Detroit: City of the Future

August 14th, 2014 by admin

Henry Ford poses in the first car he made. In his 1922 autobiography, he wrote: “Industry will decentralize. There is no city that would be rebuilt as it is, were it destroyed – which fact is in itself a confession of our real estimate of cities. . . . The modern city has been prodigal, it is today bankrupt, and tomorrow it will cease to be.” At the time, Ford was building his vast River Rouge plant miles outside Detroit.

Frank Lloyd Wright and family escape by car to a new home in the Arizona Desert in 1928. Henry Ford had an ally in Wright, who wrote in his 1954 book, The Natural House:

When selecting a site for your house, there is always the question of how close to the city you should be and that depends on what kind of slave you are. The best thing to do is go as far as you can get. . . . The cost of transportation has been greatly decreased by way of the smaller car. In this way, decentralization has found aid, and the easier the means of egress gets to be, the further you can go out from the city. . . . Clients have asked me: “How far should we go out, Mr. Wright?” I say: “Just ten times as far as you think you ought to go.” So my suggestion would be to go just as far as you can go – and go soon and go fast.

Wright’s advice meshed with a national narrative of Americans escaping the constraints of Europe into an ever-expanding frontier. The last we hear from Huck Finn, he’s planning to “light out for the territory ahead of the rest.”  The architectural historian Reyner Banham in his 1965 essay, “A Home is Not a House,” noted Americans’ preference for the outdoors over built environments, even citing the space program: “America’s monumental space is, I suppose, the great outdoors – the porch, the terrace, Whitman’s rail-laced plains, Kerouac’s infinite road, and now, the Great Up There.” The place we’ve arrived seems to say that the drama and wonder of expansion were all in the journey.

State of the Union, a series by photographer Gregg Segal poses re-enactors at Civil War battle and encampment sites that are now parking lots and subdivisions. Traveling on assignment for magazines, Segal was disturbed by America’s growing sameness: “Wherever I traveled, I’d see the same strip malls with the same Olive Gardens and Jamba Juices and Panera Breads, etc., and I wanted to say something about the erasure of the past and the homogenization of the landscape.” His images seem to ask whether this is the soul of a nation Americans fought and died for, whether we’re more the children of Abraham Lincoln or Henry Ford. What their banal settings so desperately lack can be found in the place the car first left behind: Detroit has history, variety, monumentality, significant architecture and fuel for the imagination.

Henry Ford’s 1904 Ford Piquette Plant may be Detroit’s, and America’s, most influential building; not for its own style, which is that of a nineteenth-century textile mill, but for the suburban world of malls, office parks and subdivisons it spawned, a nation of car-secondary landscapes and buildings. It was the first factory built by Ford and the birthplace of the Model T, which made car-ownership affordable to the average American and put the nation on wheels. The Piquette Avenue Industrial Historic District recognizes the significance of this building and its neighbors, early car plants that still employed 50,000 workers as recently as the 1950s when Detroit’s population peaked at 1.8 million. Today, Detroit’s population is back to its pre-Ford 700,000.

Two blocks up Piquette Avenue, architect Albert Kahn’s 1921 Fisher Body Plant stands unrestored. The seven Fisher brothers’ company developed enclosed car bodies, adapting the automobile from fair weather touring vehicle to everyday transportation. Kahn is sometimes called the builder of Detroit for his many and often huge projects in the city, including the Packard Plant, now one of Detroit’s signature ruins. It’s as hard to begrudge the Fisher Plant’s evocative decay as the colorful nature erupting through the sidewalk nearby. Detroit offers many such opportunities to experience the sublime; not chocolate cake sublime but Romantic Movement sublime, the pleasurable terror felt in the face of dwarfing enormity and nature’s mortality-mocking permanence. Add the pathos, mystery and picturesque decay, and it’s a strong brew. Detroit is now world famous for its much-photographed ruins. Rather than demolish them, the city might exploit their potential to stimulate tourism.

Unlike the red brick Ford Piquette Plant, Kahn’s Fisher Plant is stripped of all conventional architectural decorum. He had begun using reinforced concrete to this then-radical effect in his 1905 design for Detroit’s Packard Plant. Called “daylight factories” for their naturally-lit work floors, these buildings maximized windows and open interior space, paring structure to a minimum and pushing the limits of functionalism. Their exposed concrete structural frames weren’t hidden under the sort of brick or stone skin into which stylizing architects would typically invest much of their effort, often to simulate a Renaissance palazzo or other borrowed model. In Kahn’s industrial buildings, structure and skin were one, function was honestly expressed, integrity trumped artifice, and a powerful purity of form emerged. As Reyner Banham detailed in his book, A Concrete Atlantis, European architects were influenced by grainy photos of just such American factories in trade publications. Le Corbusier’s seminal 1923 book, Towards a New Architecture, reproduced these photos and held American factories up as models. The honest qualities of Kahn’s plants would become articles of faith for modern architecture from the Bauhaus through the International Style and to this day. The source of this DNA lies scattered among the ruins of Detroit. If the Bauhaus could design its Dessau school in imitation of a daylight factory, might not Albert Kahn’s factories one day house design schools?

