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.
This past Sunday evening Emily Pilloton delivered the commencement address at the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, her alma mater. Here is a lightly edited version of her inspirational talk that can apply to everyone in the design field today, not just to new grads, as well as to anyone seeking to put meaning in what they do all day.–SSS
I feel fairly unqualified to be your graduation speaker: I was not a great student during my time here. I am not really a good “adult,” either, as I have no savings account or long-term health insurance. Also, I am not primarily interested in addressing you as architects and designers this evening, but first and foremost as citizens, and only then, as members of a professional community.
So with those disclaimers in mind, I want to share two stories with you. They are not stories of success so much as adventure. Take them as cautionary tales or advice or just stories of a girl who, like you, graduated from this institution and is still trying to find the best modes of operation in design and in life.
First story: Almost five years ago, I quit a corporate retail design job, selecting paint colors and doorknobs, moved in with my parents, and started a nonprofit design agency with no business plan and $1,000 in my bank account. Many people called this impulsive.
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Phoenix (September 10, 2010) — A billion people make their homes in the poorest neighborhoods around the world which is where the biggest cities can learn some things about sustainable living, according to architects and urban designers, Pavlina Ilieva and Kuo Pao Lian. Ilieva and Lian suggest that planners should recognize the community aspects of slums, such as the “favelas” of Rio de Janeiro, the “barrios” of Mexico City, or the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.