Ferry Dust

During the eighties, postmodernism – and then the recession – drove some of New York’s venerable modernist architecture firms out of the Yellow Pages. Younger proponents survived in alternative underground practices, often designing stripped-down artists’ lofts. The loft movement helped keep the modernist impulse alive in a city otherwise chintzed to the crown moldings. Now, with postmodernism dead and the economy at full throttle, the fiftysomething loft generation is coming into its own, like a repressed religious sect finally able to build its churches and practice openly and proudly. The spare, conceptual aesthetic has migrated uptown in the form of white-box stores and restaurants like the sophisticated reborn Brasserie in the Seagram Building, inspired by installation art. Recently the downtown ethos has also surfaced on Pier 11, a commuter-ferry terminus adjacent to Wall Street servicing La Guardia airport, among other destinations.

Since cargo ships abandoned New York for New Jersey, the waterfront has been up for grabs: No one really knows what this amphibious territory should look like and how it should function. Back in the eighties, true to the times, the architects of the South Street Seaport romanticized the harbor with a nostalgic confection of vaguely nineteenth-century warehouse sheds that interpreted this stretch of the East River as a mall themed with history. Tourists came; New Yorkers didn’t. It was a question of authenticity.

Anyone venturing onto the new $14 million Pier 11 in the next several weeks will encounter a stately crane performing balletic lifts with an underwater shovel. Just south of the new pier, the bright-red apparatus looks like a Russian Constructivist vision, Lenin at the helm. The heroic crane and pier blur into a continuous stream of design consciousness because they spring from the same design creed. Judith Heintz Landscape Architecture and Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects designed, respectively, a titanic deck and broad-shouldered waiting room in inexpensive materials culled from the hardworking industrial waterfront itself. The galvanized corrugated steel, metal grates, anodized aluminum, turncoat shingles, metal decking, and raw concrete all stand up to this exposed maritime site where the East River opens into the harbor. The economy of means reflects the straightforward work ethic of waterfronts everywhere. Commissioned by the city’s Economic Development Corporation and the state Department of Transportation, with significant federal funding, this is a working pier intended to function as part of the larger, pedestrian-oriented Wall Street esplanade under the girders of the FDR Drive.

This is the first new pier to be built in years, and unlike the South Street Seaport just to the north, it does not obfuscate the pier’s working-class pedigree with overcommercialized functions and overspecified designs that force visitors to use and see the waterfront in predetermined ways. The architects have left the space suggestively open to spontaneous interpretations and functions, like the lofts they worked on for many years. The design offers not a predigested experience but one that will vary by hour, day, and season.

This very smart collaboration reverses the trend to suburbanize the waterfront, gate it with paying activities, and legitimize it with the veneer of a benign past. There is no theme to this piece of nearly transparent contemporary design, which has the maturity not to force itself into our consciousness, other than to cultivate the simple feeling of being close to both the water and the city. Working with Hayden/Wegman engineers, the architects have basically created an outdoor urban loft, an open platform on the water that is committed not to a single use but to a cartwheel of activities – from boat landing to lunch deck, performance space, music room, and pocket water park.

the pier is more than a corridor for commuters. Stockbrokers with sandwiches now have an open, sunny landing jutting into the water where they can soak up the rays, reclining on wire-mesh backrests facing south. At the end of the structure, a percentage-for-art project by Santa Monica artist Carl Cheng will offer a terrain of contemplative calm beyond the commuting frenzy when it opens this fall. Accessible by bridge, Cheng’s fanciful man-made island, with a cutout hole looking down into the river, already gives this most extroverted site the intimacy of a pond.

By the standards of Frank Gehry’s newly proposed downtown Guggenheim – which would, if built, be an immediate neighbor – Smith-Miller + Hawkinson’s building is not charismatic. Hard-edged and industrial, the design is low-tech and low-key, long on intelligence and service, short on conspicuous glamour. The architectural language of bolts and welds is self-restrained rather than expressive.

With an emphasis on horizontal lines, the pier resembles the deck of an aircraft carrier waiting for activities to alight. Heintz intentionally placed her benches, made of timber salvaged from the old Pier 11, at the edge of the deck. Smith-Miller + Hawkinson sited its pavilion along the north edge, to defer to the pier as an urban stage. The architects did not center their 3,500-square-foot, $2 million pavilion to command the space but curbed it instead, checking their egos and letting the site speak for itself. The river and harbor have much to say about the aesthetics of movement: The liquidity is hypnotic.

Heintz created a series of catwalks with grilled decks that let us walk over the water. A small barge where water taxis dock bobs with the waves. Ropes lash together trios of “dolphins,” wooden poles that act as shock absorbers for the ferries. Gangplanks, ordered straight from the catalogues, straddle the gap between barge and pier, coasting on screechy rollers. Like the nautical gadgetry that makes the pier and adjacent barges function for boats, the building itself is an apparatus that makes a virtue out of movement and function. This environment of motion is negotiated by mechanisms designed to bridge water and land. Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, who have often designed lofts with large pivoting walls that completely transform interior spaces, are quite literally in their elements here. Pier 11 goes a long way in suggesting how other parts of our developing waterfront might work and look.

Ferry Dust