Thursday, April 21, 2011

Change Is Going to Come

Gentrification—with all its benefits of enlarged tax bases, much needed energy, new businesses and, at least at first, a fresh mix of ethnicities and cultures—seems to lead to the removal of the very character and characters that attracted the newcomers in the first place, be it artists and their DIY galleries, low rents for large spaces or, most disturbing to many, diversity. Urban renewal, even at its best and best-intentioned, wreaks havoc as its double-edged impact slices through communities. The architects of such plans rarely involve the communities targeted, and those communities' residents don't always have the political muscle to make sure their voices are heard.

And yet change, and changing over, is a constant of urban life. Stores change management or expand to serve a growing customer base. Rooming houses become one-family mini-castles or duplex dreams for young professionals. Empty lots fill with modest five-story multi-unit dwellings, towers of luxury and businesses large and small. Harlem, the black mecca of yesteryear and today, rocks steadily with the changes wrought upon and within it. The East Village seems reinvented every 20 years, and today roils with the debates on gentrification and its demerits.

Lower East Side Project, from New York Magazine's Festival of Ideas blog archive (week of April 11, 2011):

South African architect Mokena Makeka knows a little something about change. He witnessed his country's move from the cruel, inhuman policies of apartheid to a democracy of a multi-ethnic southern Africa. However imperfect, the country moves forward, hiccuping stubbornly toward a future it proudly writes for itself.

But the legacy of the last century is stamped indelibly on South Africa's cities, and the monumental effort to change exasperates and exhilarates. He chronicles his own contributions at 2010's Design Indaba, the decade-young all-encompassing design conference held in Cape Town (Makeka's hometown) that addresses design in all its scope as it relates in very real ways to the worlds with which it interacts.

South African architect Mokena Makeka, with his Cape Town township sports center in the background. At 35, Makeka is one of the youngest architects making an impact in design and architecture in southern Africa and beyond.

A recent walk through West Chelsea brought Mr. Makeka's presentation to mind. Here was a section of Manhattan that had seen seismic shifts in its fortunes. At the turn of the 20th century, New York boasted the largest harbor in the world, and the immigrant men and women who worked the docks, through necessity, lived nearby. Chelsea was a sea of tenements, a cluster of substandard housing and even worse services. Parks were nonexistent and disease was rampant. The wealthier lived only a few avenues over, but it might as well have been a universe away. Urban renewal first reared its insistent head in the 1930s, with the advent of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's urgent lobbying for his ailing Depression-era city. 

The West Chelsea Department of Health building, a WPA project built in the 1930s
Church of the Holy Apostle in West Chelsea
The Hudson Guild spearheaded the earliest urban renewal drives in West Chelsea. The building that originally housed the nonprofit group was razed in the 1950s.
Today there are very few remnants of Chelsea's hardscrabble past. Glistening edifices now tower over the neighborhood, galleries show ever more expensive artwork and hordes invade the avenues west of Seventh Avenue for brunch, drinks and society events. The High Line, the railway turned park in the sky, is one of the few projects aimed at inviting everyone—young, old, rich, poor, New Yorker and tourist alike—to enjoy the best that the city has to offer. The project now serves as model to other urban centers looking to turn eyesores into treasures.
The High Line Park, with the buildings of Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel filling the sky behind it.
Granted, few want reminders of a past that shows the city at its harsh and racist worst. Yet there's merit in just that kind of history, if only to show how far we've come and how far we can yet go. Yesterday's tenements become today's luxury lofts (SoHo, the Upper East Side and Brooklyn's Williamsburg are prime examples). What will tomorrow bring? Careful, thoughtful planning brings laudable results—visits to Central Harlem and areas of the South Bronx certainly bolster that argument—but impatience and greed win out more often than not. Can a sensitive designer like Mokena Makeka make it in New York? I'd like to think so. The conversion of the High Line is proof positive that he—or she—would find a place. Because as scary as change can be, the excitement of renewal—in its truest sense—is inescapable. And welcome.
Annabelle Selldorf's luxury tower at Eleventh Avenue
The Starrett-Lehigh Building, the only Art Moderne (and New York) building included in Philip Johnson's modern architecture MoMA exhibit in 1931, still looms large over Chelsea. Martha Stewart's publishing empire calls the building home.
This former waterfront warehouse was designed by Cass Gilbert, one of the many utilitarian buildings he worked on during his career. It will soon house a K-12 private school.
The new finds a place among what remains of the old Chelsea.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Shining Into the 21st

