Neutrality, Homogeneity, and Urban Attractions

There’s an uncanny neutrality in the aesthetics of contemporary, future-oriented urban-revival architecture. By future-oriented I mean forward-looking in the sense that these things are conceived with environmental and social consciousness in mind. They tout themselves as efficient, and their efficiency is unquestionable – not just in terms of being “green,” which most are, but also more generally, in terms of functionality and aesthetics. This is a trend towards designed public spaces as all-inclusive Attractions rater than a varied collection of singular aesthetic and social experiences. This kind of efficiency is something to worry about.

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The crux of this idea can be easily explained in a small, familiar context. The iPhone, for example, can’t visually reference an object that historically takes calls – a handset with articulated microphone, receiver, and dialing pad – or it’d be weird and clumsy if it was also supposed to do a good job browsing the internet, and playing games, and taking photos. For this reason, it has to look as neutral as possible: just a little rounded off screen to project a myriad of functions on.

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Renderings of new Transbay Terminal (San Francisco, CA)

This presentation is going to end up being about New York, but I’m starting the scaled-up portion of the program with the new Transbay Terminal about to be built in San Francisco. This is only because it’s a really neatly comprehensible point of entry. It’s a five-story, partially underground complex that will act as a point of convergence and divergence for a whole menagerie of people and vehicles as well as a venue for commerce and consumption – restaurants to eat at and little shops to browse as you wait. It’ll also have a massive green roof that serves as an elevated public park. All of these functions and experiences aren’t disparate, per se, but they are different. And because they are all taking place in the same space, the space cannot necessarily betray any particular function. The renderings of it look like a weird, overgrown mall arbitrarily plopped into San Francisco’s downtown – nothing about it relates to the landscape or architecture around it. It doesn’t look like it should be there, because it looks like it could be anywhere. Homogenization of aesthetics can be understood here as a direct result of homogenization of function. Objects are starting to do so much at once that in order to avoid looking like they do any particular thing or live in any particular place, they must be devoid of form that denotes much of anything.

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The High Line (Manhattan)

Here’s another transit-related example: rather than letting a disused elevated railroad track fall into disrepair, what is now the High Line was redesigned and repurposed as an aerial park. There’s well-kempt seasonal greenery, stair and elevator access, and even an “urban theater” at 10th and 17th – a window over the avenue with tiered seating. And the idea is catching, too: a similar project is gaining traction in Queens, and Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail opened in 2015. Paris’s Promenade Plantée has been around since the ‘90s. There’ve also been virtually no reports of major crime or assault on the High Line, this fact chalked up to the park’s near-constant foot traffic – it’s a major tourist attraction – and high visibility from the windows and balconies of surrounding buildings. The High Line and similar urban aerial parks are scenic, safe, and seemingly sustainable; a real triple threat for developers. But they aren’t places of sanctuary or solace. The High Line et al. are designed to keep you in a constant state of Having Organized Fun. They provoke a low, unceasing hum of meticulously plotted interest – a little landmark here, a scenic overlook there, all along a mindlessly followable linear path. There’s no way to wander the High Line because your trajectory has been decided for you. It identifies things about itself that are supposed to be interesting and makes sure you know. It knows best where you should stop for a picture. It’s a machine for Making Memories rather than a venue for experience.

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Rendering of Pier55 (Manhattan)

This is a rendering of Pier55, a floating park and performance venue on Manhattan’s lower west side, at the Southern end of the High Line – construction of which is scheduled to begin this year. It’s got everything you need to have good, clean, organized fun: well-groomed open space, neat little walking paths and gardens, and amphitheaters scattered throughout. You can see in the renderings that there’s intent to keep the space pretty open – nothing is too shady or grown-in, likely in anticipation of a lot of foot traffic and space necessary to accommodate it. Like the High Line, it’s not a park imagined as a space for reflection and solitude as an escape from the bustle of city life. It’s a big green attraction that’s able to tout itself as “futuristic” because it floats above the river on big, white, arbitrarily abstracted pillars.

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Floating park proposal (Manhattan)

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Proposal for reimagining of riverside landscape architecture (Manhattan)

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Rendering of the Culture Shed (Manhattan)

These sorts of objects and spaces are designed for “inoffensiveness” at every level. They are so user-friendly as to be almost kid-friendly – corners are rounded, interaction is guided and gamelike. It’s a vision of the future as a playpen: safe and easily accessible. But is this really inclusivity? There’s a serious dearth of any sort of referential iconography. Objects just sleekly exist as programmable default versions of themselves. That’s not an inclusive attitude; it’s an active denial of variance in favor of easy neutrality. It’s noncommittal. Impartial. But impartiality isn’t democratic, acknowledgement and embracement of difference is.

