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The Greater Outdoors

The Greater Outdoors

ODA’s 303 E 44th St. features 16-foot high spaces between every two floors, providing private outdoor space for every unit.
Courtesy ODA

In 1986, the City of New York demolished activist Adam Purple’s Garden of Eden to build housing. The intricately designed 15,000-square-foot plot on the Lower East Side was a beloved outdoor space, open to everyone. Although marked vacant on official maps throughout its 11-year existence, it was a work of public art so impactful that the Storefront for Art and Architecture held a competition in 1984 to reimagine what it could be, if the housing were created around it and the garden saved. NYCHA received proposals from architects such as Eric Owen Moss, Neil Denari, Lebbeus Woods, and Diller + Scofidio.

Today, the legacy of Purple’s epic garden project lives on at the Hotel Indigo, a boutique hotel on a very different Lower East Side. In the hotel is Mr. Purple, a bar that appropriates Purple’s cachet but, as a quasi-public space, rejects the values he embodied. There was even a burger called “Mr. Purple Burger,” an odd choice given that its namesake was a vegetarian. (It has since been taken off the menu.)

The Wanda Vista Towers by Studio Gang incorporate Olin-designed public space on the river and street levels in Chicago.
Courtesy Studio Gang
 

This sad spectacle parallels the state of architecture and public space in 2016 Manhattan. Many of the most sophisticated, largest, grandest design projects in the city today are “luxury” residential, made to be experienced by only a few. It can be hard to reconcile the top-notch designs from afar with their less-than-inspiring programs at street level. As critic Aaron Betsky once quipped, “Manhattan is theirs; we just get to admire it.”

If culture and architecture have absorbed these urban changes, it stands to reason that the public sphere has changed, as well. The relationship between public and private realms is increasingly complex. Perhaps nowhere is the interweaving of public and private more palpable than in outdoor spaces, from balconies and terraces, to plazas and parks, to courtyards and gardens.

The transformation of urban outdoor space into a commodity has elevated outdoor space to the same grandeur that has historically been reserved for luxury interiors, and there is a lot to learn from the shift.

In this month’s feature, "In and Outdoors," Sam Lubell focuses on some of the latest outdoor spaces that came with the tidal wave of large and very expensive residential projects.

These projects raise some of the most complicated design questions around the value of private and public outdoor space. AN profiles everything from Midtown towers to smaller projects along the High Line. So what to make of these new urban residential outdoor spaces, their relationship to the city, and to ourselves?

Among the responses to AN editor-in-chief William Menking’s last editorial, architect Claire Weisz responded with a call for all architects, publishers, activists, and city-dwellers to care about and fight for their civic spaces.

While some of the most intriguing residential outdoor spaces resemble suburban lawns—in theory and proportion—in the sky, we can’t forget that designers and architects should strive to make an impact where they can, whether through advocacy, alternative funding models, innovative technologies, or even good old-fashioned beautiful design.

The realities of these projects can raise questions—both good and bad—about the changing relationship of politics, finance, and design. Interboro’s Lent Space temporarily turned a private lot into a public garden, but only with the permission of Trinity Real Estate and Carl Weisbrod. The project was a controlled public space that will be landbanked until property values go up.

Even as the spectacular private residential boom causes massive tectonic shifts in the city’s landscapes, Mayor de Blasio seems, at least on principle, to be turning focus from highly developed areas to the city at large. Parks Without Borders asks citizens to help allocate 50 million dollars to improve the quality of parks in all boroughs. If approved, his ambitious but embattled citywide rezoning plans would aim to increase the number of affordable housing units in exchange for increased density in all corners of the boroughs.

Architects and planners can still speak up for the public outdoor spaces they believe in and ask questions about the mechanisms by which they are delivered, even if these new spaces look slightly different than traditional parks and plazas. We can take cues from the ongoing struggle for Bushwick Inlet Park, the promised-but-not-yet-delivered, quid pro quo public green space from the 2005 Williamsburg residential rezoning, or the questions raised by NYCHA’s plans to infill public green space at housing projects with market-rate and affordable housing, developed privately.

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