At the beginning of the spring semester Bob Balder, the Executive Director of the AAP NYC program, took a couple of us out on a tour of the neighborhood near and around our studio which is a couple of blocks from Union Square. We had a truly lovely time exploring our surroundings and I just recently realized how useful this information really is. Knowing the history and nature of your surroundings gets one in tune with the feel of an area and makes one feel connected with the space. And I only just realized how well I now know my own surroundings because of this tour after a friend of mine came to visit me here in the City and I took her around town and was able to describe everything we passed by in great detail.
Bob Balder speaking to students on the tour at Union Square
We first visited Union Square which is rather close to studio – Bob explained the zoning laws of NYC to us and why certain buildings were taller than others because air rights from one building such as a church which may not want to build up any further were sold to adjacent neighbors so that they may build higher up, resulting in the varying densities in the city, especially downtown where a lot of buildings cannot go higher as they are historical landmarks. We discovered that Andy Warhol had his ‘factory’ in the historic Decker Building on Union Square, that the statue of the silver boy at the intersection near that building is of Warhol, and was recently placed there; that Union Square is a historic farmers market and has always has a sense of public gathering such as in the case of the Sept 11th attacks in 2001 when people gathered there to pay their respects with flowers and notes to the deceased; that the metronome clock on the north side of the square that few people can make sense of is actually an art installation that counts down the time to midnight; that the newest building facing the square is by Perkins Eastman (Brad Perkins is currently teaching Professional Practice for the NYC program) and probably bought out air rights from its surroundings; and that the newest fad in Manhattan parks (including Union Square) is dog runs, where you can take your dogs into a small closed-off area and let them loose so they can run around on soil (I think that’s a wonderful idea, I’ve never seen happier dogs in the city as I did that day at the dog run).
Sculpture of Andy Warhol by Rob Pruitt
We then walked toward Gramercy Park and learned that it is actually a small, fenced-in private park, one of only two in Manhattan. People who reside in the apartments around the park (traditionally artists but now primarily of the wealthy, owing to the park) have to pay a small annual fee and get a key to access the park. Calling it “a Victorian gentleman who has refused to die”, Charlotte Devree in the New York Times said that “There is nothing else quite like Gramercy Park in the country.”
Walking from Gramercy Park we headed towards Madison Square Park with Bob describing various places to eat and to the queries of some students, several jazz clubs in the city and nearby. We saw the Flatiron Building which many of us have seen several times but now learned that the little ‘cowcatcher’ retail space at the bottom prow of the building that comes to a point and was actually an add-on demanded by the client and was not originally intended for the design by Daniel Burnham. It was put on afterward to mitigate the costs of construction. At Madison Square Park we also saw the long line for Shake Shack, the famous Michelin-starred chef Danny Meyer’s restaurant. He originally opened Shake Shack for the employees of his more high-end restaurant, Union Square Cafe, to have someplace inexpensive and healthy to eat, not anticipating that it would became such a hit with the general public.
The famous Flatiron Building
Another super interesting fact we found out from Bob (he is full of information on the City – it’s fascinating to walk around with him) was that the clock tower facing Madison Avenue is a copy of St. Marks Square in Venice. As well, the building right beside it, 11 Madison Avenue, was originally intended to be much taller than it is now (note the castle-like structure that was characteristic at the time of construction, to accommodate zoning laws in the city. It takes into consideration the amount of light filtering down to passersby on the street but is now done with a slimmer structure and a public piazza) and furthermore that it was stripped of most of its decorative facade during the modern movement when sculptural cornices and other such things were taken off the facades of buildings to make them look more streamlined, like what was then the new Seagrams Building.
After all that we headed to Eataly on the other side of the square (another reminder of the semester we just spent abroad in Rome with the architecture department, with a copy of St. Mark’s clocktower in front of us and an Italian grocers next door) which is a wonderful Italian grocery store with fresh meat, cheese, bread, and pastas that they make right in front of your eyes. They even have a little restaurant indoors. I found a lot of my favorite pastas and cheeses that I use to cook with there. If anyone is reminiscing Italian food and loves to cook or even just eat I would definitely recommend it.