The walk from my apartment in Greenwich Village to my studio in Tribeca takes about twenty minutes, depending on the route and on whether I stop for a coffee and the Times. Invariably, though, it begins with a trip down the stairs.
The building I live in is a so-called Old Law tenement and was built in 1892, a date inscribed on the metal cornice that also carries the building’s name: Annabel Lee. Like most such tenements, ours is five stories high (a few are six, even seven), and I live with my wife, Joan, on the top floor.
...There is something hypnotic about stair climbing, and as often as I find myself thinking I ought to be at the fourth floor when I am only at the third, I think I've only gotten to three when I'm actually arriving at four.
...To my eyes (and legs) the straight run is more elegant and enjoyable to ascend.
...The narrowing is both functional and artistic, acknowledging that a stair is likely to be used by a smaller number of people as it rises and forcing the perspective narrowing of the long view upward.
...The symbolic weight of stairs is embodied in both their form and their magnitude.
Criticism of the grid and its difficulties was voiced from the start. Olmsted himself noted several problems that arose from the fixed dimensions of the city’s blocks: the impossibility of producing sites for very large buildings and campuses; issues of daylighting; the difficulty of creating systems of formal and symbolic hierarchy within the field of uniformity.
The relative homogeneity of building—and city making—in different cultures is the result of their social organization (large buildings and enclosures are the product of the need for large gatherings), their economic possibilities (only a very rich and powerful Church could produce the cathedrals), their available material and technological resources (very little timber construction is to be seen in desert cultures), and their styles of living (portable tepees and tents are logical if you’re involved in seasonal migration). The same is true today. New York builds within an essentially narrow range of configurations, materials, and structural systems, its limits set by culture, technology, and economics: small apartments in high-rise buildings result from extremely high costs for land and construction, a growing predominance of non-nuclear-family living arrangements, and a legal framework that continuously negotiates the bar of bulk upward.
Until the nineteenth century, virtually all cities were “all use” environments. Craft-scale production was typically carried out in a workshop below the home of the craftsperson, which often also served as the site of exchange.
the symbolic weight of stairs
the regulation of obnoxious uses
a collector and transmitter of memory
Dubai is the world made Disney
people whose traditions and desires cannot be repressed by mere architecture
the annihilation of space by time (Marx)
As production becomes increasingly clean and knowledge-based, as our urban economies tip dramatically to service industries, as racism and ethnic animosities ebb, and as the model of mixed use becomes more and more persuasive and visible, cities are in a position to dramatically rethink zoning as a medium for leveraging and usefully complicating difference, rather than simply isolating it.
It seems clear that for reasons of both sustainability and sociability, human power as a means of locomotion in the city should be optimized. Cities designed to facilitate walking will—because of their accessible dimensions—likely be more neighborhood-focused and compact as well as more mixed in use. To be reached by walking, a destination—whether a school, office, or shop—must be close at hand. A reasonable walking time (in this culture) for basic necessities is generally considered to be about ten minutes, which translates (at an average walking speed of three to four miles per hour) into six to eight short blocks (or three to four long ones). Using this dimension as a radius, we might begin to think of a comfortable scale for a neighborhood as ten to fifteen New York City blocks.
Modernist planning was obsessed with absolute numbers, including the minimum dimensions of rooms, open space per capita, and the one-size-fits-all head counts of neighborhood units. This was often pegged at five to seven thousand and was used as a formula for determining the distribution of schools, shops, sports fields, and other facilities. The failure of such planning is not in its effort to be comprehensive or to equalize access to necessary facilities. It is, rather, the attempt to rationalize choice on the basis of a homogeneous set of subjects, a fixed grammar of opportunities, a remorseless segregation of uses, and a scientistic faith in technical analysis and organization that simply excludes diversity, eccentricity, nonconforming beauty, and choice. The utopian nightmare.
A collective right to the city was seminally articulated by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, a right understood not simply as individual access to the goods, services, and spaces of the city but as the right to change the city in accordance with our deepest desires, to steer the very process of urbanization and the way in which the city nurtures the kinds of people we wish to become.
Moving in the city means constantly changing the axis of movement. In general, lateral movement is confined to a single plane, what’s called grade, the ground level.
Because circulation in multistory buildings is fundamentally one way—which is to say from the bottom up—the condition at the top is invariably different from that at the bottom. Rooftop circulation is the domain of Fantômas, of cat burglars and fleeing criminals, of lovers, and of those acrobatic enough to negotiate the gaps between buildings.
“Controlled environments” are another of modernism’s great obsessions. Extravagant amounts of energy are spent to keep buildings—as well as skyway systems, shopping malls, and domed stadia—at a constant temperature year-round via entirely mechanical means. The folly is not simply a touchy-feely isolation from the authenticities of nature, which can admittedly be cruel, but a larger disciplinary presumption that seeks to extend the centralized authority (central air, central government) of power ever more comprehensively. It is possible that this particular hubris may have pushed Gaia to the tipping point.