So let’s say I go to a major developer with this concern. This developer is unusually receptive, or maybe just humoring me. He says, “I see where you’re coming from. I’d be interested in pursuing a project that promoted an active effort to increase sociocultural aesthetic diversity and individual agency in the public experience of the city. I know the city has plans to renovate some of the piers on the Hudson in conjunction with an effort to minimize the threat of coastal flooding. Why don’t we reach out to architects and designers from a varied array of social and economic situations and see if they have any bright ideas? We could even target the young, idealistic ones. Fresh out of or still in school. It could be a contest with an emphasis on personal cultural expression. Finalists could team up with professionals to help actualize their ideas.” And I sit there nodding for a while, thinking that sounds pretty good, until I remember that a contest like this has to get judged by someone who probably isn’t particularly young or idealistic or open-minded. I also remember that these sorts of top-down efforts to showcase the worldliness of Western cities have historically fallen into the trap of appropriation and cliché when it comes to portraying anything non-“normative” – World’s Fairs and the like.

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Rendering of Yitan Sun and Jianshi Wu’s “New York Horizon”

And the truth is, call-to-arms urban revival contests usually end up turning out winners like this: Yitan Sun and Jianshi Wu’s shocking but rather cheeky idea to dig down to Central Park’s bedrock in order to create a continuous wall of mirrored skyscrapers around its perimeter – “characterless architecture” meant only to reflect its faux-natural surroundings. They say this will “reveal the park’s rugged natural terrain,” but that doesn’t seem to be the priority. It’s another opportunity to create attractions like arenas for hiking, climbing, and swimming; as well as use the displaced dirt to alter other parks around the city into “mini-mountains.” While this might seem vaguely subversive – building down instead of up, a reversal of the trajectory all these elevated or floating parks are taking – it’s really just the same principle as the others. Lush, rambling Central Park transformed into a multi-functional public arena for a neatly relegated good time. Though Central Park as it exists now is also a purely designed experience, it is designed with vastly different intent: to be a space in which you can both find moments of quiet, solitary reflection and organize your own fun.

So what’s the real solution to these overdeveloped urban spaces? I don’t think there is one. All these attempts to create inclusive, easily navigable public spaces actually create more segregated city experiences – they’re not really shared spaces, just playpens for the well-off and touristic-minded. Programmatic experiences such as these are only going to contribute to social discord, since the people writing the programs are the people in power. However, I do think there’s one way to incite dramatic change, and that’s to back off.

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Exterior of and four of the founding members of the Dirt Palace

Backing off is not, however, a neutral or easy solution. Backing off to the extent that incites change is going to result in something Manhattan hasn’t seen in decades: a substantial measure of urban decay. This ultimately involves a relinquishing of power by higher ups, since abandoned spaces are negotiated by whoever happens to enter them. And if luck is on their side, these spaces become arenas for the development of genuinely inclusive, creative communities. They’re gathering spaces for people who may not necessarily have any other place to gather – not so patronizing as a shelter, and offering more shelter than the street. Some blossom into collectives, which begin, at least, as “un-designed” participatory spaces. There are a few venues in Providence that I can think of that fall into this category, though there were far more up until a few years ago, when they all started getting evicted. The ones I have visited are the Dirt Palace and Spark City, though Spark City was also evicted a few months ago. They generate some revenue by selling admission tickets to shows. The Dirt Palace also receives support from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and has established itself as a dedicated feminist space for art and cooperative education. Though the recent slew of evictions has me wondering how much longer even the Dirt Palace can last, I think that the fact of their potential for existence in the city of Providence – though this potential has faded – is significant in and of itself.

These sorts of creative collectives were able to happen in Providence because it was (and still is) racked by a slurry of infrastructural problems: the local government had bigger fish to fry than breaking up well-intentioned underground punk shows in Olneyville. New York, however, is an entirely different story. It’s a city that stands for a lot and has a lot at stake, so it’s monitored more closely and regulated more tightly. A lot more money passes through a lot more hands. And though there is a pushback against this kind of aggressive upbuilding and gentrifying happening, there is literally no space within the city for it to productively play out. The amount of backing off necessary to make the creation of spaces like this possible in New York again is not likely to happen naturally anytime in the near future. It would require massive priority shifts on pretty much everyone’s behalf – from government officials to city planners and developers, from real estate agents to law enforcement. There would also need to be a reason to dramatically alter the perception of the city from the perspective of those who live in it. In order to encourage actual change, this would need to incite motivation for a substantial exodus from the city – a coupling of new exterior opportunity and internal disruption.

But even now, I see among my peers – and within myself – a reluctance to move to places like New York after graduating because we recognize the unattractiveness of this shift in priority towards Attraction-Making – particularly in the realm of the art world. A lot of young people I know with art educations are expressing reluctance to succumb to the lifestyle New York now demands of you: the city that was once an escape to opportunity is now a sense of obligation. This reluctance seems pretty widespread. If it happens en masse and doesn’t stop at just talk, the BFA-laden creative community New York expects to be fed by could instead abandon the city. And if this abandonment does not stop at merely not living there but extends to affect where people agree to have their work exhibited, then perhaps the climate of the city would start changing again. In order for New York to really change now, it would have to deteriorate.

