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New York and the New Urbanism

Congress for the New Urbanism, New York, NY
June 9th, 2001

Good morning. I think in some ways this session should have been at the very beginning of the conference, because we are supposed to be exploring the connections between New York City and New Urbanism, and in effect setting the tone for the days to follow. But of course with Hans Stimmann also on the panel to talk about Berlin, our implicit theme will be context and the whole idea of urban context, what it has meant historically and what it means today. So in the next few minutes, I’d like to approach New York from this vantage point – to think about New York as an example of context, and to figure out from that what relevance it may or may not have to the New Urbanism.

I should say at the outset that I will not be showing slides, since what I want to do is not so much give you a tour of New York as to talk about some ideas – ideas that certainly could be illustrated visually, but which at the moment I think I would prefer to talk about conceptually. And you can see their reality not on a screen, but by going outdoors, as you did in the first day of this conference, and as I am sure you will be doing again. The reality of the urbanism of New York is that it is right outside this door, and almost every door in Manhattan. Its strengths and its weaknesses are on this street, and let me start out by saying something about them.

New York is not new urbanism as we have come to think of it, but old urbanism, of course – if not quite as old as some of what we see on this continent, old enough to have had its fundamental form fixed nearly two centuries ago, in 1811, when the Commissioners’ Plan for Manhattan, which we all know as the numbered grid of streets and avenues, was put into effect. The grid is profound. It is at once the least assertive piece of planning in the world, and the most assertive. It is certainly not the most imaginative thing you can do, running a grid up a whole island. It disingenuously pretends to neutrality, but in fact it is anything but neutral in the way it ignores topography, running roughshod over hills and valleys and, with few exceptions, paying little heed to the riverfronts. It ignores history, other than preserving the diagonal of Broadway, which precedes it as the old road to Albany. It suggests arrogance, absoluteness, and inflexibility. It was designed to maximize the value of real estate, and to make the division of land into saleable lots easy. It sends a cynical message that the city is nothing but a commercial pie to be divided up. It makes no allowance for public space; those great public spaces that New York has, Central Park the noblest, were added later, and were not part of the original plan.

So why is it that the street pattern of New York yields a remarkable level of urbanism – perhaps the finest of any older city in the United States? Why does this arrogant piece of simpleminded planning work so brilliantly? There are several reasons. The first, perhaps the most obvious, is clarity: it is easy to understand and easy to navigate and, most important, easy to locate yourself on. You always know where you are and how to get where you are going.

But this is far from the most important virtue of the grid. Clarity is a necessary but hardly sufficient condition for decent urbanism. I think the grid provides the basis for urbanism for several other, more subtle, reasons. The straight streets provide a remarkable number of stunning vistas, not great axial views like the boulevards of Paris, but neat, tight, ramrodstraight views that stretch, sometimes, from river to river. From almost every part of Manhattan one can see at least one river at the end of the street canyon, and every now and then – 57th Street in particular comes to mind – there is a view of both rivers from different ends of the same street.

The grid has also made the New York "street wall" – the even line of buildings extending block after block – a crucial part of the city’s visual identity. A period of flirtation with setback "plazas," breaking the street line, a result of the 1961 zoning ordinance’s misguided desire to see the successful Seagram Building plaza on Park Avenue repeated all over the place, led to broken street walls all over town, but now planners and architects have come to the realization that every building has a responsibility, encouraged by the grid, to line up with its neighbors and be part of a greater whole. The grid makes the fundamental idea of urban design – that the whole is more than the sum of the parts – seem logical and natural, even inevitable.

But the grid has functioned most importantly in an even more subtle, symbolic way. It is really a frame, an enclosure, a Cartesian anchor for the irrational impulses of this impulsive, active city. It is like an abstract drawing sketched not on a plan but on graph paper; the grid of the graph holds the abstraction, defining its lines of force and keeping its movement in check. It is the subtle balance of the rational and the irrational. Without the grid, New York’s intensity and its idiosyncrasy would be uncontainable.

