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Thread: Utopia in Queens

  1. #1

    Default Utopia in Queens


    In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs
    Of every head he's had the pleasure to have known
    And all the people that come and go
    Stop and say hello.

    Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
    The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
    And though she feels as if she's in a play
    She is anyway.

    Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
    There beneath the blue suburban skies...

    Penny Lane!

    * * *

  2. #2


    You get there from Penn Station.

    The train takes 15 or 17 minutes --much faster than the subway.

    You’re greeted by a proper station…

    …and a proper station square to arrive at:

    The view is inspiring...

    And the quality of detail is primo:

    Art Nouveau. Vienna Secession?

    Mother Goose.

    Hector Guimard?

    * * *

  3. #3


    It’s obvious you’re in a community. Why, the residents are so civic-minded they maintain their own public spaces. Personally:

    At town-center Station Square, Art Nouveau Tudor Revival, a heady brew:

    The style was pioneered by Lutyens and Unwin at Hampstead, but here it’s much developed…

    …and ends up looking vaguely Hungarian:

    A miniature skyscraper. Could you get this by the NIMBYs today? Originally the station hotel, this was converted into old folks’ apartments just in the last decade.

    The skyscraper’s context: since it’s there, the NIMBYs love it. If it weren’t and you proposed it, they’d kill it on the grounds of height alone:


    You know where you are. You’re in the place with the red tile roofs:

    Mediaevalized Beaux-Arts Planning with an Art Nouveau sinuosity.

    Village life romanticized. An Arts and Crafts architect’s drawing:

    Towards the center, the paradigm swells to town, as filtered through an illustrated children’s book:

    * * *

  4. #4


    Noblesse oblige. Forest Hills was paternalistically conceived in 1908 by society lawyer and visionary activist Robert de Forest --who espoused “social betterment [and] improvement of the hard conditions of our working classes, making their homes and surroundings more healthful and comfortable and their lives happier”-- and by Olivia Sage, who was even richer.

    Robert de Forest.

    Olivia Sage. She didn’t think the development needed to make money.

    Together they hired land planner Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (Rick) –son of Central Park’s eminent mastermind— and patrician architect Grosvenor Atterbury to cook up their socialist utopia. This was to be a romantic, verdant redoubt from dark, satanic mills --to restore staunch workmen to their rustic roots.

    Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (Rick).

    Grosvenor Atterbury.

    Atterbury’s schema sprang from picturesque considerations. Though these bore a social agenda, then as now: to get a distinguished place, you start with a legible visual rendition of concrete reality --not a bunch of prescriptions, formulas, rules and numbers.

    First the design, then the zoning. First the concrete, then the numerical abstraction:

    1908: recently conceived was England’s Hampstead Garden Suburb (1907), where architects Parker and Unwin had endowed Ebenezer Howard and Friedrich Engel’s theories with concrete form, bucolic eclecticism and a spectrum of social classes. There too, the key to happier lives was thought to be trees, bushes, grass and vaguely medieval architecture.

    Kropotkin’s rosy reverie of kingless camelot would spring to life.

    Noble villagers and townsmen would set an example for us all.

    Country-club socialists and aristocrat-anarchists would hover paternalistically over these adorable peasants to see that everyone was “healthful, comfortable and happy.”

    “Why don’t the rich share their wealth and well-being?” I hear you ask. Well, sometimes they do, and Forest Hills is evidence. (It’s not just Bill Gates.)

    The Twentieth Century’s first decade in North America and Europe was actually rife with utopian planning; it produced most of America’s best suburbs –best because all were still walkable and rail-based. They had to be somewhat urban because not yet everyone owned a car.

    Preceded in social engineering by Philadelphia’s equally utopian railroad suburb of Chestnut Hill, Forest Hills wasn’t really America’s first example of the genre. It was also predated as a planned community by Palm Beach (aimed at the rich, 1902ff), Carmel, CA (targeting artists, 1904ff), Kansas City’s Country Club District (for the merely affluent, 1906ff), and L.A.’s Beverly Hills (1907ff).

    In turn, it helped inspire Cleveland’s Shaker Heights railroad suburb (1912ff), and Miami’s streetcar-based Coral Gables (ca.1925). Along with these projects, it has also godfathered Stern/Disney’s rail-less Celebration and Peter Calthorpe’s recent rail-based California projects –all of which fall a bit short.

