There was a Q and A after my Landmark West! lecture on New York’s Upper West Side. One person wanted to know what I thought about the exceptionally tall residential towers that are radically changing Midtown’s skyline. One57, Christian de Portzamparc’s skinny 75-story condominium, under construction on West 57th Street is an example. I’ve written about this new trend. The current phenomenon is a function of globalization and real estate, and has little to do with architecture. But, then, that was always the case with Manhattan. As late as the 1940s, the high-rise real estate development projects of numerous entrepreneurs produced a memorable skyline: animated, varied, and quite beautiful. But that skyline was a happy accident; there was no master plan, no rules, no grand design. This time around, I’m less sure of the outcome.
As this postcard shows, downtown Fargo, North Dakota in 1924 was a busy place. Broadway is not as crowded today, but it’s much more lively than when I was here last, more than 20 years ago. The North Dakota energy boom is taking place a two-and-a-half hour drive away, but in some ineffable way the prosperity has trickled down. I am told that real estate values are way up, and apartment builders can’t keep up with demand. The architecture school of North Dakota State University is celebrating its centennial and I am giving a keynote talk tonight at the Fargo Theater. In 1940, Duke Ellington’s orchestra played a gig in Fargo, and the resultant legendary recording is considered one of Duke’s best. I hope I can do even half as well.
A month ago the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the current building boom in Bogotá. It described a planned luxury residential building designed by Richard Meier. Why import an architect from thousands of miles away, who has never built anything in that city? “One aspect of new construction is important to local buyers: no red brick. Exposed brick is so prevalent in Bogotá that many apartment buildings look the same.” Well, Mr. Meier’s building, which is white steel and glass, will certainly not “look the same.” Indeed, to my eye, it will likely stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. No doubt, other “not-the-same” buildings will follow, and soon this brick city (look at those wonderful buildings on the right side of the image above), will look like everywhere else.
Núria Ferragutcasas, who is the US correspondent for the Catalan newspaper ARA, interviewed me about the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site at Ground Zero. Her last question—“What is your opinion about the new site as whole? Do you like the Memorial? Is it appropriate?”—prompted me to reflect further on the subject, so here is an expanded version of my answer.
Cities have regularly suffered catastrophic events—plagues, floods, sieges, and fires—and have commemorated them in different ways. The Monument to the Great Fire of London, for example, was erected only a decade after the fire. Designed by Christopher Wren, it’s a tall Doric column, topped by a gilded urn of fire. The column is 202 feet high (it is located 202 feet from where the fire started), but it does not occupy a large space and it takes its place in the city, allowing urban life to go on around it unimpeded. A good memorial doesn’t hector, it reminds—gently.
Trafalgar Square occupies a much larger space than the Great Fire monument. It commemorates a naval victory and the man responsible, yet it does so without hindering other uses, for the square also functions as an urban meeting place. It is the site of public celebrations, sports and musical events, political demonstrations, and public meetings. A giant tree is put up for Christmas; people play street hockey on Canada Day. None of this bothers Lord Nelson high up on his column, I am sure.
Trafalgar Square is about 6 acres; the memorial and open space at Ground Zero cover about 8 acres. But the memorial components at Ground Zero are so large and so assertive—all that cascading water!—that they overwhelm and suffocate their surroundings, which are permeated with an air of sombre piety. “The place doesn’t do much to celebrate the city’s values of energy, diversity, tolerance openness and debate,” wrote Michael Kimmelman recently in the New York Times. What was advertised as a park coexists uncomfortably with the memorial. Already we see posted “rules of behavior,” enforced by a police presence. That is not the way a city should work.
The other day a visiting Polish architect asked me what I thought of the new urbanism movement. It is a good question. On the one hand, the continued expansion and growth of the Congress for a New Urbanism is impressive. I recall the first meeting, in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1993. Barely filled a small room. Today the annual conventions attract halls full of enthusiastic members. New urbanism was jump-started by Seaside, whose celebrity and undoubted success—financial as well as architectural—encouraged real estate developers, community and neighborhood groups, city planners and architects, to take a long hard look. Many liked what they saw. But while new urbanists have attempted to shed their small town/suburban/Truman Show image, they have had no similarly successful and exemplary big-city project. No High Line. No Disney Hall. No Fifteen Central Park West. What are the important ideas that have affected American cities in the last 20 years? The development of waterfronts. The renaissance in constructing urban parks. The move of genXers and retirees into downtowns. High-rise urban living and Vancouverism. The popularity of urban bicycling and bike-rental programs. Ditto for Zipcars. Urban farmers markets and community gardens. Urban charter schools. The dramatic expansion in attendance of urban cultural institutions, especially art museums. Urban tourism. Downtown trophy buildings. The emergence of influential big-city mayors. Have any of these been the result of the new urbanism movement?