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Designing New York's Disappointing Urban Archetype: The Bodega

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Thomas de Monchaux, an architecture writer recently spotted on the Times op-ed page, serves as an adjunct professor of architecture at Columbia University. In that role, he's incorporated—yes—bodegas into his coursework. Here, he explains using bodegas to teach architecture—and how bodegas explain something about the design of Manhattan.
For a few years I tried to persuade architecture students to love bodegas. The setting is the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, in this case in a special studio program called New York/Paris: The Shape of Two Cities. The program brings together an international group of beginning design students, and subjects them to an Autumn in New York, and an April in Paris. And to the restless, or merely relentless, dreams of these two cities, (the capital of the last century and the capital of the one before that), and to the idea of the city itself.
We try and find an impossible crossroads between Boulevard and Avenue. We try to document one city through the other, the unknown through the known, the strange through the familiar. And so to teach and learn something about how to make Architecture. In the Fall, the studio brings together virtual sites in Paris and actual sites in New York (for example, redesigning a Paris hotel room based only on its description in a writer’s memoir, versus redesigning the floor plan of a room in the Chelsea Hotel), and we hopscotch up and down in scale, documenting and designing clothes, furniture, buildings, blocks, and the cities that collect them.

For a while we staged a final design project in which the notional essence of each city had to find an expression at an architectural scale: the students had to redesign an archetype of each urban condition, a place that was somehow the foundation for every other place. For Paris, the subject was clear: the sidewalk café, its chairs spilling out onto the afternoon boulevard—that urbane living room, that spectacle of seeing and being seen, that place of rest amidst bustle, that blurring of the squalid and the splendid, the private and the public, the exile and the expert, the stimulant and the depressant, the coffee and the wine all together in one perfect piece of flirtatious serendipity. Plus couture models and the ghost of Sartre.

And in New York? What could possibly be the café’s equal and opposite? The bodega. That answer never failed to disappoint. After the café, the bodega—with its narrow little aisles and grim usefulness, with its overlit fluorescence and dusty boxes of light bulbs right next to dusty boxes of cereal, with its baleful closed-circuit monitor and its forlorn lottery display, with its beer and its aspirin, with its palpable absence of glamour and its unwelcoming cats—was a disaster. No architect would want to design one. At first. And yet. Just like the café, the bodega owns the corner. It eyes the street. It supplies you with coffee and cigarettes and newspapers. It gives you a reason to go out for something. It gives you a detour or a delay. It curates and calibrates the arc of an entire day: it’s a place, rare in a city, equally essential at morning and night. It never sleeps.

The only difference is, you can’t stay at the bodega. You have to keep it moving. To be sure, some bodegas are defined by their adjacent sidewalk life, by the gentlemen, comic, tragic, who turn it into a seminar or symposium, who drag out small consumptions into long productions. But there is, even passing by that company, a kind of urgency. At the end of a long night or the start of a long day, a
bodega can be a kind of beacon, its lights a kind of welcome. And if it’s the kind of bodega that drifts toward being a deli, you can stay for as long as it takes to make a debatable breaded chicken sandwich, or even if you’re lucky, a café con leche, but for only that long. Its respite is the respite of acceleration.

For a couple of Fall semesters, we experimented with the idea that each of these places, the Paris café and the New York bodega, might be each other’s cure: the purposefulness and clinicality of the bodega balancing the café’s tendency toward languor and melancholy; the accommodating calm of the café balancing the rat-at-tat habits of the bodega. We gave the students a kind of impossible design program in which the two places could combine in a mobius strip of space and association, of fast space and slow space, of hesitation and speculation. Sometimes the results were amazing. One student called his creation the cafedega. The name, alas, stuck.

More recently we’ve dressed up the studio’s program to reflect New York’s history in fashion, following that history from the piece-work tenements of the Lower East Side, through the Ladies’ Mile and the Garment District to today’s Fashion Week tents at Lincoln Center. At one point our students design an atelier for a clothing designer, complete with archive and workshop and runway. At first glance this seems like a very different program from the humble bodega, and yet that runway is a narrow little aisle, that workshop is as intimate and
intricate, and unglamorous, as the space behind the deli counter. As in all of New York, the problem is one of density versus immensity, of the storage of everything you might possibly need versus an ideal of long linear movement and endless vista: a choreography of boxes and spaces, lines and curves, all around the clock. Whatever you think you’re designing in New York, you’re also always already designing some kind of bodega.

The week I moved into my current apartment was the last week in the life of the corner bodega down the block. Tin ceiling. Piebald cat. Punchdrunk cashier. The usual inimitable sesame cookies by the register. Over a long weekend at the end of the Summer it turned into a Citi Habitats real estate agency. But it lives on, somehow, in the fact that at eleven at night you have to walk exactly too far to buy milk. Some former evolutionary parameter, some spacing of resources, some optimum distance to cigarettes from any given point, discovered and taught by the city, has been displaced. On those exactly-too-long walks, I stop at the real estate agency windows and look at all the apartments in which, in other lives unlived, I dwell; and in imagination all those other selves descend from every one of those
apartments, in every unknown city, and like a congregation turning East, all turn home towards it: forever on that corner, the ghost bodega.
· All Bodega Week coverage [Curbed]

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