31 years ago a certain property developer was causing a stir in New York City. Surprise, surprise, it was a certain Mr. Trump. Controversial and as egotistical as ever (what has changed?) Trump proposed his self-prescribed “Trump City”: an array of developments for the Lincoln Square neighborhood of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Aerial view of the undeveloped site (Courtesy Lebbeus Wodos)
The project and its name were thankfully curtailed in 1991 and finally realized as “Riverside South” due to fervent opposition that involved community groups, architects and politicians. “That was a war to the death—with everybody,” Trump later said.
Of those architects, three were Lebbeus Woods, Michael Sorkin, and John Young. In 1989 they showcased their alternative scheme on Robert Lipsyte’s Eleventh Hour as a documentary set 21 years into the future, now six years ago now in 2010 (feel old yet?). Titled the Michelin Guide to New York City: 2010, the trio’s film shows the Upper West Side as a place called “Timesquare,” a place that in their eyes that is “the first true realization of a city district conceived in multiple layers, rather than as a series of individual buildings.”
Described in the films commentary as “radical” yet “derided” in the hypothetical public eye as “science-fiction,” Timsquare is meant to be a lively space. It was intended to be an alternative cityscape, one that defied convention, filled with tramways, “party walls,” and New York’s social underclass. This message however, is somewhat eclipsed by the eerie music that accompanies it alongside Woods’ drawings which depict a much more sinister environment.
“We’re talking about an absolute nightmare—an absolute nightmare,” said Batya Lewton, vice president of the Coalition for a Livable West Side. But she wasn’t talking about Woods, Sorkin and Young’s plan. Instead, Lewton, whose coalition formed in 1981, was referring to the much more real prospect of Trump City. “They’re asking for, unbelievably, 2,300 more parking spaces in an area that is just so overwhelmed with traffic,” she added.
Fictional letter from a visitor to “Timescape” (Courtesy Lebbeus Wodos)
Dubbing Trump as the “Prince of self indulgence,” Sorkin argued that Woods, Young and himself were reacting to Trump’s proposal to “erect a 150-story high monument to himself.” Building on this, Woods added that the scheme was merely an “experiment” that imagined a future that wasn’t depicted in the usual technical medium of plans, sections, and elevations. Timesquare was meant to be departed from the surrounding “greed-based proposals” and something that wasn’t profitable.
“I don’t want [Trump’s] money and in fact I wouldn’t accept it,” Woods implored. In a retrospective blog post on the trio’s counterproposal to Trump’s plans, Woods, who passed away in 2010, spoke of the scheme’s intended inhabitants.
“One has to resist pitying those squatters. Pity is a treacherous emotion, for everyone involved. Better to respect them. Their way of life, as chosen as any in the capitalist jungle (don’t imagine that the rich are really free), included the certainty that they would one day have to move on, probably very quickly. They were prepared and no doubt found other ‘undeveloped’ spaces to settle down in for the next timeframe, whatever that would work out to be. On the other hand, their scattering was traumatizing and unnecessarily brutal. And another thing: their little community had a spirit of invention impossible to achieve in the emotionally arid and highly regimented skyscraper landscape that was soon to come.”