruptcy, was the most severe crisis the city had faced before Sept. 11, it was by no means the first. The series charts a regular cycle of booms and busts, each of which left its mark.

    Some cities never recover from their cataclysms. "St. Louis has been unable to recoup from the fact that it tore so many buildings down in the late 30s," destroying a cast iron, warehouse district similar to New York's SoHo, observes Mr. Stern. Detroit "is a ring of extremely prosperous suburbs and a forlorn inner city."

    But New York seems to possess a preternatural ability to spring back. Adaptability is the key. For example, "one of the great things about New York is that the buildings are very flexible," notes Mr. Stern, in particular the early skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan, originally built as offices. In the days before air conditioning, every office worker needed reasonable access to light and air, and a distance of about 27 feeet from the exterior wall inward toward the core was the ideal module around which to design, he says. That way nobody, be it CEO or secretary, would be too far from a window to work comfortably.

    "That turns out to be a very good distance when it comes to turning those floors into apartments," says Mr. Stern. Not so today's office buildings, he says, with 40,000 square feet on a floor and huge distances from the window to the core. "Once those buildings have outlived their usefulness as office space--and sooner or later everything does--what can they be adapted to?"

    Another factor in New York's survival has been the ability to learn from its mistakes. This, in a nutshell, is the story of "New York 2000." Where the first four books charted an almost devil-may-care arc of expansion and development, the spirit of this one is sober retrenchment, of repairing past errors and avoiding their repetition. "The city was involved with a sense that we had lost something in the postwar era with the kind of urbanism that was practiced--the wholesale clearance of neighborhoods to make way for a kind of institutionalized redevelopment of high rise buildings and parks and so on," says Mr. Stern. As a result, "we did go backwards to look at things and to rediscover things that worked."

    So there is a good deal about reclamation (cleaning up Times Square), sensible urban planning (Lower Manhattan's Battery Park City), and preservation (sparing Grand Central Terminal the same fate as Pennsylvania Station, and carving out a roughly 57-block or 1,044-building protected area on the Upper East Side).

    Creation of the Upper East Side Historic District was "a hugely complicated and contentious move," he says. Opponents argued that landmarking of whole neighborhoods constricts growth. "That's not the case at all," Mr. Stern insists with some passion. On the contrary, it has spurred it, "turning attention to other areas that have been neglected." He cites the nearby West Yards where the Long Island Rail Road stores its trains, site of Mayor Mike Bloomberg's abortive attempt to build a sports stadium.

    "So why do you keep having to tear down nice buildings in the middle of the city when you can develop new neighborhoods on the flank, just like the U.N. was [in the late 1940s], where there were once abattoirs?" he asks. "Then it would make it possible to fill in--it has--all the missing teeth in Harlem or the South Bronx where buildings were burned out or torn down."

    Yet for all the nonstop building that goes on in--and defines--New York, the uncomfortable fact remains that beyond a handful of familiar icons it is, well, hard to point to a lot of truly distinguished buildings. The criticism made by architectural critic John Schuyler in 1898 and quoted in "New York 1900" still applies: "The real defect of modern architecture," he wrote, lies in "the estrangement between architecture and building--between poetry and prose."

    With land and construction costs high and continually rising, most architecture is driven by a pragmatic, bottom-line mentality, an attitude whose most apt symbol isn't one particular building but an amenity: the humble balcony, which became a standard fixture in Manhattan apartment buildings beginning in the mid-1950s.

    "[It] was pure economics, not tenant preference, that gave the balcony terrace its wide popularity," writes Mr. Stern in "New York 1960."The cost of building a balcony was only about one-quarter the cost of building a fully enclosed room, yet it could be rented at the equivalent of half a room's rent. More important, the balcony counted as half a room when the builder applied for his FHA mortgage, so he could borrow twice as much as the feature cost him."

    Mr. Stern concedes there is a school of thought that argues that "we need all these dazzling icons," but asks, by way of response, "what are they doing for the streets of the city, what are they doing for the neighborhoods? That's the way they should be measured, not just that they stand out." Besides, "I think New York has been great in that architects have been very pragmatic but some of them have produced poetry from the pragmatism. The poetry of pragmatism is New York's strength," he asserts. "You know, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and Rockefeller Center were buildings that were meant to have 'curb appeal' if you will, but also were meant to meet the bottom line."

    From time to time the idea of the city as a social unit has fallen out of favor. It happened in the 1960s, notes Mr. Stern, and was one factor contributing to New York's fiscal crisis a decade later. "Corporations had moved to the suburbs, people were already living in the suburbs and arguments were made by very impressive people, Lewis Mumford and others, that cities were no longer needed," he says.

