Comment> Miami’s New Urbanist Experiment

My latest article at The Architect’s Newspaper is on the Miami 21 zoning code. Here’s a quote:

On February 9, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the grande dame of New Urbanism, will present Miami 21, the first New Urbanist zoning code to be adopted by a major American city, at the AIA Center for Architecture in New York. Written by Plater-Zyberk, this form-based code was approved by the City of Miami in 2009. Miami has officially been New Urbanist—a theoretical Seaside on steroids—for the last three years. As mapped out by Miami 21, the citywide transformation away from automobiles and air-conditioned bubbles will take decades and will depend on Miami’s traditional boom-and-bust cycle of growth to accomplish this massive undertaking. It is an imperfect experiment with significant obstacles for the city, but there’s little doubt that it will work, and that it already has.

The rest of the article is at The Architect’s Newspaper.

Design Miami Evolving

This is my first article for Domus, the Italian design magazine.

The fair’s selectivity brings the question of good design to some curious conclusions. A Bucky-ball bubble house, full of scrap leather side tables, occasional chairs, china cabinets, and stools, with a digitally-cut gazebo in the front yard and either a Dymaxion Car or Audi in the driveway, all along a glowing blue street, is an eclectic trade-fair fantasia brought to its high-end extreme.

Here’ the full piece: Design Miami Evolving

Thomas Leeser’s Movie House: A Belated Review

New York City has been setting, backdrop, plot device, antagonist, and main character in thousands of movies, TV shows, video games, and YouTube clips since Thomas Edison invented the Kinetoscope in West Orange, New Jersey. This town was where Ricky loved Lucy, where Harry met Sally, where Carrie married Mr. Big, and where Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George lived pointless, inane, lives in a show about nothing. For the moving image, New York City is the greatest of urban muses.

Astoria, the center of New York’s film industry, and the oldest cinematic neighborhood anywhere, is home to the Museum of the Moving Image. The museum reopened earlier this year after a three-year renovation, with a startling and surreal addition to its original building, the former East Coast studios of Paramount Pictures.

Designed by architect Thomas Leeser, the addition doubles the museum’s size and includes a battalion of desperately needed new amenities, including a theater, screening rooms, a café, temporary exhibition spaces, an educational wing, and on-site collection storage facilities. Although within an historic building, not much beyond the façade is left. Leeser’s design works around the façade, not wholeheartedly embracing it, but not overpowering it either. This is Thomas Leeser’s first big completed building, and his first big New York statement. He is a young architect eager to claim his identity, but he does it well.

The Leeser addition, behind the historic building, and most visible when approaching the museum from the rear, (It’s on a corner lot, but faces 35th Avenue), is a pale blue cloud, a tessellation of prefabricated triangular panels that has moored itself on the white Paramount building. The main entrance is still in the old building, but Leeser’s airy lobby slices through both, ending with a broad lass wall looking onto the still unfinished courtyard. The lobby’s far end includes a café, making the space multifunctional, and is flanked by the new theater, smaller screening room, and educational wing. The courtyard will be finished in a second phase, with an outdoor movie screen, and a school group entrance.

As with his cloud-like exterior, Leeser’s interiors for the Museum of the Moving Image are otherworldly and fun. Leeser restrains himself against making corny architectural allusions to movies, or TV, but he breaks the film art form down, subtly manipulating the visual with solid colors, and the auditory with acoustics. The main theater, entered from the lobby, is a swirling womb of Yves Klein blue, while an accompanying smaller screening room, opposite the theater is covered in bubblegum pink. These bursts of brightness tell you you’re in a space specifically for the act of viewing, as compared to anywhere else. Both spaces are acoustically sealed from the outside world, making them wombs for movie watching. The rest of Leeser’s interiors, including walls, ceilings, and details are white Corian, a material he uses for its creamy matte blankness and its plasticity, and the floors are a light blue.

From the lobby, one ascends a grand staircase to permanent and temporary exhibition spaces on the two levels above. The second floor landing widens into an open plan screening room, with built-in bench seating on a gently sloping floor, and tilted creamy white walls. This is a foyer of sorts, leading to more semi-programmed exhibition spaces on the second floor, as well as Behind the Screen, the museum’s core (read “permanent for an impermanent medium”) exhibition space.

Behind the Screen, which has been updated in the new museum, is another instance, as with the façade, where Leeser sees his limits and demures from confronting them. His work stands clearly to one side of the core exhibition’s entry doors, while the core exhibition, redesigned by another architect, is definitively on the other.