    As is too often the case, the earliest examples were also the best. The suburb never got any better, but it sure got plenty worse; truth is, Forest Hills’ biggest legacy was the American automobile suburb. Though Forest Hills was conceived for the car-less proletariat, and though it’s head-and-shoulders better than today’s suburbia, it’s not hard to see that codification of some of its elements could lead to the formulaic junk that stifles American life today and threatens global ruin.

    As it developed over the succeeding decades, Forest Hills itself lost its breathtaking creative inspiration, as the small-minded took over and reduced it to the familiar nostrums now enshrined in zoning –quaint in the belief that inspired planning could be numerically codified.

    We all know what that preposterous delusion has brought us; it surrounds us on every side.

    Conceived at the dawn of the automobile age, Forest Hills forebodes with a dusting of primordial garages:

    And, these days, Lincoln Navigators:

    Like a modern suburb it features nice lawns…

    ...and loads of gables:

    But unlike its modern counterparts, it also has pedestrians who aren’t just jogging or out of gas:

    This gives it the essential urban characteristic: people walk to conduct their daily business.

    * * *

  5. #5


    You leave station square through arched gateways:

    Station Square: dry and sunny. Its environs: contrastingly leafy and lush.

    The mix of housing types that greets you is dazzling in variety, picturesque in massing and symbolically manorial. Strewn willy-nilly but always with an eye to composition you’ll find a smorgasbord of apartment buildings…

    ...row houses (some are conceived as freemen’s cottages)...

    Though composed as an organically accreted country fiefdom: yes, these are row houses. Not only row houses but row houses comprised of 2-family units. Look where the paths go and count the front doors.


    This is also a range of row houses. Look at the separated front yards.

    Row houses composed as the squire’s manse:

    The end unit in the range even turns its entrance to the side street. A mock service entrance?

    More row houses of a different sort:

    Thought it was a big ol’ house, huh? Look again.


    Connected at the garage (but not twins). French --and still medieval.

    Masquerading as a mansion. Observe the individual stoops.

    * * *

  6. #6


    ...and detached houses, just like the ones in modern Suburbia:

    ...and yet others composed into romantic village groupings

    Houses arranged as in an English village, not all lined up as in standardized Suburbia.

    Entrance to one house doesn’t face sidewalk. Where is the “front” yard? Where does the path lead?

    Front yard as auto court.

    Density on a roundabout.

    Where are the fronts?

    Setback? What setback?

    * * *

  7. #7


    Setback: one car length for the squire’s house, zero for the stone garage.

    An American quirk is that many yards are elevated a bit to separate private from public...

    ...while elsewhere there’s delight in intimate mixing:

    Houses entered off an alley: a condition you might associate with Charleston.

    To a superficial observer Forest Hills looks somewhat like many another suburb. As should be evident, however, it abounds with urban conditions most conventional suburban zoning bans by fiat. Such conditions (all collected in one place) include Zero Lot Line…

    …houses off alleys…

    Or would you call this a shared driveway?

    Or this?

    A house with its front door idiosyncratically located off a little automobile court:

    Some places, zoning specifically forbids such a condition in its drive to enforce conformity.

    * * *

  8. #8


    Non-standard conditions wherever you look:

    As you go outward from Station Square, the inventive place-making gradually dwindles into the present era of banality. Fresh thinking is replaced by the ritual conventions of standardized Suburbia, as it’s familiarly codified all over this land.

    The result is still pretty, because the individual houses are built to a very high architectural standard --but the utopian planning fire in Forest Hills’ belly ...bit by bit ...fades out:

    Forest Hills Gardens was built along with Gamble Rogers’ Gothic colleges at Yale. Forest Hills shares their zeal for “authentic” medieval detail:

    Some days in the Middle Ages, the bullock cart delivered brick, most days it was stone. You used what you got, but you applied a very high standard to architectural detailing and craftsmanship.

    As though to drive home the point that convention had taken over after a while, some houses even crept in dressed in Colonial style, though their roofs stayed red:

    Red roofs: that was the last part of the original concept to go; at its outskirts Forest Hills wears grey conventional roofs, and you’d never know you were in a place that had started life as a visionary pipedream. The triumph of standardized Suburbia was now complete.

