Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Urban Design: New York City 1

NYC Subway - joseph o. holmes/joesnyc.com

Discussing New York City in the context of urban design could occupy several lifetimes, and can be said to have done so over the years in the work of a number of people. It won't be covered here in one post. Two or three will have to do for a beginning, and others may eventually follow.

For whatever reason, I'd not been to New York until a few years ago. Like most people, I felt a vaguely wary affection for at least the idea of the place. So, when the chance came to pay a visit because a necessary seminar was being held there, I mused about it a little. The musing took the form of taking stock of the various preconceptions formed by years of impressions from movies and books, uncertain and quite curious which ones would and wouldn't prove true.

The ideas I had of the place were, I'd be interested to see the major buildings, indoor and outdoor spaces, a few restaurants. I had no interest in Central Park. Nice but boring was the impression. Battery Park, maybe. Fifth Avenue, for sure. Boroughs other than Manhattan? No. There was this vague suspicion that the pressures of so many years of overcrowding and pollution would have worn the city down to a tired and cynical ennui.

The seminar I was attending focused on public markets, hosted by the Project for Public Spaces in early May. So, with the seminar lasting three days and a day each at the front and back end of the trip for uninterrupted exploration, I hoped to have good weather and a fairly clear, if limited, impression of what the city was actually like.

As anyone familiar with the place would know, any low expectations were quickly blown away by the city of New York, as were most of the specific preconceptions I'd brought along. The restaurants were excellent ( Queen in Brooklyn, The Oyster Bar and Campbell's Apartment Bar, both in Grand Central Terminal were high points,) the people were quick to respond to friendliness with friendliness of their own, and some of the strongest impressions were from completely unexpected sources.
In fact, the strongest impression I took away was the New Yorkers, themselves. Every one of them coming down the street is a genuine character, accustomed to playing out life on a big stage, highly aware in all their senses and possessed of decency that completely caught me off guard. Plenty of exceptions to that glowing impression are certain to exist, but that was the impression, and one I'm glad to go with.

Another surprise was Central Park. I'd seen innumerable images of the park over the years, but the experience of walking through Olmstead's landscape, with the massive yet intricate presence of built-up high-rise structures around it, is delightful. The area of the Boat Pond is, I think, likely the most exquisite urban landscape in the world.

The Boat Pond, Central Park

Still another was the subway. For whatever reason, this struck me as the soul of the city. It's not a scenic attraction, its trademark grittiness is well known. But, it's where all the people of the place converge, rather tightly as peak hours, and the behavior of the people I encountered there was civilized to a fault. (It may be that there really aren't many options to politeness in such a place - live and let live seems to be alive and well there.) Having characterized the subway as the soul of this city, there are luckily gifted photographers who explore that soul in the subways and everywhere else. Chief among them, in my opinion, are Joseph O. Holmes, whose photography is published online at http://www.joesnyc.streetnine.com/ and Brian Dube, at http://newyorkdailyphoto.blogspot.com/

Bryant Park
American Radiator Building and
Empire State Building from Bryant Park

Of all the places, Bryant Park probably works as well and as effortlessly as any part of the city to elevate the experience of living there. On a number of levels, it just works. As an urban space, it's pleasantly stunning. The elegant, simple rectangular lawn, surrounded on four sides by ethereal London Plane trees, is a dramatic foil for the vast surrounding array of skyscrapers just beyond the trees.

Bryant Park

The sense of scale is intriguing as you move about the park. An intimate sense of enclosure is afforded next to the Library, under the trees, and while walking in the shaded areas elsewhere around the perimeter. On the other hand, looking from the northwest corner back toward the Library, the vastness of the space defined by the huge, intricately surfaced buildings is memorable. The folding chairs scattered around the park (3,500 of them) are essential to making the place work. How would anyone be able to enjoy this place if they couldn't sit, and how would fixed benches in this context compare to being able to arrange your seating?

Salmon Tower and Bryant Park

Bryant Park represents one of the most densely layered examples of a successful urban space. It quite literally has it all: Completely convenient, immediate access by foot, car (taxi, anyway) and subway, then ease of movement about the site. Distinguished architecture on all sides. Security. Landscaping. Food services. Wiring and other infrastructure for almost any kind of event setup. Comfortable, conversational seating. Also, it's a magnificent sight from above, a gift to all the window views of the tall buildings around it.
So, the "tired and cynical ennui" I'd suspected to find wasn't evident. The best minds of several generations have collaborated and fought over urban design issues in this city, and their accomplishments in urban design are probably unexcelled. The blend of grit and paradise that's to be found there leaves an indelible impression.

The photos in this post are my own unless otherwise noted. You're welcome to use them as long as you give me credit, by noting russellclaxton.blogspot.com with the photo.

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