The Babble/On Project

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Praying for the Angels

So it looks like Broken Angel will continue to stand. The Times is reporting that the efforts of architecture students and faculty at Pratt, Congresswoman Laetitia James, Dave Chappelle and most importantly, a crafty condo developer have all paid off. The current owners have partnered with a developer to turn most of the building into new condos, though they will retain a living space and studio in the building, presumably near the top. Also, it appears that they're going to have to dismantle the structure on the roof, which was the source of most of the building code violations. Good news, I think.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Why Not Cathedrals?

I took an unplanned one-month absence during the holidays, due to travel, shopping and socializing, but I should be back regularly now, or at least as regular as I've ever been.

The NY Times ran an article recently about the new downtown transit hub they're building, which I think is a great idea. If you've ever tried to transfer from a 5 train to a J train at Broadway/Fulton/Nassau/Timbuktu, then you probably agree that the place is a mess. The new station will be ambitious and all-inclusive, and will not only clean up the existing connections between the J/M/Z, A/C, 4/5 amd 2/3 lines, but will also connect to the nearby R/W line and the new Calatrava PATH station at the former World Trade Center site. Also, I believe that the Airtrain from JFK will eventually push across the rest of Brookly and the E. River to terminate here. The Times put together a nice interactive graphic of the site, showing how people would make connections in the station. I've pinched a nice elevation from it for you to take a look at.

But of course anything this big is going to cause controversy, especially in downtown Manhattan. The sticking point in this case is the large conical atrium that will extend up above ground level at Broadway and Fulton and will serve as the focal point of the whole complex. The original design called for a big seashell shape made entirely of glass that would allow light to pour down into the station, which just sounds great.

But not everyone agrees. Some people think that the atrium structure was unnecessary and expensive, and should be eliminated in the interest of saving money. As one board member put it, "It's not like we're building cathedrals here."

Well, I agree. I love cathedrals, but you know what? Nobody uses cathedrals anymore. They used to be the focus of public life, but nowadays church attendance is down and we're essentially a secular society, and a more diverse one. Transit hubs come about as close to a universal gathering place as we get these days, and it doesn't seem ridiculous to me that if you're going to drop $700 million on a new transit center, you might as well make sure it looks good.

Aesthetics are certainly secondary to concerns about pure functionality, but a major access point to the city should say something about this city, should present a confident and friendly image to visitors and be a point of pride for residents and commuters. Clothes and the paint on your house are both aesthetic after all, and you wouldn't catch many people in successful positions who think that these should be neglected just to save a few bucks. Image does matter, and affects how people feel about their city and themselves.

I'm reminded of the quote by the architecture critic Vincent Scully about how the new (and current) Penn Station compared to the magnificent Beaux Arts building that was leveled to make Madison Square Garden: "One entered the city like a god, one scuttles in now like a rat."

The destruction of Penn Station is credited with starting the historic preservation movement, which was able to prevent Grand Central from suffering a similar fate. And thanks to several decades of greater awareness, the mistakes made at Penn Station are getting partially rectified, with the plans for the Farley Post Office to be reconstruted to serve as the new Penn Station, restoring a little dignity to many people's first glimpse of Manhattan.

And at the end of the day, both sides reached a compromise over the atrium for the downtown transit hub as well. Instead of an all-glass seashell, it will be a metal cone instead, with a skylight at the top and a system of mirrors for bringing light down into the atrium. Maybe not ideal, but certainly a solution that seems reasonable.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Brokedown Palace

If you happened to catch Dave Chappelle's excellent Block Party movie, then you probably know about the bizarre little architectural fantasy known as Broken Angel, lying on strange little L-shaped block in the Ft. Greene/Clinton Hill/Bed-Stuy area of Brooklyn.

Well, apparently it's been condemned by the City and they're going to hold a hearing to determine whethere to tear down. There's already a small public outcry and a movement to save it, but I'm not sure if there will be time to act.

I think it's an interesting structure with an intersting story, and I would rather have it around than not, but from the way it's been constructed and the fact that they had a fire recently, I'm sort of inclined to believe the City on this one. If it's dangerous, it needs to come down. It's not particularly historic, and I imagine it will take a lot of money to fix, especially considering it was never fully fixed to begin with.

