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Right Place, Wrong Time: The NYU 2031 Process

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Be not afeared: Defenestrated is Curbed's architecture column, from the minds of Thomas de Monchaux and/or Philip Nobel. Send thoughts and leads to Here now, Thomas de Monchaux on the approval process for NYU 2031.

Is it possible to do something bad so well that it becomes something good? Or conversely, to do the right thing so badly that it become the wrong thing? Are you judged by intentions or actions? And exactly when, between thought and deed, should you be judged?

These matters of armchair philosophy are brought to you by the current discussion over New York University's current NYU 2031 expansion plan, which proposes to add some two million square feet of facilities to the site of the university's current super-block north of Houston street. On Wednesday of this week, the City Planning Commission approved a version of that plan, with modifications including the elimination of a gym and a retail zoning overlay, among other seeming ameliorations. In February, Community Board 2, in its advisory capacity, voted unanimously against the proposal, which now heads to the City Council.

The origin story of that superblock is the bad deed made good. It begins with that familiar villain, Robert Moses, who in his role as chairman of the city's Committee on Slum Clearance attempted in 1954 to condemn and consolidate some 40 acres of lovely and lively 19th century low-rise urban fabric south of Washington Square, and build a dozen 19-story residential towers. This kind of crime has acquired the name "tower-in-the-park," a phrase that appropriates the delirious utopianism of early modernists like Le Corbusier, whose unbuilt Radiant City and Plan Voisin featured similar clearance of finely-grained historical neighborhoods for the installation of widely-spaced residential towers?which would have been far better than those actually built by Moses, given that they were not in their essence shoddily-built prisons designed to punish the poor for being poor.

South of Washington Square, pushback by locals and activists moderated the worst of Moses' scheme, which was scaled back twice between 1957 and 1964: two of three long east-west moderate-income housing slabs were built, forming so-called Washington Square Village, and NYU acquired the southern portion of the area, now University Village, and built Silver Towers, an early large-scale project by IM Pei. Landscape architects Hideo Sasaki and Peter Walker, then teaching under Jose Luis Sert, a Corbusier associate up at Harvard's School of Design, developed a strong and subtle plan for greenery over the semi-submerged parking, and for ground-level elements that introduced a human scale to balance out the looming slabs and towers.

And those slabs and towers, for what they were, were pretty fantastic: crisp balcony panels, bright colors, and monumentally metallic quatrefoil screens around rooftop water tanks gave those slabs a surprising ocean-liner grace. Their designer of record, Paul Wiener, had collaborated with Le Corbusier on a series of unbuilt South American projects in the late 40s and early 50s, and it's easy to see in the incongruously summery feel and maritime trim of Washington Square Village a touch of, say, Ipanema. Silver Towers is also a small triumph, this time in craftsmanlike precast concrete, with modules in the proportion of the Golden Section. Anyone who's done the long West-to-East walk on the South side of Houston has had occasion to love how the pinwheel-positioned towers slide behind each other in perspectival succession?most of the time playing the marvelous trick of making three towers look like two. So: Moses' criminal perversion of a dazzling but dubious Corbusian idea became, at the hands of some former Corbusier collaborators and descendants, a great work of design: ambitious, urbane, and, in the thousand good details at the human scale, humane.

Now, with its plan to shoehorn those 2 million square feet of itself, somewhere into this complex, NYU appears about to do the good thing badly. The good thing, in this case, is the judicious infill of the so-called parks between the so-called towers. This kind of redevelopment, bringing life back down to the street level and restoring the street wall to reintegrate super-block with cityscape, has been the go-to strategy for renewing projects in far worse shape than Washington Square Village and University Village. In a scheme developed by a team including Toshiko Mori Architect, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Grimshaw Architects, two chubby dumpling-like residential towers (somewhat optimistically called "crescent buildings") are dropped at the East and West ends of the to-be-demolished Sasaki park between the Washington Square Village slabs; and a heavily fussy mixed-use mini-mega-block cheerfully called the Zipper building arrives at the Southeast corner of the complex. Somewhere there's another squashed-down tower adjacent to Pei's originals, and much more underground.

The designers on the team have all done splendid work elsewhere, but there are reasons for alarm. Those crescent buildings, whatever solar parameters may have informed their form, look like how a bleating trombone would sound among a cascade of elegant violins. Wah-waah. The extraordinary density of Manhattan is enabled by surprising resonances between different-dreaming and different-looking neighbors. But this ain't that: it just looks like someone wasn't really looking. The other new buildings, even in the dainty renderings NYU has produced to date, look overstuffed?something that the recent finessing by the Preservation Commission may do as much to exacerbate as refine.