For all its famed blight, this too is Detroit. The 1928 Fisher Building, “Detroit’s largest art object,” was a real estate investment of the Fisher brothers of “Body by Fisher” fame after they sold most of their coach works interest to GM for staggering sums. It was designed by architect Joseph Nathaniel French, working within Albert Kahn’s office. Despite Kahn’s role in launching architecture’s unornamented modern movement, he did not consider himself a modernist and held that non-utilitarian buildings should be decorated. It’s tempting to envision the Fisher Building’s spectacular lobby used, like Milan’s Galleria, as a public living room.

The lobby of Detroit’s 1929 Guardian Building is a fanfare for the common office worker.

Designed by architect Wirt C. Rowland, The Guardian Building is the sort of exuberant jazz-age skyscraper that largely defines older American skylines. The 1920s building boom coincided with Art Deco’s moment and was followed by a construction drought that lasted through decades of depression and war, leaving the style distinctly the face of the modern American city in its unbridled youth. Detroit has examples of national importance.

Glass-faced row houses designed by Mies van der Rohe look out on a nature in Detroit’s Lafayette Park. Most architects would be surprised to learn that Detroit has in this project the world’s largest collection of buildings by Mies, one of the profession’s two or three most revered twentieth-century practitioners. Lafayette Park is also considered the major built work of urban planner Ludwig Hilberseimer, who had earlier taught at the Bauhaus under Mies’s leadership. Mies closed the Bauhaus in 1933 rather than capitulate to Nazi demands for the removal of Hilberseimer and another left-wing teacher, the painter Wassily Kandinsky. Lafayette Park is a rare case of highly successful urban renewal; a vibrant, affordable community with a low vacancy rate more than a half century after its completion. (A renovated 1400 square foot three-bedroom row house was advertised earlier this year for $159,000.) The 2012 book, Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies, looks at Lafayette Park through the lives and words of its residents, with many photos of the maximized social freedom and variety of living allowed by Mies’s less-is-more minimalism. Residents range from one who has never heard of Mies (“Is he a good architect?”) to one who can describe in detail the personal and professional relationships between Mies and his collaborators on the project. All praise Mies’s open sense of space. Lafayette Park’s presence in Albert Kahn’s Detroit is poetic justice. From the 1940s on, Mies’s work was strongly influenced by Kahn’s steel-framed industrial buildings.

As recorded by Kahn scholar Grant Hildebrand, Mies’s student Myron Goldsmith recalled him poring over the designer George Nelson’s recent book on Kahn’s work in 1940. Mies had immigrated to America in 1938 to head the Department of Architecture at the Armour Institute, now Illinois Institute of Technology. His chief assistant at the time, Gene Summers, has said Mies “was particularly impressed with the automotive architect-builder in Detroit by the name of Albert Kahn.” By this time, Kahn had moved from his pioneering use of reinforced concrete to working with steel structure, and he was about to send a second wave of influence through modern architecture.

Resemblance alone speaks for Kahn’s impact on Mies. At left, Kahn’s extension to the La Grange Diesel Plant, as pictured in George Nelson’s book, closely prefigures Mies’s 1943 IIT Minerals and Metals Building, at right, his first construction in America. Mies’s work from then on, including such iconic buildings as the Farnsworth House and the Seagram Building, would be rooted in the crystalline, steel-structure vocabulary of Kahn’s factories. Lafayette Park’s low-rise buildings in fact look more like a Kahn plant than conventional row houses. Kahn, who believed his stripped-down style was only suited to industrial buildings, would not have approved.

Kahn would have been appalled at this collage by Mies and his students. It appropriates a photo of Kahn’s Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Plant from George Nelson’s book, inserting a concert hall. The image argues for Mies’s concept of universal space, liberated for any use by structurally unimpeded expanse and the absence of a use-specific received style. The idea is innately sustainable; neutral, flexible buildings are readily adapted to new uses when they outlive their original ones. As a bonus, architecture breaks free of any one prescribed use, reclaiming the timelessness and autonomy of ancient monuments. Mies’s collage seems uncannily pertinent to Detroit, an entire city awaiting new use, rich with vacant factory floors, many by Albert Kahn. Proving the viability of former industrial plants as cultural settings, the Dia Art Foundation’s collection has been based in a quarter-million square-foot 1929 Nabisco box printing factory in Beacon, New York, since 2003. The vast industrial setting is a critical part of the experience of the museum, helping justify an 80-minute train ride from New York City. Something similar in Detroit could add to the role of the venerable Detroit Institute of Arts in making the city an art destination.

