There is no such thing as a “shortest distance” between eastern and western Manhattan when Central Park is in between—every route seems longer than it should be. Whether you take the subway all the way downtown and back up, or face Olmsted’s curves, the park is a part of your trip.
On Saturday we were heading from the Met to Lincoln Center and decided to try the walk. Less than five minutes in, we had already been on three different paths and were walking in the wrong direction. I would be embarrassed to admit this, except that even reviewing a map this afternoon makes me a bit dizzy. At the same time, this is not without its upside. A naturalistic escape by day, Central Park becomes almost otherworldly at night. Along the way we crossed through the ornate underpass of Bethesda terrace, peeked in a pavilion to find preparations for an extravagant dinner party and happened upon ponds, carriages, strange rock formations and other evening wanderers.
On our way home from a party later we opted for the subway. This went more or less as expected—the ride took upwards of an hour all told and was a bit unexciting, but it was comfortable enough and we were tired.
In such a fast-paced city, getting from one side of Manhattan to the other is surprisingly inconvenient. But New York is also about options and Central Park’s dose of uncertainty offers a healthy contrast to the rest of the city. It is as if all the forces normally repressed by Manhattan’s grid—nature, mystery, disorder—are quarantined in the city’s dark heart and are thriving there. What would New York be with a linear formal garden a la Versailles or simply more gridded streets instead of Central Park? Olmsted may have cursed us with a longer commute, but sometimes curses make for the best stories.
In New York, the unexpected is just around the corner. This past Wednesday, it took the shape of several hundred protesters chanting just blocks from our studio. Part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, they had marched up Broadway Street to rally at Union Square, stopping traffic the whole way. I myself would never have known if it weren’t for a classmate who had been streaming live footage of the event on his computer. We agreed to go take a look.
The police presence was stunning. A constant stream of patrol cars, SUVs and vans arrived to deposit officers throughout our half hour stay, and these formed a solid line of navy blue uniforms along the edge of the square. I was reminded of the body’s immune response, sending white blood cells to gather at a site of infection or attack. The protest itself was a great example of “groupthink,” walking the fine line between energetic and disorganized. Forty days into the protest, the officers and protesters seem to have developed a routine if uneasy agreement. The police stood ready without intervening, and after setting an agenda for the near future, the protest eventually dissipated.
Confronting a city’s troubles and dissatisfaction is a new experience for me. As a visitor to New York, I have spent most of my time trying to get the most out of its strengths—museums, restaurants, music and art shows, etc. However, architecture is about what needs improving as well as what works already. The protest was a nice reminder that the city is what everyone makes of it and while I’ll continue to explore the city’s highlights, I’ll also try to make it to Wall Street before it gets too cold to see what the protesters are up to.
A crit with Thom Mayne combines elements of evolutionary biology, contemporary politics, reflection on personal choice, and much more. Thom seems comfortable exploring nearly any subject’s relationship with architecture, and our 14 person master’s design studio is all ears despite little sleep. This week we presented our first batch of 3D printed models, generously produced at Morphosis’ New York office. Thom would pick up a model exclaiming to himself “Hm!” or “now, that’s interesting!,” launch into a 20 minute speech, and then repeat the process.
It is a very different session than we get from the Director of the New York office, Ung-Joo Scott Lee, and they balance each other nicely. Scott has been a guiding hand in our studio the past month and a half, helping students identify their own processes, skills and interests while working with entirely abstract forms. The design prompt is to develop complexity using simple systems—horizontal lines, vertical lines, a type of object, and a plane. Learning to express our own design personalities in such a seemingly general assignment is an exercise that will certainly enrich our future work.
Equally exciting, the studio is not only about us as architecture students but is about the work itself. Thom and Scott are looking for discoveries that they might apply to their own projects. Thom points out things he hasn’t seen before and lists areas of inquiry that he has considered but not explored yet. We have a reciprocal relationship—Thom’s insights fuel our work, and our work stimulates his insights. At the end of each of our five crits so far, Scott has had to practically pull Thom away to his next meeting, and we, on our end, are looking forward to the next visit.
Nature in the city is always surprising to me. I’m used to the crazy weather in Ithaca, but when thinking of New York where any type of bar, restaurant, clothing store, or really any sort of experience, is less than a few blocks in any direction, I secretly imagined that the weather would be as controlled as Manhattan’s grid. Dashing to studio in the rain or seeing skyscrapers disappear in the mist has been a reminder that this insulated city is still part of a larger landscape.
Still, it also has its pleasant side. From where I live in Park Slope it is only a 5 minute walk to the Olmstead – designed Prospect Park, which is great for jogging, people watching, and free concerts and movies. On the park’s smaller trails it feels like being in a nature reserve, without a single building in sight. The plentiful farmers’ markets are another highlight that takes me back to Ithaca. The funny thing is that in the city even these are completely convenient, with one at Prospect Park and another around the corner from studio at Union Square. Most days on my way to school I pass tomatoes of all colors, fresh apple cider donuts, and a honey stand that often draws a swarm of bees.
I expected New York to be different from Ithaca, but the main difference is that its wide variety of options even includes many of Ithaca’s “unique” attributes. Still, Ithaca should be safe as long as it has its gorges.
Lebbeus Woods’ apartment is a cabinet of curiosities. Strange chipboard shapes crouch on kitchen cabinets and book shelves; drawings by the front door show wild lines attacking cities. It is a mix of dystopian visions and domestic life, as well as enough books to fill a small library. The table in the center of all this is where several classmates and I have met for class the past two Fridays.
Our subject has been “the room.” More specifically, we have been sharing the results of our first assignment, to “visually represent the idea of a room.” Given the complexity of Lebbeus’ work, at first I found it surprising that his class would focus on such an abstract issue (the syllabus lists “the room,” “space,” “energy,” “time,” “emotion” and “architecture”). Of our eleven or so projects, some look more like a conventional box and some less so, but in conversation with Lebbeus we have discovered more subtle aspects in each student’s work. Ideas emerge about constrained movement, lines of perspective, discontinuity of space, the filtering of light and sound, architectural intent and so on. The leap from thinking about boxes to Lebbeus’ imaginary worlds no longer seems so large.
Towering above the room-sized skylight, the Beekman tower or “New York by Gehry” building reflects the afternoon sun down to our table. From this angle, it could almost be a conventional high-rise except for one give-away edge of rippling stainless steel. I don’t know how long Lebbeus has been in his current home, but there was clearly no architecture like this when he began his work. It’s as if one of his models escaped from the shelves and sprouted into a skyscraper. For an architecture student, the entire city is a cabinet of curiosities, though it’s hard to say if exploring its sights or sitting with its authors is more exciting. What makes me happiest to be here for a semester is that I don’t have to choose.