When I found out that Barry Lewis joined the Open House New York 10th Anniversary Advisory Council, I was eager to get him to talk about his favorite city. His answers to questions about local lore, architecture, neighborhoods, money, people—everything New York—will amuse, entertain, and enlighten one and all. I, for one, am grateful to have someone of Barry’s commitment and enthusiasm on the New York scene. On the eve of OHNY (October 6th and 7th), here is what our very own New York mavin has to say about his metropolis. Dig in and enjoy!
Photo courtesy Dianne Arndt
Susan S. Szenasy: If there is one thing you could tell a friend from abroad about New York City, as it relates to the design (or lack of it) you encounter here every day, what would that be? Please explain.
Barry Lewis: Money. It’s all about making money. It’s why the Dutch founded us. New York’s architecture is pure speculation: build it, rent it, sell it, tear it down, and build something bigger. So New York’s buildings are usually safely commercial in design: they want to be noticed (so they’ll rent) but don’t think them too weird. And if they’re “artsy”, as in the starchitect buildings of today—it’s only to bring in more $ per sq. ft. However, squoosh together all this capitalist striving on a narrow little island set off by frame-setting rivers, and what do you have? One of the most thrilling skylines in the world.
SSS: I’d like to dip into your extensive knowledge of NYC history. Which is your very favorite period in the making of our city? In that period, pick a building or a place or neighborhood that exemplifies the ethos of its time and explain how it does that.
BL: The Beaux-Arts era at the turn of the 20th century was New York’s coming of age as a world capital, at a time when we Americans loved cities and wanted to make them not only beautiful but democratic. So within a 25 year time span we have everything from the 42nd Library and the Metropolitan Museum to small gems like the Frick and the Morgan; we have urbane and brilliantly planned transportation complexes principally Grand Central and Penn Station; we have the beginning of apartment house living on the Upper West Side and soon Park Avenue and skyscraper office buildings sprouting around Wall Street and its offshoot, Madison Square. Downtown—Wall Street–was the center of the financial universe and romantic towers like the Singer and the Woolworth buildings announced the city’s ascendancy. Yes, the Lower East Side and Harlem were tightly packed slums but in the next generation (as we know in hindsight) would come the Harlem Renaissance uptown and the subway suburbs from the Bronx to Brooklyn where 1920s strivers could find a middle class lifestyle and got themselves out of the slums.
Barry Lewis outside the New York Public Library, Photo courtesy NY Magazine 1985
The Beaux-Arts and Art Deco eras (the 1920s and 30s) were the last eras when we Americans actually liked cities. Only in the last dozen years or so has the American middle class re-discovered “city” life. Since we spent the 50 years in between doing everything possible to destroy our great urban centers, it’s amazing our American cities all haven’t gone the way of Detroit.
SSS: You must have hundreds of great places you like to visit in NYC; can you list 10 here? And give some detailed historic information about one.
10 places + annotations? In New York City? That’s probably a book. Here goes, off the top of my head:
1. Rockefeller Center (pictures above) the best skyscraper complex I’ve ever seen.
I grew up with it, loved it then, love it even more today. It marries the skyscraper with the traditional city brilliantly weaving Le Corbu’s “slabs”, Beaux-Arts ideas of city planning, German Expressionist visions of cathedral-like symbolism, and steel cage construction whose flexibility and strength give us an underground shop-lined “street” system, among the world’s first extensively covered shopping malls. All this was wrapped around a new Subway line (under Sixth Avenue) making the entire project “green” in conception. Plus it gave us Radio City Music Hall where I had the best time as a kid in the 50s seeing first-run movies on that one-of-a-kind screen with the Rockettes “thrown in” between the movies, newsreel, cartoon, and film short all for the 25 cent price of admission.
Shimmering water stretches out before you. In the backdrop the city glitters and the stones whisper to the waves. A warm breeze blows through the trees while you, from your perch on a slab of granite, cool your heels in the flowing waters and admire the stars you rarely see.
That’s what I imagine when I think of a waterfront part in New York City. What do you imagine?
Collective yearnings to connect with nature are the very essence of our urban dreams, and also the ambition of every designer. Whether they work with silk, rubber, steel or oak, designers aim to inspire a connection to you, your life, and your environment.
How would life in New York City be different if the water served a more civic purpose?
When something is civic it has an obligation, a responsibility, to fulfill the needs of the community that it is connected to. So it’s reasonable to expect that a civic waterfront should be one that belongs to a community and fulfills its needs.
Recently I spoke with Michael Van Valkenburgh, the lead landscape architect of the firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, who helped create Brooklyn Bridge Park. The same park that’s recognized by the Van Alen Institute as a place that creates “cultural, environmental, and economic vitality”.
The exhibition space, photo by Paul Makovsky.
The park is the current focus of a Van Alen exhibition, on view till October 19th, the first in a series to recognize cities that have reclaimed their riverfronts.
The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) annually presents its MASterworks Awards to recognize outstanding works of architecture or urban design completed in the prior year. The jury for the 2012 awards is a notable list in its own right: it included architects Brandon Haw of Foster + Partners, Claire Weisz of WXY Architecture + Urban Design, and Adam Yarinsky from the Architecture Research Office; journalist Suzanne Stephens from Architectural Record; and the president of MAS, Vin Cipolla. This refreshingly diverse list of winners—a carousel pavilion by Jean Nouvel shares honors with a children’s library in Queens—looks back at an exciting post-recession year for architecture in New York.
Best New Building: New York by Gehry, Gehry & Partners
Courtesy Forest City Ratner.
The highest honor went to Gehry’s shimmering new residential tower at 8 Spruce Street in downtown Manhattan. The jury calls it “a striking symbol of Lower Manhattan’s resurgence,” and its undulating silver façade, standing out among its mid-rise neighbors, certainly makes a dramatic addition to the skyline. Karrie Jacobs wrote about the building in our June 2011 issue.
It’s hard to believe that spring is here. Almost more surprising than being able to wear shorts in March is the fact that the great concrete jungle that’s New York City actually has a wide array of brightly colored native plant life, such as the red columbine and southern magnolia. Already in bloom, the gardens at Brooklyn Bridge Park‘s Pier 1 give those of us who can’t get out of the city for a day the opportunity to find the beauty of nature just across the water from the financial district.
Considered by some to be a nuisance tree, Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), which grows across most of the US, may be an important resource in the near future; it could be the sustainable replacement to rainforest hardwoods.
Black Locust Tree, Sour…