New York is often misunderstood as having a strong, clearly defined character. The city itself is strong, but its character is not; it is changeable and malleable. Like all great cities, New York takes on a different character for each of its occupants, and what it does that no small city can do is provide them with choice: the graph paper is there to be written on.

The controlling force in New York’s architecture has always been theater, not theory. Actually, that is not completely true: the controlling forces have been theater and money, which is to say the forces of entertainment and profit. This is a city in which the values of commerce have always superceded other values, save for the desire to entertain, to show off with a certain panache. Ours is a theatrical urbanism, and also a mundane, squeeze-as-much-square-footage-into-the-site-as-you-possibly-can urbanism. You have to understand that it is these two things, at once, and that they coexist in New York?s identity, however much they may seem to be contradictory.

What is not in New York’s tradition is ideology. Chicago may have been built on the idea that the new technology and the new program of the skyscraper demanded a new style, but such modernist theory meant little in New York. We built plenty of modern buildings, but more for the sake of pragmatism than any serious belief in the mission of remaking the world in a new way. A lot of our modernism here, after all, was Art Moderne, streamlining stuff that was about the imagery of the new, more than about being truly new or different. And in the 19th century, too, we built pragmatically: New York’s Gothic wasn’t a yearning for the middle ages, as in England; it was a way of achieving visual effect. New York’s Beaux-Arts architecture was in search of grandeur imported from Europe: once again, visual effect more than theory or idea.

New York did not really invent any kind of architecture, except perhaps for the extraordinary cast-iron industrial architecture of the mid-19th century. What New York did for the most part was take things that had been developed elsewhere and turn them into something powerfully its own. Vincent Scully has written of the American tradition of taking a rigorous European model and making it looser, more picturesque, more indulgent, and while he first made that point in connection with the Boston Public Library, which McKim, Mead & White designed as a more picturesque version of the Bibliotheque St. Genevieve in Paris, New York is really the home base for this attitude toward architecture.

Our greatest buildings are theatrical exploitations of European models: the Woolworth Building, where Cass Gilbert merged Gothic architecture with the notion of the skyscraper more perfectly than any architect has before or since; the Plaza, Henry Hardenbergh’s French Renaissance chateau, blown up to monumental, civic, New York scale; Napoleon LeBrun’s re-do of St. Mark’s Tower in Venice as the headquarters and symbol of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which before Woolworth was the tallest building in the world; the Beaux-Arts monuments of Grand Central Terminal and the New York Public Library, and so forth and so on.

When we got deeper into the twentieth century the models weren’t always European, but they were still loose, picturesque, not particularly rigorous in terms of any kind of architectural ideology: William Van Alen’s Art Deco Chrysler Building, Shreve, Lamb & Harmon’s Empire State Building, Schultze & Weaver’s twin-towered Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Rockefeller Center by a team of architects led by Raymond Hood. None of these invented a new form of architecture, but all of them were brilliant, powerful, new ways of seeing and making architecture, since they were syntheses of things that had come before, put together in a new way that combined New York pragmatism with New York’s imperial ambitions, and in every case a strong dose of New York’s theatrical flamboyance.

New York is not, however, a city of great buildings. It is a city of many, many wonderful buildings, but the whole is always more than the sum of the parts, because the context – the grid, the street pattern, the nature of the streets, and the power of the vernacular of each and every period – always seems to hold sway, and to mean more than the buildings themselves, or at least for all but the very greatest buildings. Another way to say this is to say that the places in between always mean a lot in New York, and for me this is one of the key definitions of an urbanism that works. Are you focused only on the destination, or is there something to see along the way? Is the journey between point A and point B in the city as interesting, or nearly as interesting, as where you are going? Would you prefer to walk not just for the exercise, but because your eyes as well as your lungs and your legs will be happier?

