Last issue I began the task of voicing my objections to the recent New York Magazine feature article, ‘Tomorrowland: New York 2016’. There was far more to say than I could fit into one little column. Anyone who cares about this city, and its continued livability, would be well served by taking a good, long look at what New York, and the developers it’s shilling for, suggest we must blithely accept, from the imperative of adding another million residents, to the wholesale redevelopment of vast tracts of the city.
It seems as though the power of starchitecture is being used to sway the skeptical. Sure, Jane Jacobs (and a hell of a lot of practical experience around the world) has taught us that massive developments don’t work terribly well; but if the massive developments are the product of a Frank Gehry or a Santiago Calatrava, well, they’re sure to be great. Right?
Guess again. While formally far more interesting, and intellectually engaging (to some), the projects of starchitects aren’t necessarily any more livable, or usable, than those designed by no-names. Exotic forms and innovative materials guarantee nothing: in fact, you’ll find that the starchitects, while winning praise for appearances, are getting the same low marks for function that the public-housing designers Jane Jacobs railed against got for their work.
Gehry, whose downtown Brooklyn plan I’ve already criticized, has a terrible record. His Guggenheim Bilbao, arguably the most famous building built in the last quarter century, is widely criticized for its insensitive and alienating design. As the Project for Public Spaces puts it on their website (ppc.org), “Frank Gehry... appears afraid to support, or even acknowledge, human activity in and around his buildings.” So forgive me for being a tiny bit skeptical about his designs on (and in) this city.
Along the waterfront of Brooklyn, “Tomorrowland” makes much of the privately held (and financed) parks that will dot the shore, a “model that is working at Hudson River Park.” Sure, it’s a model that’s working, if you don’t mind being harassed by rent-a-cops, attacked for taking pictures, or prevented from walking your dog, or your bike, through the park. Sorry, but that’s not my idea of a functional park.
Author Alexandra Lange also presents as positive the idea that the residents of the new Brooklyn waterfront may feel more like Manhattanites, ferrying back and forth, never needing to set foot in the borough surrounding their own residential complexes. That’s essentially bringing bedroom communities, and gated communities — the most dysfunctional housing models we’ve yet invented — into the city. What does it say about us, and mean for us, having thousands of residents who have no relationship to the places in which they live? Jane Jacobs would be appalled, and I am too.