    With videoconferencing and the like making it possible to work anywhere, and cities such as New York, London and Madrid now terrorist targets, could we be entering another one of those phases? Central cities will always be needed, counters Mr. Stern. "The more electronic communication we have the more people need to actually talk to each other. It's lonely in your living room," he notes wryly. And "we've all learned that face-to-face discussion is really important--you can't do it on videoconferencing or whatever. So there is a reason still for every one of these big corporations to have a presence near other big corporations, whether they're rivals or the people they need to function, like their bankers or their suppliers," he observes.

    "I think we're here to stay."

    Mr. Gibson is the Journal's Leisure & Arts features editor.

  3. #3

  4. #4
    Senior Member Bob's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2004
    Fairfax, VA


    Cool! Now, to add this to my collection of his previous works! Long-awaited.

  5. #5


    I've been waiting for this book for the longest time, now that I'm up in Buffalo I think its release has come at the perfect time in my life.

  6. #6


    You're living in Buffalo? I'm sorry...

    (apologies if you have a Buffalo fetish as some do...but I'm assuming since you're "soon to be UES" that you're not content to stay...)

  7. #7
    Random Personality
    Join Date
    Aug 2005
    Woodside, Queens


    I paged through the book today in my neighborhood Barnes & Nobles and was thoroughly impressed at how comprehensive this book is. Saw some older renderings of failed projects that brought back some memories.

    Also, after seeing to many renderings of Sofie's Columbus Circle proposal, I'm actually happy it wasn't built, because I feel it would look completely out of place.

  8. #8
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
    Join Date
    Oct 2002


    I naturally added this to my large NYC book collection, to sit alongside the others in this gargantuan series. The colour photographs are excellent and, as with the previous four, it is enjoyably readable. It holds the honour of being the heaviest book I own (New York 1960 is not far behind, though), not safe for bedtime reading.

  9. #9


    The Grand Cornice-and-Pediment Tour

    Norval White, left, and Francis Leadon, authors of the fifth edition of the AIA Guide, due out next year. Josh Haner/The New York Times

    Published: April 17, 2009

    NORVAL WHITE, one of the great figures of New York architecture, was cruising around Long Island City a couple of months ago when he came upon an unexpected sight. On Jackson Avenue, in this still scrappy-looking section of Queens, stood a newish co-op sheathed in luminous squares of blue glass. Its designer, Robert Scarano Jr., is one of the less beloved figures among the city’s architectural cognoscenti, and much to Mr. White’s amazement, he didn’t actually hate the thing.

    “It’s definitely a cut above his other stuff,” Mr. White, his lean, 6-foot-5 frame tucked into the front seat of a gray Subaru Forester, acknowledged in his plummy baritone. “It has some quality. We’ll have to include Scarano in the guide.”

    On this matter, Mr. White, 82, got no argument from his companion on this expedition, a Yale-educated professor of architecture named Francis Leadon, who at roughly half Mr. White’s age represents the new generation in the field.

    “Holy moley,” Mr. Leadon murmured as the car in which they were traveling rounded a corner, offering an even more dazzling view of the building. It is a phrase he uses a lot.

    The guide in question, as anyone with affection for the five boroughs would know, is the AIA Guide to New York City, which is scheduled to appear in its fifth incarnation in the spring of 2010. The work, being published by Oxford University Press, will comprise 1,100 pages and include entries for nearly 6,000 buildings, Mr. Scarano’s icy blue co-op likely among them.

    Over its more than four decades of existence, the guide has evolved into a New York institution, as much a city fixture among a certain crowd as Fourth of July fireworks over the East River. Born during an era in which such guidebooks were a rarity, the publication splashed onto the scene in 1967, when Mr. White and another young architect named Elliot Willensky (W & W, some people called them) produced it for conventioneers at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Architects, held that year in New York.

    The original volume — “feverishly prepared,” as Mr. White later described the process — was a narrow, brick-shaped affair of 464 pages with a black and brown cover that contained entries on some 2,600 buildings. A trade version was published the following year (blue and white cover), followed by a second edition in 1978 (653 pages, brown cover, number of buildings uncertain since the authors never bothered to count) and a third, vastly expanded, in 1988 (913 pages, orange and white cover, 5,000 buildings).

    In 1990, at the age of 56, Mr. Willensky died of a heart attack, leaving Mr. White, a self-confessed obsessive-compulsive who by then had developed a great fondness for the guide, as the sole author of the fourth edition, which was published in 2000 (1,056 pages, 5,000-plus buildings, mottled brick-colored cover).

    There are two reasons the guide has entered the pantheon of New York books like “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s gargantuan biography of Robert Moses; Kenneth Jackson’s Encyclopedia of the City of New York; and Jane Jacobs’s “Death and Life of Great American Cities.” One is its encyclopedic nature, and the other is its inimitable style — “smart, vivid, funny and opinionated,” as the architectural historian Christopher Gray once summed it up in pithy W & W fashion.