One Woodward Avenue, completed in 1963, was the first skyscraper designed by Detroit-based Minoru Yamasaki. Although he is most famous for designing New York’s World Trade Center, Yamasaki’s Detroit work has a better relationship of detail to overall scale. When America started building again after World War II, it was as a grown-up world power donning sober International Style architecture. Yamasaki provided an alternative, enlivened with decorative historical and regional influences: “There must be elements of delight, to offset the monotony of mass-produced building and to enhance the enjoyment of life.” This personal inflection keeps his Detroit buildings looking fresh today, amid their now often bland-looking International Style contemporaries.

Yamasaki’s 1964 DeRoy Auditorium at Detroit’s Wayne State University rises to a crescendo of pointed arches. The Auditorium’s top-heavy design should be balanced by its reflection in the now empty reflecting pool, itself an emblem of Detroit’s troubles. Until it’s refilled, Yamasaki’s whole is less than the sum of its parts. In fact, its only half its parts. The building shows the influence of Islamic architecture which Yamasaki first adopted for his design of the 1961 Dhahran Air Terminal Building in Saudi Arabia.

Inside the DeRoy Auditorium, the lines of Yamasaki’s stair railing sketch the base of his World Trade Center towers to come. In a 2001 Slate piece, architect Laurie Kerr makes much of the towers’ implied pointed arches and Yamasaki’s description of the plaza between them as a “mecca.” She argues that the Saudi Binladen Group would have had a hand in his several Arabian projects and that Osama Bin Laden “must have seen how Yamasaki had clothed the World Trade Center, a monument of Western capitalism, in the raiment of Islamic spirituality.”

With a manufacturing history dating to well before Henry Ford, Detroit has a wealth of anonymous but architecturally interesting industrial buildings that might serve art as well as industry.

A city street through a neighborhood of disappeared  houses evokes a country lane. Much of Detroit now looks like this, as if to prove Henry Ford’s prediction that cities will cease to be. This photo’s belatedly replaced sidewalk corner responds to a court order that Detroit honor curb ramp requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Blocks like this are a new kind of introduction of nature into a city; not encapsulated, planned parks but swaths of green randomly marbled through the urban fabric. They might remain as a surreal cocktail of city and wilderness, or be made laboratories for experimental forms of housing supported by existing infrastructure.

Detroit presents the spectacle of a major American city returning to nature.

Piranesi’s etchings of tree-sprouting Roman ruins come to mind.

A brick house with graceful tile and stone begs to be restored. Its new roof and brickwork may buy it some time.

Tyree Guyton returned from military service to find that his old neighborhood looked like “a bomb went off.” He and his grandfather Sam Mackey began making art from abandoned houses on Heidelberg Street in 1986. Although some of the houses have been lost to arson, the Heidelberg Project continues to be an attraction and source of local pride. The attention has made the area a safer place for its residents.

Carl Nielbock came from Germany to discover his roots in Detroit, the home of his black G.I. father, and stayed. A sign outside his ornamental metalwork company, C.A.N. Art Handworks, demonstrates its stock in trade while celebrating the city whose architectural heritage the business helps restore. Unsanctioned expressions like this sign, the Heidelberg Project and Detroit’s other outdoor art installations are in the American spirit of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, a national landmark. These works and the efforts of those who take it upon themselves to mow the city’s neglected parks or prune its trees give one hope for Detroit.

A brick house in Detroit’ historic Corktown neighborhood is scratched with names and initials of those who waited at an adjacent streetcar stop, some of whom have returned to update their entries. The architectural visionary Lebbeus Woods wrote in his book Radical Reconstruction that “the complexity of buildings, streets and cities, built up over time and across the span of innumerable lives, can never be replaced.” The book’s words and illustrations propose an alternative to demolition, which destroys the past, and restoration, which denies history’s failures and reinstates the old order to blame for them. Woods’ chosen principle “to create the new from the damaged old” would be well applied to Detroit. The city’s historic resonance is not only irreplaceable but unavailable to competing suburban developers or practitioners of New Urbanism.

The inscribed brick house stands on a graceful, leafy block of Bagley Avenue. Henry Ford built his first car in a backyard coal shed on the street.

Ford poses with his bike in 1893. The 1890s saw the greatest boom ever in bicycle popularity, a craze boosted by technological improvements including inflatable tires.  In 1896, Ford built his first car, outfitting it with bicycle tires and calling it the Quadricycle. A new boom was born. Ford’s insistence that the city would disappear made good business sense. Cities, after all, were negotiable by streetcar or bicycle. General Motors notoriously bought and decommissioned many American cities’ streetcar systems in the 1950s. This is known either as “streetcar conspiracy” or “streetcar conspiracy myth,” depending entirely on your politics. Detroit’s streetcars were sold to Mexico City, still in good enough shape to serve there for another thirty years.

