Thursday, June 29, 2006

X-Treme Makeover

Now that New York mag is publishing oral histories of the golden age of graffiti and a bank in the E.Vil. has commissioned "graffiti" art and placed it underneath the teller windows (see pic here), it's definitely time for this artform to mutate, and indeed it has. Call this X-Acto graffiti. Someone spent a lot of time making very precise cuts in this poster on E. 12th for what looks like a bad Uma Thurman romantic comedy. It probably wasn't intentional, but this is a brilliant little commentary on beauty and plastic surgery.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

JJ in Memoriam: Washington Square Park

Better late than never. Jane Jacobs, who profoundly influenced urban planning not just in New York City, but throughout Western Civilization, will be honored Wed. at 5:00 pm (rain or shine) under the arch in Washington Square Park, the site of her first victory against the ravages of urban renewal that were being waged by the notorious Robert Moses. She died April 25, 2006 in Toronto, where she moved with her family from NYC's Greenwich Village in 1968 so her sons wouldn't be drafted into the Vietnam War.

It has become the contrarian fashion to say that Jane Jacobs' contribution to urban planning didn't address many of the problems we grapple with today, and that Robert Moses wasn't entirely destructive and wrong. I find this to be an intellectually lazy argument. No single person could simultaneously explode an entire profession AND anticipate every possible consequence of that (such as gentrification, which did not exist at the time that she wrote her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961).

Still others have the impression that Jacobs was a milquetoast housewife who presaged New Urbanism by only favoring small, quaint neighborhoods -- which couldn't be further from the truth. What she was critiquing at the time -- brutal urban renewal practices -- compelled her to attack large-scale planning and modern architecture in favor of community and neighborhood, but that doesn't mean she dismissed everything big and modern as inhumane and unworkable. What makes Jacobs so compelling and enduring is the power and flexibility of her ideas, rooted in an instinctive response but articulated with precision and clarity.

As Paul Goldberger recently wrote in a Metropolis magazine piece entitled Jane-Washing, "Jacobs herself had little patience with much of what was presented as an extension of her views; she knew better and understood instinctively the difference between the real street life of an old New York neighborhood and the packaged synthetic urbanism of the new make-believe streetscapes." I can well imagine Jacobs might have been a big fan of, for instance, contemporary Dutch planning and architecture, which is both large-scale and ultra-modern.

What's more, to say that not everything Moses did was bad is to entirely miss the point. His unchecked power and dictatorial style coupled with a non-existent process for public input was the disease. The highways that crushed entire neighborhoods were the highly visible symptoms (parks and beaches being the positives externalities). Jacobs took on a dictator. We could use more of that kind of ballsy housewife nowadays.

On another note, people point to her long-running public feud with Lewis Mumford in order to degrade her ideas as those of an unsophisticated simpleton compared to the intellectually superior Mumford. No disrespect to one of New York's last great public intellectuals, but he could be a dyspeptic critic himself, launching attacks at everything including Rockefeller Center. "Architecturally, in short, Rockefeller Center is much ado about nothing," he wrote in the New Yorker in 1933, which he later reversed somewhat, leading one exasperated NYC official to complain to the magazine, "The problem with Mumford is, nobody can tell what he wants." With Jacobs, unlike Mumford, there was never any question about what she found lacking and what she thought worked. Mumford's thinking wasn't always so clearly-- and gracefully -- articulated, not to mention that he was more prone to urban utopianism than Jacobs ever was.

Scheduled speakers at Washington Square Park include New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, Ned Jacobs, Jane'’s son, and others. Since I am in full-on book-writing procrastination contemplation mode, I'll see you there.

UPDATE: Andrew Salzberg of Messy Diversity writes from Toronto to point out that, indeed, Jane Jacobs did like contemporary Dutch planning and architecture. In an interview with James Howard Kunstler (in Metropolis magazine), JHK asked her what parts of the world she likes and admires, and her immediate response was to say The Netherlands. "...The human scale of the whole thing and the density is far above what we are used to in North America, or anywhere. The high density and human scale are not incompatible at all."

The Netherlands is, of course, highly regulated and planned, contrary to the assumption that Jacobs only liked "organic" neighborhoods. Andrew goes on to point out that an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal recently praised Jacobs, practically labeling her a libertarian, because she didn't like planning. Again, totally false. She didn't like top-down, FASCIST planning that left no room for public participation and resulted in the destruction of neighborhoods. Thanks, Andrew.