    But after the publication of the fourth edition, the project stood at a crossroads. Mr. White’s mind is as agile as ever, his judgments just as incisive, his wit as razor-edged. Yet, despite his robust appearance, his legs are not what they were.

    For the 2000 guide, he tramped the streets of Manhattan and reinspected nearly all the buildings cited to confirm the accuracy of their descriptions. A decade later, such intensive, firsthand observation was not an option.

    In addition, Mr. White no longer lives in New York, or even within commuting distance. Five years ago, after three decades at 104 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights and several years in Connecticut, he and his wife, Camilla, transplanted themselves to a 150-year-old mini-chateau atop a hill in the village of Roques, in southwest France, because, as Mr. White explained, “We wanted an adventure before it was too late.”

    FOR a fifth edition of the guide, Mr. White knew that he would need a partner. Thanks to a deal brokered by Mr. White’s close friend Stephanie Smith, director of administration of the School of Architecture, Urban Design and Landscape Architecture of the City College of New York, where Mr. White taught for a quarter of a century, that partner was Mr. Leadon, a 42-year-old assistant professor at the school. George Ranalli, the school’s dean, was also an enthusiastic supporter of the idea.

    Mr. Leadon, whose shock of dark hair falling over his forehead gives him a decided resemblance to the actor Hugh Grant, grew up in Gainesville, Fla., and now lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. In addition to his academic responsibilities, he provides vocals and guitar for a Brooklyn bluegrass band called the Y’all Stars.

    “I was hoping that wouldn’t come up,” Mr. Leadon muttered sheepishly when the subject was raised. Yet in Mr. White’s opinion, the fact that Mr. Leadon dwells in a world so different from the prewar Upper East Side in which he himself came of age is among the things that make the partnership so productive.

    “Fran has lots of contemporary ideas,” Mr. White said earlier this year during a two-week visit to the city. “He has different associations with contemporary life in New York. He knows the music, the jazz clubs, the sort of things people do, the vernacular.”

    Mr. White acknowledges that this will almost certainly be his last edition of the guide, but he hopes that his new partner will carry on the torch. Given their obvious mutual affection, not to mention the way their sensibilities and sometimes their very words echo each other’s — Mr. Leadon industriously seeks to emulate Mr. White’s directive to “damn with faint praise” — this scenario seems likely.

    The new generation includes not only Mr. Leadon but also 11 students enrolled in a course he is teaching specifically designed to produce many of the words and all the images for the 2010 guide. Without the efforts of the students, a group Mr. Leadon describes as “stellar,” the guide wouldn’t have a prayer of meeting its October deadline.

    THANKS to Google.doc, an application that allows the two men to all but simultaneously edit each other’s words — in contrasting colors, no less — work on the new edition of the guide is proceeding briskly despite the 3,000 miles separating its two authors.

    Yet, even with a copacetic partner, to update a 1,056-page work of close-in architectural detail and thousands of images tracing the lineaments of a vast and endlessly changing metropolis is a formidable task. Virtually every entry is being rewritten. Some old buildings are being dropped in favor of more interesting and important newcomers, and a spiffier and more sophisticated layout will feature the footprint of every building mentioned, based on a digital map of the city.

    The authors are also restoring what the writer Phillip Lopate called the “ghoulishly fascinating” Necrology section listing lost New York glories (the old Pennsylvania Station and a litany of beloved stores and restaurants).

    Despite the miles separating the guide’s two authors, Mr. White’s role is hardly insignificant. During his recent visit to the city, he blitzed around town, catching up with buildings and entire districts that had sprung up or had been transformed since his absence, notable among them the World Trade Center neighborhood, in preparation for writing an entirely new section on the area.

    “The World Trade Center was a particular challenge,” Mr. White admitted, mindful that this will be the first part of the guide many people turn to. “It’s a very touchy subject, and we’re being very careful.” The previous guide, which appeared just a year before 9/11, dismissed the twin towers as “stolid, banal monoliths.”

    On this cloudy Saturday in early February, the day of the sighting of the not-so-dreadful Scarano building, Mr. White and Mr. Leadon were being ferried around Brooklyn and Queens by Ken Ficara, their Web guru and designated driver and a frequent guest performer with Mr. Leadon’s band. In the front seat sat Mr. White, looking very Brooks Brothers in a tweed jacket, tan corduroys, plaid shirt and a cane. In the back was Mr. Leadon, in jeans and a parka, along with a heavily annotated and much-scribbled-over copy of the current guide, so thumbed through it had broken into two.

    As they headed south on Flatbush Avenue, the first leg of what would be a four-hour tour, the two architects snapped away with their cameras while trading one-liners that sounded uncannily like pages of the AIA Guide come to life. The undertaking seemed equal parts Architecture 101 and Norval and Fran’s excellent adventure.