Most of the Leeser’s new architectural innards are a little, shall we say, slanted. Reality is distorted slightly, as if this isn’t the architecture of the everyday, but of the world within the movie screen. Many of Leeser’s new walls have a slight cant to them, while some are extremely diagonal, and many ceilings slant. The staircase leans slightly to one side. These angles are Leeser’s whimsical solution to working with the theater form, and the variously shaped “leftover” spaces created by sloping auditorium floors. His design elegantly embraces these tilted spaces, repeating them throughout the museum.

On the third floor, the final ascension of the grand staircase pops into the center of the museum’s temporary exhibition space, a wide, nondescript chameleon of a room that is adaptable to the objects it contains. This is where Leeser’s design almost disappears, giving the museum’s curators reign over the room’s changing look.

Leeser doesn’t cheapen the museum experience.  He doesn’t use filmstrip motifs, doesn’t duplicate a movie studio, and doesn’t plonk down fake movie sets. Your fantasies of kissing on Titanic’s bow, sitting in the Millennium Falcon, and wandering through Diagon Alley, are better satiated in Orlando, as there is no cheesy satisfaction here. He does, however, include two archetypes of movie architecture. These are the main theater, which is monumental and rather plush – a futuristic movie palace – and the central staircase, which is just big enough to make a grand entrance.

Leeser is no doubt making a personal statement with his addition to the Museum of the Moving Image. A light blue cloud with white Corian innards doesn’t immediately evoke cinematography or TV, and instead you see a lot of himself in it. You see the young, ambitious architect given the power to transform a New York museum. He got a big break and is screaming to show his talents off. But this young, ambitious architect handles that scenario very well. Leeser has made the right choice to not depend heavily on the museum’s contents for inspiration, instead creating a subtle, ethereal, airy, and somewhat otherworldly vitrine for those contents to be presented in. He may be expressing himself in the Museum of the Moving Image, but he has created a new museum in which the possibilities are endless.

Postmodernism Post-Denial

Here is my first blog post for The Architect’s Newspaper, on the recent “Postmodernism Revisited” Conference. A quote is below.

Postmodernism, the exuberant, eclectic, and ironic style born out of the death of the modernist dream in the 1960s and 70s, was the subject of the two-day-long “Reconsidering Postmodernism” conference last weekend, presented by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. The two marathon days of lectures, panels, and videos was filled with the original rock stars of the postmodernist world, including architects Robert A. M. Stern and Michael Graves, theorists Charles Jencks and Tom Wolfe, urbanists Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and a small but passionate younger crowd who couldn’t help but revel in the rambunctiousness of their vaunted forebearers.

Postmodernism Post-Denial: at the A/N Blog.

Dealing with History in Brooklyn Bridge Park

Brooklyn Bridge Park is divided in two. This long ribbon of postindustrial waterfront in central Brooklyn, passing under its namesake bridge, is being adaptively used as a new park designed by landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates. North of the bridge, bordering DUMBO and within the Fulton Ferry Historic District, the Brooklyn Bridge park is mostly complete, and an undeniable success. The much larger southern section, built on five old piers, is isolated from neighboring Brooklyn Heights by a long vertical drop and the six lane Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Only partially completed, this section of park is somewhat of an experiment in accessibility. The Brooklyn Bridge itself flies high above the park. The Bridge’s long span is a divining rod around which everything else relates.

In the shadow of the bridge, so close it’s almost underneath, is Fulton Ferry Landing, where Robert Fulton’s steamboat ferry connected Brooklyn with Manhattan long before the bridge was built. Although there isn’t a lot left to see, the old slip at the end of Fulton Street is an important relic of New York history. Fittingly, Van Valkenburgh’s design makes this spot the park’s main entrance. It is an appropriate location, and a nod to the landing’s historic significance as the threshold of Brooklyn. All is not, however, graciously referential to the past. To the east, and directly under the bridge, the historic New York Department of Purchase Storehouse, a New Deal building from the Great Depression, was destroyed to create a new plaza. Construction of the plaza, which is the keystone in Van Valkenburgh’s design, is almost complete.

The Purchase Storehouse was a modern, streamlined brick building with long ribbon windows that folded around chamfered corners, articulated with metal decorative accents, probably of aluminum or steel. The building’s decoration didn’t go far beyond the functional, but it was a triumph of proportion, and precision. Although considered a contributing structure within the Fulton Ferry Historic District, the Purchase Storehouse was controversially de-Landmarked by the city, and demolished for the sake of the park. It’s now totally gone, except for a small boiler house, distinctive for its two octagonal chimneys. The boiler house will eventually serve as a concession stand, or possibly bathrooms.

