Archive for the ‘Mythic New York’ Category

Mythical Lower Manhattan, Part 2

Monday, May 6th, 2013

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.    (more…)

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

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

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.


Statue of Liberty or Dipstick of the Apocalypse?

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

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 Iron Triangle, part 2 / from Kowloon Walled City to Singapore

Thursday, December 31st, 2009


No place in New York elicits such wonder at the retina’s capacity as the Iron Triangle.  Self-contained, densely packed and eye-boggling, it is an alternate reality recalling Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, demolished in 1993-4, below.

walled city triptych


Comparing the vibrancy of the Iron Triangle to the city’s canned and bland development plan for it brings to mind William Gibson’s 1993 Wired article on Singapore, “Disneyland with the Death Penalty.”  Gibson finds Singapore a sanitized theme park where the physical past “has almost entirely vanished” and “the fuzzier brands of creativity are in extremely short supply.”  “It’s boring here,” he writes, calling Singapore a habitable “version of convention-zone Atlanta,” at risk of becoming a “smug, neo-Swiss enclave of order and prosperity.”  Gibson ends the piece with his departure of Singapore by way of Hong Kong’s airport, where he finds a counterpoint:

In Hong Kong I’d seen huge matte black butterflies flapping around the customs hall, nobody paying them the least attention.  I’d caught a glimpse of the Walled City of Kowloon, too.  Maybe I could catch another, before the future comes to tear it down.

Traditionally the home of pork-butchers, unlicensed denturists, and dealers in heroin, The Walled City still stands at the foot of a runway, awaiting demolition.  Some kind of profound embarrassment to modern China, its clearance has long been made a condition of the looming change of hands.

Hive of dream.  Those mismatched, uncalculated windows.  How they seem to absorb all the frantic activity of Kai Tak airport, sucking in energy like a black hole.

I was ready for something like that. . . .

I loosened my tie, clearing Singapore airspace.”  (more…)

The Iron Triangle, part 1 / Wilson’s Garage

Thursday, December 17th, 2009


Once a swamp and then an ash dump, the ground of the Iron Triangle in Willets Point, Queens, now feels like both.  Its businesses have an unacknowledged ancestor within one of the greatest works of American literature.

The Great Gatsby was going to be called Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires until the great Scribners editor Max Perkins persuaded F. Scott Fitzgerald otherwise.  Bad as it was, Fitzgerald’s working title serves to tell how much importance he placed on the novel’s “valley of ashes,”  the setting for George Wilson’s garage in the novel.  The valley of ashes was based on the sprawling Corona dump which would be regraded and buried - under the 1939 World’s Fair site, now Corona Flushing Meadows Park, and Shea stadium - except for the corner of it at the tip of Willets Point that was left to its own devices and just maniacally proliferated car repair shops until it came to be known as the Iron Triangle.  ArchiTakes’ search for Wilson’s Garage finds that it was almost certainly located within the Iron Triangle, a unique district whose days are numbered in the path of a city initiated development plan.   (more…)

Here Was My City

Thursday, September 10th, 2009


A sketch of the Brooklyn Bridge by Lewis Mumford

On the eve of another 9/11, a love letter to New York from Lewis Mumford comes to mind.  His autobiography, Sketches From Life, describes a youthful walk across the Brooklyn Bridge when he caught ”a fleeting glimpse of the utmost possibilities life may hold for man.”

Yes: I loved the great bridges and walked back and forth over them, year after year. But as often happens with repeated experiences, one memory stands out above all others: a twilight hour in early spring – it was March, I think – when starting from the Brooklyn end, I faced into the west wind sweeping over the rivers from New Jersey. The ragged, slate-blue cumulus clouds that gathered over the horizon left open patches for the light of the waning sun to shine through, and finally, as I reached the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, the sunlight spread across the sky, forming a halo around the jagged mountain of skyscrapers, with the darkened loft buildings and warehouses huddling below in the foreground. The towers, topped by the golden pinnacles of the new Woolworth Building, still caught the light even as it began to ebb away. Three-quarters of the way across the Bridge I saw the skyscrapers in the deepening darkness become slowly honeycombed with lights until, before I reached the Manhattan end, these buildings piled up in a dazzling mass against an indigo sky.  (more…)

An Hour of Skyscrapers

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

In his 1932 essay, The Frozen Fountain, Claude Bragdon wrote, “A building, however lofty, must end somehow, and the designer’s ability is here put to the severest test, and will be measured by the success with which this termination is affected – by the beauty with which his building dies on the white counterpane of the sky”.  The durability, if not the morbid imagery, of this view came through last month when City Planning Chair, Amanda Burden, said of Jean Nouvel’s proposed MoMA Tower, “How this building meets the sky is not only in the tradition of great New York City architecture, but it’s absolutely essential that it culminate in a very sophisticated and distinguished apex.”

Bryant Park may be the world’s best place to conduct a quick survey of skyscrapers and their tops, from Bragdon’s day to Burden’s, as demonstrated by an hour’s photos.


“What makes a great New York Skyscraper?  The greatest of them tug at our heartstrings.”  So wrote Nicolai Ouroussoff in his review of the new Times tower, which he found “unlikely to inspire that kind of affection.”  William Van Alen’s 1930  Chrysler Building sets the bar for heartstrings.  As Bragdon wrote in The Frozen Fountain, “The needle-pointed fleche of the Chrysler Tower catches the sunlight like a fountain’s highest expiring jet.”  Bragdon’s analogy exactly captures the imagery and emotional appeal of jazz age skysrapers:  ”upward gushing fountains, most powerful and therefore highest at the center,” with surrounding “cascades descending in successive stages from the summits to which they have been upthrust.”  (more…)

How to Meet the Sky

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Philip Johnson said that outdoor sculpture ”lights up the sky”.  He was talking about the way solid and void energize each other in an interplay of figure and ground, a principle that certainly applies to tall buildings.


Flatiron Building postcard view

Much of the Flatiron Building’s appeal to artists and photographers, for example, lies in its siting on an acute intersection where views allow the sky to nearly engulf the building and come to earth.  The figure of the tower becomes more positive by virtue of the emptiness of its background, while the complementary interlocking form of the background gives the sky a positive quality.  (more…)