The new New York
By Edwin Heathcote
Published: August 22 2008
22:20 | Last updated: August 22 2008 22:20
When Mohammed Atta flew a Boeing 767 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center he knew, perhaps more clearly than most of Manhattan’s inhabitants, the power of architecture to define a city. A student of town planning at Hamburg, Atta also had a degree in architecture from Cairo University.
The hole that he and his cohorts left in both the skyline and the psyche of New York prompted one of the most extraordinary shifts in the city’s culture of building: the arrival en masse of the omnipresent band of globetrotting, multi-award-winning international architects who have been shaping and reshaping the skylines of the world’s cities. Foster, Rogers, Piano, Nouvel, Herzog & de Meuron, Koolhaas: every big figure from contemporary architecture is building there now, and building big.
It is not as if New York has only just woken up to architecture. It has, after all, probably more of the most beautiful and recognisable buildings of the modern age than any other metropolis; indeed, for over a century, it has been the city of modernity. Rather, it is that Manhattan has begun to look for its architecture beyond the Hudson River and over the Atlantic (and the Pacific) for the first time in its history.
New York has always been obsessed with its own mythology. And for a long time it turned inwards for its architecture. Its outstanding monuments, those that exert the most magnetic effect on its profile, the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, were designed by local architects (Shreve, Lamb & Harmon and William Van Alen) virtually unknown elsewhere. Its developers created an extraordinary vernacular that emerged from a blend of influences: the grid plan; iron-frames and big loft-windows; Art Deco Aztec modelling; the required set-backs to allow light to reach the streets and avoid a canyon effect; the matrices of iron fire escapes.
Then, as the smooth lines of modernism supplanted the attenuated pyramids of Deco, the vernacular was debased into a mechanism for erecting tall, dumb towers cheaply and efficiently. Tough unions, heavy regulation and extreme litigation led to a “lowest common denominator” architecture and a fear of innovation. Local architects knew the score, local contractors exerted a monopoly and developers didn’t bother looking outside the city. For half a century, its architecture became inbred, stunted.
The Twin Towers were the culmination of that tradition: bigger, bolder, dumber, their appeal was in their scale. Skyscrapers have tended to go hand in hand with depression: the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings were completed as Wall Street crashed; the Rockefeller Center was a companion to Roosevelt’s monumental public works of the 1930s; the World Trade Center was finished during New York’s lowest ebb, a monument to a city deep in debt and riddled with crime. The WTC might have been big and dumb but it was Manhattanised big and dumb; its towers extruded so far that they became astonishing. We are reminded of its power in James Marsh’s film Man on Wire
, about the high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s crossing of the chasm between the towers.
But that gap was nothing in comparison with the one created by the destruction of the towers in 2001. The hole, and the saga of filling it, became the catalyst for a surge of interest in architecture in a city that had forgotten that buildings can contribute something more than commercial space or condos.
The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation commissioned local firm Beyer Blinder Belle to masterplan the site. Its six sensible if unambitious proposals provoked outcry: surely, this site deserved something more? The developers were forced into a competition and, after a bitter skirmish, the Polish-born, Germany-based, one-time New Yorker Daniel Libeskind was chosen, an avant-garde architect whose ideas of memory and tragedy had been embodied in such deeply affecting buildings as Berlin’s Jewish Museum.
Libeskind’s original plan to maintain the crater, exposing the brutality of 9/11, was abandoned, along with his crystalline skyscraper, which was emasculated by the client Larry Silverstein’s pet architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) into a bland commercial tower that would be at home in Dubai or Guangzhou. In an implicit acknowledgment that his plans for the site lacked architectural ambition, Silverstein commissioned a bunch of international stars, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Fumihiko Maki, to build new towers around the site.
Only a decade ago, this kind of international architectural pick’n’mix would have been unthinkable: these would have been local buildings for local people. Now this city in thrall to its own image had learnt to look abroad. In employing stars from overseas, Silverstein was only following New York’s other big developers.
Part of the reason for this shift was defiance in the wake of 9/11 – a determination to revivify the skyscraper, a form that seemed doomed because of Atta and his cohorts. Partly it was to do with growing awareness of design, and with the pure commercial incentive to differentiate top-end developments.
But was it also a sign of a huge crisis in confidence? The mantra is that cities from London and Berlin to Abu Dhabi and Tokyo, which embrace international architecture, are booming and dynamic. New York never thought like that. It didn’t need to: its very sidewalks vibrated with dynamism, its culture was squeezed in at such high pressure that it had to be released as steam in the streets. Now, whether it is to do with 9/11, with insecurity about its dominance as a financial centre or the muffling duvet of gentrification, the city seems to have lost that astonishing arrogance. No longer feeling that they can rely on their fellow citizens, its developers have turned to the reliable radicals of world architecture.