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Westchester Ave. (Bronx, 1970)

I outlined a pretty ridiculous in-depth projection of The Possible Fall Of New York City: Capitol Of The World, but I don’t think I want to include the whole thing. The gist is: young BFAs abandon the city in favor of someplace else, maybe Philly. New York, now lacking the energy of virile and educated youth to maintain its trendiness, panics and builds itself up into a big green-roofed mall to keep the money flowing. The streets beneath the elevated parks start getting rough-and-tumble again, and the city stretches itself thin trying to groom and keep safe a High Line that stretches the entire length of the West Side while grappling with record-breaking amounts of crime. And soon enough, we’d be back in familiar territory: something resembling the gritty, revolutionary, and as of late heavily romanticized vision of New York in the late 1970s.

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Manhattan Bridge tower seen from Brooklyn (1974)

In a New York Times Style Magazine article about the recent wave of nostalgia for this period of New York’s history, John Waters is quoted as saying,

“Well, I sure don’t have nostalgia about being mugged… But I do get a little weary when I realize that if anybody could find one dangerous block left in the city, there’d be a stampede of restaurant owners fighting each other off to open there first. It seems almost impossible to remember that just going out in New York was once dangerous… It’s always right before a storm that the air is filled with dangerous possibilities.”

And like of course John Waters can say something like this because he was able to build an iconic creative career off of this sort of grittiness. It’s a privileged and nostalgic statement, but nevertheless there is some truth in it. Danger is exciting and romantic, and fortunately or unfortunately, excitement and romance end up making lot of money. I think that’s what some of these stupid public attraction proposals are trying painfully hard to get at by smushing art and theater and music and nature and facilitated transportation and ecological efficiency all in one. They’re trying to design an equivalent excitement. That wasn’t necessary in the late ‘70s – through depressed and frightening, the city was a charged zone. And it’s still charged, but with something else. It’s a kind of desperation born not out of fear, but as a result of – dare I say – boredom. People who go there and design for there want so badly to be enthralled that it’s become something they’re willing to pay great sums of money to achieve. New York’s most rare and valuable resource now is open space because there’s so little left that everyone scrambles to fill the same spots, but the only way for the sort of thrill that the nostalgia for the ‘70s romanticizes is for there to be open space that badly wants filling. And that is going to require a lot of hardship in order to happen.

Serious hardship isn’t something people like to bank on happening, but New York is already building itself up in anticipation of disaster. New precautions for floods are being taken in the form of levees built into existing piers, strategic landscaping of coastal areas into parks that can accommodate sea level rise, and numerous other projects. In the event of an emergency, these could work well. Or they could work well, but only for a while. Or they could flat out not work. Only time will tell. But I think that at this point, it’s only either an environmental disaster or a seriously widespread loss of faith in the city that could cause major change in New York, and I don’t think it’s a reach to say that an environmental disaster will probably happen first.

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I also mentioned earlier that a lot of young creatives are moving out to other cities, Philadelphia in particular. Philadelphia is a city that’s had major infrastructural support for public art in relation to urban planning since the late 1800s and promoted the creation of murals as an outlet for graffiti artists since 1984. It has more murals than any other city, and in 2006, was cited as having more public art in general than any other city. It’s on the water, and on the East Coast. It could reasonably experience a massive upswing in popularity pretty soon.

The real question is: if this happens, would it eventually succumb to the same dismal fate I projected on New York? Maybe. It could try and learn from New York and redirect its trajectory. But New York, after a period of dangerous fall, could also bounce back. Maybe even learn from its own mistakes. But even so, I believe that the life cycle of a city is just that: a cycle. There’s nothing to guarantee that New York’s projected rise from the ashes wouldn’t result in the same gross gentrification and overbuilding it is now, but there’s also nothing to guarantee that its period of decline won’t generate positive, motivated energy in other urban spaces.

 

WORKS CITED

The Association for Public Art. The City of Philadelphia. Web. http://www.associationforpublicart.org/

“New York Horizon.” eVolo. 23 March 2016. http://www.evolo.us/competition/new-york-horizon/

Transbay Transit Center. The City of San Francisco. Web. http://transbaycenter.org/

Warerkar, Tanay. “Construction on Pier 55’s Floating Park Will Begin This Summer.” Curbed New York. 27 April 2016. http://ny.curbed.com/2016/4/27/11520338/pier-55-approved-barry-diller-diane-von-furstenberg

White, Edmund. “Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the 1970s?” The New York Times Style Magazine. 10 September 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/10/t-magazine/1970s-new-york-history.html?_r=0

 

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