Bicycles ply the Dequindre Cut, overlooked by graffitti art and one of Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park Towers. Opened in 2009, the recreational greenway was converted from a rail line originally cut into the ground to pass below crossing streets.


Streets and car traffic pass above the Dequindre Cut’s cyclists and pedestrians. Historically, industrial routes similarly avoided public streets. The Australian architectural educator and bike planner Steven Fleming, in his 2012 book, Cycle Space,  notes the potential of abandoned industrial rail lines and waterways, often overlaid or skirted by the public streets of later civic development, to be sewn together into vast networks of bike paths: “As a cyclist, I see parallel cities coming into focus, on industrial land, with their backs turned on those places where people drive.” The car-free streets of Detroit’s vacated residential blocks could add to the city’s brownfields as a canvas for such a bike network. Detroit’s less-than-walkable density puts it in a prime position to benefit from the kind of bike system Fleming envisions. This is a more important priority than it might at first seem, one with implications for job growth. Even in oil-invested, red-state Texas, major cities  are creating bike lanes and bike share programs.  Robin Stallings, head of the bike advocacy group Bike Texas has said:  “Companies like Samsung and Google are looking at the bicycle facility infrastructure before they decide what city they’re going to locate in. So this is really being driven by economics in Texas. It’s not all about people seeing themselves on a bicycle, but seeing what it does for the quality of life in a city.” As Frank Lloyd Wright used to say (without crediting Dorothy Parker): “Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves.”

Henry Ford argued that we’d never rebuild cities as they are. Would we accept the automobile as a new invention today? Today’s safety standards, environmental awareness, and appreciation of the social and cultural benefits of density say no.  As ethicist Randy Cohen has noted: “If you introduced a transportation system in the U.S. by declaring: ‘It’ll slaughter 30,000 people a year and hospitalize ten times that number,’ it’s hard to believe it would catch on.” We tolerate cars because the world they’ve created over the course of a century requires them. Facebook and smartphones notwithstanding, our lives are built on the platform of Ford’s dirty and dangerous late nineteenth-century technology. Cars have certainly evolved, but even electric ones are charged by fossil fuel, and they won’t make a nation of paved sprawl more sustainable.

The car wasn’t even universally embraced in Ford’s day. Technology historian Peter Norton points out that the introduction of cars to cities in particular met strong public resistance, forcing the industry to fight back; when the public branded fast drivers “joy riders,” car interests coined “jay walkers” to shift blame for street carnage onto pedestrians. Norton also notes that “America’s love affair with the car” was no one’s spontaneous observation, but a promotional catchphrase seeded in 1960s television. Auto makers and oil interests depended heavily on New York’s Robert Moses and his acolytes nationwide to muscle cities into car deference. New York’s 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, run by Moses, were largely auto industry ads for a car-based world of tomorrow. Jane Jacobs’ resistance to Moses took her from neighborhood activist to national icon. Their streets-for-cars versus streets-for-people battle, billed as the central drama of urban planning, is now slated for operatic treatment.

Detroit is a telltale worth watching. As the birthplace of the car, it was first to suffer from Ford’s dream of a post-urban America. By rights, it should be first in line to become a new kind of post-Ford American city. A new streetcar line is already in construction. If there’s an afterlife for Detroit, there may be for Buffalo and other American cities loaded with our history and architectural heritage.

American cities aren’t the places to flee they once were. The sooty, overcrowded metropolis of Henry Ford’s day is now a thing of China, where people are as desperate to own cars as we once were. Americans are less shackled to cities by jobs and more likely to live in them by choice. Vishaan Chakrabarti’s compellingly illustrated 2013 book, A Country of Cities, makes an overwhelming case for the personal and national benefits of re-urbanization, a trend that he notes is already under way. The greater the number of Americans who live in cities, the healthier and wealthier we’ll all be, even those of us who don’t choose the urban option. This, and everything else Detroit has to offer, make its fate a national concern.

A wooden street lamp pointed out near the Fisher Body Plant is a small part of Detroit’s irreplaceable authenticity. This ArchiTakes post and one to follow, on Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, are the product of a single 25-mile bike tour generously hosted by the author of the blog, One More Spoke, and his ebullient fiancée. Their love of Detroit, despite its hardships, was infectious. But for a missing section of pedestrian overpass handrail likely lost to scavengers, no part of the tour felt unsafe. People in Detroit greet each other when they pass. Anyone who doesn’t is assumed to be visiting from New York.

