Plaza to the People

Plaza to the People

Michael Van Valkenburgh’s redesigned Federal Plaza.
Alex MacLean

The Foley Square side of the 1968 Jacob K. Javits Federal Office Building on Lower Broadway is one of the most beautifully detailed and thoroughly usable new public spaces in New York. Designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh, the plaza features Connecticut pink marble that alternates with Vermont ‘Danby’ stone, establishing what the landscape architect called “an abstract naturalism.” The treatment gives depth and character to a space that strives mightily to overcome the banality of the Federal Building’s towering curtain wall. It achieves this. The plaza is so pleasant now it is hard to remember when this space was considered one of the worst public spaces in New York. Not only was it a thoroughly unusable space with barely any seating or plantings, it was also dominated by Richard Serra’s 1981 CORTEN steel sculpture, Tilted Arc. In 1984, it became one of the most contested public sites in the country when the regional administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), William Diamond—whose office was in the Federal Building—decided to make it his mission to have the sculpture removed.

Successive redesigns of Federal Plaza by Serra (above) and Schwartz (below) reflect changing ideas about public space.
Courtesy Rizzoli; Courtesy Serra Gallery

In creating and placing his sculpture in the plaza, Serra recognized the space’s shortcomings and set out to work against them. In an interview with critic Douglas Crimp in 1980 he said, “I’ve found a way to dislocate or alter the decorative function of the plaza and actively bring people into the sculpture’s context.” The hulking steel volume crossed the entire plaza in a gradual arc that encompassed visitors. It was meant, said Serra, to “block the view from the street to the courthouse and vice versa.”

The Schwartz-designed plaza.

When the sculpture was commissioned in 1979, New York public spaces were very different places than they are today. Now we have Bloomberg-era parks—like Brooklyn Bridge Park and the redesigned Washington Square—which are English cottage garden–like spaces with rose bushes and traditional park seating and lighting. In the 1970s, most New York City public spaces were simply corridors for those entering or exiting skyscrapers—not places for leisure or even daytime habitation. In the words of Serra, “It’s really the obligation of the sculptor… not to be defined by the power structure that asks you, that while you put your sculpture up to please make this place more beautiful. I find it a totally false notion, because their notion of beauty and my notion of… sculpture are always, invariably, at opposite ends.” Serra created a magnificent urban sculpture whose primary intention was “to bring the viewer into the sculpture (and) change the space of the plaza.” In his hands, the public space became “understood primarily as a function of the sculpture.”

Lexi Van Valkenburgh

While the art world rallied to Serra’s side in the controversy, his argument and position on public space was unsustainable and the sculpture was taken down, cut into three pieces, and moved to a storage facility. Today, it would be unimaginable for a public park designer to make claims like Serra did for the arc and be given a commission anywhere in the city.

Elizabeth Felicella

The GSA contacted landscape architect Martha Schwartz before the removal Serra’s arc about modifying the plaza, but these plans never materialized. When the decision was made to remove the arc, the agency commissioned her to do a total redesign of the space. Schwartz thought of her redesign as a place to “sit and have lunch.” She created a series curvilinear green benches and mounds of grass (later changed to small bushes) surrounding steam emitting pipes. She called the seating “luscious, with great curves,” which she thought of as more approachable version of Serra’s arc. The plaza surface was painted purple in serpentine patterns.

The Schwartz design proved to be no more than an interlude while New York City public space design moved toward the notion of inhabitable places. When Van Valkenburgh was brought in to create the current iteration of the space, he looked to the Broadway side of the Federal Building, where immigrants line up seeking Visas and citizenship papers. When many of these immigrants walk out the Foley Square side of the building as new citizens, Van Valkenburgh wants them to “feel good about this fact.” His design for the plaza sends the message that, here in the U.S., the public realm is to be inhabited and enjoyed.