I don?t mean to suggest that urbanism is as simple as this, but I almost do believe it can often be reduced to this. New York does not have particularly good public space, save for the unquestionably great Central Park, one of the truly great urbanistic achievements of any city in the world, and one of the only things in 19th-century New York that was a model for all that followed, and which truly changed the way we see things. Central Park was not only an artistic masterpiece, but a social one; it was a tightly organized mix of different kinds of landscape experiences, intended to further the democratic ideal by encouraging the mix of different social classes who generally lived in isolation from one another. This was not only far-seeing, it was radical, and Frederick Law Olmsted, who with Calvert Vaux designed the park, is really one of the great heroes of American history. The only thing in New York, or at least 19th-century New York, that equals it in terms of making us see the world in a different way is the Brooklyn Bridge, John and Washington Roebling’s triumph of engineering, architecture, and civic symbolism – also in its way, a great public space, as you know if you have ever walked across it.

But I am getting away from my point, which is to say that New York is not a city of conventional public space. There are few squares, for example. This is no Savannah. This isn’t Paris, either. There are few great vistas to important buildings: it’s not easy to see Grand Central from afar, and only the back of the Public Library, facing Bryant Park, has any kind of space around it. Columbus Circle is a mess. Until recently, we ignored our waterfront, but for a couple of tiny exceptions, such as the promenades at Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side and the one at Brooklyn Heights overlooking Lower Manhattan. We have begun to change that, finally – the waterfront promenade at Battery Park City, itself an important event in the history of New York urbanism, is spectacular, and now waterfront bicycleways and promenades and piers have been opening up all along the Hudson, soon to be connected as part of a Hudson River Park going from the Battery in Lower Manhattan up to the George Washington Bridge and beyond.

I will get back to that, since I want to say a word about Battery Park City, but for now, what I am trying to say is that even these splendid new waterfront amenities are not the central thing in New York’s urbanism. It is the street. It is all, or almost all, about the street. Louis Kahn once said, in his gloriously poetic, cryptic way, "The street is a room by agreement," and that is so: the street is the real New York room, the one that we have made by agreement of the architects, the planners, the people who occupy the buildings and the people who walk past them and never go in. All of them share this agreement, this social contract if you will, that the street is. They all contribute something to its presence.

Lewis Mumford, my great predecessor at The New Yorker, had a somewhat timid view of the city, since he seemed to fear crowds and congestion far more than necessary, and deep down wanted the rational order of the garden city more than the difficult, complex, irrational and impossible-to-control metropolis. But if we can put that aside for the moment, let me quote a couple of wonderful things Mumford wrote that are relevant here. In talking in "The Culture of Cities" about the gridiron plan he observed that "The principal effect of the gridiron plan is that every street becomes a thoroughfare, and that every thoroughfare is potentially a commercial street. The tendency towards movement in such a city vastly outweighs the tendency toward settlement." Movement, of course, is essential to New York – the street is a place, yet it is not a place of tranquility or leisure. We can saunter or we can rush, but we do not stand and stop in the public space of New York; it isn’t in the DNA of this kind of public space, and because the street is central to the idea of public space in New York, this becomes an essential aspect of the nature of the city.

Yet the street is also a place of desire: of the sensual joys of the buildings themselves, of the material pleasures of what can be seen in the windows, of the allure of the people we see. Movement and desire, combined: perhaps that is the special nature of the street, and both of its aspects, surely, reach their apotheosis in this country in the streets of Manhattan. They are not always the grandest streets, and they are surely not the widest or the most interestingly shaped, but they are the most coherent, the most, if I may say so, urbanistic, the ones in this country that possess the deepest, most intense qualities of street-ness, and which contribute the most to the overall identity of their city. Whatever Boston is, we do not think of it primarily in terms of its streets; the same can surely be said of Washington and Dallas and most other cities in this country, which we tend to think of more in terms of destinations, specific places, or perhaps overall ambiance, than in terms of streets and places in between.