Saving the Seamen’s House YMCA

August 23rd, 2013 by admin


Designed as a waterfront YMCA for sailors, Seamen’s House has scores of multi-colored terra cotta highlights. Stylized ships’ prows, waves, and Jazz Age riffs on the YMCA’s triangle logo are deployed for maximum effect, lighting up the building’s roof line and window heads. They are an integral part of the building’s composition, and their cleaning and minimal restoration would do much to revitalize a work by great Art Deco designers. Heavy-framed, rusty security screens tell of the building’s more recent use as a prison. Their removal would also greatly improve the appeal of this easily overlooked building.

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Looking Over the Bike Share Gift Horse

July 12th, 2013 by admin

Central Park users rub shoulders with cars on the main loop road until 7PM on weekdays, even though Olmsted and Vaux’s 1857 park design is predicated on sunken transverse roads to block out the sight and sound of street traffic. It’s hard to say what’s worse; the exhaust sucked into lungs of joggers or the nullification of a planned and celebrated refuge from the streets. The deference to cars is striking, given that most New Yorkers don’t own one and under a quarter of Manhattan households do.

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Mythical Lower Manhattan, Part 2

May 6th, 2013 by admin

The 2002 World Trade Center competition entry by the team of architects Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl is shown in its finished form at left, and in an earlier study by Holl, at right. The images are juxtaposed as they appear in Holl’s book, Urbanisms. The finished scheme has the regimentation of Upper Manhattan’s street grid while the study suggests Lower Manhattan’s off-kilter intersections. (One legend has it that the slang meaning of “square” comes from Greenwich Village’s bohemian heyday, when free thinkers lived on its unaligned streets and conformists on uptown’s rectangular blocks.) Holl asserts that the distinction mattered to him, in his book Architecture Spoken:

I had been working on a vision called Parallax Towers years before, in which I envisioned horizontal linkage of vertical thin towers. The notion of these as hybrid buildings, meaning they had offices, living, commercial aspects and they were linked in section, orchestrating what is normally known as a vertical typology into a horizontal one. The flexibility of that idea would work for the program we were given for this new project. Peter Eisenman and I fought until the end on how the horizontals should meet the verticals. I always wanted them to move, as in my original project from the early nineties, but he wanted them straight. The compromise was to keep them straight.

Despite this lost battle, Holl would speak proudly of the end result in a lecture at SCI-Arc on September 11, 2003, and bitterly reject architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s description of its “icy rationality.” Nonetheless, his earlier resistance to the squared-off default, in what he calls “endless and enormously confrontational meetings,” is telling.    Read the rest of this entry »

Mythical Lower Manhattan, Part 1 – In Memory of Lebbeus Woods

January 1st, 2013 by admin

The Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan took this helicopter photo of Downtown blacked-out by Hurricane Sandy. A memorable New York Magazine cover, it resonates with a century-old genre; views of a transformed Lower Manhattan from above New York Harbor.


Lebbeus Woods died on October 30th, as Sandy left his downtown neighborhood in the darkness captured by Baan’s photo. His 1999 drawing, Lower Manhattan, shows the Hudson and East Rivers dammed, draining the harbor. “The underground – or lower Manhattan – is revealed,” Woods told BLDGBLOG’s Geoff Manaugh in an interview, continuing:

So I was speculating on the future of the city and I said, well, obviously, compared to present and future cities, New York is not going to be able to compete in terms of size anymore. It used to be a large city, but now it’s a small city compared with Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Kuala Lampur or almost any Asian city of any size. So I said maybe New York can establish a new kind of scale – and the scale I was interested in was the scale of the city to the Earth, to the planet. . . . I wanted to suggest that Lower Manhattan – not lower downtown, but lower in the sense of below the city – could form a new relationship with the planet.

So it was a romantic idea – and the drawing is very conceptual in that sense.

But the exposure of the rock base, or the underground condition of the city, completely changes the scale relationship between the city and its environment. It’s peeling back the surface to see what the planetary reality is. And the new scale relationship is not about huge blockbuster buildings; it’s not about towers and skyscrapers. It’s about the relationship of the relatively small human scratchings on the surface of the earth compared to the earth itself.

Woods’ follows long traditions in both his speculation on the future of Lower Manhattan and his use of it as a scale reference. His image is prescient in omitting the World Trade Center towers. They are probably left out, along with the Manhattan Bridge, in the interest of romantic effect. Woods says he worked from aerial photographs. Some of these may have predated the World Trade Center and other blocky buildings he also left out. He’d have had plenty to choose from, given the historic popularity of the subject and viewpoint.

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Statue of Liberty or Dipstick of the Apocalypse?

December 27th, 2012 by admin

This image by Owen Freeman illustrated last month’s New York Times post-Sandy op-ed by James Atlas, “Is This the End?” Freeman says in his blog that it was commissioned by Times Art Director Erich Nagler, who “proposed an underwater, Atlantis-type view of New York City.” Freeman shows working sketches for the Statue image as well as underwater views of Grand Central Terminal and a city intersection with skyscrapers. The Times’ selection of his Statue of Liberty image says something about what rattles us most. It also extends a long tradition of using the statue as a post-apocalyptic milestone, one with roots pre-dating the statue itself.

