Most Spirited New York: A Look at New York Architecture

New York Architecture is a working machine (a collection of high density buildings) that is made pleasant by Street Life, Culture and Skyline.

Architecture in New York is the ‘collective skyline’ and the pedestrian streets that are lined with every kind of shopping, restaurant and museum.

So it is not about architecture as people generally associate it, but more about liking our vacation destinations, like Florence, Rome and Barcelona (just to mention easy ones similar to New York with walking, shopping and museums).

How this was achieved was by ZONING. In order to keep New York a PEDESTRIAN CITY, we forget that the REAL ARCHITECTURE FOR THE PAST 60 YEARS HAS BEEN THE PLANNING AND ZONING in order to keep variety and richness in each part of the city’s streets and not allowing blank MEGA stores and banks to overwhelm the streets block after block; and thus, suffocating the city. We had wonderful brilliant well-meaning individuals in charge of all this and they saved the city as best as they could.

In the period after Seagram was built; the plazas became the ‘fashion’. But very soon the gaps (or wounds) in street livelihood was noticed. And thus the savior, the 1983 zoning law, was passed.

But alas, even with this zoning, we cannot control market forces like rents and tenants.

Midtown today has suffered from the success and is now rented for luxury (and mostly to international mega label ‘store chains’ due to the high rents that began in the 1980’s). ‘Street Life’ has moved to downtown areas like Greenwich Village, Soho, and Tribeca. These areas, along with the upper West Side, have been able to offer more New York-like diverse retail, restaurants and art scenes. The museums and music events still draw normal people to Midtown, but galleries, fun stores, and restaurants are harder to come by. An eerie silence from the locals is the result.

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All built architecture buildings, in New York focus on the ability to create VERY efficient plans, and yet manage to squeeze a brief moment of a welcoming lobby (occasionally) and a beautiful elevator whisking you up to whatever meeting or apartment you wish to visit.

So Central Park and Riverside Park in the upper West side of Manhattan became the lungs for New York. Also the East Side landmarked areas made it possible to have a reasonable sky plane and a sense of normality, as without this the entire Upper East Side would have been ripped apart and built like any high density metropolis, with no character, just density.

So three miracles on top of reasonably good public transportation: Central Park and Riverside Park, Landmark Law and creative Zoning has saved New York, and allowed our City to do what we really need to do, work VERY hard these days in service related industries.

As for built architecture I would break down the categories into 3 categories, starting with the healthiest:

1. Development like Durst’s Bank of America tower at Bryant Park is as green as it can get. But Durst was in charge of most meetings and made sure everyone applied Green principals to achieve the intended results. And this is not easy. Architects and consultants are not willing or allowed to go through the extra effort to do this. It is a different kind of service and thus requires more time and effort, which is not part of standard fee.

But even Durst cannot change the rental area calculation. The rental area is measured to the exterior of glass, and thus the curtain wall has to be as thin as possible. This, by default, results in less than perfect Green building.

His building, by being green, has the ability to provide power in emergencies, use innovative thermal storage to reduce loads and water consumption, and foremost, provide extremely healthy environments to his tenants with other technologies. This in turn saves tenants more money than any of the other issues mentioned due to less turnover and days off due to sickness of any kind.

2. Normal commercial office buildings and housing have to conform so rigorously to tenant standards (to the very last 1/8th of inch / or 3 mm), zoning envelope and cost per sq. ft. The skin has to be the thinnest possible, as long as we have this incredibly detrimental law of calculating rentable space to the outside plane of the glass. Until we change this, there cannot be truly smart GREEN buildings in New York.

The less Green the buildings are, the more profitable they are to owner by using more power. The Landlord/owner gets a share of the electrical utility cost. And thus not only owners but utility companies are reluctant to promote something that has no commercial value to them. Also because of this there is no need to think differently from the past or change maintenance or other considerations.

Ever so rarely there is a site that has enough of a dimension that allows some form of massing manipulation and room to attract higher end tenants (better rent), but primary skill is in the method of trying to make a bulk feel smaller, with minimum means, in order to keep efficiency and costs down.

3. Museums and cultural buildings are the only ones that tend to have the ability to shine in artistic ways. And this is a blessing. New York truly gets the best architects in the world to do their very best. The recent MOMA addition and renovation is a shining example of an extremely difficult urban situation turned into a masterful show of talent that we should all be proud of.

The next blog about New York will be a more detailed issue that will include actual details of Built projects both in housing and office buildings. It will also explain why the buildings will last a fraction of the time by not being Green and built for immediate financial gratification rather than for the good of the country itself in the long term.

Regards,
Tapani Talo, AIA