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Back From the Future: SHoP's East River Works-in-Progress

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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 SHoP's East River projects.

The trouble with cities is that they won't stay still. The trouble with buildings is that they will. Architects will tell you (sometimes even honestly) that their designs mysteriously record the patterns and forces in play in and around their settings?movements of light and shadow over days and years, waves of pedestrian traffic from morning to evening, ineffable moods and needs of space and place?and then intervene in those patterns, making them better, stronger, or stranger. A building is always joining a game already in progress. The trouble is that the game is always changing, because cities are always changing?either literally being demolished and rebuilt in the cycle of development, (especially in high-density conditions like New York's), or figuratively being transformed by the mutable realm of thinking and feeling that is the invisible city woven through the visible one. Buildings, therefore, often get stranded in the future or the past.

One such building?at least for now?may be the new project at Pier 15 on the East River waterfront by New York stalwarts SHoP. That firm, in collaboration with landscape designer Ken Smith, has since 2006 been working on a comprehensive study and plan commissioned by the city's Economic Development Corporation for the development of the East River waterfront?elements of which have been lately built. Enough is now in place that we can begin to see the big picture. There's a constellation of humane details, like dramatic lighting of the underside of the elevated FDR Drive, thoughtful railing-adjacent seating and stepped "get-downs" that enable pedestrians to walk down to water level at cuts in the bulkhead surface, (while dropping down, for pedestrians further inland, the view-obscuring rails and fences along the edge of the esplanade). The development, as a whole, continues a slow renewal, with projects like the Hudson River Park and the High Line, of the city's neglected public spaces, especially along the water's edge.

Pier 15 is the most building-like of these projects to date: two glassy pavilions (one a planned restaurant) support a massive, park-like green roof, the underside of which is detailed with an array of composite boards that, in a signature ShoP maneuver, ingeniously angle at shifting pivot points to create a complex folded surface?an undulating upside-down landscape in bright red that recalls the hulls of the historic tall ships docked nearby. Their rhythm and size are part of what Pier 15 gets right above all, which is negotiating between the human and urban scale: elements like these boards work from close up (where there's something homey about their lumber-like dimensions) and from far away (where they resolve into a shimmering oblique pattern).

Similarly, the decks and steps, large and small, that transition to the rooftop park from the ramp that is its main access point, work wonderfully at multiple scales. Their robust dimensions are attuned to seating and leaning at the scale of the human body, but also modulate and shape the rooftop landcape with a certain lack of delicacy that is just right for a big-city park stuck between the rough-and-tumble steel deck of an elevated highway and the iron deck and hull of the deep-sea tall ship Wavertree, an 1885 workhorse built to weather the Cape of Good Hope.

Walking up the long, slow access ramp along the structure's North side, you can pleasantly imagine you're walking the gangplank to board such a ship. (The rooftop park can also be accessed by a staircase at its southwest corner.) The long meditative delay before the revelation of the rooftop greenery is one of Pier 15's virtues. But also?for now?one of its vices. Renderings of the completed esplanade show more street-level green than is so far to be seen, in which the Pier 15 rooftop would be an exceptional elevated moment in a continuous condition, a green jewel in a green necklace. But for now, it's on its own. And while there's something to be said for secret gardens, the nearby Elevated Acre park at 55 Water Street gives us an example of a rooftop park that, despite an ingenious re-landscaping by Rogers Marvel Architects, remains desolate in its isolation from street level, a ponderous escalator ride away from the life of the city.

While the glassy facade along Pier 15's landside elevation has an urbane beauty that echoes the curtain walls of nearby skyscrapers, you can imagine, instead, that rooftop park descending like a green hillside towards the city, previewing to passerby a special destination, and enabling park-goers to feel securely (and spectacularly) overseen by the hustle and bustle of a lively piazza. An example of such an approach is to be found in the green-roof miniature meadow recently installed up at Lincoln Center by Diller Scofidio + Renfro: there, a parabaloidal lawn tops a smallish restaurant, whose glass walls slide upward to provide elegant, if severely precious, enclosure. The lawn seems to be closed to the public most of the time, but the visibility of its green slopes enriches everything around?especially with the recent addition of a green roof to the neighboring performing arts library building, part of a rooftop theater added by Hugh Hardy to the historic Eero Saarinen structure. I'd love to see such a trick performed with the less dainty details and materials of which SHoP has such mastery.

Pier 15 will make even more sense if?and hopefully when?it's joined by the planned renovation of the 80s historicist pastiche that is the South Street Seaport mall at Pier 17, which in the felicitous adjacency of public and private development in which they also specialize, ShoP has also designed. That renovation, in a rare kind of conservation, proposes to retain the steel frame of the existing structure, but to reclad it in glass and top it with another greensward roof. The new complex would feature indoor-oudoor ground-level spaces and circulation of the kind already promisingly in place at Pier 15, as well as anticipating adaptive reuse of adjacent buildings, especially the century-old Tin Building, former home of the Fulton Fish Market.

A 2008 proposal for the same site, (also designed by SHoP), would have dismantled and reconstructed that building at PIer 17's tip, and shuffled around other facilities, including what some felt was an outsized 40-story residential structure, in the kind of castling move you see in chess. So the ever on-the-move city almost got to see one of its famous buildings actually and mysteriously move itself around. For now, though, the rooftop park of Pier 15 offers a stillness among all those moves and changes, and when the development cycle catches up to that particular player, it may find itself in the middle of a perfect game.
?Thomas de Monchaux
· Pier 15 coverage [Curbed]
· Pier 17 coverage [Curbed]
· Defenestrated archive [Curbed]

Pier 15

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