The Statue of Liberty is seen even farther submerged by global warming, but from above the water line, in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 Science Fiction film, A.I. As a sci-fi film device, this image has a clear heritage . . .

Franklin J. Shaffner’s 1968 film, Planet of the Apes, ends with this visual kicker, revealing that – spoiler alert! – the planet ruled by apes is no less than our own future earth, turned into a vast desert by man himself. Same recipe as now, but with sand substituted for water.

Planet of the Apes may have been the first film to show a ruined Statue of Liberty, but the idea has a longer history in print, as documented by the surely pseudonymous Joachim Boaz in his blog Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations. He displays no fewer than six pulp science fiction covers showing the statue underwater, buried in desert sand, and discovered by spacemen or post-apocalyptic primitives. Selected above are, left to right, a 1941 magazine cover by Hubert Rogers, a 1953 magazine cover by Alex Schomburg and a 1959 novel cover by an illustrator known only as Blanchard.  These might be assumed to reflect Cold War insecurity, except for the Astounding Science Fiction cover from pre-Bomb 1941, which shows an overgrown statue approached by raft-borne throwbacks. Clearly, there’s something older at work.

The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1817 draft of Ozymandias, from Oxford’s Bodleian Library, includes squiggles that might be a premonition of a certain green gown. It reads:

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

The statue’s arrogance might throw one off the scent, but the use of a shattered human form as a cultural momento mori undeniably sets the stage for our 71 year-old ruined-liberty trope. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” kicks the ladder from under whoever’s currently on the top rung. Shelley, influenced by the revolutionary writings of Thomas Paine, is thought to have been targeting the oppressive monarchy of George III.

Shelley’s poem resulted from a sonnet-writing competition with his friend Horace Smith in which both would take as their subject a ruined statue of Ramses II (photo: Mutjaba Chohan). It had recently been acquired by the British Museum and was then bound for London. Smith’s poem was originally also called Ozymandias, as the Egyptian Pharaoh was known in Greek sources. The Guardian published Shelley’s entry on January 11, 1818, and Smith’s on February 1, 1818. Smith’s version is a more direct warning to his world-dominating homeland:

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,

Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws

The only shadow that the Desert knows.

“I am great Ozymandias,” saith the stone,

“The King of kings: this mighty city shows

The wonders of my hand.” The city’s gone!

Naught but the leg remaining to disclose

The sight of that forgotten Babylon.

We wonder, and some hunter may express

Wonder like ours, when through the wilderness

Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,

He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess

What wonderful, but unrecorded, race

Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Smith is no Shelley, but in depicting a future regression of the human race he makes an astonishing leap into modern sci-fi territory, well trod from The Road Warrior to The Road. Sci-fi has always plundered more from the arts than the sciences, as witnessed by the derivation of Hollywood’s Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s novel, published the same year as her husband’s Ozymandias.

What made the Times prefer Owen Freeman’s submerged Statue of Liberty over his underwater Grand Central? It pulls a bigger rug out from under us as an iconic symbol of America and our values, but it has another kind of potency that relates to the sacredness of the human form. Early architects believed God made man in his own image, dignifying classical architecture’s basis in the human body. Imprinted with our own form, classical architecture would no doubt retain its power for us if we learned that God looked like a duck, because the human body is also imprinted on our psyche from day one. This is why so few things disturb us as much as the visible destruction of the body, why decapitation seems more horrible than mere death. Grand Central’s classical forms may be based on the body, but the Statue of Liberty is the body. An assault on it isn’t just symbolic, but ad hominum in a way our bodies register. We identify with the peril of chin-lapping waves.  Thank the personal violence of Shelley’s “trunkless legs of stone” and “shattered visage.” Never mind that the Statue of Liberty stands for the opposite of tyranny; the subversive power and romantic appeal of Shelley’s colossal ruin irresistibly fired the imagination as soon as America brought its ready-made colossus to the center of the world stage. Old Ozymandias was just rubbing his hands in the wings.

The Chelsea Market Deal, brought to you by ULURP

November 5th, 2012 by admin


From right to left, Amanda Burden, Christine Quinn, Mayor Bloomberg and Boss Tweed reprise Thomas Nast’s ring of passed blame around Chelsea Market in a flyer that’s started appearing on Chelsea streets.


On October 19th, I and others met with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to discuss Jamestown Properties’ proposed rezoning of Chelsea Market, aimed at adding over a quarter-million square feet of office space to the historic complex. I twice asked Speaker Quinn just how she saw the proposal making sense on zoning basics of use, bulk or environmental impact. She would only say that she hadn’t completed her review, but then still had no answer when we met six days later, just before the City Council’s land-use committee voted to support the proposal, surely with Quinn’s endorsement. Only Speaker Quinn could have stopped the project, but she advanced it in the face of overwhelming community resistance and without being able to say how it was good zoning.