    “That’s a really good cornice,” Mr. White announced as they passed an old warehouse and Mr. Ficara, to the accompaniment of much honking, made the first of a series of highly questionable left turns. “All the buildings around here are interesting.”

    Mr. White’s visual appetite seemed boundless. “I want to look at everything in the world,” he confessed as they approached Grand Army Plaza to check out Richard Meier’s new condominium, a major item on their to-do list.

    After a few choice words for this contemporary beachhead on the otherwise traditional circle — “Oh, my God!” Mr. White gasped as 15 stories of shimmering glass swam into view — his gaze lingered on the plaza’s triumphal Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch. The sight prompted reminiscences about the old days. “When I was a kid,” Mr. White told his younger companions, “I thought Brooklyn was another planet. We never even went except on extraordinary occasions.”

    A little later, they made their way to the onetime Victorian villa in Prospect Park that houses the Brooklyn parks department, not because the building was new or unfamiliar, but because Mr. White loves it so much.

    “They invented their own corn-cob capitals for the occasion,” he told his companions, gesturing at the columns the 2000 guide called “Corinthian or Corn-inthian” (ouch). He reminded them of the inspirational role of the 19th-century landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, who drowned in the Hudson trying to save his mother-in-law after a steamer accident.

    Mr. Leadon, no slouch himself when it comes to historical recall, marvels at this level of expertise.

    “Norval is just amazing — amazing — in the depth of his knowledge about New York,” he had said in an e-mail message a few days earlier. “I’ve learned a lot over the last year of working on this, and get to feel pretty cocky sometimes about what I now know about the city. Then I talk to Norval and realize how little I know. You could literally plunk him down on any street in the five boroughs and he could tell you something about who lived there, which building was there 100 years ago, an old restaurant that no one else remembers ... on and on.”

    Knowledge, however, does not necessarily translate into a sense of direction. By now the three men were driving around the park in circles, unable to find an exit. “We may have to spend the weekend here,” Mr. Leadon said cheerfully as they traveled and retraveled the same snow-bordered roads.

    ALTHOUGH Mr. White knows much of the city like the back of his hand, he was unprepared for the transformation of the South Brooklyn waterfront. In his mind’s eye, the area was a desolate expanse of cobblestone streets lined with warehouses and other remnants of the city’s dying shipping industry. But that was before Ikea, Fairway and the gentrifiers moved in. By the time the travelers reached Van Brunt Street, Mr. White was utterly disoriented.

    “I’m looking for something I recognize,” he said wanly, not seeming to hold out much hope. But the melancholy mood did not last, and for the most part the one-liners came thick and fast.

    Of a Police Athletic League community center in Red Hook that Mr. Leadon wanted to retain in the 2010 edition despite its bedraggled appearance? “Remember,” Mr. White cautioned, “it’s not the AIA Guide for Social Progress.”

    Of several unsightly structures near the Brooklyn waterfront? “There’s a couple of really bad buildings,” Mr. Leadon said. “Oh, sorry, I’m not damning with faint praise.”

    Of a park on Coffey Street in Red Hook whose name no one could quite remember? “I’ll check the AIA Guide,” Mr. Leadon said. “Oh, wait, I’m writing the AIA Guide.”

    Of a particularly formidable monolith? “What’s the other thing they need?” Mr. Leadon wondered aloud. “Oh, wait. People.”

    Of Mr. Ficara’s navigational skills as they threaded through a series of tunnels en route to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway? “One false move,” Mr. Leadon warned ominously, “and we’ll be in Battery Park.”

    THE physical city has been hugely transformed since the 2000 guide. Yet the most significant change may involve something far less tangible.

    Time and again, as Mr. Leadon’s students fanned across the city, snapping away with their cameras, they have been shooed away, not always gently, by anxious security guards. This is a post-9/11 city, and a young man or woman lingering on a sidewalk and gazing a little too long at a cornice or a doorway can arouse suspicion.

    Amanda Chen, 22, who came to New York from China at the age of 6, was chased down the block by a doorman, and it was not even his apartment house she was photographing. Jon Fouskaris, 24, who grew up in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn, said that one woman, angry because he was taking pictures of her building, tried to rip his clipboard from his hand.

    This altered state of affairs was particularly in evidence a few weeks ago when Mr. Leadon and a handful of his students paid a visit to Columbus Circle to check out the new Museum of Arts and Design, the Time Warner Center and the circle’s new landscaping.

    Inside the center, amid hordes of tourists and shoppers, they went about taking pictures until a woman who identified herself only as Jennifer and said she was the managing concierge sought to discourage them, telling them that they were in a private space and needed permission if they wanted to photograph any commercial signs or if their pictures were going to be published.

    After a few minutes, a man who identified himself as Karl Daniel and said he was the center’s director of guest services joined the conversation and said the students were free to do as they wished.


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