    In Forest Hills you can walk from velvet-revolutionary, eleemosynary, utopo-anarcho socialism to Ozzie and Harriet in a dozen blocks. The metamorphosis itself took a bit over a dozen years.

    If you’re an architect designing a building where rules and regulations subjugate creativity, you don’t have to personally visit the property for which you’re designing because the site’s physical characteristics are made irrelevant by the rules; the future building’s exact location and its relationship to its neighbors is precisely dictated by regulations.

    The context of regulation is wholly abstract and numerical; it applies equally to all properties in its zoning category --regardless what their particularities might be. Those particularities can’t become form determinants; only the abstractions of regulation count to determine form and placement. And abstractions can be fully conveyed by dashed lines on paper; all you need is a property-line survey with the setbacks indicated.

    “Character” retreats to the actual styling of the house, not its placement.

    It makes not a whit of difference what’s next door; each lot is an asteroid in space, and no building is part of a larger concept.

    You know this place well; it’s everywhere there’s suburban zoning.

    And though it may be easy on the eyes... won’t find it improving the common run of man.

    Anyway, the working man for whom Forest Hills was conceived long ago moved on to other parts of Queens.

    You wouldn’t catch him walking a ridiculous dog like this:

    * * *

  9. #9


    Apartment buildings echo themes established in Station Square (clipped gables, Tudor details, red tile roofs, half-timbering):

    Craftsmanly detailing to match romantic composition. Celebrations of handwork by and for the noble workman:

    Brick joints around retrofitted air conditioning units repointed by a klutz. A unionized klutz, a not-so-noble workman? A workman worthy of his hire?

    Here’s the gateway to the city, to shopping and to Forest Hills itself. It provides a pretty homey welcome:

    In and out of Station Square is through gateways, whether you’re on foot or in a car:

    Pedestrians walk from train:

    Arrival side of the tracks if you’re coming from New York.

    Station sits atop its Art Nouveau micro-acropolis, while Robert Moses’ better idea for Queens looms beyond:

    Railroad viaduct (right) works exactly like a city wall, complete with city gates:

    * * *

  10. #10


    You depart your leafy Eden through the needle’s eye…

    …for serious shopping just yonder in the banlieue which functions as Forest Hills’ downtown:

    On the station’s departure side, you grab a paper just before you board, either on the station side…

    …or across the street, where an Indian gent operates what might be the world’s smallest shop. There’s exactly enough room inside for the owner to stand:

    To his regulars he provides daily banter; to me it’s camera batteries.

    Or you can grab a snack before your train:

    But leave your dogs outside:

    71st Ave leads from Station Square (can you spot it?) to cozy Austin St., the main drag, and Queens Boulevard (Hwy 25), scaled for Godzilla --but with subway stops:

    On the Boulevard, a banker’s digs proudly emblazoned with mosaic representation of his community and its relationship to Manhattan:

    On the corner is a banker with a motorcar,
    The little children laugh at him behind his back.
    And the banker never wears a mac
    In the pouring rain - very strange.

    The representation’s skyline retains twin towers:

    Another rendition of same:

    Spot the green arrow.

    * * *

  11. #11


    Outside the walls at Austin Street’s eastern end, the scale’s augmented, as in Paris. Apartment living in the Tudor manner (Tudor manor?):

    Some sport crenellated battlements:

    Others could be seen as tenements with style:

    A style graft.

    Bambi at home in battered storybook surroundings:

    West of 71st Avenue, Austin Street features high-intensity Tudor shopping (though Value Depot’s been shorn of style):

    Chains among the mom-and-pops:

    Plenty good shopping:

    Heavy pedestrian traffic has generated a ploy to max out bucks with multi-story commercial. The towers are elevators from the sidewalk:

    Times Square at 10 cents on the dollar and in miniature?

    Cartoon Tudor variation on a similar theme:

    * * *

  12. #12


    People must read in Forest Hills; there’s even a Barnes and Noble, complete with coffee, pastries and an escalator:

    Perhaps incongruously --but probably because the railroad preceded DeForest and Sage’s land purchase-- station, shopping and Main Street are all at Forest Hills’ northern fringe. At the development’s actual geographic center, you’ll find the vast public school:

    There’s a tiny parking lot for a few of the teachers; the kids doubtless walk to school.

