Thursday, March 06, 2008


The history of New York City is an architectural crapshoot. Sometimes that
has worked out to create really strong communities like the urban
neighborhoods in Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn. Sometimes it has produced
the splendid isolation of the towers above 2nd and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan
where people are units living in units. Then there are the disasters like
Penn Station which is simply a no man's land of transitory passage. It is a
monument to cheap ugliness and the concept that the industrial look can be
somehow tarted up to seem human when it cannot. I would say the same of
Lincoln Center, though the style is less like a Dairy Queen and more like an
Assyrian royal tomb.

Americans sneer at art because they are childish and naïve about esthetics.
They refuse to see that what you look at each day forms your view of the
world as much as the interaction you have with people. Is the desolation of
the Atlantic Yards empty space worse than what has already been erected to
replace it? No, because the former has the promise of possibility, whereas
the latter is an inescapable blight upon the spirit. The builder, Ratner,
will now live in a 19th century townhouse on 62nd St. in Manhattan far from
the hideous abuse he has heaped upon Brooklyn. The distance is esthetic,
not in feet and miles. He has openly despised 'brownstone Booklyn' only to
place himself in exactly that esthetic space.

What Americans really don't like about esthetics is that they require a
collective sense of compatibility to make good public spaces. Unlike Ratner
and his aged architect, who impose their ideas by imperial fiat, effective
architecture requires cooperation. First that means a social contract for
the common good, a notion that modern free marketeers regard retrograde if
no simply a myth, but it is none the less essential to a functioning
society. The second is that public spaces, when planned and managed well
are worth the public's investment, but they may restrict rugged

Eminent domain is not an inherently bad idea. It is not a tool of slum
clearance. It is what makes possible such needed creations as the Brooklyn
Bridge. What is bad is when it is used to override the social contract as a
tool of imperial enforcement. The Gowanus Expressway was not wrong because
of where it is and what it does. It is wrong because it was built with no
thought to what it would do to those who must live with it. There is no
greater good served by eminent domain if the common good is undermined.
The fundamental error of the last 30 years which is the assumption that what is profitable
for anyone is a benefit somehow at some point to everyone. It isn't.

That is not a lesson easily taught in the city of New York where those with
the money have always done what they liked with impunity. However, there
was no general literacy through much of that, no real middle class, and
certainly no internet. So the times have been a changin' and this list is a
reflection of that.

The outcome is uncertain. Penn Station may be remodeled and kept as it is.
The stupid ideas of today can always be bested by the stupid ideas of
tomorrow. Across the street from me there is a new building that is
essentially inoffensive but also essentially another study in bland and
cheap, tarted up with shoddy materials and a measure of bad taste. The
builder used various shades of grey to complement the base color of concrete
thus creating the vivid feel of a Stalinist suburb. The apartments are
composed of tiny rooms piled up on assorted levels so that you are forever
climbing stairs for a towel and then back down to reach the shower. They
want the moon for these things and they will fail to get that.

Ratner's fall, if it comes, could leave us with a wasteland of fast food
joints and big box stores in a hodgepodge. In some ways that might be
preferable though because it could be dismantled piece meal just as it would
be built. What would serve us all would be structures of modest height that
blend with the surrounding brick but that also have some genuine character
and design. Brooklyn does not need concrete monoliths or an imported sports
team that will go instantly into debt on the public cuff. It sounds pretty
easy when you put it that way.

The difference lies almost solely and entirely on our willingness to embrace
a new social contract where the meaning of prosperity is redefined in two
subtle but important ways. First, bigger means nothing as it is not
necessarily better in any substantive practical or financial sense. It is
just more money thrown around all at once and the real costs are that much
further deferred. Second, short term financial gains are enticing but they
are anathema to communities and all long term interests like people, who are
and will be the consumers of the future.

The hysteria that is now growing out of the failure of the banking industry
to make prudent choices about mortgages, is excessive. If we have another
long and deep recession, sloppy banking will not be the root cause, it will
be the result of bad thinking or simply the lack of it, for 30 years in all
phases of the economy. That has been facilitated by utterly stupid
government policy. The party is over, and what a relief in some ways. The
gaudy excesses of the 80s and the 90s can be stripped away. Then we can get
together calmly and build something worth keeping.

Steve Hart

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