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.

No Place to Truly #Occupy

I’ve just written a piece on Motherboard.tv (which is a part of Vice Magazine) about Occupy Wall Street and urban spaces for protest. In my research for this article, I was lucky enough to get in contact with the indomitable Michael Sorkin, one of my favorite architecture critics. It was edited for Motherboard by the incredibly smart Alex Pasternack. Here is a quote:

I’ve become slightly obsessed with Occupy Wall Street and the way I see them urbanizing in real time. When I first visited a few weeks ago, I felt the frantic urge to participate, but I was afraid to let it out, afraid to risk my liberty, and basically afraid of getting arrested. I followed the throngs to the end of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the day hundreds were penned in the middle of the bridge, and carted off in buses commandeered by the police for use as paddywaggons. I watched and then I left, wondering about the urban implications of #OWS. What did the occupation have to do with this city in particular, with monumental public infrastructure like this? And what would the city and its spaces do to its new occupiers?

Read it at Motherboard.tv

Beauty in the New New Deal

(I wrote this in March 2009, at the dawn of the economic recovery, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Florida. It was published by The Fine Print, a fantastic “alternative” student newspaper that was founded by my great friends Jessica Newman and Lydia Fiser. I explored really interesting topics, producing articles with luxuriously long word counts, and learning as I went. It was just beginning during my time there, and is now thriving. )

A low wall of coral rock surrounds the Miami Shores Country Club. As a kid, I walked along it many times, hopping over cracks and watching golfers. Built during the Great Depression, the wall is beautiful. Head sized stones of odd shapes – probably dug from the very ground the wall encloses – are plastered together with concrete. The wall has character, rustic beauty, strength, durability, and is probably better looking today than the day it was built. It was also, probably, expensive.

So was Greynolds Park in North Miami, with its coral rock castle built on an earthen mound and boat houses made of solid logs of pine. There’s the Miami Beach Post Office, a stately art deco hall. A New Deal public housing project in central Miami is so quaint and charming that it was (unfortunately for the poor) recently privatized and made into trendy apartments. The Coral Gables fire station, south of Miami, is a two story building with solid limestone walls, 18 inches thick. Carved firemen perch above garage doors, and a bell tower is at one corner. It would be prohibitively expensive if built today but, like the temples of ancient Greece, will probably be around forever. These civic structures, whether country club or city hall, were products of the New Deal. They were architectural statements meant to help in the pull out of the Great Depresion.

Why weren’t more cost effective and meager structures built? Was constructing beauty, monumentality, quality, and a certain degree of populist luxury a prudent decision during the greatest financial calamity our country has ever seen? With the advantage of hindsight, I say definitely yes. They’ve had incredibly long operating lives. Even without the benefits of reinvestment and “updating,” quality buildings last. More importantly, we look at these buildings as romantic remnants from one of the most cooperatively American of times. They survive in the American psyche, contributing to the definition of Americans as a modern people. The ideals of a society trying to rescue itself through optimism and a classic “can-do” American spirit are preserved in those walls. The United States once an amazingly progressive country that lead the world, and these buildings remind us of that.

Efforts to create beauty in The Depression came in other forms too. Part of the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration employed artists and sculptors to paint murals and carve architectural ornamentation. Photographers and writers documented the Depression. The single most remembered image of the depression, “Migrant Mother” was taken under a government photography program. The progressive nature of the New Deal saw art as an economic driver and, putting artists to work, but also as a psychological tool. Visual documentation of America encouraged American pride, American ingenuity, American productivity, American modernity, and the goal of a brighter American future. It was somewhat propagandistic, but it wasn’t censorial, and the resulting visual language was as desperately needed then as it is needed now.

The University of Florida, my home as of this writing, benefited from New Deal largess and ideals. The first student union building, now Dauer Hall, was built using New Deal funds. Norman Hall, originally the P. K. Younge laboratory school, as well the Food Sciences building, and a number of dormitories, were all government projects during the Great Depression. They are all great examples of good design, they respect the campus context in which they’re placed, and they’re even quite stately. Each has an individual confidence which many buildings lack today.

