Paper Architecture on the Streets

Paper Architecture on the Streets

The new visitors center at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden by Weiss Manfredi.
Courtesy Weiss Manfredi

An English architecture critic wrote me this week asking what he should see on his upcoming trip to New York. Have you seen phase two of the High Line or the careful design incisions into the Lincoln Center public spaces, I responded? Yes, he had seen both so my next recommendation was the new Weiss Manfredi Visitors Center at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the newly uncovered DS+R bridge across 65th street at Lincoln Center, and of course SHoP Architect’s Barclay’s Center. Tell me what you think of the new rusted steel wrapped arena in Brooklyn, I asked, as I am still unsure what to think of this behemoth.

But then I suggested that for visitors to New York, the place to look for the most exciting architectural ideas is not the city streets, but the walls of galleries and museums. The most compelling ideas in architecture are to be found in MoMA’s architecture gallery, where new curator Pedro Gadanho has worked his way through the museum’s collection and brought forward a fresh and thoroughly exciting installation of drawing and models. Then downtown at Copper Union there is a beautiful exhibition of the Venetian architect Massimo Scolari that reminds us of the possibilities of architectural thought and hand drawing when the limits of building are disregarded. A train ride uptown to City College of New York’s architecture school is a must to see the compelling exhibition of drawings by SITE’s James Wines. A Line Around an Area brings this important architectural thinker back in the discussion about drawing and design. Finally, it’s worth it to take a Metro-North train ride to New Haven to visit Yale School of Architecture’s exhibition Palladio Virtual, the product of ten years of research by Peter Eisenman on the villas of the Italian master.

In the past when visitors asked what they should see in the city I would always respond that there was not much new and exciting in bricks and mortar on the ground, but the galleries and museums were always exciting. That all changed about ten years ago when, for the first time since the 1950s, architecture began changing the face and functionality of the city. Certainly this can be traced back to the boom in financial services in the city, which created a new class of users or consumers for luxury housing and services, and the transformation in infrastructure that Mayor Bloomberg has encouraged and supported during his mayoralty. The plazas, bikes lanes, and open spaces like the High Line and redesign of Lincoln Center may have been focused in the privileged areas of Manhattan, but they did transform Gotham in a way that had something to teach the rest of the urban world.

With the partial collapse of the financial services industry and the resulting decrease in tax revenues coming into the city, many of these changes seem to have come to a halt. The last ten years were an exciting time for architects (and visitors) in New York when design ideas were brought into the discussion about creating a modern city. Now the most exciting architectural ideas seem to be back on gallery walls and not the streets and our best local architects are not building here but in China and other booming economies. Our architects have no end of ideas about how to keep growing and changing New York for the better—the Low Line and additions to Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island are only a few examples, but will we have the will and money to make them happen? Now more than ever the city needs the creative thinking that architects have to bring to the table, but will the politicians have the political will and tax revenues to make them a reality?  Lets hope we can bring some of the ideas off the walls and onto the streets of the city.