Architecture as History: New York City (Part 3)



An optimistic look to the future

Amongst grand facades and wondrous interiors, our modern architectural marvels hope to herald a new age of optimism

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This article is the third in a 3-part series on how New York's iconic buildings have been influenced by (and in some cases became an influencing factor themselves in) the broad political, cultural and social forces of the time period they found themselves in. To this end, we'll be looking at the profound forces that characterised the Roaring Twentiesthe 1960s and the turn of the Millennium.

By the tail-end of the 60s, New York City's fortunes started to turn as it too felt the effects of the white flight — a countrywide phenomenon where wealthy residents moved out of the city and into the suburbs of neighbouring counties. Unsurprisingly, this caused a critical shortage for the city's coffers in the form of falling tax revenues. This, combined with the post-war boom tapering off and the profligate spending of the preceding years, presented the city with many existential economic pressures it had no easy solution for. 

Mismanagement also brought about a gradual decline in the competitiveness of the city as businesses moved to neighbouring states or across the continent - to California. Crime started to regain its hold over the city as seedy industries like strip clubs began to pop up in some of the city's once regal districts. Times Square and Central Park became hotbeds of crime and other less desirable activities. 

It was during this time that the city also became focal point of many civil rights agitations plaguing the country, most notably coming to a head during the Stonewall Riots. On occasion, labour unions also crippled the city's ability to provide essential public services. The city's iconic Subway fell into dire straits as the entire network became plagued by crime and graffiti. 

By the beginning of the 70s, the city found itself in the throes of an economic collapse, narrowly avoiding bankruptcy in 1975.


Architecture is often described as a manifestation of the optimism of human endeavour, with the scale of projects intrinsically tied to the dominant social and cultural movements of its time. It is hence not surprising that we see little progress being made during this period as the idealism of the early 60s was quickly overshadowed by the strife and conflict of the following years.

Nevertheless, a positive reversal of fortunes came just in time for New York City as the Wall St boom in the 80s renewed confidence in the city, as entrepreneurs returned to exploit the low property prices caused by the precipitous events of the previous decade. Thus began the modern phenomenon of gentrification.

In the following decade and as the information age took hold, architects soon cultivated a newfound confidence in the city and started to experiment yet again with new concepts of design. Similarly, the growing competency of computer programs gave architects the ability to conceptualise more avant-garde designs, widening avenues of creativity in the process. These same computer programs also aided architects by liberating them from the confines of pen and paper drafting. 

Other political developments of the time also shaped the bold approaches architects took when designing projects in New York City. Above all, the unfortunate attacks on 9/11 cemented the steely resolve of its inhabitants to remain a centre of global commerce. Consequently, and with the foresight of Mayor Bloomberg, New York City emerged from the 9/11 attacks with a wave of new building projects that fundamentally revitalised large sections of the city. 

The turn of the millennium also departed from previous obsessions over utilitarianism as cities came to embrace the benefits of communal spaces, most notably with the construction of the High Line Park. A transport revitalisation effort also was put into effect, culminating in the creation of transport pantheons like the Oculus and the new Fulton Center. In more recent years, the redevelopment of Hudson Yards in Manhattan also renewed and restored global optimism for the possibilities and opportunities of the Big Apple.


The High Line Park

What was once a railway line has now been converted into an elevated walkway rising above the streets of New York City as one of the most iconic public spaces in Manhattan. Along its 2.3km route are small green plots housing species native to the United States, as well as makeshift spaces for artists and musicians to showcase their work — both to native New Yorkers and the millions of tourists that throng the walk every year. Indeed, the High Line is a breath of fresh air compared to the towering skyscrapers and complex edifices of the city. 

The High Line began as a spur on the New York Central Railroad which connected the western districts of Manhattan. Once known as the West Side Line, a large part of its Southern Section (from Gansevoort St to Spring St) has since been demolished after declining ridership ended the economic viability of the line. 

It was only until 2009 that the viaduct was repurposed into the High Line Park, revitalising otherwise gritty parts of Manhattan. It has also understandably caused property prices to skyrocket among the districts lining the park. With its success (and popularity amongst tourists), the High Line Park has inspired other similar efforts in cities around the world to repurpose existing infrastructure that has been abandoned. 

