Sunday, January 29, 2017

278. New York Skyline: Aspiration or Hubris?

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         New York is a city of doers, and one thing they do – constantly, maniacally – is build.  Our beloved New York Times had an article last December, “A Year of Skyline Spectacle and Joy,” that chronicled significant architectural restorations and creations in the city in the year 2016.  The photos accompanying it let readers promenade about the city to see these sites without stirring from their humble abode.  So let’s take a gander together.

         The Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center is described by the Times as a “whimsical 110,000-square-foot exclamation mark” on Columbia University’s Upper Manhattan medical campus near the George Washington Bridge.  The south-facing 14-story tower “presents a cheerfully teetering stack of cantilevered terraces, indoor bleacher seats, lounges and stairs,” as seen in a large photo showing the building’s stairs and adjoining rooms blatantly exposed at night through huge glass windows.  Impressive, to put it mildly, and in the Times’s words, “playful, welcoming, warm” – which for a medical school is pretty good.  And as the sun sets, quoth the Times, “the center becomes a beacon in the neighborhood.”  I’m sure it does, but for me the marvel of that neighborhood is the George Washington Bridge, which arches over the Hudson not whimsically but with massive grace; I’ve walked it many a time, going to or from the alien terrain of New Jersey, and have felt it vibrate beneath my feet from the endless parade of traffic rushing across it. 

         Redrawing the city’s western skyline, according to the Times, is the 467-foot-high Via 57 West at 57th Street, seen in a photo as a towering triangle rising up over the Hudson and strewn with dark splotches that I assume are windows or balconies.  It looks like a child’s giant cut-out, a huge scrap of material like nothing I have ever seen, and one that seems incomplete in itself, as if waiting to be assembled with other giant cut-outs and so become something meaningful and complete.  The Times calls it a “warped, mountainous pyramid,” then corrects itself by describing it as a hyperbolic paraboloid, rectangular on the ground with a swooping roof façade.  The newspaper assures us that the stainless-steel skin shimmers with the changing light, which is some consolation, but I can’t help thinking of it less as a building that as some drug-befuddled architect’s revenge on solid geometry.  And since it features rental apartments, people live there.  Imagine living in a rectangular-based hyperbolic paraboloid with saw-toothed balconies that, angled toward the Hudson, make hundreds of facets in the stainless-steel skin.  The very thought of it gives me the shivers.  But I’ll admit that it ain’t dull, and the western skyline can probably use a bit of sparking up.

File:VIA 57 WEST New York NY 2015 06 09 02.jpg
Via 57 West, under construction in 2015.
Justin A. Wilcox

         Another new development is the Jerome L. Greene Science Center on Columbia University’s 17-acre Manhattanville campus, near the intersection of Broadway and 125th Street.  A photo shows a huge nine-story hunk of a building dazzlingly illuminated at night.  It is described as consisting of four steel-frame glass blocks surrounding a glassy core with meeting rooms, presumably for neuroscientists, since this monstrous achievement is a “nexus for neuroscience” and a “factory for ideas.”  A double-skin curtain wall, its two layers separated by “a muffling pillow of air,” is said to let light in while reducing the rumble of the elevated subway outside.  Furthermore, the science center engineers “illusions of ethereal weightlessness,” as does, in my opinion, our new president, whose sturdy presence seems to emit airy ideas.

File:Jerome L Greene Science Center, Columbia University.jpg
The Science Center by day, and still under construction.  And very close to the subway.
Columbia University / Frank Oudeman
         What fails to engineer anything, least of all ethereal weightlessness, is another 2016 architectural achievement (or nonachievement) chronicled by the Times: the Mulry Square Fan Plant in the West Village, which is where I live (in the Village, not the plant).  Though I pass near it often, I’ve managed not to notice it and so have failed to grieve at its lusterless, prosaic, and totally uninspired appearance.  In fact, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as Mulry Square, which does indeed minimally exist, in a drab sort of way, at the intersection of Greenwich Avenue and Seventh Avenue, about a six-minute walk from my building.  The Times article calls the structure – an emergency ventilation plant that cost $180 million -- “one of the saddest excuses for architecture completed this year.”  Neighborhood groups pleaded for years with the city to build the plant with a design less hideous than a windowless concrete bunker and a few forlorn benches, yet that is apparently what they got, albeit with a fake-brick townhouse façade topped by a curtain-rod cornice.  I’ll check it out the next time I venture up Seventh Avenue, but from all accounts it makes Via 57 West look inspired, and the Vagelos Education Center look like nothing short of a miracle.

         I don’t want any of this post’s comments to suggest that I’m hostile to modern architecture, for I’m not.  Though I’ve only seen sketches of it and not the edifice itself, which will be completed in 2017, I’m in love with Jean Nouvel’s high-rise going up at 53 West 53rd Street, next to the Museum of Modern Art, with its tapering glass pinnacle vanishing into light.  And every night before going to bed, and every dark early morning when I get up, I see and celebrate One World Trade Center, or the Freedom Tower, lights ablaze at the renascent Ground Zero site, a commemorative wonder that I have christened my “Tower of Light.”  New York sometimes commits architectural monstrosities, but it also creates shimmering marvels.  It always has and it always will.

File:Freedom Tower at night.jpg
The Freedom Tower at night, seen up close.
Christian Kendzierski

         The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), a mighty force in the city, heartily agrees.  Its special 16-page supplement to the New York Times of January 19 opens with a full-page black-and-white photo viewing the Chrysler Building from above at night – a plunging perspective that is impressive and almost frightening.  And in another full-page spread the commercial real estate agency CBRE shows another remarkable photo of the city at night and announces, “NEW YORK.  NEW CITY.  From the World Trade Center to Hudson Yards to One Vanderbilt to Brooklyn and beyond, New York is a city transformed,” and then goes on to hail the city’s changing skyline.  

         In a Q. and A. in the same section, REBNY chairman Rob Speyer, a lifelong New York who is raising a family here, evinces optimism about the city’s economy, and hails the city as a thriving global metropolis where people from all around the world want to live, work, visit, and study.  Needless to  say, he is “extremely bullish” on the city’s real estate market, and thinks that President Trump’s stimulus proposals, if enacted, should extend and strengthen the current economic cycle.  As so often in this country, total confidence, total optimism, total certainty that all is, and will continue to be, well. 

         But will it?  So often in the past, blazing optimism has preceded a disastrous decline in the economy.  I am no visionary able to predict the future; I only know that booms are followed by busts, that what goes up must come down, and that the farther things go up, the farther they will ultimately go down.  Meanwhile the city’s destiny – at its immediate destiny – seems to be in these towering structures that reach higher and higher into the sky, an expression of the city’s and the nation’s imperative to DREAM  DARE  DO, to be exceptional, to know that, at every moment, the eyes of the world are upon us.  Aspiration or hubris?  Time will tell.  Meanwhile, in every sense, the sky’s the limit.

         A footnote to the above:  In the past two years, 31 construction workers have died while on the job in the city.  Spending in the construction industry is at a record high, but many contractors won’t pay for training programs and safety measures, including those required by law.  Because the federal enforcing agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is understaffed, only a handful of construction sites are inspected.  The result: an epidemic of construction worker deaths.  For progress – if progress this is – there is always a price to pay.

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  For two new poems of mine, on ninny versus deep serene, and proverbs for the wicked, click here and scroll down to pp. 34 and 35.

For my short poem “I Crackle” and a stunning photo of me, go here

For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down.  

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For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.  

          BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

          Coming soon:  ???  Maybe a look at some unique and funky businesses in the West Village, Soho, and Noho.

         ©   2017   Clifford Browder

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