The ‘X’ Men

Urban vision has been in short supply here since John Lindsay left Gracie Mansion, disbanding his cadre of urban-design brain trusters. With their diaspora – and the impact of Jane Jacobs’s cautionary writings – New York has shied away from thinking big urban thoughts, a loss all the more tangible since the mighty working waterfront withered, leaving New York’s shores vulnerable to special interests. Vocal neighborhood boards now wield a very big stick, making it difficult to build a vision bolder than the neighborhood detail favored by the city’s dominant miniaturists. Large-scale issues, like New York’s riverine geography, demand scope. Concurrently, the city’s long slide from public spending for public projects toward fiscal privatization has led New Yorkers to depend on the largesse of developers for scraps of civic space and architecture. Donald Trump has emerged as Manhattan’s foremost planner.

Capital cities like Washington, London, and Paris have it easy: Impressive embassies and ministries naturally accrue to their avenues, adding up, building by building, to a dignified public realm. Counterintuitively, New York, epicenter of the galaxy, has to work at the grandeur. Cities with aspirations to being a world capital often take advantage of international events to shape their physical plant, and the entrepreneurial coalition spearheading the city’s Olympics drive, NYC2012, is using the Games to leverage large-scale change.

NYC2012 just submitted its bid to the U.S. Olympic Committee for hosting the 2012 Summer Games, and with actual designs proposed for designated sites, it’s already tempting to imagine athletes vaulting into the skyline, profiled against the city’s gridded infinity. But the NYC2012 committee is not only accommodating the 10,000 athletes and 5,000 coaches for 40 sport events. Armed with $1.2 billion of the projected Olympic revenue of $3.3 billion, the committee members are thinking like field marshals, positioning facilities strategically to wage a corrective urban offensive that would help jump-start development of the East River and leave the city greatly improved. Think of it as an Olympics of urbanism, the Games acting as a catalyst for reshaping New York where it counts.

Infrastructure is a word only city planners can warm to, and Alexander Garvin, director of planning of NYC2012, is passionate when he summarizes the plan by drawing an X across New York’s midriff. The Yale professor and member of the city’s planning commission proposes that Olympic sites be cultivated along a cross-axis. One stroke of the X represents the path of water from Columbia University’s Baker Field through the Harlem and East Rivers, across the harbor to Staten Island and Coney Island. Ferries would shoelace the two shores together, stopping at sports facilities and parks that include Pelham Bay Park (for water polo and modern pentathlon), the 369th Regiment Armory on the Harlem River (boxing and rhythmic gymnastics), Yankee Stadium (baseball), and the Williamsburg waterfront (archery and beach volleyball). On Staten Island, there would be equestrian events and softball; off Coney Island, sailing.

The second stroke of the X represents existing and intended rail lines from Flushing Meadow Park through Penn Station and across the Hudson toward the Meadowlands. The rails would help cinch the city together east-west across Manhattan’s dominant north-south grain; they would lead to a stadium and two hotels over the Long Island Rail Road yards. One stroke crosses the other at Hunters Point in Queens, anticipated site of the Olympic Village.

Utopias often seem like distant visions teasingly parked in the impossible future, but what Garvin is proposing is a highly feasible catalytic step to a New York that reorients the landlocked streets to the water. The East River, like the Seine, used to unite rather than separate the boroughs, and this proposal reverses its atrophy. Neglected for decades (and looking it), this river, unlike the Hudson, is bureaucratically manageable: New York has to agree only with itself and not a welter of New Jersey governments to develop a more ceremonial and active waterway.

Some cities have been shortsighted and even stingy about how they capitalize on their Olympic moment. In 1984, Los Angeles built nothing and merely coordinated the freeway flow toward existing, far-flung venues. In 1976, Montreal, by contrast, was profligate in cost overruns for an Olympics that ghettoized sports in the suburbs. The NYC2012 planners have wisely looked to Barcelona, which used the 1992 Olympics to darn holes in the existing urban fabric with small, incremental buildings, parks, and oceanside promenades. Like Barcelona, New York is affirming the city rather than the suburb, and unfurling its edge to the water.

What is disheartening about an otherwise intelligent plan is the architecture. To give their proposal traction, Garvin and crew hired a team of predominantly New York architects, all with respectable reputations, but they have produced workmanlike schemes that set the project off on a pedestrian foot. Admittedly, the ideas are only embryonic, but the DNA already looks flawed. If New York wins approval for the Games, the choice of architects must be commensurate with the acumen that led to the X, perhaps through competitions or some creative curating that brings international talent into an invitational architectural Olympics.

Alarms ring when Garvin speaks of applying to the Olympic Village design standards like those that produced the Milquetoast, nothing-ventured buildings at Battery Park City. Especially distressing is a deadening trial sketch for the stadium by RAN International (architects of Toronto’s SkyDome) and an attendant Motorola-like tower by Cesar Pelli, on a vacant plinth over the highly prized rail yards. Didn’t we just have an ideas competition – won by Peter Eisenman – that yielded rather wondrous proposals? NYC2012 should at least have a gestural thought by Eisenman stand in as an image, giving a postclassical edge to an Olympic tradition straight from colonnaded antiquity. An Eisenman stadium on the Hudson and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim on the East River would set Manhattan vibrating.

In Barcelona, city building was more important than standout architectural achievement, and what was missing in 1992 was the summary symbol. New York, after the Olympics, will be a better city with the X, but without a shining piece – hell, why not a half-dozen shining pieces? – the Olympics will be absorbed and forgotten. Improved infrastructure will make the city work better, but the symbolic power of architecture should not be underestimated. The planners of 2012 should respect their own commendable scheme by pursuing architecture equal to their vision. Radiant buildings could be the motivational symbols where the X marks the spot.

The ‘X’ Men