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The spirits of the city

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The spirits of the city

THE NEW CRITERION, May 2019

The spirits of the city

On the new Hudson Yards development in New York.

Hudson Yards, the real estate development that opened in March on the far west side of midtown Manhattan, is an astonishing feat of American industry. This is especially true at a time of diminished industrial expectations, when American muscle often lifts little more than the latest app. Yet for all of its impressive mass, its glass, concrete, and steel, the forms that have risen at Hudson Yards are spiritually longing, oddly so, for what should be a display of towering confidence in human enterprise. Even as it stretches to the skyline, the shortcomings of Hudson Yards speak to a loss of faith and an inward turning of urban perspective.

Cut from whole cloth, the $25 billion complex of Hudson Yards, now partially completed, rises above a train yard that continues to operate as the western terminus of the Long Island Railroad, where lines of passenger cars await deployment to the platforms of Pennsylvania Station to the east. Beneath these trains run additional tracks, including the pair of North River Tunnels built by the Pennsylvania Railroad a century ago that still serves as the arterial link of the Northeast Direct service between New York and New Jersey. In total, some three hundred caissons, fourteen thousand cubic yards of concrete, and twenty-five thousand tons of steel have been built around thirty working tracks and four tunnels to form just the first ten-acre eastern platform, on which now sits the largest private real estate venture in American history. A second phase, of residential towers to rise above the rail yard to the west, will soon follow. To construct anything atop this transportation corridor without service interruption or the ability to create basement space is an achievement of engineering and manpower. To do so in a way that attracts worldwide attention while creating commercially viable real estate is a triumph of capitalism.

10 Hudson Yards. Photo: Geoff Butler / Related Oxford.

10 Hudson Yards. Photo: Geoff Butler / Related Oxford.

The popularity of Hudson Yards, apparent in the crowds that already flock to this new nexus of office, retail, and residential offerings, where upscale materials coat every surface of its multifaceted forms, is one reason its critics have been so bilious in their condemnations of the complex. “A shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent,” is how Michael Kimmelman painted this “vast neoliberal Zion” and “architectural petting zoo” in The New York Times. “A grand gift of urban space to the global elite,” sniffed Justin Davidson in a cover story for New York magazine, which depicted the complex as an Emerald City at the end of the Yellow Brick Road that is the High Line—the astonishingly successful elevated park built a decade ago on an abandoned spur of the New York Central Railroad. “Too clean, too flat, too art-directed,” Davidson continued. “I suppose this apotheosis of blank slate affluence is someone’s fantasy of the twenty-first-century city, but it isn’t mine.”

Having just redirected the river Amazon from establishing a spillway in the borough of Queens, the critics bemoan the industrialists of The Related Companies, the real estate juggernaut founded by Stephen M. Ross, who have made it through their gauntlet of condemnation to create the twenty-eight-acre complex. Sketched out in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, approved and developed through the economic downturn of 2008, Hudson Yards emerged out of the last innovative period in New York leadership—so distinct from the current era of de Blasios and Ocasio-Cortezes—that understood what cities must do to thrive. When completed, the entire complex will boast new parkland, a new school, and twelve massive office and residential towers containing four-thousand new apartments and space for fifty-five thousand workers.

Legitimate arguments should be made, and have been leveled, against the many zoning dispensations, tax abatements, and regulatory loopholes that brought the development to fruition. The urbanist writer Kriston Capps has noted one egregious example, in which gerrymandering has permitted the developers to soak up foreign investment by offering visas through a program meant to help impoverished areas, all by linking Hudson Yards to low-income housing miles away in Harlem.

Ultimately, such criticism merely draws attention to the stultifying effects of New York’s endless zoning ordinances, taxes, and regulatory hurdles. Hudson Yards reveals the fructifying energy that can flourish when the long shadow of government gives way to the sun of human striving, if only such light could shine across all endeavors rather than a single favored project.