The Purchase Storehouse was sacrificed for the grandest of the park’s new spaces, the wide and welcoming Brooklyn Bridge Plaza. Directly under the bridge, it will be adjacent to Fulton Street, and will be wonderfully open to the park and the city in either direction. The East River forms an elbow here, bending around the Brooklyn landmass, which reaches out to the bridge’s first tower, creating generous space. This broad paved expanse will be left mostly empty, with some edge landscaping and lighting. Whether this was worth the loss of an historic structure is debatable, but the plaza will probably be a success.

I’ve been to the park a few times, exploring the surrounding neighborhoods of DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights, once on a tour with Matthew Urbanski, a Principal at MVVA, and again on a recent blustery night, when I found myself trying to walk along the edge of the park, and having a very hard time of it. I wanted to explore the park’s edge conditions,  – the not always visible line where the park meets the city, and the line across which one must pass to enter the park. This line is never simple or straightforward in Brooklyn Bridge Park, nor is it a gracious barrier, as with Central Park. It is convoluted, and complicated. Although it melts away near Fulton Street and the future plaza, in DUMBO the line is complex and intimately tied to the urban fabric, and near Brooklyn Heights it can seem insurmountable.

The northern half of the park, stretching through DUMBO from the Brooklyn Bridge, and under the Manhattan Bridge, is intimate and complicated. An historic carousel was restored by philanthropist and artist Jane Wolenta and placed in a glittering pale crystal box designed by Jean Nouvel. Small lawns run up to the Empire Stores Warehouses, built in 1869, and the neighboring Tobacco Warehouse, all within the Fulton Ferry Historic District. DUMBO’s lowness gave its warehouses direct access to the waterfront at the end of every street, and now the park enjoys the same advantage. Van Valkenburgh’s design carves its way along the formerly industrial waterfront, creating coves, a pebble beach, and small peninsulas. This topography established by industry, born of necessity, is a great asset to the park’s design.

North-East of the Brooklyn Bridge, the park ends just beyond the Manhattan Bridge, and it will eventually extend another city block further. This section was the first to open. It followed a master plan created by Van Valkenburgh, but it was completed in a rush by the Parks Department. Although many unique details that stand out in areas later completed by Van Valkenburgh, including lighting fixtures and wooden benches, are more generic here, the spaces under the Manhattan Bridge are otherworldly and thrilling. An inlet snakes around the bridge’s east tower, giving room for a kayak slip, while a path follows the course of the bridge, upland towards the city.

The southern expanse of the park, on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, begins with the Fulton Ferry Landing, followed by five wide piers reaching into the East River, giving the park the majority of its acreage. Only piers 1 and 6, at opposite ends of the row, have been finished so far. They are a physical introduction to the programmed nature of future spaces on this side of the park, which will include a variety of sports fields and courts, some flexible spaces for public assembly, a few highly designed playgrounds, food concessions, a small network of canals, and water gardens. Most of this has yet to be built, but Pier 1, unusual because its on landfill instead of pylons, already has a 30-foot grassy mountain, making it a surreal site. By contrast, Pier 4 is heavily deteriorated, and will become an unoccupied island with natural vegetation. Pier 6 has the most playgrounds, a modern recreational ferry dockage, and a second main park entrance, at the end of Atlantic Avenue.

By now we are between the East River, and the six-lane Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which cantilevers off a cliff, without many choices of escape. There are about 50 vertical feet between us and the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, clearly separating the park from the city. This boundary is a serious problem for the park, which Van Valkenburgh’s design has attempted to mitigate through increased access along the other entrances, plans to add a flying wooden staircase, and the addition of a new bus line down into the park. Hopefully these moves will help, because the highway is an incredible beauty. I love watching the BQE from this angle, where it forms a great, constantly moving, palisade, and then shoots off, seemingly through a canyon in the city, darting under the Brooklyn Bridge and up towards Queens. I love this mess of roads, bits of city squeezed in, and the crazy infrastructural landscape it creates.

The viaduct of the Brooklyn Bridge glides just above the BQE, then launches into the sky and soars magnificently over the future Brooklyn Bridge Plaza, towards Manhattan. Once the Plaza is open, and other major elements near completion, the park’s disparate halves will come together and the composition of Michael Van Valkenburgh’s design will make sense to park-goers. The BQE may not prove to be as problematic an obstacle for the park as was predicted, and may even become part of the attraction. The park’s dynamic and nuanced procession of piers, plazas, lawns, and promenades will give Brooklyn a great public waterfront of vitality and delight.