The big corporations and cultural institutes have all fallen into line. First was the Hearst Corporation, which commissioned Foster Associates to design its new midtown HQ, a faceted tower emerging from a stump of Art Deco city fabric. Opened in 2006, it was a huge departure from the usual blank box, a lively diamond grid. Next was the New York Times, which commissioned Renzo Piano to design its new 42nd Street HQ, a self-effacing, almost ethereal skyscraper.
Then there was culture. The Museum of Modern Art turned to the cool minimalism of Yoshio Taniguchi; the New Museum to the luminous intelligence of Japanese architects SANAA for their new Bowery building. And of course there were condos. Manhattan’s developers discovered the superstar architect as branding device. Jean Nouvel’s tower for Andre Balazs, 40 Mercer, has proved a profitable hit and Herzog & De Meuron’s hybrid of brownstone, loft and condo for Ian Schrager, 40 Bond, has begun to affect SoHo’s industrial raggedness.
But the real change is yet to come. Three skyscrapers currently mooted are among the most intriguing proposals in contemporary architecture. The game was kicked off by French architect Jean Nouvel’s MoMA tower, a 75-storey latticework spike. Engineering as aesthetic, this is structure stripped bare: even when complete, it will evoke the visceral beauty of the construction process.
Herzog & De Meuron’s Leonard Street Tower in Tribeca offers a new take on the skyscraper (the design of which will be fully revealed next month): a stack of crystalline boxes bearing down on and squeezing a blobby Anish Kapoor sculpture at its base.
Finally, there is One Madison Park, by Rotterdam’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture. It comes to us from the office of Rem Koolhaas, who brought us the superb Delirious New York
in 1978, a book characterising Manhattan’s contribution to architecture as the culture of congestion. This is an eccentric, clever building, one to be taken seriously.
The proposal (revealed exclusively to the FT) is typically provocative. Invoking a world of ziggurats and pyramids somewhere between Metropolis, Dada and Busby Berkeley, OMA brings us essence of Manhattan. It boils down to those steps, the set-backs and terracing so characteristic of the city – but used the wrong way round. Instead of set-backs, we have step-outs, a tottering tower cantilevered over its neighbours, allowing it to grab extra space from thin air while still permitting light to reach its neighbours.
One Madison is the zenith of a burst of creativity from the world’s top architecture firms, each bringing to bear the intellectual, structural and aesthetic focus that has been so lacking in Manhattan’s architecture since the last great explosion of corporate expression in the early 1960s. It represents a quantum shift in attitudes to architecture, a sudden, surprising realisation of its role in defining and redefining the city. The question is whether that redefinition will enhance New York’s character or erode it.
Always the most self-sufficient and cosmopolitan of cities, priding itself on its diversity and difference, New York was always able to at least provide an everyday fabric of robustness and its own strange, accidental beauty. With its complex weave of iron fire escapes, its streetscape of hot dog stands and fire hydrants, its elevated railways, its uneven profile of skyscraper nudging up to parking lot and its leaps in scale and grandeur, its ragged landscape has proven robust and endlessly adaptable. But even that level of the everyday, the harsh, functional and fascinating sidewalk city is fading away.
One scheme now under way, the revivification of the High Line, is a rare example of a major work by a New York practice and its progress has highlighted some of the problems. By making this disused, elevated freight train line into a linear park, architects Diller, Scofidio and Renfro have created a green space of great biodiversity (using plant types that arrived in exotic cargoes and spread across the freight system) in densely built Chelsea. It is a beautiful idea that will allow pedestrians, unimpeded by “Don’t Walk” signs, to thread through the industrial structures of an age in which Chelsea was notable for production, not consumption. Yet it has led to a rash of condo towers along this park-on-legs, many of them clever, adventurous buildings – but detracting from the gritty quality that made the district unique.
New York’s complex grain, its juxtapositions of grit and glamour, have always kept it alive, a shifting network of fashion and dereliction. It has always had its stars, its standout structures, from the Flat-Iron to the Guggenheim, but they have been contained within a mass that is tough, workaday and anonymous. Now, though, parts of the city are in danger of being overwhelmed by brilliant gestures. As a whole, it is robust enough to take them but the distinctiveness of its districts is being undermined. The credit crunch raises the possibility that this will remain an exhibition of potential towers – there are signs of fatigue with superstar condos, and some have been selling slowly. But it looks like a trend destined to continue for the moment at least.
With the loss of the Twin Towers, New York was exposed to the world; it could no longer claim isolation. Yet this revolution in the city’s perception of itself was sketched out by E.B. White as long ago as 1949, in an essay written at the dawn of the cold war: “The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges ... ” He concluded: “All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.”
It took more than 50 years for White’s prescient fears to be realised. The lightning that struck on 9/11 led not only to an indelible apocalyptic image but also to a new, bolder vision of this city of towers. New York is changing fast; the challenge will be to retain its “Manhattanness”. It is being rebuilt by foreigners but lifetimes of immersion in its iconography should enable them to recapture its essence in a way that its own citizens have proved unable. It is a critical moment; a moment for New York to hold steady and to resist the temptation to become like everywhere else.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
The Financial Times Limited 2008