So I'm interested enough to post below the call to arms I received in my inbox yesterday, but not so interested that I think I will personally take a stand. But you know, feel free.


Dear friends,

Hopefully you are already aware of "Broken Angel" the invaluable, totally unique architectural treasure at 4 Downing St. at Quincy, on the edge of Clinton Hill. Seeing it will put a smile on anyone's face, and it is prominent in the film Dave Chappelle's Block Party, which was made in its cul de sac. Artists Arthur and Cynthia Wood bought the old Brooklyn Trolley building, which was then just a single story shell, in the 1970s and have been transforming it ever since, adding towers and turrets and found art objects and colors. It is a residence unlike any other, although the house on the old The Addams Family TV show or movie is perhaps an approximation. If you have never seen Broken Angel, or have not seen it recently, go there ASAP. Sadly, it may not be there much longer.

There was a small fire of unknown cause in Broken Angel two months ago. Damage was minor and Cynthia and Arthur were not harmed. However, the Department of Buildings came in, declared the structure unsafe and evicted Arthur and Cynthia, making them homeless.

I just returned from a meeting with Arthur and Cynthia in the office of NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL Member Letitia James. I learned that there will be a hearing before Judge Sylvia Hinds-Radix of State Supreme Court at 360 Adams St. in downtown Brooklyn 11:30am Thursday, Dec. 14. It does appear that DOB is seeking legal authorization to demolish Broken Angel, perhaps as soon as possible. While no one is claiming Broken Angel is in full compliance with all NYC building regulations, it has stood safely for three decades and, even after the small, quickly extinguished fire, is not at risk of either collapsing or damaging nearby structures.

I am contacting you to both make you aware of the imminent danger to this irreplaceable treasure and to ask you to think about what you can do to help preserve it. Professor Brent Porter of Pratt Institute: School of Architecture is generously contributing his time, but right now what would be most helpful would be an expert from a firm such as Robert Silman Associates | Structural Engineers or another respected structural engineering firm who might care so much for Brooklyn that they would be willing to get involved. That would be invaluable in obtaining the legal protection to prevent Broken Angel's possible imminent destruction.

If that can be accomplished, then the next step will be creating a plan for Broken Angel's long term survival. Plans will need to be drawn up to bring it into compliance with regulatory codes while maintaining as much as possible of the unique structure and appearance that make it such a treasure. Once such plans are approved, dedicated contractors who appreciate the structure's value will need to do the work.

Obviously, all of this of this will cost money. Hopefully this email will inspire you to go over to 4 Downing St. and take another look at it. And that you will agree with me that the existence of Broken Angel enhances the quality of life of every New Yorker. If enough imaginative people do so, maybe a plan can be crafted to convert it into a resource that could be used, not just seen, by New Yorkers, and public funds could be made available.

Precedent exists. The City plans to allocate a few million dollars in public funds to purchase a building for Dick Zigun's Coney Island Museum.

This is not a fund raising letter. It is an invitation to join me, one private citizen with no official status, in trying to one little piece of what makes Brooklyn so special. Cynthia and Arthur have no financial resources. They could easily sell Broken Angel, their only asset, to a real estate developer, who would be happy to guarantee their financial security by demolishing it and building million dollar residences in the now cool location. But they are prepared to sacrifice that security to preserve their handiwork. Maybe there will be a time to give money. But right now, how about donating a little thought, a little time? Ask yourself if you know architects and structural engineers you can contact. If enough people care enough to make a few phone calls and send a few emails, maybe we the public can save and preserve a piece of Brooklyn that really is priceless.

Please feel free to respond and ask any questions. I will do my best to answer them.

Neil Feldman, Publisher
Not Only Brooklyn Arts & Events Newsletter,

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


While I failed to mention it last post, Gazprom City reminded me of Magnitogorsk (which means Magic Mountain City in Russian), the city that Stalin ordered to be built from scratch during one of his 5 year plans. The idea was to take an area rich in iron ore, build a city full of processing plants and factories right on top of it and *presto!* -- instant marvel of socialism. They even brought in Ernst May to head up a team of foreign architects to design a linear city in which the factories and housing units would run in two parallel strips, with a greensward between them. The idea is that just like Stalin built the factories near the iron, all the workers would be assigned a living space near the place they where they were to work.