The economic recovery and stimulus plan that President Obama is fighting for today – a plan that has the potential to be the second New Deal – will commit massive amounts of money to new construction, infrastructure, and civic building, and possibly public art. His infrastructure improvements will be well into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Considering that today, perhaps more than ever, good public architecture is prevented by value engineering and our desires for cost effectiveness, there is a real chance that aesthetics will be marginalized in the New New Deal. Art has already been shown a mediocre financial hand in the stimulus bill. A paltry $50 million dollars is going to the National Endowment for the Arts. That shows an acknowledgement of art’s value, at the most, but more would be vastly beneficial and we cannot even begin to replicate the first New Deal’s artistic strengths without it.

What is the point of building at all if what you’re going to construct turns out ugly? Ugliness isn’t idealistic, and invigorates nobody’s soul. To create something ugly doesn’t capture the imagination or imbue a great optimism in a society that so direly needs it. We need beauty. The original New Deal built bridges, schools, parks, roads, sewers, power grids, and even whole towns – all things (except perhaps the towns) we will do again today.

Next door to Dauer Hall is one of the newest buildings on campus, Pugh Hall. Here is a contrast of the times and an example of the diminished appreciated for aesthetics often seen in popular architecture. This building, meant to reflect the University of Florida’s academic gothic context, is a spare skeleton filled in with the worst kind of “office block” postmodern drabness, in red brick. The proportions agree with neighboring buildings – they blend to scale and direct your gaze to the single large gable overhead as a focal point.  At least the building has a sense of urbanity, but the details and visual quality of construction just aren’t there. It feels blocky and cheap. For a building designed and financed in better economic times, just before the Great Recession, the results are bad. Who will remember Pugh as fondly or take inspiration from it like I have from my dear coral rock wall?

Consider not only the financial needs and impacts of architects, artists, musicians, and writers for the good of the greater society – the Greater Good – but you also must remember psychological benefits, and the effects of beauty on the morale of those who encounter it. We cannot encourage societal malaise. If people believe things are getting better they respond by spending, working, investing, being ambitious, and strivingh to catch up with a brighter future.

The economic stimulus has passed. Art is getting $50 million dollars, infrastructure will be built with hundreds of billions, and millions of people will be going to work. What will they build when they get there, and will it be beautiful?

Accidental Urban Moments

(This was my first essay in Ralph Caplan’s “Critical Imperative” class)

I walked the length of Central Park South late at night recently, entering the park at Columbus Circle, staying near to the road, and exiting a few blocks over before reaching the Plaza Hotel. Coming up one of Central Park’s typical flanks of wide granite steps at Seventh Avenue, to pop out on the street, the piercing blocks of light which pile on each other to create Times Square were head-on in front of me, about fifteen or seventeen blocks south, but infinitely closer simply because of their presence.

I’ve kept a mental tally of moments like this in New York; urban moments which I happen upon, and which strike me as enhancing or affecting the public realm in some way. There is a giant tree on Houston Street, perfectly conical but obviously not a Christmas fir. It is as present in its setting as a bell tower, but not immediately understandable. In Chelsea, two Beaux Arts banks balance each other on either side of Fourteenth Street, closely similar although not identical in appearance. One is now a drug store. Obviously presenting some idea of civic monumentality, the intent has stopped there and the intersection is the lesser for it.

New York has little classical monumentality, and restraint in its civic spaces. Although everything is taller, Union Square is not Trafalger, and 5th Ave is merely a sidewalk of the Champs-Elysees.  The Beaux Arts dream never came true, restrained by a practicality of street grids, value engineering, and American individuality. And yet we love New York, partly because of the urban amalgamation, the accidental spaces, and the small urban moments, which I have been keeping a tally of in my head.

The Past of Futurism: My Application Essay to D-Crit

(I would like to start with my application essay to the Design Criticism MFA program at S.V.A. It worked, and I was accepted.)