Happy birthday, Billie Holiday.

She would have been 96 years old today. Instead, she died at age 44 in the summer of 1959, physically broken from years of abuse at the hands of lovers and boyfriends, seriously ill after years of drug use and alcoholism, under investigation and awaiting arrest for drug possession. It was an ignominious end to a famously miserable life.

And yet she lived—gloriously, magically, resolutely—through her music. That voice, short of range but rich with emotive power, reached a generation yearning for vibrations that shattered the glossy veneer of the flaccid pop of the 1930s and ’40s. From her first professional stint with Benny Goodman to her last triumphant concerts at Carnegie Hall, Holiday held sway, enveloping her audience with her pain and fruitless yearning for revelation and redemption, giving immeasurable joy as a result. There were others before and after her—Ella, Sarah, Dinah—but none fascinated like Billie. She earned her place among the musical stratosphere. Long may the band swing, sway and moan in heavenly ecstasy.

Planet Ill gives loving tribute:

Shining on into the 21st century as well.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, born March 27, 1886.
Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building,  in New York. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
 Eero Saarinen. Miller House, commissioned in 1953, finally opens to the public.
Miller House, in Columbus, IN, designed by Saarinen with Alexander Girard (interiors) and Dan Kiley. Photos courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Purchase tickets here:

Gordon Bunshaft's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, at the center of Yale University's expansive New Haven, CT, campus. The 50th anniversary of its completion is two years away.
The Beinecke during an early spring visit, 2010.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Books Are Dead! Long Live Books!

Anacostia Library, in Washington, D.C., by the Freelon Group (courtesy Mark Herboth Photography via Architectural Record)
Libraries have been on my mind lately. I've always loved books and reading. When it came time to work on my own design thesis, a middle and high school, the complex's library was the natural focal point, where the community of students, instructors, parents and the neighborhood would meet and exchange ideas—and therefore teach. I found out something rather surprising on my journey. The death of the book has been greatly exaggerated.
The Philological Library of the Freie Universität Berlin offers 650 internet-accessible reading spaces on five levels. (photo courtesy Reinhard Görner via
Physical books continue to change shape—hardcovers share shelf space with Nooks, Kindles and iPads—while libraries of all stripes experience a resurgence. Visits are up, and librarians can barely keep up with demand for the latest bestsellers. Job seekers, reeling from the latest economic downturn, stake out the free resources—computers and Internet service—and parents and children alike flock to reading nights and other gatherings for readers young and old.
The addition to Boston's Bloor/Gladstone Branch Library by RDH Architects (courtesy Tom Arban via Architectural Record)
The need for libraries predates the Great Recession, of course. Postwar West Berlin's master planner, Hans Scharoun, saw the need for a great cultural center to pull the struggling city together. An integral part of his plan was the State Library. Its recent restoration speaks to the continued vitality of the building. The iconic main branch of New York Public Library is currently undergoing its own restoration and renovation, and not a moment too soon.

Hans Scharoun's Staatsbibliothek, in what was West Berlin, faces Mies van der Rohe's Neue NationalGalerie.

Today's design community answers the call for this once and future public square in large ways and small, emphasizing the social aspects of the contemporary library. No community—whether a large university or small enclave in a rapidly changing city—remains immune to the pulls this institution holds on the world just outside its halls.