Breathtaking Inanity: Grand Transit Here, There and Everywhere

After decades of neglect, New York is suddenly in love with its monumental transportation hubs, even if all the grand architectural gestures in the offing won’t do much on the most basic level: make more people’s commutes easier.

Today’s installment of breathtaking inanity (the new irrational exuberance) takes note of three facets of this latest craze.

1. Moynihan Station, in its third (or is that fourth?) design iteration, will cost $1 billion to turn part of the Farley post office building into a partial replacement for Penn Station across the street. The catch: the only tenant is NJ Transit, which will leave behind 80 percent of commuters who currently use the old Penn Station in the pit below Madison Square Garden. This makes absolutely no sense. The inanity of this was pointed out when an even grander plan was floated recently to move the entirety of Madison Square Garden across the street as well, thus forcing Amtrak and the rest to move into the new space. Even though this will take much longer to build and will be much more costly ($7 billion) at least it makes sense in the long run, but of course Gov. Pataki might quash this plan because he wants a groundbreaking before he leaves office on the long delayed Moynihan Station.

2. Santiago Calatrava’s beautiful transit station design at Ground Zero will cost $2 billion and serve only those people who ride PATH trains from New Jersey to Lower Manhattan (so New Jersey commuters are getting not one, but two grand transit hubs built for them here in New York City?). Don't get me wrong. It’s a lovely, lovely train station. No question about it. But here’s the rub: it will be connected underground to yet ANOTHER architecturally grand and very costly transit hub, the Fulton Street subway station, less then two blocks away, which brings us to the final point:

3. The new Fulton Transit Center, run by MTA, is behind schedule and over budget even after the signature architectural element, a huge “oculus,” was reduced in size and – get this – the plans to untangle the clusterf**k of subway lines underneath Fulton were also scaled back. In other words, MTA is prepared to spend another $800+ million on a duplicative grand transit statement while backing away from the original intent of making the subway lines more rational for commuters ... New York commuters.

Hey, I’m all for grand architectural gestures, WHEN THEY ALSO WORK FOR THE PEOPLE WHO USE THEM.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

An Incovenient Truth: NYC Gridlock

Using The War Tapes and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth as primary examples, the Times' David Carr recently argued that documentaries have become an effective vehicle for advocacy journalism, and are quite successfully turning "the most boring of issues — and public personalities — into an entertainment."

Add to this genre a new doc from Transportation Alternatives, Contested Streets: Breaking NYC Gridlock, which will premier next week at the IFC Center in the Village. Whether or not this doc rises to the level of "entertainment" remains to be seen, but it will show how other cities are using innovative ideas and technology to solve traffic problems ... and, of course, how New York is not.

To see a trailer, click here.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

ARO to rehab Columbia's Architecture School?

I had a post here at Polis last fall about a Times story noting all the architecture schools in NYC that were hiring big names to design new, flashy buildings, including Steven Holl at Pratt in Brooklyn, Lyn Rise at Parsons downtown, Rafael Vinoly at City College in Harlem, and Thom Mayne at Cooper Union in the E.Vil.

I then noted that Avery Hall at Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture was badly in need of an overhaul ... which is now in the works. I happened to be in the architecture library yesterday and spotted Stephen Cassell who, along with Adam Yarinsky, are the founders of ARO, one of my favorite architecture firms. It seems the firm will be undertaking the Avery Hall rehab.

They are not starchitects but smarchitects, intent on -- hold on to your socks now -- designing buildings while keeping in mind 1. the people who will use them, and 2. the surrounding environment. They are a whole lot less focused on developing a signature style that shouts, "ARO!" the way a ten year-old can now spot a Gehry building (ARO stands for Architecture Research Offices ... so obviously, they're not too concerned with branding their own names, either).

Just to make the point about how they brilliantly design for the surrounding environment, here are two very different projects: The Army recruiting station in Times Square (above) and home in Telluride, CO (below). Some of the firm's other NYC projects include rehabbing the currently underutilized building at the north end of Union Square Park, working with landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburg on Brooklyn Bridge Park, as well as other commerical and residential projects around the city (and the rest of the country).