Whatever picture you have in your head right now about how this turned out, the reality was much worse. Stalin was in such a hurry that construction began on the city before May really got out there, so he had to really massacre his plans to conform to the situation as he found it. The result was a really contorted city that was a "rationally designed" city that didn't make any sense. And of course all the people brought in to work were just agrarian peasants who knew nothing about manufacturing. Because the city didn't grow naturally, there were all sorts of infrastructure problems that weren't anticipated, like noxious fumes from factories that always blew right into residential areas. The whole debacle is laid out really well in a book by Stephen Kotkin called "Magnetic Mountain."

Wikipedia says that May built 20 cities for Stalin in 3 years, which, even considering the disasters, seems breathtaking when you consider that it's taken 5 years to even begin building the replacement for the World Trade Center. But I guess that's the bright side of totalitarianism.

P.S. The subject line is a reference to the Ultramagnetic MCs (featuring the inimitable Kool Keith, aka Dr. Octagon), who have a reunion record coming out soon. I'm quite excited.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Picking a date for the Gazprom

Gazprom, a giant Russian natural gas company, has apparently invited a number of big name architects to come up with ideas for a new complex in St. Petersburg called Gazprom City. Despite the fact that they're part of the Russian government and the biggest company in the country and they don't really have to let anyone know anything about what they're doing, they've gamely decided to post the finalists of the design competition on their website and display the conceptual models at an art museum.

The three above are pretty amazing. I think the middle one is Liebeskind, but I'm not entirely sure. While I don't think it's my favorite (the one that looks like a flame on the left is awfully pretty), there's something about it that really captivates me. How strange would it be to work there? When you're in a regular office building, it's easy to imagine how to get to some other office, but here, you'd really have to know what you were doing. I tend to be good with directions and like the feeling of getting lost or exploring, and I prefer the crazy streets in parts of London to the straigtforward grid of midtown Manhattan, so I like the idea of a building that you could get lost in. And I would love to stand underneath it and look up.

But take a look at this one:

I don't know exactly what is going on here, but it seems like there are five buildings that are connected by some kind of open frame structure, with three levels of park terrace stretching between them. That's so sci-fi I'm getting goosebumps. There's something about the whole thing that puts me off, but I love the concept of making streets and parks in the sky. I'm sure it's a very green building, as well.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Force better be strong in you, Skywalker

I have a longer post coming about the High Line in Manhattan (a park being built on a derelict elevated rail line), but here's a nice segue from my posts about the Panorama.

These renderings depict the Skywalk at the soon to be completed Grand Canyon West Resort. I assume that this thing has a pretty wicked anchorage, as it seems like they've taken great pains to make it super strong.

It's the shot below that made me think of the Panorama, although the buildings depicted are their actual size, though of course the Skywalk isn't to scale in this rendering.

Thanks to K for bringing this to my attention.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Future Imperfect

There's a fun little article in the New York Times today about a design competition sponsored by the History Channel, of all people, challenging architecture teams to imagine what NYC will be like 100 years from now. There are a lot of fun ideas, considering they only had a week to put their presentation together. They range from the extremely plausible (a future Manhattan without cars) to the insultingly ridiculous (all of Manhattan built up to 65 stories with the outer boroughs turned completley into parkland.)

Some of the better ideas sound like a lot of fun, though. One imagined a floating city in the sky above Manhattan, which would become a giant park. Another imagined a bunch of modular units floating in the waterways around the city that could dock where they were needed. This is actually about to really happen, when the Neptune Foundation brings their "Floating Pool" to the city next summer.

The winning idea imagined Manhattan swamped by global warming, so their future city was built up over the newly created canals, no doubt using them in a lot of sustainable and green ways.

I love thinking about the future, and I love the idea of this competition. The teams were only given a week to work on their presentations, and I'm impressed with some of the stuff they came up with.

But of course I can't spend all this time on Manhattan without finding something to say about my beloved Brooklyn, so I'll leave you with this shot of Alexis Rockman's mural "Manifest Destiny" which imagines a waterlogged future version of the Better Borough.