    The school’s architecture remains staunchly Tudor:


    Along with the red roofs, Forest Hills’ imaginative, organic planning and architecture faded out with time and distance into predictable, zoned suburbia complete with standardized setbacks and the resultant uniform relationship of building to lot (lower left):

    Notice how the pattern and color change as you work your way southwest from Station Square near top, left of center. In the grey-roofed southwest corner: zoned (and consequently, regimented) Suburbia exhibits the order of machine parts. Big building near center is the public school. Forest Hills Tennis Club and stadium appears at upper left, home of U.S. Open prior to construction of tennis stadiums in Flushing Meadow. Railroad clearly visible, then fine-scaled Austin Street, the commercial downtown of Forest Hills, and finally grossly-scaled Queens Boulevard (upper right).

    Grossly-scaled Queens Boulevard:

    Not fit for man or beast. The subway, however, runs here.

    Austin Street’s commercial jangle:

    It may be tacky, but its scale is human.

    Austin Street with Queens Boulevard beyond: two development patterns juxtaposed. Two buildings, two attitudes toward place:

    Deadeye Rick Olmsted would be appalled:

    Is that what you call vision? Kid had it.

    Forest Hills appears on just about everyone’s list of best New York neighborhoods. It long ago shucked its working class population, and its present dwellers can afford to pay market rates for housing. At market rates, the Forest Hills model if precisely followed in a new development would likely turn a profit today, except that now as then a developer can find even higher profits in other development patterns. Does this mean you need a do-gooder to get a Forest Hills?

    DeForest Hills?

    * * *

  13. #13


    Footnote: a few more pictures.

    Wait a minute!! Is that car in the last picture a Trabant?

    We of the worldwide web think interconnected global idea communication is a recent phenomenon. Truth is, far-flung professionals were about as conversant with each others’ works in 1908 as they are today.

    By the time this little stone monument was placed in proper Arts and Crafts format, Budapest’s Wekerle Estate was fourteen years a-building:

    Celtic font, runic format.

    This makes it exactly contemporary with Forest Hills; little wonder they’re hard to tell apart. The ideological inspiration here as at Forest Hills derives from the Anglo-American utopian socialist and visionary planner, Ebenezer Howard, who in turn got his ideas from Friedrich Engels (utopian theorist, bleeding-heart capitalist, company-town developer and co-author of The Communist Manifesto) and Prince Piotr Kropotkin (utopian theorist, serf-owner, historian [The State: Its Historic Role], anarchist political philosopher, revolutionist, promoter of the noble savage, and romanticizer of most things medieval).

    Like Forest Hills, Wekerle Estate was developed for the working stiff by a rich philanthropist:

    Sandor Wekerle (1848-1921), three-term Prime Minister.

    And the proud architect, conversant with the latest theories and styles, both architectural and sartorial:

    Karoly Kos (1883-1977).

    * * *

  14. #14


    With its generous tree cover, red roofs and prominent town square Wekerle Estate uncannily resembles Forest Hills from the air:

    Rail access: streetcar arrives lower right corner of the estate.

    The estate:

    Can you see a little Andres Duany in the layout?

    As at Seaside, a nicely informal refusal to sort cars from pedestrians. Such efforts are pointless where the pedestrian is king.

    Architectural style shows the same Art Nouveau touches as Forest Hills. Parabolic arches a la Gaudi or Guimard:

    Red tile:

    Clipped gables and lush landscape:

    Intimate streetscape:

    European Suburbia:

    And those gateways into the main square, which here is a green, not a paved plaza:

    The style is Transylvanian.

    * * *

  15. #15


    Peasants are homebodies. Their storybook style appeals to the yuppies who displaced them here as in Forest Hills. The yuppies are the new noble peasants:

    Arts and Crafts exoticism retrofitted with wiring:

    Peasants like bright colors...

    ...and so do many yuppies:

    Or that rustic look of varnished wood:

    A wee touch of Lutyens or Norman Shaw?:

    A cheerfully ramshackle cottage such as you might find in the contemporaneous planned community of Carmel, California (1904ff):

    In Carmel, you might find a movie star inside.

    And a densely overgrown street such as those that grace (with a different species) the contemporaneous streetcar suburb of Coral Gables:

    This one reminds me a bit of the not-so-planned city of Charleston:

    And this one belongs to an old lady in Charlotte who doesn’t mow her grass:

    * * *

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