The technical complaints, I suspect, also mask the greater concern for most critics: that this final flowering of Hudson Yards serves as a delayed reminder of a city that was planted and tilled under two decades of Republican supervision. For them, the problem of Hudson Yards is not its failures but its many commercial successes.

And indeed, from what was once a sunken railyard there now emerges a multitude of attractions. Connected to the $2.5 billion extension of the 7 Train on one side and the pedestrian High Line park on the other, Hudson Yards has overnight become a new measure of urban orientation. In the two months since it opened, I have dined on a surprisingly expensive fish called a milokopi in a top-floor restaurant of its 720,000-square-foot shopping mall, attended an inaugural performance in its cross-disciplinary contemporary art venue called The Shed, and walked twice up the spiraling stairs of its open-air sculpture called the Vessel (the first time after its ribbon-cutting ceremony presided over by the television personalities Anderson Cooper and Big Bird).

Like the Mareographic Zero measurement on Venice’s Punta della Salute or the Prime Meridian line that runs through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, Hudson Yards lays claim to its own central marker. This is the Vessel, or at least that’s the temporary name of the bauble dreamed up by the new-age British designer Thomas Heatherwick that rises fifteen stories in the middle of Hudson Yards, looming over its quasi-pedestrian plaza with 154 flights of 2,500 steps and eighty landings. The shiny, copper-colored object was a secret fancy of Ross, who kept the model locked in his office and paid for the Italian fabrication of its elaborate steel latticework.

The Vessel’s designer, Thomas Heatherwick, speaks at its grand opening on March 15, 2019. Photo: Dia Dipasupil / Getty.

The Vessel’s designer, Thomas Heatherwick, speaks at its grand opening on March 15, 2019. Photo: Dia Dipasupil / Getty.

The Vessel is the quintessence of the complex. Meant to reference an Indian stepwell used to walk down to varying levels of well water, here the staircase leads up to dry nowhere. The higher you go, the less fulfilling the experience becomes, at least for the views looking outward. As the Vessel is hemmed in to a greater and greater extent by the surrounding buildings, what mainly comes into focus is the Neiman Marcus sign outside the top floors of the mall. While the surrounding buildings each boast a different architectural pedigree, from above they cross-breed into smoky-glass mutts.

One building known as the Equinox Tower—designed by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—still lays claim to a few distinguishing characteristics. In its limestone pinstripes, we can see the bespoke tailoring you only get from som. And the Shed building, a combined tower and concert hall designed independently of The Related Companies by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the architects of the High Line, boasts a novel rolling shell developed around an industrial gantry. On the outside, the building resembles a shopping cart return, while the drafty space within could be a zeppelin hangar. The skin of this structure is made of inflated mylar, which reduces its rolling weight and gives its outer surface the sensuous appearance of a quilted handbag or a designer puffer jacket. It remains to be seen if this venue on city land, a Kunsthalle that has put the Halle before the Kunst, will “redeem” Hudson Yards, as many have promised. So far, its anti-elite elitism seems like mere puffery, with the usual high-flying art world suspects, including Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the über-curator hatched in a Swiss free port, and the Park Avenue Armory’s Alex Poots tapped to run the show. “Let’s get away from this crazy high-art, low-art concept,” Poots announced at the opening. “Why do we need to create a false hierarchy?”

15 Hudson Yards and The Shed. Photo: Timothy Schenck / Related Oxford.

15 Hudson Yards and The Shed. Photo: Timothy Schenck / Related Oxford.

If you have to ask, you will never know. The self importance of The Shed, which cost $400 million just to build, not to mention the price of sustaining it, underscores a what-if that I have been asking since the city first set this parcel aside for a cultural venue. What if a world-class museum, namely, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, had moved here? With the Whitney Museum of American Art now anchoring the southern terminus of the High Line, having relocated from the Upper East Side, just think of the genuine cultural corridor that might have been created with moma at its northern end. The museum’s present location, straddling Fifty-third and Fifty-fourth Streets in midtown, is a product of historical circumstance, not strategic planning. It just happened that the Rockefeller family owned their townhouses there, and donated the parcels to become the first kernels of the experimental modern museum. Indeed, there was a time when midtown was residential. No longer. For the past fifty years the museum has been buckling under the pressures of its surrounding real estate, profiting along the way, save for the museum experience that has resulted. It should have been time for a fresh start.

