Cities On The Move 

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Complain all you want about the G train, but when it comes to public transportation, New Yorkers have it pretty good (and green). Major service cuts last month reminded us how much we have to lose in the way of mass transit, much more than most. Two new exhibitions address sustainable transportation disasters here and in cities around the world, in hopes of either reversing such trends, or at least documenting them as they continue uncorrected.

"New York was the low-hanging fruit in this project," architect Michael Sorkin admitted during a panel on the opening day of "Our Cities Ourselves: The Future of Transportation in Urban Life" at the Center for Architecture (through September 11), an exhibition organized by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) regarding its initiative to improve transportation in specific neighborhoods in ten cities. Sorkin, who led the New York team, focused on Lower Manhattan, though many of his proposals would impact adjacent areas: like squashing feuds between pedestrians and cyclists on the Brooklyn Bridge by giving the latter a protected lane on the car level; or banning internal combustion engines below Canal Street and delivering goods with electric vehicles, barges and subway freight.

Unlike many similarly ambitious urban redesign projects, ITDP made a point of commissioning architects with good working relationships to each city's government, so parts of their proposals might actually get implemented. In Jakarta, Budi Pradono Architects' giant vertical garden skybridge might not happen, but the torturous intersection it would reclaim for pedestrians switching between light rail and rapid transit buses will likely be radically altered. Other very ambitious projects seem feasible, like Urbanus Architecture & Design's plan to convert a redundant elevated highway in a once thriving Guangzhou neighborhood into a High Line-style elevated park. The exhibition gives the sense that, even though the last 60 years of urban design have been dominated by destructive automobile-centric policies, with enough architectural vision and political will cities can adapt for the future.

Bas Princen

An exhibition a short walk away tempers the optimism of Our Cities Ourselves. Bas Princen's photo series "Refuge: Five Cities" at the Storefront for Art and Architecture (through July 17) focuses on sites of rapid expansion in Middle East megacities. The Dutch photographer's medium- to large-scale color photos combine elements of landscape and architectural photography as often unfinished or abandoned rectilinear buildings erupt in nature, dwarfing their surroundings. One especially striking work, if cropped, could pass for a tropical pastoral, with an attractive alley of palms stretching into the distance under warm skies. Instead, "Former Sugar Cane Field, Cairo" (2009) is dominated by the most absurd-looking building I've ever seen, a tall, narrow slab of bricks with no visible windows, doors or discernible function. Nearby, "Shopping Mall Parking Lot, Dubai" (above, 2009) features a very similarly off-kilter, still more unsettling composition. Beyond a paved but empty and unkempt lot and over a concrete barrier, an incomplete condo project sits on a manmade hill, apparently inaccessible, like a foreclosed fortress, a desert mirage of a lost city. Faced with such recent urban ruins, I remembered Sorkin's forceful statement: "Cars are intrinsically destructive to co-urban life." But things are getting better, right?

(Image credits: Center for Architecture, Terreform and Michael Sorkin Studio; Bas Princen and Van Kranendonk Gallery)

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