Transformer – New York, New York

As always, a short trip to New York City left me filled with impressions. If there is a theme from this trip it would be transformation. It is broken into three parts based on where in that grand urban tapestry I found myself.

Part I – Inspirational transformation. I am late to the Highline park bandwagon but I’m not going to rehash the well earned praise for the park as brilliant adaptive reuse of abandoned industrial infrastructure. I am impressed by the concept and the execution but I am more impressed by the consequences of the project. This narrow, crowded, thoroughfare seems to have transformed everything it touches as it snakes through Chelsea like the Yellow Brick Road spawned color as it rent the black and white landscape towards Oz. We embarked on our walk at 23rd street where the Highline is flanked by a terrific low slung modern steel and glass art gallery on one side and a shapely midrise on the other which echoes the Highline’s sweeping curves. All along the walk there were signs of investment: a roof replacement, condos for rent, buildings for sale (at numbers sure to pop the eye.) The park brought people and buzz and has transformed a neighborhood (or at least accelerated a sleepy but inevitable boom.)

Part II – Cautionary Transformation. The West Village, close to the River down around Christopher Street, is a lovely neighborhood whose essence appears to be drawn from extraordinary architectural diversity. Not simply stylistic diversity but a nearly Seussian collage of tall and short, old and new, brick (so many shades) and glass, with whimsical shack like appendages, and little gardens above and below and within and no apparent rhyme or reason to any of it. It is truly magical. And it appears to be so live-able in spite of (really because of) a clear lack of zoning oversight or plan to guide its 300 plus year evolution. So many factors conspired to mold this place but I fear it is under assault expressly because people are paying attention. Call it transformation stage two where suddenly everyone wants to be there and property values skyrocket and private investment begets public investment in a cycle that threatens to destroy what made the Village a village. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the water’s edge where Richard Meier’s 3 perfect little uniform glass towers interrupt a pattern of vital definitively fractal disheveled-ness. I love Meier – his Getty museum makes my knees weak with envy and desire but these three soldiers kill the feel of the neighborhood – a context that due exactly to the harmony it engenders – must be respected. Care must be taken here to see that the transformation doesn’t go too far.

Part III – Experiential Transformation. Spinning counter clockwise from a point at the end of the pier at west 10th street (Governor Rockefeller Park) one gets fine 360 degree views that feature the West Village neighborhood of Part II, with midtown’s skyscrapers to the north, Captain Sullenberger’s Hudson, Jersey city’s transforming skyline, Ellis island and the Statue of Liberty, the Verrazano bridge and then the partly glazed form of the Freedom tower rising from the ashes at World Trade. One more click along the circle and you spy a single high rise in the distant sky at what must be Brooklyn. In fact it is lower Manhattan – 8 Spruce street – a building by Frank Gehry that Nicolai Ouroussoff of the NY times called “…the finest skyscraper to rise in New York since Eero Saarinen’s CBS building went up 46 years ago.” My local guide, a long time Village resident who bears the scars of 911 was less sanguine. She felt the odd, twisting form echoed the look of the Towers as they buckled before crashing to the earth enveloping her neighborhood in dust and fear and transforming our nation. She felt the building as an affront – as insensitive – and having experienced it through her eyes I am inclined to agree. We cannot remove experience from evaluation and while I am sure Gehry intended no disrespect he cannot deny the legitimacy of this critique. Ouroussoff’s review touches on this building’s relationship to the neighboring World Trade site but I think he nor Gehry has seen the building from the pier where the haze mottles the organic forms reinforcing the flashback. No one is to blame here, Gehry’s building is probably spectacular from a thousand perspectives… just not this one.