The Shed may surprise everyone and fulfill its many promises, but for now the Vessel remains the main attraction at Hudson Yards, even though as a walkable sculpture it provides lackluster views, at least looking out. Its orientation is, rather, directed in and down to its own emptiness. When Ross unveiled its design two years ago, he declared he wanted the equivalent of the famous Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, but with an attraction that would stay up all year. Such comparisons between Rockefeller Center and Hudson Yards may be numerous, but they work mostly as comparisons in contrast. Created by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and designed by Raymond Hood at the height of the Great Depression, that other complex is imbued with spiritual meaning. An Art Deco Roman temple dedicated to American industry, Rockefeller Center reflected the family’s belief in John Wesley’s evangelical economics—to “gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” As an open-air cathedral, that complex terminates in an altar of Paul Manship’s golden Prometheus. Every Christmas season, with the tree, its pagan idolatry is redeemed through a pageant of conversion.

Hudson Yards conveys no such meaning. Its Vessel is an empty basket. Its towers stretch uneasily to nowhere. At street level, its sightlines are also nonexistent. One of the most consequential decisions at Hudson Yards was to obstruct any sense of the street grid. The way the mall turns its back to Tenth Avenue is an affront to the city. The avenues and cross-streets of New York are the open naves of a great urban church, all stretching up and out to the infinite. By deliberately blocking their view, Hudson Yards takes the straight lines of the city and curves them in, with an orientation that is circular and inward, rather than straight and out. The Vessel is the vortex of this overall scheme, one that speaks to themes of regression and surveillance rather than motifs of aspiration and uplift. At its center, instead of inspiring thoughts of others, the Vessel is the Christmas tree to the self.

Hudson Yards. Photo: Timothy Schenck / Related Oxford.

Hudson Yards. Photo: Timothy Schenck / Related Oxford.

Like its Vessel, Hudson Yards will leave you feeling hollow, with an emptiness that will never quite be sated by expensive fish or quilted handbags, despite the many suggestions to the contrary proposed here by its hundred shops and restaurants. Hudson Yards is advertised as a “new way of living,” filled with self-serving and often infantile adult distractions, but the result is unfulfilled and unfulfilling. By having us face ourselves in an infinite reflection of polished metal and darkened glass, Hudson Yards ultimately turns its back to the unbought grace of life in the big city.

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The Old College Try

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The Old College Try

THE NEW CRITERION, December 2018

The old college try

On the renovation of Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art.

If the architecture of the American university is said to have a common style, it surely must be the style of aspiration. With no native vernacular academic form, there is little that is organic in the creation of American campuses. The appearance of our universities varies widely, and in recent times schizophrenically, not just school to school but building to building. What unites them all, for better or worse, is the desire to convey their mission in solid form.

Through the nineteenth century and into the first decades of the twentieth, such aspiration drove an extraordinary program of campus design. Today we still consider this era to have produced the quintessence of American academic architecture along with its most affecting structures. As campus buildings were grafted onto older Western roots, Georgian, Gothic, Classical, and other motifs elided the European past with the American present. Where more than one such style coexisted on campus, as they often did, the buildings engaged in quiet conversation. Such forms not only gave shape to external appearances, but also spoke to the coherent internal values of the institutions they housed and contained.

Education of the new nation, they said, derived from the inherited values of the Old World. Here the campus library took architectural precedence. As both the containers and conveyors of knowledge, these libraries became the focus of campus plans. Meanwhile, structures for administration, faculty, and students deferred in their appearance and ambition, often crystallizing in quadrangles arrayed around a central library.