Imagine that our rooftops were parkland, that the area of ground occupied by buildings was, in effect, simply displaced upward. Imagine that the city enacted legislation requiring that the equivalent of 100 percent of the surface area of New York were to be green. A 100 percent requirement would not simply oblige green roofs. It would also demand that compensatory greenery be added to make up for such ungreenable areas as roadways, runways, and other unplantable places. Perhaps the requirement would be satisfied with road narrowings, cantilevered gardens, or green floors in buildings (utilities on the order of the mechanical floors that occur in almost all tall buildings).
Along with being a meeting place, the stoop is a space of spectatorship. A street lined with stoops is a kind of lateral stadium, ideal for viewing the passing parade, whether formal ones like the giant Gay Pride and Halloween Parades (until their route was changed a few years ago) or the more informal quotidian version. Hanging out on the stoop allows the sitter to observe the dance (Jane Jacobs’s ballet) of daily activity, to notice what is out of the ordinary, to provide the kind of public presence that prompts neighborly behavior.
(In the run-up to the law, I myself had undertaken the “Poop Press Project,” which had entailed fixing a star-shaped cookie mold to the end of a stick to transform the noisome waste into street art, an attempt only intermittently effective.)
Walking is a natural armature for thinking sequentially. It also has a historic relationship to mental organization that ranges from the Peripatetics, to the philosophers of Kyoto, to the clockwork circuit of Immanuel Kant, to the sublimities of the English Romantics and their passages through nature. It is not simply an occasion for observation but an analytic instrument.
The Situationists were also practitioners of a special urban-analytic walking style, the dérive—the “drift”—which Debord described as “a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences. The dérive entails playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects; which completely distinguishes it from the classical notions of the journey and the stroll.” “In a dérive,” Debord deadpans, “one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there."
The dérive joins the free association of surrealism, the LSD of hippiedom, and cinematic montage as tactics for overcoming the fixity of received ideas of order and logic.
By putting progress through the city into a state of constant indeterminacy, it represents a schooled “style” of being lost.
The modern city produces its own style of getting lost, rooted in its special form of alienation. Here, the crowd, while it can be protective, is also a medium for both erasing individuality and homogenizing experience, for making us disappear.
Daylight should not tyrannize architecture. As with so many aspects of the design of the city, light is something that should be available in a variety of modulations and susceptible to a variety of controls. However, the prejudice must always be for access.
Architecturally, what is striking about the 1916 legislation is that it sought to articulate a logical formula for achieving a public good in the absence of a specific vision of exactly what would actually be produced.
Since the time of the Greeks, democracy has been understood to have a spatial dimension and so, by extension, an element of scale. Plato measured the polis, the unit of democratic citizenship, at five hundred citizens, an extremely tractable size for a community that seeks to express itself through direct engagement.
Every attempt to cul-de-sac city streets, to change traffic patterns in favor of pedestrians, or to narrow street ends is met with the same howl of protest from the authorities: this will increase congestion because urban traffic is a zero-sum game. Any reduction in volume in one place in the city will inevitably be accompanied by a rise in traffic somewhere else.
This claim is fallacious: the true corollary is the opposite. In case after case, a reduction of the space available for vehicular traffic has simply resulted in the reduction of traffic overall.
I have for years been engaged in a thought experiment, the product of which is the idea of a program of “greenfill” for the city streets. The idea is simple: if one lane of every block in the city were removed from the automotive system and returned to the pedestrian realm, an enormous range of urban problems could be solved.
It is a bizarre anomaly that we freely spend countless billions on the construction and maintenance of our streets but leave the repair, and cleaning, of our sidewalks—and the crucial shading apparatus they support—to the tender mercies of private landlords who show no strong inclination to take proper responsibility for this vital duty and whose responsibility for but a fragmentary increment of the block creates conditions of uneven repair and character.
All cities can be described as a dialogue between homogeneity and exception, and each strikes a particular balance that is at the core of its character.
If you want to build a bad building, hire a good architect, and If you want to build an outrageous building, hire a distinguished one.
The informing idea of functionalism is what is called elegance by engineers and scientists—the notion that the best solution to a problem (whether applied to a mathematical proof, a machine, or an organizational diagram) is the most succinct. This conceit collapses the technical, the ethical, and the aesthetic, which powers the idea exponentially.
Le Corbusier’s advocacy of what he had come to call the “Radiant City” continued to his death, and in the 1960s he published his most complete vision, drawn with seductive elegance and insanely mesmerizing to the generation of architects teaching in my school days, for whom possession of a Corb drawing or painting was tantamount to owning a relic of the True Cross.
