If You Build It, They Will Come.
If You Tear It Down, Will They Go?
May 17 2012
A candid conversation on the horrendous state of new construction in New York, with the crankiest of architecture critics, Ivana Force-Majeure, and our own Bob Nickas.
Bob Nickas: Ivana, looking lovely as ever. Your outfit is so well constructed, as are you yourself, poised with style and restraint. What are you wearing today?
Ivana Force-Majeure: Don't you know? It's Schiaparelli. In honor of the exhibition at the Met—Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada. Either of them, with their eyes closed, could design a better building than the flashy mediocrities you see today. Most of these architects are men, and most are frustrated artists. A frustrated artist is one thing when you're talking about someone tucked away in an attic studio, but it's quite another when they get to plop down one of their overblown sculptures in a residential neighborhood. I mean, we're not talking about a garden folly on a country estate—a place to play for the idle rich. Here in the city they're more like the blanded gentry.
You recently made a rather remarkable proposal. You said that the most offensive and boring of the new architectural trophies should be demolished, even suggesting that a hit-list of buildings be put together by concerned New Yorkers. Where would you start?
Oh it's not just new buildings that should go. There are plenty of atrocities around. How about Trump Tower? It's not exactly the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. More like a skyscraper with a pubic patch. But I'd start in my own neighborhood, NoHo, and work my way north. There's 40 Bond Street, for example, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. They've done good things in Europe, but not in New York.
Are they giving us the buildings we deserve?
Possibly. But if it's the architect who takes the heat when a building isn't well received, don't forget that the client may also be to blame.
40 Bond was built for Ian Schrager.
I'm just saying. I mean, what about the ridiculous fence that runs along the street? It looks like a bastardized take on a Jackson Pollock splatter, rendered in Swiss cheese. What is that, abstract fondue?
The material is expanded polystyrene.
I remember Poly Styrene, the singer from X-Ray Spex, and all her prophetic songs from the late 70s: "I Am A Poser," "Germ-Free Adolescents," "Prefabricated Icon," "Genetic Engineering." Take a look at architecture and people today and you realize that it all came true.
I have a friend who lives on Bond Street, and she says that anytime anything sizable is delivered to that building they have to bring in a big crane and hoist it up to get stuff inside. It's very disruptive to the block.
That's because there's no service entrance. That would have cut into sellable or rentable space. But the city doesn't care if long-term residents of a neighborhood are inconvenienced day after day. The developer gets what he wants, the city gets what they want, and all is well.
Herzog & de Meuron were at one time slated to build a massive tower down on Leonard Street, an astounding 58 floors apparently, where a penthouse was going to be priced around $35 million.
That might still get built. And the penthouse would have its own pool.
They describe the tower as "houses stacked in the sky."
A house of cards, more likely. I mean, it really does look rather precarious, don't you think? And what does it remind you of? Think back in time.
Habitat 67, designed by Moshe Safdie for the World's Fair in Montreal that year.
Well done. When you consider Herzog & de Meuron's tower, it's basically a vertical riff on Safdie's basic structure, 40 years after the fact, with lots of glass.
Wealthy people in this town like an expansive view so they can look out from the terrace and pretend they've mastered the greatest city in the world—that they really are above everyone else. King of the hill.
At 56 Leonard it would be more like top of the heap.
I was walking around the other day, and as I passed Odeon I noticed a sign on the door that read, "We love your baby. But we can't accommodate your stroller."
That's marvelous. I really applaud them for that. But I promise you, if 56 Leonard ever gets built there's sure to be a stroller protest. I keep asking myself where all of these people who are moving into the city now that it’s safer and cleaner and more theme-parked are from… Wisconsin?
One of the so-called selling points at 56 Leonard is that the open side corner of the building will "rest on" an Anish Kapoor sculpture. In the rendering, it looks slightly deflated, crushed under the weight of the structure.
Are there really bragging rights to having an Anish Kapoor on your doorstep? Please. The man is a hack. His pieces—which you find all over the world, planted in almost every city park—are utterly meaningless. Big colorful funhouse mirrors. Tourists take pictures in front of them. Children are enthralled. Absolutely no one is offended. And they call it art.
So why is it so popular?
For all the above reasons. Or aren't you even paying attention?
Are you really against all these buildings?
Not all of them. But to my mind, a grandiose monstrosity represents everything that's wrong with the world today, a world which continues to be run by insecure men with outsized egos. These buildings should be considered hate crimes, and the owners and developers should be prosecuted. Do they hate us? Do they hate the architectural history and integrity of our city? Do they forget that people actually live here?
Are there any new buildings that you're looking forward to?
The new Whitney Museum, designed by Renzo Piano, which is to be built across from the Hudson in Chelsea. The fact that it will have air and light and space in front of it is absolutely thrilling. As fine a home as the Whitney has had until now, Madison Avenue is no place for a museum, at least not in our time. If you think of the deep moat in front of the building, it's as if Breuer created a first line of defense.
Why, the Upper East Side, of course.
Don't you think the Renzo Piano design looks like a building that's already been added to, and added to again? It's almost a cake with a couple extra tiers.