Inspired by the many wild grasses and shrubs that grew on the abandoned rail tracks, the High Line incorporates many plants to create a wondrous park environment. It is also an American interpretation of the sprawling tree-lined walkways of the Promenade plantée, which are themselves roughly inspired by Parisian boulevards. 

The High Line weaves its way through the western side of New York City, starting in the Meatpacking District and ending up in Hell’s Kitchen, connecting once disparately organised streets with the regularised grid of the modern New York City. 

The walk is bounded by one of the most expensive properties in the city,  the 520 W 28th Street condominium designed by the famed Zaha Hadid. Rents range from $15–22k a month for a small two bedroom apartment. That being said, you’re not just paying for the space — the building comes with an IMAX theatre, a concierge, a spa, and a swimming pool. 

Start your mid day walk from the Meatpacking District and end as the High Line deposits you at the mouth of Manhattan’s latest property development — Hudson Yards. Benches can be found aplenty along the length of the High Line, though some parts of the walk are quite narrow. If you’re stopping to take photos or catch a breath, make sure that you’re not stopping in the way of other visitors. The High Line is open daily from 7am onwards and closes at around 10/11 pm. 

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Hudson Yards

The Hudson Yards project is one of the largest private developments in American history as it seeks to redevelop a plot of land nestled in one of the most developed urban regions in the world. It is also surrounded by one of the city's most artistic districts — Greenwich Village and Chelsea. 

The architectural diversity of the project is perhaps reflective of the area it is in — according to the website, there are 350 galleries in neighbouring Chelsea, including iconic ones like the Whitney Museum and the Gagosian Gallery. The Shed at Hudson Yards is yet another space hosting cultural performances and art exhibitions. 

The NYC Subway's 7 line was extended to reach 34th and 11th, creating the new 34th St - Hudson Yards station and connecting the area to the rest of Midtown Manhattan. 

The project's surrounding areas are one of the oldest in the city — however, developers are saved the trouble of ripping up streets and pipes as they will be building on 'new' land. Part of the development will be sited on a platform built over the existing LIRR Railyard (30 tracks in total) in an ambitiously complex construction project. The new Gateway project between NJ and NY will also likely cross beneath Hudson Yards.

Hudson Yards complements the High Line park which starts in Chelsea, makes its way through Hudson Yards and finally ends at the base of Hell's Kitchen. Visitors to the High Line would be able to see these construction efforts proceed in earnest as the park traverses these building sites. 

The huge project mainly consists of high end luxury buildings including swanky new residencies, large retail spaces and office space, as part of a city rezoning effort to expand the footprint of Midtown Manhattan. For example, 30 Hudson Yards will be taller than the Empire State Building, have an observation deck to rival the city's best, and, of course, be home to the country's leading corporations. 

This is a really exciting development for New York and a project for architects to show off their skills to the world. What we're most intrigued by is the project's centrepiece, the Vessel sculpture which has over 2,400 steps and 154 flights of stairs. The sculpture was designed in mind to 'react to the buildings around it' and is located in the project's Public Square and Gardens site. There is so much geometric complexity going on here and we think it'll just be an amazing structure to marvel at. 


The Oculus

The 9/11 attacks damaged critical parts of the city's transport infrastructure, crippling the city beyond the initial financial meltdown and psychological trauma. Apart from the cessation of services and loss of power to trains, many Subway stations in the vicinity had to be shut down for months on end as services were disrupted due to reconstruction efforts. 

The Oculus, designed by Santiago Calatrava, was billed as project to 'capitalise' on these reconstruction efforts in an attempt to redeem and revitalise downtown Manhattan. Underneath the former twin towers was the World Trade Center transportation hub, a link between the NY-NJ PATH service and the greater New York Subway system. After the attacks, city planners decided to build a proper interchange station between the two train services incorporating new retail spaces whilst simultaneously having a structure that paid respect to the tragedy.

In some ways, the facade and interior of the hub is something borne out of fantasy and perhaps more akin to a cathedral than a train interchange — something that Apple has undoubtedly picked up on. And while the building's central atrium looks like a huge ice rink, commuters and tourists negotiate its white expanse without slipping. The amount of light that enters the building is also something that makes it stand out from the rest of the buildings in dense, unplanned and aging Downtown Manhattan. This light is also what imparts a certain angelic character, which in some ways is an apt design choice to epitomise the enduring spirit of a city remaining resolute in the face of crisis.

