Delirious New York

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.

Then, gliding back uptown, the ultra-hip little firm Asymptote is making an apartment building out of a garage behind one of the Meier towers, John Pawson has converted part of the Gramercy Park Hotel into minimalist condos, and Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio will soon turn the High Line into one of the coolest city parks imaginable. Farther north and further out—2012, 2014—Meier envisions three mammoth apartment towers just south of the U.N., the impeccable Japanese modernist Fumihiko Maki is designing a new 35-story building for the U.N. itself, Piano will build his (glassy) addition to the Whitney … and so on.

But how can we be a city of glamorous cutting-edge architecture without finally getting our own Frank Gehry building or two or—hell, sure, why not—nineteen? The first, under construction on the West Side Highway in Chelsea, is a nine-story headquarters for Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp. It’s a new Gehry iteration; instead of an exploded giant tin can, it will be boxier, more traditionally building-esque, with townhouse-size modules and wedding-cake setbacks wrapped in translucent textured glass. “We’re gonna do more things behind there, too,” Gehry says, suggesting a future Gehryfication of Tenth Avenue. “Housing and stuff.”

And next spring, construction should begin on the first Gehry skyscraper on the planet, a 74-story apartment tower (plus hospital and school) just south of the Brooklyn Bridge. Given the string of abortive New York projects he’s been through (like the doomed ground-zero theater center), he doesn’t want to publish his design for Beekman Tower “until they’re sure they’re going to build.” But he showed me the renderings. For a Gehry building, it’s conservative, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—a classic Manhattan skyscraper with several setbacks. But for a Manhattan high-rise it’s radical, since it will likely be clad in titanium—creased and wrinkled as if it’s a few yards of draped fabric rather than a dozen acres of metal.

Bruce Ratner of Forest City is the developer, as he is of Piano’s Times building and of what will be a whole new Brooklyn downtown between Atlantic and Flatbush—a Nets arena plus a residential quarter as large as Rockefeller Center with sixteen buildings, all by Gehry. Freddy Ferrer called it “the twin brother of Bloomberg’s West Side stadium boondoggle,” but that’s wrong. The arena is the anchor of a thoroughly imagined project by an actual developer; basketball seasons have 41 home games instead of 8, thus generating more street life; and the architecture will be the work of a single-minded genius, not a big corporate firm. Simply because enormous redevelopment projects are often or even usually misguided (Robert Moses’s Lower Manhattan Expressway, the Jets’ stadium, Freedom Tower) doesn’t mean we ought to oppose them by default. Westway, for instance, should have been built, and so, probably, should Gehry’s Atlantic Yards.

The skewed, cartoony angles of the buildings, which range from 20 to 60 stories, would in one fell swoop create a second, sui generis Brooklyn skyline encompassing the familiar, phallic old Williamsburgh Bank Building. Gehry’s goal is for it to “look like it developed over time. Usually I would bring in other architects to make it look like a city, not like a development.” But many hands at the drawing table (or the CAD screen) is no guarantee of urban quality either: At Battery Park City the result has been, as Ratner says, “a mishmash of architecture.”

Thirty years ago, as the city entered a grotty, seemingly permanent twilight, Red Grooms and Rem Koolhaas produced their retorts to the gloom, the jolly walk-through installation Ruckus Manhattan and the alternative-urban-history book Delirious New York, respectively. Gehry’s scheme seeks to be a latter-day consummation of those visions. It could be magnificent. Of course, executed poorly—say, Battery Park City populated by Arquitectonica’s cheesy, strenuously fun Westin Hotel in Times Square—it could also be dreadful. Until now, most of Ratner’s buildings have ranged from the uninspired to the bad, like his shopping center across from the Atlantic Yards. Even he admits the Atlantic Center mall is “not up to snuff. Philip Johnson did a first design, but I made a decision not to use him. I have to blame myself. I’ve been talking for ten years about trying to use ‘design architects’ instead of ‘developer architects.’ ”

Why does he think New York was so bereft of exciting large-scale architecture for so long? “It’s something I ponder a lot,” he says. “So mediocre.” And most new buildings here are still mediocre or worse—we will have plenty of ’00s versions of sixties-white-brick monstrosities to dispirit us for the rest of our lives, including many (such as the condo high-rise going up at the west end of Chambers Street) trying to ride the neomodern bandwagon.

Given Ratner’s track record, I asked Gehry if at first he mistrusted Ratner’s professed new dedication to quality and innovation. “Yeah. Yes, I did.” And how did he get over his skepticism? “I’m still getting over it,” he says, although so far, “the budget busts have not been architectural ones. He’s always voted with me on the side of the architectural. He runs into roadblocks sometimes in his company, but it has not been cataclysmic.”Ratner isn’t spending 15 percent extra on these new buildings simply because he wants to underwrite cool design. He understands that in Brooklyn, just as his quotas of apartments for poor people and construction jobs for women and minorities were ways of winning over key constituencies, hiring Gehry was politics by other means, sure to please the city’s BAM-loving chattering class. “The spirit of what you say,” Ratner agrees when I posit this theory, “is accurate.”

There will be many more political hoops to jump through, and what Gehry calls his “lefty do-gooder” side is under challenge. “Citizens’ groups all over the world are backfiring on good architecture. They should back off when somebody knows what they’re doing.” One of his daughters lives in Carroll Gardens, a mile from the site, and she, he says with a chuckle, “is probably one of those out protesting.”

It’s a state-supervised project, so the City Planning Commission has the power only to recommend changes, not command them. Yet when Gehry spoke with me one recent Saturday, he’d just hung up with Amanda Burden, the planning chair, and was a little exasperated by her bluestocking micromanagement: “She wants retail on every inch, and she’s talking about how the doors open … ” While I appreciated his irritation, it also made me think Burden is doing her job. Such is the to and fro of the process.

Meanwhile, he’s had a hand in another Brooklyn project, the clear-glass-fronted Elizabethan theater to be built across from bam. It’s due to open in 2008, as is its neighbor, a library designed as a flying V (in transparent glass) by neomodernist Enrique Norten, who is talented and hot and, at 51, young in celebrity-architect years.

Gehry is 76, Frank Lloyd Wright’s age when he got the Guggenheim job. Like Wright (like most architects), Gehry is not exactly fulsome with praise for his peers. When I asked which new New York buildings he liked, he laughed. “I guess I like the Meier buildings. I like the simplicity of [Cesar] Pelli’s towers”—such as the handsome and, yes, very glassy new Bloomberg L.P. headquarters at 59th and Lex. “I used him as a model for Beekman, his way of handling tall buildings; he doesn’t get it fussy.” Like Wright, Gehry is an out-of-towner, a brilliant eccentric, but also, improbably, the great brand-name architect of his time. If Atlantic Yards is completed on schedule, in 2016, he will still be four years younger than Wright was when Wright watched the Guggenheim—his first New York City commission and final masterpiece—being finished.

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Delirious New York