The buildings of Washington Square Village and Silver Towers are museum-quality examples of the two great apartment typologies of modernity: the tower block and the slab. Both illustrate their strengths and disadvantages when introduced into the urban fabric in their pure state.
The received version of modern architecture, with its social simplification and technical sophistication, has gotten it exactly backward. Genuinely sustainable architecture must begin with the simplest technical solutions (sunshades, cross ventilation, correct solar orientation) but conduce the most complex social relations (variety before uniformity). Invention will come not simply from the fevered acts of lonely imagination but from the constant reframing of questions raised at the intersection of climate, culture, technology, politics, and taste, by the understanding that architectural meanings are produced, not inherent.
The overwhelming majority of new-urbanist projects retain the almost purely residential, exclusively middle-class character of suburbia, simply substituting one formal paradigm for another. Instead of curving streets, cul-de-sacs, and half-acre lots, these developments offer grids, tightly spaced houses with front porches, and a town center instead of a shopping center containing the very same shops.
SoHo has, however, become part of a tourist archipelago where the definition of place falls into a set of increasingly generic categories. The act of touring devolves less on the particulars of geography than on the consumption of a set of prepackaged lifestyles, defined by a fixed array of goods and services. Almost every city in America now boasts a SoHo equivalent.
The question of gentrification is made complex by the fact that the urban qualities it produces—lively street life, profuse commerce, preservation and upgrading of old buildings—are highly desirable, the substrate of urbanity. The problem with gentrification is with its particulars and with its effects.
Gentrification suppresses reciprocity by its narrowed scripting of formal and social behavior, by turning neighborhoods into Disneylands or Colonial Williamsburgs, where residents become cast members and the rituals of everyday life become spectacle or food for consumption.
In 1964, the historian Bernard Rudofsky curated a show at MoMA called Architecture Without Architects, celebrating the formal qualities of a range of traditional building practices drawn from around the world.
Setting aside the endlessly troubled implications of the Western gaze on “primitive” cultures, the show had the very constructive impacts of encouraging formal diversity at a time when mainstream architecture had grown desperately, myopically monochromatic and of suggesting that “non-architects” were capable not only of making good judgments about their environments but of actually taking the lead in creating them.
Efficiency is produced not by the sort of movement monoculture of cars-only American cities but by a sensitively tailored combination of modes sited to exploit the particular efficiencies of each and providing useful duplication and alternative.
Flying a kiwi fruit from New Zealand to New York produces four times the weight of the kiwi in greenhouse gases; moving a head of lettuce to here from California requires ten times the calories the lettuce yields to the eater.
Arturo Soria y Mata, who proposed a linear streetcar suburb for Madrid in 1882 and managed to build something like three miles’ worth of an intended thirty. Likewise, the project by Edgar Chambless for Roadtown, published in 1910, depicted an infinitely long, two-room-wide building atop three levels of underground rail lines for express, local, and freight traffic. In the late 1920s, N. A. Miliutin proposed a Soviet Union–spanning linear plan that—following Soria y Mata’s rhetoric—would have solved the old Marxian chestnut of city/country contradiction at a stroke. Le Corbusier’s Algiers scheme of 1933—a highway-topped fourteen-story building meant to stretch miles along the Mediterranean and house 180,000 people—was surely the most immediate precursor of Rudolph’s “City Corridor.”
The final architectural embellishments for the neighborhood should be the most exceptional, a kind of punctuation by relief, the last bursts of creative potential as the scene shifts.
I began to have my doubts about those glowing domes and minarets. Finally, I felt that this modern celebration of history subtracted something: I felt gypped out of the dark.
I remain mystified by what seems like an exponential increase in the need to communicate induced by the availability of a ready new means to do so, just as new highway capacity produces increased traffic. Witness the cabdrivers who talk uninterrupted on the phone as they travel the city, or the truly huge numbers of people who speak on the phone as they walk down the street: the medium has clearly become the message, if the meaning of the message remains somewhat opaque.
More and more of daily life is governed by the management and manipulation of fear.
A society can be judged by the risks to which it chooses to respond, the dangers it values, the targets it gives high priority.
The real deathblow to Westway proved to be a lawsuit filed on behalf of the striped-bass population—shepherded through the courts by the activist Marcy Benstock—that sought to protect their breeding grounds in the pilings beneath the piers that the fill would have eliminated. After this was decided in the federal courts, Mayor Ed Koch, a Westway supporter, reportedly uttered, in frustration, the most memorable line of the affair: “If those striped bass need a place to fuck, I will build them a motel in Poughkeepsie.”
Once again, a neighborhood dedicated to production has been transformed into one for consumption. As someone who believes that an internal balance between these activities is vital to the health, character, and autonomy of the city, I find that the sight of yet another zone of high-priced good times gives me the willies, even as I tuck into my perfect branzino in the lovely back garden of the delightful Italian restaurant.