The Oculus' street-level facade has been described as a winged dove and a sloping beauty, amongst other less flattering names. People across all sections of society can only agree on one thing: the building is 'interesting'. From there, utilitarians criticise the project's cost and budget overruns whilst architects and designers argue lament the many design compromises the structure had to undergo. Similarly, the Oculus' facade doesn't stand alone in an open square, but instead feels like it was crammed in into a tight space between downtown Manhattan's soaring towers. What about the layperson? The building is a 'like' magnet on Instagram. While other things in the city often polarise public opinion, few things are likely to fragment views to the extent the Oculus does. 

If uniqueness was the aim of the project, its success in that regard is also questionable as one of the major criticisms of the Oculus is that it is strikingly similar to the architect's previous works — the Lyon Airport Railway Station and the Milwaukee Art Museum

Some have also criticised the oculus as being too focused on being a mall instead of a proper transportation hub for the city and as any commuter can attest, this does indeed seem to be the case at first glance. The issue lies with its attempt to connect very disparate stations with each other, forcing commuters to walk quite a distance to transfer. The nearby Fulton Center is better placed as a hub (it has more inter-line transfers available) and even that building has its own list of controversies. One critic opined that whilst the building has many staircases and escalators that lead in all directions, only a curious few actually lead to train platforms.

Then again, who am I to lambast the seemingly un-utilitarian nature of the building — by all accounts, the structure is made to wow, and wow it does. Yet, one does wonder why the moment you step into the subway area, you're reminded of grime and grit, which —while that does have its own 'magical' draw — is a stark contrast to the polish (and $4 billion price tag) of the Oculus' retail spaces. 


Fulton Center

Just like the Oculus a block away, the Fulton Center is meant to serve commuters as a transportation hub. However, unlike the bright and airy disposition of its cousin, the Fulton Center also feels like someone had a rather unhealthy obsession with tessellation and symmetry.

Its opening in 2014 was billed as a means to streamline confusing subway walkways that were more suited for 'unsafe mining operations' than a commute — the result of infrastructure being haplessly built in an unorganised area of the city. Downtown Manhattan and its discontents was, after all, built before the logic of the NYC grid.

It relationship to natural illumination is estranged as the atmosphere feels cold and dingy whereas the Oculus is bathed in ample light. However, and unlike its sister, the Fulton Center genuinely does ease the pain of the commuter as moving between platforms and lines is a much more simple transfer experience. Its function and importance to the Subway is also unparalleled as it connects 9 different subway lines and 5 different stations into a transit megahub.

Some also describe the place as a prison-like panopticon, an image supported visually by the building's central lift/staircase, which feels like a constantly surveilling guard-tower set in the middle of the dome shaped building. Indeed, while first time visitors would marvel at the ceilings, there's little reason for seasoned commuters to hang around especially with how sterile the environment is; that is, unless you're really into dystopian fiction. The multiplicity of digital advertising in the center (read: corporate takeover and dystopia) doesn't help either. Is this a subtle icon of greater police control in the wake of one of the world's largest terrorist attack? Who knows.

Ignoring the interior, some point out that view from the outside shows how the vaunted sky reflector net awkwardly pokes out of the rectangular building, forming a sort of lump that any reasonable person would have checked out by a dermatologist. Nevertheless, the lump is functional as it collects excess heat in the summer and dissipates it in winter; furthermore, the raised cone is intended to concentrate smoke at its apex in the event of a fire, giving commuters some literal breathing space to escape onto the streets.

Yet, the same questions still arise: While the current structure does indeed improve street accessibility and connectivity, was that a more pressing need compared to addressing the decaying state of NYC's overall subway reliability? 

Well, at least there's more public toilets in Downtown Manhattan now. 

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Legacies of the past shaping the future

Just like any other forms of art, architecture is often influenced by the legacies of its predecessors. And while postmodern structures like the Oculus and the Fulton Center are seemingly novel buildings, a keener eye would notice how they bear close resemblance to the work of architects like Calatrava or indeed, more abstractly evoke the philosophy of Focault. 

Hence, not only is architecture utilitarian in providing use to the people that inhabit or pass through them, it is also often a vehicle for conversation between the layman and the intellectual. So the next you do visit New York City, keep a look out for these pantheons of architecture, even though they've become veritable tourists attractions. To that, we salute these architectural marvels - no matter how controversial they may be. 

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