Over the last half century, the increasing architectural incoherence of the American university has foretold changing academic fortunes. In the rush to declare the latest accommodations, auditoriums and gymnasiums, science labs and food halls have clamored for architectural attention. A cacophony of economic interests, fractious politics, and ever-changing priorities has turned the tone of college campuses from study halls into shouting matches. Today’s campuses have become sprawling noisemakers that echo their own educational discordance.

Architectural aspiration, once focused outward, has turned inward against the university’s existing motifs. Building has gone against building as campus architecture has become a blood sport. A competition of progressive forms has not only given shape to new appearances but also spoken to new values. Through rapid cycles of construction and demolition—heralded through never-ending campaigns for capital donations—campuses today aspire to be something smarter than their historical selves. As each new generation of college leadership turns against its predecessor, older buildings go down and new ones go up in the hopes that the ideas they contain will be of the moment. Replacing the timeless with the timely, aspiring to be in the fleeting present, a permanent evanescence has become the academic architectural norm.

The Dartmouth College green. Photo: Dartmouth College.

The Dartmouth College green. Photo: Dartmouth College.

The campus of Dartmouth College, where I was an undergraduate, has long been exclamatory in its architectural aspirations. This fall I had occasion to revisit it during the $50 million renovation of the school’s Hood Museum of Art by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. Even before breaking ground, this renovation, set to open in early 2019, drew public scrutiny, since it includes the partial demolition of the award-winning 1985 museum building by Charles Willard Moore and Chad Floyd. Replacing Moore’s postmodern concoction with the lyrical brutalism of Williams-Tsien, this ostentatious enactment of burial and renewal speaks to the head-spinning shifts of the mercurial contemporary campus.

“The College on the Hill” of Hanover, New Hampshire, sited on a high plain along the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River, Dartmouth has evolved from a missionary outpost chartered in 1769 “to Christianize the heathen” into an elite but removed member of the laureled Ivy League. The college motto, Vox Clamantis in Deserto—“a voice crying out in the wilderness”—has likewise evolved from a passage from the Book of Isaiah, later recalled by John the Baptist, into an expression of the college’s own remote longings, which can be celebratory at times and resentful at others over its academic remove.

Throughout its long history, the architecture of the Dartmouth campus has pivoted around a five-acre open plot known as the Green, which was at one time the grazing land for the remote academic settlement. With the Federal-style Dartmouth Hall of 1784 on College Street to the east, the campus originally faced west, looking back over the Green and the Connecticut River. In 1839, Reed Hall, a neighboring Federal building designed in the dimensions of the Parthenon, housed the college’s first central library. Starting in 1884, Wilson Hall, a fanciful Romanesque pile south of the Green on Wheelock Street, began serving as a new and larger library facility as well as the college’s picture gallery. Finally, in 1928, the campus’s orientation pivoted again, this time to the north, with the completion of Baker Library.

With each of these turns around the Green, the college’s architecture added to the forms of what came before as it tracked the school’s rising stature. What was once an educational redoubt—“a small college, and yet there are those who love it,” as Daniel Webster said in defense of his alma mater in the Supreme Court case of Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward of 1819—evolved into a venerable American institution.

Modeled on the Georgian design of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Baker Library, along with Dartmouth Hall, continues to serve as the architectural standard-bearer of the school. With its four-sided clock and bell tower, Baker represents the brains and heart of the institution, topping off at two hundred feet with a six-hundred-pound copper weather vane depicting the college’s founder, Eleazar Wheelock, with the Mohegan Samson Occom and a barrel of rum beneath the “Old Pine.” Just below, during trustee weekends, the elevated facets of Baker Tower are illuminated in green—a beacon in the color of the school now known during fundraising drives as the “money light.”

It is worthwhile here to note that the many traditional motifs brought to campus during this long period were revivalist forms incorporated by some of the leading architects of the day, such as Lamb & Rich and John Russell Pope. Their employment was supported by philanthropists with a deep engagement in art and architecture such as George Fisher Baker, a board member of the Metropolitan Museum, who dedicated his library as a memorial to his uncle Fisher Ames Baker. These commissions endured well into the age of the skyscraper. Beneath its traditional forms, Baker Library was built with the steel frame structure of a modern building.

Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center with the Hanover Inn in the background.

Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center with the Hanover Inn in the background.

In the post-war years, college planners have challenged the school’s cherished architectural vocabulary not despite but because of its high standing among students and alumni. An appeal for the new has cut against old ideas, old men, and old forms. In the late 1950s, the Choate Cluster of dormitories, designed to be an experiment in student living, landed on campus like a value-engineered lunar base connected through elevated air locks. Stripped of ornament, the River Cluster of dormitories, constructed between 1958 and 1982 and originally known as “The Wigwams,” had all the architectural ambition of a low-rise urban redevelopment scheme.

Dartmouth’s greatest architectural challenge came with the construction of the Hopkins Center in 1962. Championed by Nelson Rockefeller, Dartmouth class of 1930, the campus’s arts complex next to Wilson Hall on the southern side of the Green was designed by Wallace K. Harrison to be a beacon for what was thought to be a culturally impoverished student body. Harrison used “The Hop” as a prototype for New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, which opened four years later. The similarities here are both obvious and unfortunate. The Met’s older sibling has never settled into the look or life of the New Hampshire college. The shock and schlock it introduced to the Green, facing down Baker Library, continue to disrupt the school’s primary architectural fabric.

When Charles Moore took on the design of the Hood Museum for a back corner space left between the Hopkins Center and Wilson Hall, he confronted the challenge of uniting modern and pre-modern with a postmodern confection of the two. Named after the milk magnate Harvey P. Hood, Dartmouth class of 1918, the museum, when it opened in 1985, became Moore’s most notable institutional building and a reflection of the school’s own evolving architectural rhetoric.

Moore’s mode of postmodernism drew on traditional idioms for progressive ends. For the traditionalists, his style made amends for modernism’s campus follies, yet it did so with fingers crossed and tongue in cheek. Writing of the museum’s opening in these pages in November 1985, Roger Kimball took note of Moore’s “self-consciously historicizing architecture” that drew on the campus’s colonial and Georgian forms, but with an “underlying current of architectural trickiness and free play.” Treating tradition as a “more or less neutral storehouse full of stylistic tricks,” the building “exhibits an arbitrariness and frivolity that excludes it from any genuine tradition.”

Apparent in retrospect, the frivolity of the Hood was largely lost on me as an undergraduate. I am not sure I ever found the museum’s front door. Moore was known for oversized piazzas that went nowhere. His Hood began with a “triumphal arch” connecting Wilson and The Hop followed by an open courtyard of uncertain egress. Buzz Yudell, Moore’s architectural partner, applauded the building’s “wonderful sequence of invitation, of discovery unfolding . . . a choreography of experience that works all the way from the outside through the courtyard and inside the building.” Such balletic sensibility was supposedly conveyed through a sculpture of a dancing figure by Joel Shapiro commissioned for the site.

Nevertheless, this college dance always ended in heartbreak. Follow one path and you were spit out the back of the building. Follow another and you were clobbered by the snowdrifts that had built up on Moore’s rooflines. Taking classical orders and tangling them into an irrational knot, Moore disrupted the visitor’s wayfinding at every turn. Anyone looking for art would be stood up at the door. And if you made it inside, Moore placed a guard on an elevated perch at the front desk to frown on the frivolity. These obstacles to entry were a shame, since the college’s collection includes such treasures as Assyrian relief panels from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II on through an impressive survey of work by the college’s artists in residence.

The old Hood Museum of Art. Photo: Timothy Hursley.

The old Hood Museum of Art. Photo: Timothy Hursley.