In 1908, F. T. Marinetti, a young Italian and lover of fast driving, wrote a manifesto published in the French newspaper Le Figaro. His manifesto advocated the superiority of the future, of technology, the car, the airplane, youth, violence, speed, and of swiftly rejecting the past for everything that lay ahead. The future would by definition be fast. He had fallen in love with all of it, especially speed, while crashing his car in an evasive maneuver to avoid a bicyclist.

That’s the founding myth of the Futurist Movement, and it’s as true as a founding myth can reasonably be – although pure factuality doesn’t change the end effect. He crashed his car, and he was seduced by the future at approximately the same time.  With the Futurist Manifesto, speed became, perhaps for the first major time anywhere, very sexy.

An exhibition celebrating the centenary of Futurism, the Futurist Manifesto’s publication in 1909, and the modern cult of speed, “Speed Limits” was at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach when I saw it about a year ago. I wrote an earlier form of this piece as a blog entry for the Miami New Times. I was happy with it, but conflicted for a reason which I don’t entirely remember, and I decided not to give it to my editor. It was never published.

“Speed Limits” was coproduced by the Wolfsonian and the Canadian Center for Architecture, where it opened first. Curated by Jeffrey T. Schnapp, the content of the show was drawn mainly from the two institutions’ collections.

Within the Wolfsonian’s galleries was created a dark temple to speed by architect Rene Gonzalez – steel gray vaulted galleries, with narrow apertures slicing space and light at sharp, geometric lines. Although, like speed itself, the spaces were without exuberant eccentricity, it was not a straightforward presentation in a straightforward museum space. The exhibit was spread over the Wolfsonian’s top two floors, which link in a double height gallery with catwalks. The ethos of futurism creates an environmental experience.

Artifacts of futurism and speed are manipulated, as interactive elements in the space more so than trinkets in a vitrine. Although there were more than 200 objects, “Speed Limits” was selective and representational. It was divided into five topics: circulation and transit, efficiency, the representation and measurement of rapid motion, and the mind/body relationship – each a case-study in the modern era’s cult of speed.  “Speed Limits” was not a commemoration of Futurism. It was a critical portrayal of speed, as well as a retrospective of speed’s role in the last century.

Consumerism provides excessive artifacts. Highways traffic studies, prefabricated kitchens, Maytag commercials, fast food, clocks, signage, time-lapse photography, office filing systems, large scale card catalogues, spark plugs, and IBM punch cards are speed’s heavy material presence.

The Mind/Body Relationship space, the last room entered, where the force of speed is seen within the human body. Athleticism, physical and mental enhancement, chemical stimulants, the diet industry, steroids, cocaine, amphetamines, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers all regulate the body’s performance and speed.

The inaugural manifesto of futurism – the one by Marinetti in Le Figaro – proclaims “the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” “Speed Limits,” beginning with futurism, is about the cult of speed: the magnificent thrusting force that made the 20th century so rapaciously modern. Mechanization, prosperity, financial leverage, pressure, war, technology, medicine, invention, desire, communication, efficiency, automation, optimism, and exaggerated passions are all simultaneously results of the cult of speed, and causes of its acceleration.

The popular optimism with speed and its possibilities has ended. Speed is not the bright and gleaming solution to society’s ills and is now approached much more cautiously. The utopian – and fast – idea of Tomorrowland is outdated. By now we’ve seen too many ill effects, and limits to our desires to go faster, to always equate faster speeds with humanity’s progress. The Concord was decommissioned almost a decade ago, miles of highway are seen as blights on the landscape, traditional slow farming methods are being preserved, and in the Great Recession the unemployed are becoming contemplative sages.

Following the extravagant legacy of the Futurist dream in the 20th century, the Great Recession could be the end of the era of the cult of speed – the End of Speed. The faster, more optimistic future is an overly simplistic dream easily fragmented by a world that is now slower, more melancholic, and self analytical. Maybe the modern world has reached its speed limit, its critical juncture, its fulcromatic point where blindly whizzing ahead no longer works, and this time the collision was fatal.