Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Taking the M79

What I miss most about living (or not living currently) in Manhattan: dry cleaners, delis, nail salons, and shoe repair shops on every corner; a subway that never closes; Central Park; the fact that everyone goes to therapy and talks about it; Central Park; the fact that everyone knows they're the hippest people on the planet; Central Park; the Met, MOMA and the American Museum of Natural History; takeout for anything and everything; Agata & Valentina, Zabars, and Butterfield's Market; my best friends and the M79 crosstown bus. Manhattan has style and soul. Washington DC doesn't have style. It's pleasant, has great restaurants and museums, and lots of space, but it just doesn't have a soul.

These are my ruminations as I spent the past two days roaming around Manhattan and Queens, taking photos, doing my favorite things like taking the M79 bus (don't ask), walking down my favorite streets, and hanging out with my closest girl friends (in between work meetings of course).
Usually these days I run into Manhattan for a day or two filled with meetings, driving quickly by the latest buildings with barely a chance to take closer looks at them and even get some photos. So this time I arranged a day of meetings after a holiday, so I could actually spend some time just enjoying the streets and visiting some of the new buildings that have gone up in the past few years. Good news - spent some time at 4 of those buildings. Bad news - they were all incredibly mediocre.

40 Mercer Street - by French Prizker-winning architect Jean Nouvel, hotel, residences, retail on the corner of Mercer and Broome. Given that this was the first major new building/skyscraper in SoHo and it had to go through years of reviews, it's not surprising that the result is an uninspired building by committee. It's quite jarring to look at Nouvel's Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and then this building. 40 Mercer is elegantly detailed. But there is just no soul (ah, that word keeps popping up today doesn't it). Nothing really grabs your eye. It's better than a spec office building, but not by much I'm afraid.

AOL/Time Warner Center - by SOM/David Childs. Now I never anticipated that this would be any good. And it's certainly not as horrible as the first concepts for this complex showed it could have been. But like 40 Mercer, there is nothing special about this mammoth. It's livelier than the old Convention Center that used to anchor this part of Columbus Circle, but the "grand lobby" is no better than a Galleria Mall and I have no idea why there are big purple stars hanging in the totally under-designed space. It's dark inside and out. In fact I didn't even bother to take any photos of it - it didn't seem worthwhile to waste pixels on it!

Museum of Arts & Design - by Allied Works/Brad Cloepfil from Portland, OR. Oh, Brad, Brad, Brad - we had such high hopes for you. If you absolutely insist on deconstructing a quirky landmark because the spineless NYC LPC abstains from making a decision about whether it's worthy of landmarking, then at least have the common decency to make it a better landmark! But no, all we got was another quirky building with no relationship to the street or Columbus Circle. Edward Durell Stone's original lollipop columns at the base (one of the truly memorable elements of the original building) are hidden behind fretted glass. It's just so uninteresting all the way around. The lobby is barely a lobby; it's dark and has no distinction. The terra cotta tile glazing is a little too gray to make it look dirty. The zig-zag lighting strips down the elevations look like big zippers. Poor Columbus Circle. They gussied up the fountain finally, improved the traffic flow but anchored it with two overpriced, under-designed, second-rate, inferior icon-wannabes.

Then there's the Hearst Headquarters - it looks like an overblown TARDIS on steriods dropped out of the void onto the quirky (there's that word again) Hearst building. Now, let's be clear. I LOVE Norman Foster. His British Museum courtyard reinvention and now his Portrait Gallery courtyard are divine. And I have always had a strange fondness for Joseph Urban's stucco deco Hearst building. My first job as an architect in NYC was in the Fiske building across the street from it and I did a semester long paper on it at Columbia. I never thought it was a superb building, but a fun one. Added some whimsy to what for a very long time was a very bleak 8th Avenue. But Norman Foster and Joseph Urban just don't belong together. Like the Museum of Arts & Design which is kitty-corner to Hearst, why couldn't they just have been bolder? If you're going to make a bold gesture, then do it already!! Don't leave us bored. Bold or bored - can't seem to get anything in between.

So, I am not bored to tears by every new building in Manhattan. I LOVE the New Museum on the Bowery designed by Tokyo-based architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA. It's perfectly located at the intersection of Bowery and Prince. I've seen it at night, all lit up, and on an overcast afternoon. And it made me smile both times. It's fresh, unique, bold with a capital "B" but not overwhelming, and says "contemporary design". It has reactivated a very gritty part of the Bowery. It's an understated piece of starchitecture by some young, new stars who took their task very, very seriously. I read an interview with them in which they described being scared of the site actually - the grittiness and the courage needed by the Museum to choose that location. More architects should take their projects as seriously.

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