Let's wait to see the actual structure and how it looks from the inside out—and, most importantly, how the art looks in it. Because so many museums do not present art in the best way possible. The Guggenheim was the beginning of all that. Practically the only show that has really resounded with that space was the Maurizio Cattelan retrospective, which I thought was excellent. It was certainly, hands down, the canniest site-specific exhibition we have seen in a long time.
Has anything been built in the last few years that you especially like?
There's Shigeru Ban's "Metal Shutter House" on 19th Street. That building is so graceful. It really speaks to a classicist sensibility, and it will age very well, I'm sure. The same can't be said of its next-door neighbor, Frank Gehry's IAC tower, which is already looking a bit dated. It's always appeared as if it was once taller and had its upper floors sliced off. But really, what can you say about a building that looks best at night? The "Metal Shutter House" is so good that you not only want to live in it, you would want to live across from it as well.
On my corner, there are plans for a seven-story building with a rooftop pool and garden that's being advertised as "luxury, loft-like condos." I'm not sure what they mean by luxury. To my eye, it has the feeling of nondescript South Beach, and I guess we'll be seeing more of them.
Reruns of Miami Vice.
That aesthetic defines my single most-hated public work of art, the ghastly Metronome, by Andrew Ginzel and Kristin Jones.
Ghastly. Absolutely ruins Union Square.
And cost more than $4 million.
In 1999 dollars, mind you. I wonder what it would cost to remove. Maybe we can start a fundraiser. And while we're at it let's get rid of that blockhead of a building it's attached to—ruins in reverse!
What else would you have torn down?
The new Cooper Union building is also rather despised in its neighborhood. It looks like there's a huge gash in the facade, as if a wrecking ball had collapsed into it and gouged it right down the middle. From an oblique angle it reminds me of the character Two-Face.
Yes, in an abstract way, of course. And that's not a good thing. From an angle you also see its wonderful neighbor, the former Metropolitan Savings Bank of 1867. It's now the Ukrainian Assembly of God. Fantastic gem of old New York. Sadly, they've ruined the original entrance, but it's otherwise intact. From the outside, at least.
Speaking of churches, I'm sure you're as appalled as I am with what's left of St. Anne's on East 12th Street.
Tearing down a church normally doesn't bother me. But in this bizarre case, only the very front of it was left standing—like something you would find on one of those Hollywood movie sets. This was the NYU compromise so that they could build a 26-story dorm building and leave some of the feeling of the block as it was. Unfortunately, it's one of the most grotesque sights in all of New York. And the dorm building might well pass for public housing in Sweden.
You're not exactly a fan of NYU's architectural contributions.
Most of it should be reduced to rubble, post-haste. Look at the library. It exemplifies their Brutalist aesthetics, their bunker mentality. It might as well be a prison. Fortress NYU. It's practically medieval. It's a wonder they haven't built a moat around the campus.
Don't give them any ideas.
What really galls me is that dorm on 14th Street, which I would charitably describe as phoned-in from Midtown. They actually had the nerve to name it after the Palladium.
That was originally the Academy of Music. I saw a lot of concerts there, and usually amazing bills. One of the most memorable shows was the Ramones, with opening sets by the Runaways and Suicide.
And what about New Year's Eve 1976 with the Patti Smith Group, Television, and John Cale?
I was at that show. I'll never forget Cale's insane version of "Heartbreak Hotel." At the end he was pounding the keys and kicked over the piano stool. He was very nearly possessed.
We're starting to get pulled down memory lane, aren't we? It's buildings we're supposed to be talking about.
But a building isn't just a facade. It's what happens inside, and what it comes to represent over time for its inhabitants as well as those of us who connect it to our lived experience of the city. Somehow I don't know if people in the years ahead will feel the same way that we do now, at least not for the architecture of this day and age. Maybe it's people who have changed. Neither the past nor the future seem to resonate for them. They're stuck in some sort of endless present, unable to fast-forward or rewind.
It's true. Back in the 70s when I'd be walking along 14th Street by the Academy of Music I would often go upstairs to Julian's, the billiards hall on the second floor, to watch the old characters play pool. It was like being in a black-and-white photo by Weegee, or in a smokey scene from a classic Nicholas Ray movie—In A Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, They Live By Night. There was atmosphere. You could see it, and smell it, and drink it in with your eyes.
Later on, the Academy became the Palladium, Steve Rubell's mega disco that followed Studio 54. It sometimes felt to me as if I was on a set from Blade Runner. There was artwork by Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, and later an amazing grotto-like installation by Vito Acconci—a kind of subterranean sex club. When Vito spoke of the built environment, he also put forward the notion of "the city inside us."
So true. Now, tell me, do you remember the last show we saw there?
I'll never forget. That would have been 1986. The German industrial-noise band, Einstürzende Neubauten, was here for the first time. They were playing amplified bedsprings and power drills, and the show was stopped after they set fire to a number of metal canisters.
And do you know what their name means? Einstürzende Neubauten?
Collapsing new buildings.
So it does.
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