Do the dedicated yearners who would roll back this tide look fondly on the charred South Bronx of the eighties? Would they stick by the most depressed and derelict expanses of Brooklyn, or the cracked-out squats around Tompkins Square Park, or the blocks of boarded-up windows in Harlem? That New York was not authentic or quaint; it was miserable and dangerous.
Intelligent preservation is precious, but nostalgia is cheap, and every era nurtures its own variety. Those late-nineteenth-century Upper West Siders who still thought of Broadway as the bucolic, elm-lined Bloomingdale Road of their youths resented the incursion of brownstones in the 1880s. Their children must have been horrified in turn when those same houses were wiped away by the now-classic apartment buildings that line West End Avenue. Bitterness springs eternal. So rail, if you must, at the forest of mediocrities sprouting furiously in every Zip Code, at the way they bleach out character and promote a bland parade of chain stores. But keep in mind that when all those buildings have begun to age, the architecture of our immediate future will get down to the task of becoming the past.
It would be wonderful if we could stem the Avalonization of New York simply by demanding better buildings. (Good Design Now!) The power to do that lies in the hand of the client at the top of the consumer chain, especially the condo buyer. We might wish that an aesthetically enlightened branch of government would commission masterpieces and mandate design standards for everyone else, but this is New York, where an adversarial system bludgeons designs into a collection of compromises. Craving a visionary government with the leeway to reshape large swaths of the city means forgetting a time when bureaucrats and politicians garlanded the Lower East Side with grim brown housing projects and Robert Moses smashed neighborhoods to ram highways through. To give officials such Sim City powers again would violate the spirit of New York, which since the days of the Dutch East India Company has evolved a sophisticated mechanism of controlled venality: Government sets the terms; developers take the risks. This partnership between public and private spheres is ancient and, for all its flaws, corruption, and obstacles to excellence, has nevertheless built a very fine city. The great advantage to top-down planning is that it can hatch and act on a Big Idea. It was not government alone, however, that brought Times Square back to life in the nineties; it was a convergence of planning, zoning, architecture, politics, entertainment, finance, commerce, preservation, and pure civic ambition.
Most architecture in any age is crap, and today’s crap isn’t as bad as yesterday’s.
If we don’t want a New York frozen in recollection, and we don’t really want politicians with the clout to strew masterpieces, then we must welcome a certain amount—okay, a large amount—of bland architecture. It’s paradoxical, I know, to wrinkle my nose at Avalon’s Bowery incursions and yet be gladdened by what they say. Much of what has gone up since the early nineties is anonymous and shoddy, but the same could be said for medieval Paris or Gilded Age Chicago—or virtually any of New York’s own glorious eras. Most architecture in any age is crap, and today’s crap isn’t as bad as yesterday’s. Fifty years ago, the sweeping attempts to house the city’s burgeoning masses produced the alpine bulk of LeFrak City and Co-op City. In their day, our generic would have been considered luxe. “When you compare these new [residential] buildings to the red-brick or white-brick apartment houses that were standard in the fifties and sixties, they’re far better,” says Alex Garvin, a planner who has been tinkering with ways to improve New York since the Lindsay years. “Both the ordinary and the exceptional have increased in quality.” One reason housing is so expensive is that even your basic rental is a better place to live.
I find myself on West 37th Street at Tenth Avenue, where a pale gray rental by Handel Architects is under construction, its tower bending into a gentle chevron above a squared-off base. “Ten years ago, the developer would have said, Why does it have to have that shape? It creates strange angles in every apartment. What’s in it for me?,” the firm’s principal Gary Handel says. “Now they understand that the formal gesture has a function on the skyline. There’s a real change in the client’s acceptance of architecture.” By which he means not high-flown architecture-as-art, but rank-and-file buildings that are better than strictly necessary.
Few architects have responded more energetically to the tumescent market, or had greater impact on the fabric of New York City, than Costas Kondylis, the prolific Greek-born master of the semi-deluxe. Like a Johnny Appleseed of real estate, Kondylis has sprinkled Manhattan with buildings such as the Lyric, on Broadway at 94th Street. The Lyric is a more or less typical specimen of New York residential architecture at the turn of the 21st century, and to anybody who had a fondness for an earlier incarnation of Upper Broadway—with its low-slung stores and ponderously corniced apartment buildings—it represented the homogenization of New York’s most motley avenue. In truth, the Lyric is neither disgraceful nor excellent; it is the soul of adequacy. Symphony Space, a performance hall colorfully and admirably renovated by Polshek, sits under the north corner like a bright block inserted in the base. Above, the 23-story tower does what the zoning says it must: rise a dozen stories to a setback before continuing on up to its allowable height. Red brick frames the obligatory picture windows, which wrap around the corners. A judicious smattering of Art Deco–ish fins makes a perfunctory nod to the glory days. The westward side of the tower extends the arms of a shallow U, offering wide-angle views of the Hudson.