If Speaker Quinn is already beholden to real estate interests in her expected run for mayor next year, she promises to bring to that office a fourth term of the Bloomberg administration’s worst feature; a pro-development, anti-oversight bias. In this New York, real estate runs politics and deals trump zoning. In a New York Times article on the Council’s Chelsea Market vote, David Chen wrote that in remaining “conspicuously quiet about the issue” and failing even to attend a public hearing on it, Quinn “left little doubt . . . that she had been the driving force behind the deal.” It’s pretty official when the Times calls it a deal. Read the rest of this entry »

Buying Michael Bolla’s Chelsea Mansion for Dummies

October 19th, 2012 by admin

A Daily News article on Michael Bolla’s restoration of 436 West 20th Street said “the house was raised 8 inches to become more level.” It appears to be tied to the house next door by a shared party wall. If Bolla raised his house without considering this, it might explain his house’s cracked and sloping façade.  


436 West 20th Street, the 1835 Chelsea row house that real estate broker Michael Bolla “restored” and marketed as Chelsea Mansion is for sale. When ArchiTakes first reported on the project’s violations, Bolla swore to a judge that he’d been defamed and trumpeted legal action aimed at me in an obliging press. The press failed to report that he never sued.

ArchiTakes finds Bolla’s row house still has issues at the Department of Buildings that any potential buyer should know about. Drawings have been filed to answer the Department’s objections from an April 7, 2010, audit, but construction hasn’t been modified to match these drawings. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the City Building Google a High Line Skybox?

July 5th, 2012 by admin

Shown in gold at top are Jamestown Properties’ proposed additions to Chelsea Market: 90,000 square feet at Ninth Avenue and 240,000 square feet at Tenth Avenue above the High Line, which is shown in green. Below is what Jamestown’s proposal might look like, give or take a floor, if it were really about needed office space and not about raiding the High Line’s light, air and sky views. Call it Scheme B. Either option would require a zoning change to increase Chelsea Market’s floor area by 330,000 square feet, but Jamestown’s would need a zoning change that would perversely allow construction within the footprint of a public park. City approval of Jamestown’s proposal is nonetheless thought to be a done deal. Read the rest of this entry »

High Noon at Chelsea Market

March 20th, 2012 by admin


The west end of Chelsea Market’s concourse incorporates the historic Nabisco complex’s train shed. About eighty feet of its distinctive clerestory window strip would be blocked by courtyard infill from Jamestown Properties’ proposed addition of a third of a million square feet of office space above it and the High Line. Jamestown’s proposal requires a zoning change that would only hurt Chelsea Market, the High Line and the community. The proposal is slated for city certification on March 26th. While this would technically begin the city’s review process, experience says certification would all but guarantee an addition to Chelsea Market, almost certainly including the cash-cow-in-the-sky office addition above the High Line that’s driving everything. By the time a project is certified, back-room handshakes have typically secured its ultimate approval. The subsequent “review process” merely affords limited opportunities for damage control and concession-seeking by the community.

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Jamestown’s Shady Plan for Chelsea Market

November 22nd, 2011 by admin

Last Sunday’s sunshine made the High Line’s “Tenth Avenue Square” a pleasant place to relax, even in late November. The popular grandstand feature would be cast into shadow at the hour this photo was taken if Jamestown Properties builds its planned office tower over Chelsea Market. The effect would be particularly damaging to a park highlight meant for lingering rather than strolling. Read the rest of this entry »

Last Call for Jaume Plensa’s “Echo”

August 28th, 2011 by admin

Echo, a belief-defying work by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa (JOW’-meh PLEHN’-sah) remains on view for only two more weeks, through September 11th. Like Plensa’s own Crown Fountain and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (aka The Bean), both in Chicago’s Millennium Park, Echo is both art and crowd-pleasing phenomenon. Sadly, unlike those works, Echo is not a permanent installation. If you’re a sympathetic ArchiTakes reader with adequate funds, please buy Echo and donate her to the City. If you haven’t seen this sculpture yet, and even if you don’t have the purchase price, do make it to Madison Square Park and take in this wonder before it vanishes back into whatever dimension it came from. Echo isn’t Plensa’s first giant, elongated female head, but it’s hard to believe she wasn’t conceived specifically for the park, with its trees, which she surreally dwarfs, and surrounding skyscrapers, whose vertical attenuation she echos. The sculpture is part of Mad. Sq. Art’s rotating exhibit series. Its accompanying plaque reads: “Inspired by the myth of the Greek nymph Echo, Plensa’s sculpture depicts the artist’s nine-year old neighbor in Barcelona, lost in a state of thoughts and dreams. Standing 44-feet tall at the center of Madison Square Park’s expansive Oval Lawn, Echo’s towering stature and white marble-dusted surface harmoniously reflect the historic limestone buildings that surround the park. Both monumental in size and inviting in subject, the peaceful visage of Echo creates a tranquil and introspective atmosphere amid the cacophony of central Manhattan.” Read the rest of this entry »

