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New York, USA – New York’s future is being shaped by a Faustian pact between private developers and not-for-profit charities

New architecture in New York synthesises the drama and vulgarity of the city’s intense urban condition

New York City is famously known by theorists of the city as the capital of the 20th century. In Delirious New York, for example, Rem Koolhaas claims that Le Corbusier wanted to ‘invent and build’ a New City ‘commensurate with the demands and potential glories of the machine civilisation’.

However, unfortunately he had to face the tragic luck that the modern city - Manhattan - had already been invented. Corb visited the city in 1935, writes Koolhaas, ‘to kill the sparkle of Manhattan’s modernity’ before he could attempt to deliver his version of a Machine Age city. He walked the city’s grid, with a newspaperman in tow, craning his neck to look up at the RCA Building and the Empire State Building, and declared them ‘too small’ for his liking.

Like many European architects who visited and wrote about New York, Corb focused on Gotham’s dramatic and towering commercial skyscrapers. But while speculative high-rises such as the Woolworth, Chrysler and Seagram Buildings, and even Frank Gehry’s new downtown tower are powerful aspects of this city’s character, there is a further Manhattan type that has taken this city to another level of urban experience. This might be called ‘Coney Island Comes to Manhattan’, and is one of the insights that is presented in Delirious New York.

The book investigates the fabricated antiquity of Murray’s Roman Gardens, a restaurant that Koolhaas describes as the ‘first autonomous metropolitan interior generated through architectural lobotomy’ and an 84-storey hypothetical skyscraper, where ‘each of these artificial levels is treated as a virgin site’. But while these popular low-brow attractions were (and often still are) derided by architects for being interspersed into the commercial grid, they have morphed into unique spatial tableaux. This can be seen in the Lincoln Center, particularly following its remodelling by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (AR April 2009), the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the developing World Trade Center complex, with its signature buildings by Libeskind, Maki, Calatrava and Snøhetta.

So although this city has always been an intense mix of hard-nosed commercial towers and apartment blocks, ranging from the anonymous to the vulgar, it is also interspersed with public spaces of brilliant whimsy, pedestrian complexity and increasingly, over the last 10 years, good new architecture.

Take, for example, Morphosis Architects’ Cooper Union Building, which has the most compelling street facade of any construction of recent memory in New York. Designed by Thom Mayne to reflect Cooper Union’s reputation as Wa centre for advanced education and research, its interior vertical piazza features a 6m-wide staircase that rises from the ground-floor lobby, up four storeys, to a glass skylight.

Connecting the various academic departments into a unified entity, the stair is a precipitous, Piranesian conception, both intellectually and physically challenging. (Surely it is only a matter of time before a sleep-deprived student tumbles down its steep incline and ends up in hospital.) Yet, perhaps only in a city where so many people live in high-rise buildings and walk-up tenements would this be considered normal and not worth a mention.

The drama of New York’s intense urbanism is now being brought together in a beautiful new pavilion designed by UN Studio at Battery Park. Here, the 17th-century Dutch plan for New Amsterdam meets a 20th-century land-filled grid, Battery Park and the busy Staten Island Ferry Terminal. UN Studio’s compact, petal-like structure unites all these activities, and even though the public appears to rush by without a glance, architects will doubtless stop and admire the pavilion.

Then there is the High Line (AR September 2009), a parkland that began life as a 19th-century elevated freight rail track, which once connected Manhattan’s land-locked docks to the rest of North America. Created by Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Dutch horticulturalist Piet Oudorf, the parkland wends its way up, around and through old industrial factories, the former meat market of the city and the increasingly slick residential and commercial high-rise towers built since the walkway opened in 2009. It’s not just a cliché to say this kind of project could only happen in New York, with its intense combination of uses and building types. But before others attempt to replicate its success, urban planners must recognise its unorthodox formula.

Like both the Cooper Union and UN Studio’s New Amsterdam Plein & Pavilion, the High Line is not a commercial project, but conceived, planned and paid for by not-for-profit groups or charities. You only have to think of the new Bryant Park, the Lincoln Center and the many museums that punctuate the city’s grid to understand the role that these buildings and their clients play in shaping Manhattan’s urban milieu.

Even Central Park, which is now under the control of a private funding district called the Central Park Conservancy, can only be understood as a result of the influence of not-for-profit groups. But although they do have the city’s general welfare in mind, by creating and supporting these spaces and projects, they raise a key point about how New York and America work.

The High Line was conceived and pushed by two young entrepreneurs who created the Friends of the High Line, but this could only happen in a part of the city where high property values could be realised, so this synergy would never arise in the Bronx or poor parts of Brooklyn. The High Line’s not-for-profit organisers were able to create a zoning arrangement with the City, where property developers on either side of the linear walkway could increase their income by adding floors to their properties if they contributed to the development of the park.

This has enabled such buildings as the Standard Hotel by André Balazs, with its two glass-curtain walls, to jump the tracks of the High Line as it rises high above a prime site in the Meatpacking District. So while no one can dispute the High Line’s pedestrian and civic appeal, this comes as a result of being funded by property developers, who use it not only as a front but also to create and maintain high-property values.

New York urbanism is still a work in progress. Visually, it is the result of both private and semi-public utopias, and this is what makes the city so compelling as an urban exemplar. What is different is that while it has been a great space for generations, it is now getting the gloss of good buildings by both private developers and not-for-profit charities. But this architecture comes at a price and it’s too early to tell whether it will remain open to the public or turn into something entirely new and only viable for anyone but the extremely wealthy.

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