Lewis Mumford also, by the way, offered an exquisite definition of what the city at its best can mean: perhaps the most eloquent explanation of how the city can function as a common place, how it can be common ground, and as such, support us and stimulate us. He wrote that "Now, the great function of the city is…to permit, indeed to encourage and incite the greatest possible number of meetings, encounters, challenges between all persons, classes and groups, providing, as it were, a stage upon which the drama of social life may be enacted, with the actors taking their turns as spectators, and the spectators as actors."

It’s worth noting, by the way, that Mumford spoke of the city not only in terms of meetings and encounters but also of challenges: he knew that the city is difficult, and did not attempt to pretend otherwise, to pretend that it is the easiest route. But he knew that in meeting challenge there is also a kind of satisfaction that cannot come from easy routes, and that the challenge the city represents can, at its best, be enobling.

I want to say a couple of other things about the urbanism of New York, and how it has changed, and how much it can and should continue to change. This has never, of course, been a city of laissez-faire. The grid itself is the first and most powerful piece of planning in New York; the city’s zoning laws, which were the nation’s first, are the second. They began in 1916 in response to the Equitable Building of 1913, an immense mass which blocked sunlight, and led the city to assert its right to tell building owners what masses they might put on their sites. Eventually these laws expanded to the point where they are so complex that the full New York City zoning code resembles the Internal Revenue code, and is about as comprehensible, but that is another story, the story of well-intentioned codes becoming not too restrictive but simply too intricate to be workable. But my point now isn’t that, it’s to say that against the backdrop of the grid and the zoning laws, we have New York’s powerful economic and cultural pressures, pushing harder and harder for more and more, all the time, and in the balance between these things, we have gotten a city of remarkable, contained and sustained energy.

New York is at once the most planned and the least planned city, and maybe that is a better way to say what I am trying to say. Great urbanism has to allow for surprise, and for change. Uniformity doesn’t make for a great streetscape, or a great city, and of course neither does chaos. It is that difficult-to-define, ineffable balance between the even and the erratic, between the smooth and the rough, between the solid and the void, between the light and the dark, between the deep and the shallow. You cannot create this by code. And yet you cannot trust that it will happen by itself. The city of perfect order is a dead city; the city of laissez-faire is a horrible city, and somewhere in between lies the magic of the real.

New York, whatever else we can say about it, is a city of the real. It is a city in which the magic of the real, which is the balance I have been talking about, drives everything. Of course it goes without saying that in much of our history in New York we have been too seduced by the real, too seduced by the idea of reality to pay enough attention to what we were doing, and as a consequence, we produced horrendous banality. We have not managed very much good vernacular architecture in New York, although I think the 19th-century Italianate brownstone is a pleasing and important exception to this. But the tenements, while historically important, were not good places to live or beautiful presences on the street, as so many of the facades housing wretched living places were in European cities, say. We did better with the early decades of apartment-house living, at least some of the time; I could have put some of the buildings of the 1920’s and 1930’s, like the San Remo and the Majestic and the Beresford and River House and 834 Fifth Avenue, into the category of New York’s finest buildings. But of course most postwar construction was horrible – the white-brick boxes of the 1960’s, the banal glass office towers, etc.

There is no question that in the 1950’s and 60’s, there was almost no general recognition of the qualities that defined New York as a physical environment, or at least no real appreciation of them. We built badly, and we took a certain arrogant pride in believing that we were building better than what had come before, even as we trampled it. The failings of modernism were felt here, as much as anywhere: we ignored the streets that had been our lifeblood. We revised our zoning in 1961 to encourage more towers in open space, an anti-street gesture that was intended to encourage more Seagram Building plazas, but which ignored the fact that Seagram was an extraordinary and special work of art, not something that any zoning could create, and that its plaza did not so much break with the street as honor it in a new way. Paradoxically, this revision of the zoning laws came in the year Jane Jacobs published "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," the book that began the reaction against modernist anti-urbanism, and did so much to set the tone for the new urbanism of today. And then, of course, in 1963 we tore down Pennsylvania Station, the defining moment in galvanizing the forces that eventually led to the creation of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, the most powerful such agency in the country.