Midtown Undone

July 20th, 2011 by admin

Photographed last week, Midtown Plaza’s piecemeal demolition brings the look of a ship breaking yard to the skyline of Rochester, New York. The image may be bracing to those who remember the project’s promise of urban renewal when it was completed in 1962, to the design of urban planner Victor Gruen. According to the Wikipedia entry on Midtown, “Gruen was at the height of his influence when Midtown was completed and the project attracted international attention, including a nationally televised feature report on NBC-TV’s Huntley-Brinkley newscast the night of its opening in April 1962. City officials and planners from around the globe came to see Gruen’s solution to the mid-century urban crisis. Midtown won several design awards.”

A Jewish refugee from Nazi occupied Vienna, Gruen said he arrived in America with “an architectural degree, eight dollars, and no English.” He went from designing Fifth Avenue boutiques to a role as one of America’s premier urban planners. Melding his insights into consumer psychology with a conviction that retail spaces could create communities, Gruen invented the shopping mall. He strove to bring the urbanity of his native Vienna and Europe to America, claiming the Milan Galleria was his model for the mall. In 2004, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker that “Victor Gruen may well have been the most influential architect of the twentieth century” for his creation of the pervasive archetype. Gruen’s impact continues to be registered. Gladwell’s appraisal followed on the publication of Jeffrey Hardwick’s 2004 book, Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream. A decade ago, the media theorist and concept-coiner Douglas Rushkoff began popularizing the Gruen Transfer, also known as the Gruen Effect, by which shoppers are intentionally disoriented and distracted by the retail environment, so they’ll lose focus and succumb to impulse buying. Since 2008, The Gruen Transfer has been the title of an Australian TV series on advertising. In 2009, Anette Baldauf and Katharina Weingartner released the documentary, The Gruen Effect: Victor Gruen and the Shopping Mall.

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Losing Ground at Chelsea Square

June 20th, 2011 by admin


Architect Charles C. Haight modeled the General Theological Seminary’s bell tower on Magdalen College’s, Oxford. This view of it from Tenth Avenue and 20th Street would be blocked by Beyer Blinder Belle’s proposed addition to the Seminary’s 1836 West Building. The Seminary’s mid-block grounds were designed to complement set-back garden fronts and distinguished row houses across 20th Street. Together they make one of New York’s best blocks and form the heart of the Chelsea Historic District. The addition will go before a public hearing of the Landmarks Preservation Commission at 11 AM tomorrow, June 21st.

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What New Zoning Could Mean for Chelsea Market

May 31st, 2011 by admin

The Landmarks Preservation Commission has denied a recent community request to add the Chelsea Market block to the existing Gansevoort Market Historic District. In a May 19th response to the Request for Evaluation, the Commission’s Director of Research wrote that “the properties do not appear to meet the criteria for designation . . . in part due to the fact that this block does not have a strong connection to the existing Gansevoort Market Historic District, either geographically or historically.”

This was a second attempt to have the block included in the City designated historic district. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation had earlier gotten the complex listed as part of the Gansevoort Market Historic District recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, but wasn’t able to convince the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to include it in its own smaller version of the district that the City designated in 2003. The distinction between City versus State and National designation is critical. Lacking City protection, Chelsea Market could be legally demolished by a private owner despite its State and National Register status, which only regulates publicly sponsored alterations. The website of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation states: “There are no restrictions placed on private owners of registered properties. Private property owners may sell, alter or dispose of their property as they wish.” Read the rest of this entry »

Saving Chelsea Market

March 22nd, 2011 by admin

David Burns of STUDIOS Architecture presented his firm’s vision of an expanded Chelsea Market, above, to a meeting of Community Board 4 last night, attended by residents wearing “Save Chelsea Market” buttons. He promptly heard one viewer’s verdict of “ugly building” endorsed by a peal of applause. The view above looks northeast from the West Side Highway. The design tries to break down its oppressive mass by collage effects which could conceivably be said to take inspiration from the accretive vocabulary of the Chelsea Market complex, although Burns didn’t seem to have the heart to even bother trying this pitch. As for fitting in, it wouldn’t be much of an issue. Chelsea Market is part of the Gansevoort Market Historic District that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but this insures State Historic Preservation Office oversight only for public development.  Somehow, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, which would oversee private alterations such as those now proposed, neglected to include the Market in its version of the District. Read the rest of this entry »