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Delirious New York

Our long architectural snooze is over, thanks to neomodernist mania and the arrival—finally—of Gehry. Brooklyn should embrace him.

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Illustration by Nathan Fox  

Back in the eighties and nineties, when I was writing a lot about architecture, I seldom wrote about New York City. Nearly all the most interesting work was being built in other places. We had our grand local stories of preservation and organic urban renewal, but the best new New York buildings of the late-twentieth century were essentially wishful conjurings of familiar early-twentieth-century architecture, very pleasant high-end comfort food. At a time when the prevailing local spirit was a bright, shiny, brittle, slightly crazed megalomania, a few well-made oases of restraint in mellow brick and stone were as good as it got.

That was then. Not only are those go-go demi-decades (1985–1990 and 1995–2000) history, but New York’s present post-9/11 mood (anxious? Sober? Grown up?) seems unready to let the bon temps rouler in the familiar coked-up bull-market dot-com fashion. In most ways, this is a quieter, less exciting time in the city.

However, new architecture—variously bright, shiny, brittle, show-offy, and slightly crazed but a lot of it significant and some of it even thrilling—is now happening in New York as it hasn’t since the Lever House–Seagram Building–Guggenheim Museum fifties. The most awesome of our prospective new buildings is Santiago Calatrava’s design for a 55-story steel-and-concrete skeleton, on the East River south of the Seaport, in which twelve separate glass townhouses for twelve extremely rich people will be stacked. The renderings look like a sixties architect’s unbuildable fever dream of the future, half a zipper 827 feet tall—but it might really get built. “Five years ago,” says Frank Sciame, the construction mogul and developer who hired Calatrava, “we would have done a conventional tower.”

The Zeitgeist works in mysterious, compensatory ways.

Indeed, the present era began pretty much exactly four years ago, in the wake of 9/11 and the completion of three fresh, dazzling jewel boxes by three local stars: Richard Meier’s Perry Street towers and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd. They were perfect proofs of the idea that small is beautiful—that there is a powerful inverse relationship between the bulk of a new building and its chances of being splendid. But the Meier buildings (along with Christian de Portzamparc’s convoluted crystalline tower for LVMH on 57th Street) were also a reminder that the big reason people turned against flat-topped steel-and-glass architecture in the eighties was that nearly all of it had been executed so badly and passionlessly during the sixties and seventies.

At this point, 80 years after Le Corbusier and Mies became stars and 40 years after the hegemonic heyday of their modernist apostles, Richard Meier’s buildings are in their way almost as nostalgic as brand-new stone-veneer-clad, Deco-topped buildings. It’s just that today’s most fashionable backward-looking fantasy happens to be Jetsons–meet–James Bond–in–Weimar metal-and-glass instead of old-fashioned limestone-and-marble—sexy Bobo nostalgia instead of the uptown premodern haute bourgeois kind.

But in any event, at the moment the World Trade Center was destroyed, a reinvigorated and more catholic modernism was becoming the cool, blue-chip style in New York. And the aftermath of 9/11 has reinforced the new approach. Every one of the superstar schemes for rebuilding ground zero was some flavor of hyperbolic futuristic modernism (extravagant geometry, exposed engineering, little or no exterior stone). The public’s appetite was whetted. Now ground has been broken for Calatrava’s extraordinary winged train station at the site—all white steel and glass but romantic and expressive in a way serious modernist buildings were not permitted to be back in the canonical day.

The station won’t open until 2009, but the burgeoning neomodernist renaissance is already visible all over the city. There’s Steven Holl’s ingeniously asymmetrical new structure connecting two nineteenth-century buildings at Pratt (where I happen to be a trustee). It’s a strong counterargument to the conventional wisdom that additions to old buildings must be antique simulacra, as is James Polshek’s new entrance to the Brooklyn Museum and Renzo Piano’s nearly finished addition to the Morgan Library. Even Sir Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower, as kooky and Shanghai-ish as it looks in our skyline—a geodesic dome stretched into a high-rise—is striving to be singular in a way that big New York office towers have hardly done at all since 1960. And Piano’s new Times building—designed as a tall box with an intriguing double skin of clear glass and ceramic tubes—might achieve greatness in spite of its enormity.

In one small zone downtown, a modestly scaled hip modernist trifecta is arising. On Lafayette, Richard Gluckman has built a condo building with a glassy façade shaped like a dreamy wave; on the Bowery, the seven-story New Museum is going up, precisely designed by the Tokyo firm SANAA to look like a careless stack of seven silvery metal boxes; and on Mercer, a lithe, very glassy condo building by French superstar Jean Nouvel is under construction.


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