The forecast darkens further when one considers NYU's appalling stewardship of its neighborhood in recent years. There was the farcical renovation of Washington Square Park?public space that is nevertheless the university's heart. That renovation preserved wan geometrical traces of Robert Nichols' truly masterful community-led 1971 design while utterly destroying the wabi-sabi asymmetry, sectional subtlety and eventful place-making that were its genius. The park today is a nasty little desert of fenced-off grass and resilient people who, because the Nichols design taught them well and because they have nowhere else to go, make the best of it. There was the demolition of mid-century gems by Harrison and others, and their replacement with the massive Kimmel student center, that jaundice-yellow carbuncle of a building presenting its prim little mask towards the park while haphazardly bloating and looming in every other direction: reprehensible from its "I'm-smaller-than-I-am" fake mansard roof in glass, to its heavy false cornices, down to its blind windows where it meets the ground?the definition of a design-like-object and a reason to rejoice in the ever-lowering lifespan of contemporary buildings.

The cumulative effect of such developments has given the impression of an NYU that through complacency or distraction, has either lost its capacity to comprehend and incorporate design as part of its mission to its students and its city?or, in the original Anglo Saxon, just doesn't give a shit. The lapse is all the more troubling given that, in the nearby New School and Cooper Union, NYU has a magnificent constellation of experts who could help them get it right.

The most useful question, right now, may be not whether NYU's forthcoming efforts will be good or bad, but when do we judge them? Here in developer-driven New York, especially, we're accustomed to talking about large scale projects at this one's current stage, which is perhaps precisely the worse stage for talking about them: when they exist as massing models, gross-square-footage estimates, volume studies, schemey diagrams, pretty renderings, and strategically vague drawings by developers hedging their bets and architects holding their fire.

It seems easy to talk about design at this stage, when it's all pure assertion, visible but not too visible, familiar but not too familiar, (assembled to reward the narrow curiosity of boards and investors and capital campaigners). Everybody likes to play master-planner. The Landmarks Preservation Commission joined the game, adding some setbacks, trimming down the height of one of those dumplings, and taking some 100,000 gross square feet out of the total volume. The New York Times got in on the act a few weeks ago, with an essay that willfully or wistfully moved the game pieces around in search of a better compromise between town and gown. The West View News, my favorite local paper of record, responded with its own massing model for removing much of the scheme away from Washington Square to the dilapidated Pier 40—a notion maybe just crazy enough to work. My own contribution is to suggest we just build a third thin slab of Washington Square Village, and a fourth tall tower of University Village, exactly matching the ones that are already there. The original mid-century masterplan was designed precisely to accommodate these additions, and we know the existing buildings are kind of perfect. If classicism has its meticulous reproductions and forgeries, why not sleek and sexy modernism? More is more.

These efforts, mine included, are all potentially heartwarming in their well-intentioned enthusiasm. And it feels good to move the variables around in your head, to play Solomon as both judge and master builder: the Times enthused about its own version: "a beautiful new 1.5-acre park, an elementary school, public amenities and a new pedestrian street to awaken a dead corner: all that seems like a fair trade for the neighborhood in return for a couple of the big buildings the university wants, which would replace undistinguished ones. N.Y.U. would get about half of what it’s proposing, or maybe more." And yet seeing all of us do this is a little like watching someone else play Tetris or solve a Rubik's cube: not fun. And not good.

Not good, because it reflects and rewards the strategic vagueness and calculated misdirection that are the characteristics of any urban design at this midstream moment, and that make it the worst time to judge whether it is necessary and good. The best moment is way upstream, in the serene and severe realm of urban planning, where you can see the institutions and stakeholders with the visionary eye of an economist, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a stateswoman, a novelist?and look far backward and forward in history in search of how, or even whether, those institutions' needs are best met by transformations to the built environment. (Some have questioned whether the present development is indeed the best idea for NYU, with its small endowment and global responsibilities. Sometimes you don't need a new house, as architect Cedric Price famously said: sometimes you need a divorce.) The other best moment to judge is way downstream, in the saucy and messy realm of post-schematic architecture, where you can really see what you're getting, and almost empirically test the exact buildings and landscapings being proposed, and determine if they have the gravity and levity, substance and style to do the job. There must be a way to sustain these two best moments of judgement, even simultaneously if need be, in the evaluation of development. In between, all is hope and hype.

One of the many shames of the Ground Zero redevelopment process was the intellectual dishonesty with which many architects involved, Daniel Libeskind far above all, provided intricate images of architectural designs, having been asked instead for urban design masterplans. Oh architects! But this was only the most heartbreaking example of how the people of New York seem always to most closely examine proposed changes to the city's built environment at precisely the most useless and unrepresentative moments in their development. Paul Weiner's Washington Square Village is a beautiful and strange example of an abortive and heavy-handed urban design that somehow succeeded because of the thrilling swing and fine detailing of its eventual architecture. Maybe NYU 2031 will get so lucky, and maybe lightning will strike twice, and maybe the bad thing will make good.

But it's one more example of a shabbily, sometimes catastrophically, hit-or-miss process of institutional, political, critical, and architectural accountability, and one that helps explain why the greatest city in the world fails, over and over and over, to build that greatness into its architecture, into its buildings, into its bones.
?Thomas de Monchaux
· NYU 2031 coverage [Curbed]
· Defenestrated archive [Curbed]