Arthouse in Tribeca

Holy crap. Usually I avoid posting about luxury private residences (i.e. real estate porn) mostly because I just don't care (I know I'm in the minority here), but this slide show of an "art house" in New York Magazine is not to be missed. Click here for the article and a link to a slideshow of the Tribeca townhouse. P.S. I did a quick google of the architect, Andrea Ballerini, and couldn't find anything, and the NY mag article doesn't elaborate. ??

Monday, June 19, 2006

Reno Girls Love NYC

Quite randomly, I found myself giving a walking tour of the E.Vil. yesterday to a small group of high school girls from Reno, Nevada who are all theater-arts people. It was a favor for a friend of a friend, who had organized a learning by location tour through a company that went bankrupt a few days before they were set to depart Reno for New York City. Anyhoo, it was interesting to discover their points of reference as well as what they didn't know. They were familiar with Little Shop of Horrors (which premiered at the Orpheum on 2nd Ave. in 1982) and of course Rent (centered in the E.Vil.), but not up on graffiti artists Keith Haring and Basquiat. They had heard of Andy Warhol but not Lou Reed (both performed at the Electric Circus on St. Marks Pl.). They had never heard of Hari Krishnas (I took them to the Hari Krishna tree in Tompkins) but they did know who Allen Ginsburg was (he was at the first Hari Krishna gathering in NYC underneath the tree). The kicker was taking them to St. Marks Church in the Bowery where washed-up party girl Lexi was memorialized after she famously fell out of a window in a Sex and the City episode. Above, I snapped a pic of the girls posing for another photographer at Tompkins Square Park (homeless person in the background, natch). Pop quiz, girls. Explain in fifty words or less what gentrification means.

Special thanks to New York Songlines for helping me organize this tour.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Chelsea Photo Montage

Tom Parsons, who lives at the Chelsea Hotel part of the year (when he's not flying around as a commercial pilot), made this photo montage from pics he took at the Living With Legends anniversary party. I wrote about the party for The City section of the Times (as well as Polis), and this montage is of me interviewing Mia Hanson and Hawk Alfredson, whom I quote in the story. They're both artists whose works have a dark, surrealist edge, although Mia is a photographer and Hawk is a painter (click names to view their work). The party took place in an apartment where Thomas Wolfe once lived and wrote You Can't Go Home Again. Click the montage to enlarge.

Monday, June 12, 2006

My Red State Summer Vacation

Well, it was more like a working vacation, but pretty great nonetheless. I took this photo of Tellico Lake at sunset (click to enlarge). The lake was created when the Tennessee Valley Authority built a dam that was completed in 1979 (which was very controversial at the time). Tellico Lake has more than 300 miles of shoreline in eastern Tennessee, just at the bottom of the Smoky Mountains, where good ol' boys proudly tell hillbilly jokes.

Other than a little whiplash from a jetski mishap, fun was certainly had, even when I was working. But it's good to be home. Will do my best to get caught up on Polis posts soon.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Be Back Soon

I'm gone on a work/play trip to Tennessee of all places. More later.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Chelsea Hotel Blog Party 2.0

After sitting on the piece for weeks, and after the copy editors drained all the life out of it, and after the caption editor inserted an error by calling it a "new blog," the New York Times' City section finally ran a piece I wrote about the year anniversary party of Living With Legends. Polis readers know I attended the party at the Chelsea Hotel more than a month ago hosted by Debbie Martin and Ed Hamilton, creators of the blog, in an apartment once occupied by Thomas Wolfe. It was a wonderful evening full of rich characters and stories ... which sadly, doesn't quite get conveyed in the piece. I'm probably being a little overly dramatic, so read it for yourself. And watch a slide show here.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Ghost of Retail Past

New York is an endlessly amazing place. I walk by this building on 2nd Ave. almost every day, and for whatever reason, just happened to look up and see the remnants of this oddly placed second story retail window. The building is a reminder of what the E.Vil. and LES used to look a lot more like (click to enlarge).

Friday, June 02, 2006

Extra Low Budget

I'll be making my film debut as an extra in some low budget movie called "Path." They were filming a wing-eating contest scene in Tompkins Square Park yesterday. My job was to talk to people next to me without making any sound while trying not to look at the camera. I lasted about six takes at which point I realized, I would never, ever want to be in the film industry.