The Iron Triangle, part 2 / from Kowloon Walled City to Singapore
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.
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.”
In the flight path of La Guardia, the Iron Triangle is New York’s own version of Kowloon Walled City, soon to be scrubbed off the map to provide a clean slate for our own little piece of Singapore if the city has its way.
An aerial view of the city’s redevelopment plan for the 62 acres of Willets Point clearly shows what an isolated residential community it would make, a condition not helped by the introduction of a convention center, visible at top. The plan also includes 5,500 apartments (20% “affordable”), a school, a 700-room hotel, 500,000 square feet of office space and 6,700 parking spaces. Touted proximity to transportation, including airports, only emphasizes the need for escape routes. A jet is shown departing La Guardia Airport at upper left.
In his 1995 book, S,M,L,XL, Rem Koolhaas cites Gibson’s piece in a chapter called “Singapore Songlines: Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis or Thirty Years of Tabula Rasa.” He calls Gibson’s criticism evidence of a Eurocentric misreading, and notes that western-style modernism is now a condition of “universal aspiration” and “a self-administered process that we do not have the right to deny – in the name of various sentimentalities – to those ‘others’ who have long since made it their own.” Having made this disclaimer, he largely amplifies on Gibson’s observations. Where Gibson finds that “there is remarkably little, in contemporary Singapore, that is not the result of deliberate and no doubt carefully deliberated social policy,” Koolhaas says Singapore “is managed by a regime that has excluded accident and randomness. . . . It is pure intention: if there is chaos it is authored chaos; if it is ugly, it is designed ugliness; if it is absurd, it is willed absurdity.” And Koolhaas sounds very much like Gibson when he describes Singapore as “a melting pot that produces blandness and sterility from the most promising ingredients.”
Koolhaas digs deep enough into Singapore’s architecture to find, amid all the inauthentic dross, rare examples of built megastructures, “containers of urban multiplicity, heroic captures and intensifications of urban life in architecture, rare demonstrations of the kind of performance that could and should be the norm in architecture but rarely is, giving an alarming degree of plausibility to the myths of the multilevel city and the megastructure that ‘we,’ in infinitely more affluent circumstances, have discredited and discarded.” Born of the sixties, in what he calls “maybe the last moment of architectural confidence,” Koolhaas finds a distinctively Asian vitality preserved in them, the positive flip side of urban renewal’s destructiveness.
The Iron Triangle certainly warrants remaking, if for no other reason than to stanch its ongoing environmental contamination. What’s called for is a solution that keeps its vitality and avoids the blandness of most of Singapore. Koolhaas quotes Fumihiko Maki’s 1964 book, Investigations in Collective Form: “There is nothing less urbane, nothing less productive of cosmopolitan mixture than raw renewal, which displaces, destroys, and replaces, in that mechanistic order.” Singapore, Koolhaas writes, has taken displace, destroy, replace as its motto. Maki was a major proponent of megastructure, defining it in his book as “a large frame containing all the functions of a city, mostly housed in transient short-term containers.” The idea appealed to architects and planners in the sixties by insuring control at the macro-level of infrastructure while granting the flexibility and individual expression at the micro-level necessary for authentic and spontaneous vitality.
By the time of this 1955 street atlas, Willets Point was well on its way to becoming the Iron Triangle, with several lots labeled “auto wrecking” or “used trucks.” Construction related businesses are also in evidence along with the “Bono Sawdust Supply Company” on the west side of 127th Place. It turned the nearby lumber yards’ waste into an absorbent product for neighboring auto businesses in an early example of the Iron Triangle’s resourceful symbiosis. Founded by a Sicilian immigrant in 1933, it remains to this day, more environmentally friendly than ever. It is now run by Jake Bono, who is committed to fighting the city’s use of eminent domain to clear the Iron Triangle for development. “My grandfather helped to build this economy and he helped build America,” he says, pointing with pride to the leg-up on the American Dream his business has given new immigrants from places like Ecuador and India. The map also shows lots owned by Tully & DiNapoli, now a major New York construction firm. Its name speaks of earlier waves of Irish and Italian immigrants. The majority of businesses in the Iron Triangle today are run by newcomers from Latin American or Korea.
Ramin Bahrani’s 2007 film Chop Shop is set in the Iron Triangle. The story of a 12-year-old Latino street orphan and his 16-year-old sister, it is largely about their attempt to start a business there, and thus a story of the American Dream. It was made primarily using non-actors, including a body shop owner who plays himself. The boy and his sister move into the upper story of his shop, echoing the home life of George and Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby, and demonstrating the lasting power of marginal places, and this one in particular, to fire the imagination. This potential suggests the “hive of dream” that the novelist in William Gibson called the Walled City of Kowloon and contrasted to Singapore’s lack of creative inspiration. Gibson has compared the “visual texture” of his novel Neuromancer to that of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, the look of which is often said to have been inspired by Kowloon Walled City. The sheer otherness of such places provides rich soil for the imagination.