Like Jesus and Alexander the Great, it seems that the life of an architectural style now lasts thirty-three years, give or take. What starts in infancy praised by wise men ends in premature death. Moore’s Hood Museum was the height of sophistication in 1985. In 2018, his architectural references and games have been replaced by new demands for access and transparency, all against a backdrop of renewed suspicions of cultural inheritance along with a joyless sobriety that can be puritanical in its enforcement. Moore’s fall from grace reflects the decline of postmodern architecture in general, where even Philip Johnson’s landmark at&t Building now faces down brutalist intervention.

With such buildings as the “new” Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have distinguished themselves through designs that impose brutalist order onto historical motifs, tempering their own anti-historicist forms with sumptuous materials. At the Hood, they have stripped off Moore’s archway and north façade and half covered over his courtyard with a pillbox bunker of Flemish bond brick. A solitary square fourteen-foot window faces Baker Library like a vitrine and gun emplacement to shoot the art collection onto the Green. With the right object in view during their somnambulating passage to class, not even a preliterate undergraduate may mistake this new building for anything other than an art museum.

Preservationists have been quick to point out the irony, if not the hypocrisy, of the partial destruction of Moore’s museum by Williams and Tsien. In 2014, these architects objected vociferously to the destruction of their own American Folk Art Museum building of 2001 after its takeover by the Museum of Modern Art. When MOMA floated the idea of salvaging parts of their building, Williams and Tsien maintained their museum was “a whole” and rejected such “façadism.” “The idea of installing a few panels somewhere doesn’t interest me,” Williams said at the time.

Of course, this is precisely what these two have done at Dartmouth—salvaging, modifying, and demolishing various parts of Moore’s design. “I don’t care about the criticism,” Williams said when I asked him about preservationist concerns, including those voiced by the Charles Moore Foundation. “We do everything we can, absolutely, to try to respect the Moore work, to respect Dartmouth, to respect the Hood as it grows and grows into the future. I am completely and utterly convinced that we have done everything we can. It was all entangled.”

The planned north façade of the new Hood Museum. Rendering: MARCH.

The planned north façade of the new Hood Museum. Rendering: MARCH.

Undoubtedly the new Hood will solve many of the problems of the 1985 museum, which Moore entangled quite deliberately. Sight lines have been straightened. New rooms for collection study and “experiential learning” have been established. New white-box spaces will display the school’s modern and contemporary collections to greater effect. Much expense has even gone into preserving parts of Moore’s waterlogged building, including the addition of new mechanisms to melt the snow that accumulates on his copper roof. After the mysterious departure of his predecessor, the Hood’s current director, John Stomberg, continues to manage the museum ably even through the construction, maintaining an interim gallery in a storefront on Main Street.

The most prominent change will be the addition of a new social space recovered from Moore’s courtyard. This cavernous lobby, performance hanger, and student lounge will also serve as a space for donor cultivation, much as the Barnes foyer by day converts into an entertainment venue by night.

Here ultimately is the latest priority for campus architecture. Institutions are now competing for increasingly concentrated and demanding donor dollars, along with wall space for their prized contemporary collections. Funded during the “quiet phase” of the plan, the new Hood is the leading edge of the school’s new $3 billion comprehensive capital campaign, titled “The Call to Lead”—in which, presumably, old ideas, old men, and old forms should not be followed.

Through rationalism richly appointed, the new museum breaks from the past by offering insiders first-class passage into the future. A lot less could have been imposed to preserve Moore in its entirety while still adding to the exhibition space of the museum. A one-time proposal to turn the romanesque arch of Wilson Hall into the museum entrance would have restored the primacy and original intent of this overlooked campus building. No less than Robert Frost credits Wilson Hall with inspiring him to become a poet when he walked through its arch as a freshman in 1892 and came upon a poem by Richard Hovey published in the November 17 edition of The Independent.

But such preservation is never the true aspiration of the contemporary university. Quite the opposite: the public destruction of old forms has become as important as the erection of new ones. The question is not what has been, but what could be created to “effect change and improve lives around the world,” in the words of Dartmouth’s new capital campaign. The American college of the present must be focused on the future. The results may be good for college architects but bad for college architecture. Once the shovel hits the ground, a building is already a thing of the past.

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