Now, nearly forty years later, we have a whole different set of questions. The modernist anti-urbanism is so much a part of the past, now – we have built Battery Park City, whose streets and traditionally massed buildings and public squares are a conscious attempt to reject modernist anti-urbanism and return to urbanistic values within the city core. We do not tear down our landmarks; we are so inclined to preservation in New York now that there is even agitation to save many of the worst relics of the 1950’s and 1960’s period, as historical artifacts and examples of a period that people like me grew up hating, but that younger people often find pleasing. You are supposed to like everything now, and want to save it, which is appealing on the one hand, and rather terrifying on the other. It’s true that we can get used to any kind of architecture – we have to, since we see it every day and it would be too painful to go through life if the things in our field of vision were like a knife being cut through us – and yet there is something wrong if we have stopped being judgmental about anything. There is a great difference between learning to tolerate the World Trade Center because it’s simply too much trouble to waste that much energy hating it all the time, and believing it is good.

We are also in a time in which preservation has become so much a part of the culture that an inevitable reaction to it has set in. The charge that the preservationists are turning the city into a theme park is something all of you have heard, I’m sure. There are doubtless cases in which excessive preservationist zeal has denied us examples of the new that we might benefit from, and I find the extent to which we fall back into the protective blanket of historicism – which did so much to rescue us from the coldness and cruelty of the modernist world once – now does seem to be rather too much. But the reason it is too much is that modernism, at its best, has learned the lessons of urbanism. The modern buildings we build today, in New York and elsewhere, respond to the street; they don’t ignore it. They respond to context. And they teach us the lesson, absolutely essential, that you don’t have to imitate context to be responsive to it. There are lots of ways to fit in, and looking identical isn’t the only one, or even necessarily the best one, by far.

These are lessons that were once understood in New York. Like the basic rules of urbanism, they seemed to come naturally in the 19th century, and for at least some of the 20th. They didn’t require zoning, or codes, or rules or, for that matter, conferences. If you look at the great streets of New York, they had a coherence, but they were not boring. Their buildings did not have excessive similarity, but they did not look like they were put there to defy each other, either. On Central Park West, or Fifth Avenue, or Riverside Drive, the whole was more than the sum of the parts, but the parts were pretty good, and pretty civilized, in their way, and did not want for individual identity. There was a magnificent mix of the planned and the accidental, and the fact of the matter is that, to repeat a point I made before in another way, the mix of the planned and the accidental that is so vital to a great city isn’t something you can completely plan, and it isn’t something you can leave to accident, either.

Such is the paradox of city-building: it isn’t all planning, and it isn’t all accident, and those who think it is either one of these things are doomed to failure. If I can sum up the lessons New York offers in terms of urbanism, they would be, first, that the street means more than the building, for the street is the most important part of the public realm, even more than the greatest of parks and squares. Second, that architecture is always a balance of the sensual and the intellectual and the functional, and that it ought to bring joy as well as serenity. Third, that context is a complicated business, and has much more to do with scale and with respect for the street than with style or materials; contextualism is not the same as imitation. And finally, this would be at the top of the list of lessons from New York urbanism: knowing that planning can do only so much, that architecture can do only so much, and understanding the wisdom that sometimes the best planning is to allow for circumstances that develop and change on their own, and that allow for surprise and serendipity. The city is not just a marketplace and not just a living place and not just a cultural center or a workplace – it is all of these things, but it performs its function as common ground for all of us by being, as Mumford told us, a stage, a place in which all of us function at once in public and in private, a stage "on which the spectators take their turns as actors, and the actors as spectators."

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