Megastructure may be a starting point or paradigm for a different approach to the Iron Triangle. What it needs above all, and what its business owners have long demanded, is infrastructure. A service frame to which start-up businesses or other uses could plug in for as long as needed could hold both existing businesses and encourage new uses. The Iron Triangle’s visual intensity, color and light would make artists’ studios a natural addition. The existing architectural vocabulary is prefab and provisional; shipping containers, Quonset Huts and Butler buildings. Combined with their rampant individual expression, these buildings’ modularity is already half the megastructure ideal, less the infrastructure, the ”permanent frame within which transient enclosed volumes can be deployed as necessary” to use Reyner Banham’s words in decribing the Free University of Berlin in his 1976 book, Megastructure. Banham saw these transient containers, in the essential megastructure concept, as being “beyond the control of the architect.” The flexibility of such a model would add a higher level of sustainability to the site’s environmental clean-up, allowing change without forced removal, now and in the future. It would also preserve the spontaneity, randomness and unplanned vitality that so distinguish today’s Iron Triangle while extending its historic role as a place from which to start chasing the American Dream, right in the heart of Queens, where more languages are spoken than any place in the nation.
The challenge of designing such a solution would make a terrific competition brief. It might be worth remembering that most of the valley of ashes has already been made a base for visionary architecture, just across Roosevelt Avenue, in a two-time world’s fair site. (The megastructure movement had no impact on the 1964 fair, but dominated Montreal’s Expo 67, the 20th century’s most successful World’s Fair; Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, built for Expo, is still wildly popular and its apartments much sought after.) LA County’s Culver City, where Eric Owen Moss has turned an industrial district into a venue for architectural liberation might also provide inspiration. Given the Iron Triangle’s isolation by expressways and Citi Field, its reclamation on a Battery Park City model is unrealistic. Why not make it a laboratory for the kind of architectural innovation critics always find lacking in New York as a result of its straitjacketing constraints?
The numbers for the city’s Willets Point redevelopment plan have no doubt been duly crunched, tax revenues above all. It’s equally certain that one number was left out; the value of the creativity that separates New York from Singapore.
Above, a photo from a city presentation aims to support Mayor Bloomberg’s description of Willets Point as “another euphemism for blight.” Like other such images entered into evidence by the city, it inadvertantly highlights the Iron Triangle’s appeal to the imagination and suggests its potential as raw material for art. The photographer Edward Burtynski collected images of similarly petroleum-based landscapes in his 2009 book, Oil. “In 1997 I had what I refer to as my oil epiphany,” Burtynsky has said: “it occurred to me that all the vast, man-altered landscapes I had been in pursuit of for over 20 years were all possible because of the discovery of oil and the mechanical advantage of the internal combustion engine.”
Stacked shipping containers create a modular building, reflecting ideas of high concept architects like Wes Jones, Adam Kalkin, Shigeru Ban and LOT-EK. Outside, workers keep warm around open fires as a jet approaches La Guardia Airport. The self-constructed and appealingly unpredictable character of the Iron Triangle recalls another flight path community, the Bronx’s Harding Park, where Mayor Ed Koch once relaxed building code requirements to help residents legitimize their self made homes.
A vocabulary of temporary prefab buildings, signs and racks produces a rich, unique and changeable visual experience. With forklifts constantly rearranging its contents on fixed frames, The Iron Triangle is akin to Archigram’s fantasy megastructure, Plug-In City, which would reconfigure itself as needed using built-in mobile cranes.
Freedom of expression meets the American Dream in a place “bursting with colors and textures that seem to sharpen your senses,” as described by Roger Ebert in his review of the film, Chop Shop. “It could be the most exotic spot on the face of the globe or a few blocks from where you live.” More than nearness to airports, New York’s unique diversity and world flavor make it – for those who would live nowhere else – the center of the universe.
The buildings of the Iron Triangle bring the words of the architect and theorist Robert Venturi to mind with striking literalness, from his celebration of the sign-fronted buildings he categorized as “decorated sheds” in Learning from Las Vegas to his credo in perhaps the most influential architecture book of the 20th century, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture: “I am for messy vitality over obvious unity.”
The Iron Triangle needs to be lifted out of a flood plain and given sewers. It cries out for planners who can appreciate the American Dream and the economic and visual vibrancy in what most may see only as a slum of chop shops.
Inside the Juanita Nacional, one of a handful of restaurants in the Iron Triangle.
The city’s plan will make the Iron Triangle a more hygienic, and much less interesting, place.
Spontaneous public sculpture appears amid signs in English and Korean, where Spanish is often spoken. New York’s planners might learn from Rem Koolhaas’s observation, ”Singapore is a melting pot that produces blandness and sterility from the most promising ingredients.”
White people enjoy a sanitized Willets Point in Beyer Blinder Belle’s rendering of the city’s redevelopment plan. In the silence of their colored-pencil world, a stroller mom and her child are undisturbed by traffic noise or the flight path overhead.
This rendering is titled ”The Nexus.” It could be anywhere.
Another rendering suggests a future community of rabid Mets fans. They’d better be; there’s nowhere else to go but the convention center.