October 2009

The gaggle of intelligent-looking folk dressed in black under the marquee on Governors Island in mid-September could have come from any urban center — Manhattan’s SoHo, perhaps, except that they primarily spoke Dutch. They gathered to celebrate their ancestors’ prodigious contributions to contemporary design and commerce near the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s momentous arrival in New York harbor (an event that occurred in September 1609). Their presence on the silent, tree-shrouded parkland, with its magnificent, unfamiliar views of the harbor islands, offered an ironic commentary on New York’s origins and a living, chattering mnemonic on what might have been if the British had not asserted themselves in 1664. It also prompted speculation on where America’s largest city now stands.

Photo © André Souroujon

Throughout its history, New York has remade itself. Perhaps the most visible and meaningful change to the single island that its first settlers called Mannahatta (“island of many hills”) has been the rediscovery of its waterfront. As the city’s economy has shifted from industry and jammed docks to more intellectual and service-oriented pursuits, the waterfront has sprouted, with greening parkland that almost circles the entire island of Manhattan and spreads to the other boroughs. Hudson River Park, which stretches from Lower Manhattan to Midtown in a green linear zip of joggers and skaters and sunset-watchers, may be the most significant new public space since Central Park.

Transformation has been the watchword: New blood is inhabiting old neighborhoods, bringing youthful vitality to places like Brooklyn’s Fort Greene or Williamsburg or Greenpoint neighborhoods, with condo and apartment and town-house development in its wake. The High Line (seen on the cover) has brought a sanguine new perspective to the formerly gritty Meatpacking District in Manhattan and a welcome promenade where a rusting relic once loomed. The last decade of prosperity brought iconic new work to the density, with stellar, international names jockeying for attention (Nouvel here, SANAA there).

Yet the developer-driven city that Ada Louise Huxtable has so forcefully described in a lifetime of writing has lurked just underneath the sheets. Witness the inertia that has surrounded Ground Zero, where a giant hole in the ground only now has begun to fill with construction, eight years after the World Trade Center disaster of 2001. Will Silverstein’s three additional towers find a home in a shrinking economy? Will the tallest tower in fact reach its purported height (much less retain shreds of artistic vision and power)? Much rests on the city’s thralldom to commerce, the realpolitik of the streets, where rents rule.

For architects, New York remains one of the hardest places on planet Earth to build. Witness how little architecture today gains distinction, even those projects by famous names (with some exceptions, the New York projects often lack the finesse of these designers’ work outside the city). True three-dimensional architecture, in such a hermetic environment, where buildings abut, seems almost impossible. Those few, mainly larger firms that do succeed have acquired their own mega-scale to match the high-rises that they design; younger, smaller firms must struggle or ally themselves with larger, older peers to survive.

The litany of woes at a professional gathering can proliferate. The housing stock is aging or old. The bad economy has killed the larger scale of ambitious plans, such as Manhattan’s Hudson Yards — sometimes deservedly. We lack rail-to-train seamlessness that London or other international capitals enjoy. Our subway ceilings are literally falling down. Vocal community engagement makes gaining acceptance the contemporary equivalent of running a gauntlet.

Yet despite the downturn, New York thrives. Many of its museums, filled with patrons, circle through spaces already graced with newly minted galleries and courtyards. Historic restoration has already renewed much of the best older architecture, from the period of the city’s emerging 19th-century hegemony. On the floor of the economic recession, plans are afoot to revitalize Pennsylvania/Moynihan Station. Underutilized resources, such as Governors Island, are receiving fresh attention.

Most important for the future, people still seek out the city. By 2025, according to the New York Planning Commission, it will have to accommodate more than 400,000 new workers in upwards of 110 million square feet, in multiple centers of population within the five existing boroughs — a process already under way. The city’s metropolitan reach, like the circulation of blood, extends many states up and down the seaboard. The work is cut out for the planning commission, currently ably chaired by Amanda Burden, and for the ideas promulgated by the Regional Plan Association, under President Robert Yaro.

New York, like the Statue of Liberty, remains an international beacon of renewal, and therefore of hope. This city of more than 8 million persons still welcomes new waves of immigrants, from Africa or the Caribbean or Latin America, who are arriving, not by ship, but by air, filled with their own expectations and languages and rich cultures, to a place with multiple heart-centers, interlinked and interconnected into an urban whole. Like the Dutch before them, who found a magnificent harbor, another age is discovering the waterborne city and is busily transforming it to fit its own image and expectations. In 2009, as in 1609, the city changes and moves: Despite the general economy, New York is pumping.

If you wish to write to our editor-in-chief you can email him rivy@mcgraw-hill.com.