Archive for ‘Architecture’

December 13, 2011

Think Big

A couple of years ago I read an interview with the maverick architect Lebbeus Woods from 2007. The eye catching aspect of the online article was a drawing of a reimagined New York.

Here is what he had to say about his thoughts regarding the drawing:

I think the main thought I had, in speculating on the future of New York, was that, in the past, a lot of discussions had been about New York being the biggest, the greatest, the best – but that all had to do with the size of the city. You know, the size of the skyscrapers, the size of the culture, the population. So I commented in the article about Le Corbusier’s infamous remark that your skyscrapers are too small. Of course, New York dwellers thought he meant, oh, they’re not tall enough – but what he was referring to was that they were too small in their ground plan. His idea of the Radiant City and the Ideal City – this was in the early 30s – was based on very large footprints of buildings, separated by great distances, and, in between the buildings in his vision, were forests, parks, and so forth. But in New York everything was cramped together because the buildings occupied such a limited ground area. So Le Corbusier was totally misunderstood by New Yorkers who thought, oh, our buildings aren’t tall enough – we’ve got to go higher! Of course, he wasn’t interested at all in their height – more in their plan relationship. Remember, he’s the guy who said, the plan is the generator.

So I was speculating on the future of the city and I said, well, obviously, compared to present and future cities, New York is not going to be able to compete in terms of size anymore. It used to be a large city, but now it’s a small city compared with São Paulo, Mexico City, Kuala Lumpur, or almost any Asian city of any size. So I said maybe New York can establish a new kind of scale – and the scale I was interested in was the scale of the city to the Earth, to the planet. I made the drawing as a demonstration of the fact that Manhattan exists, with its towers and skyscrapers, because it sits on a rock – on a granite base. You can put all this weight in a very small area because Manhattan sits on the Earth.

When I first read this, I thought “how wildly, insanely implausible. Wonderful but implausible.”

Then a few weeks ago, I saw online a map of an “extended Manhattan,” from 1922.

And yet, this map is the downsized plan of a “really greater New York,” by Dr. T. Kennard Thomson from as early as 1911. In an article published in 1916, he describes “a project to reclaim fifty square miles of land from New York Bay, to add one hundred miles of new waterfront for docks, to fill in the East River, and to prepare New York for a population of twenty million.” This is what it would look like.

What you’re looking at is Manhattan and Brooklyn attached by reclaiming land from the East River, which itself would be moved east, running from Flushing bay to Jamaica bay. Manhattan is extended south by some five miles (to the mouth of the Varrezano narrows). And several other parts of New York bay turned into land.

Now, I have no idea if this would actually be possible from an engineering point. Dr. Thomson assures his readers in the article in which he proposes the whole plan that the “majority of engineers, however, have acknowledged the possibility, and [that he has] received hundreds of letter of encouragement.” Obviously, he’s selling his own idea, so he’s biased, but beyond that, the whole article just brims with optimism and unbridled faith in progress. He sounds not just like a man who thinks this is possible, but that whether it is carried out in his time, it will sooner or later be accomplished. You should read the (quite short) article here, if only for its tone.


The tone, however, is significant, I would here like to claim. Of course it is posturing of a man with outrageously ambitions ideas. And to our ears, this sounds like pure fantasy, giving the confidence of the tone a slight ridiculousness. But what if instead of thinking of Dr. T. Kennard Thomson as foolhardy, we think of our own thoughts about New York city shackled by what it is, making us unable to think of New York as how it might have been? In other words, what if we all thought of New York a little more like Lebbeus Woods?

In 1911, New York was going through a massive expansion. The Flatiron building was still new, the Met Life tower was the tallest building in the world (briefly), soon to be overtaken (in 1913) by the Woolworth building. This is the time when most of New York’s subway lines were laid out, and in general when the city took the shape that we are so familiar with. Had people at the time thought (dreamed) bigger, like dr. Thomson, would it not have been possible that it actually become bigger? Instead of a Manhattan connected to Brooklyn, and very close to Staten Island, and a city of twenty million, we have eight million, and the Varrezano bridge. (Itself an engineering marvel and nothing to be sneered at in terms of size, but still far short of dr. Thomson’s plan.)

Let me even go a step further. I do not think it is an accident that dr. Thomson and Lebbeus Woods talk about a radical enlargement of New York at the moments that they do. For dr. Thomson, it was, as I said, a moment when New York was exploding. For Woods, it is a moment when it is again possible to dream big about big cities. What I mean by this is that New York was basically formed by the 1930’s. Of course it has changed since, but its scale was set by the time the Chrysler building was topped out (let’s say). But as Woods points out, New York’s size, the basis of its global appeal for at least half a century, is now nothing special. Since the 1990’s, Asian and Latin American cities have been exploding in the way that New York did a hundred years ago.

It is, I think and despite Lebbeus Woods’ best efforts, too late for New York. But the question remains, for these other cities: in your expansion, what will you look like? So, São Paulo, Mexico City, Bombay, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Beijing – should you encounter your equivalent of Dr. T. Kennard Thomson, this would be the time to listen to him.

October 18, 2011

If Dr. Seuss designed a library…

What do we like on this blog? Interesting books, buildings… And by interesting, I mean crazy creative, like if Dr. Seuss were coming up with the design. One wonders what Dr. Seuss (full name Theodor Seuss Geisel) would have thought of the library named after him at UC San Diego:

(click on any of these for a larger image)

Geisel Library at UCSD

There’s the Ann Arbor District Library in Michigan.

Ann Arbor Library

Or perhaps you would like the Vancouver Public Library.

I have to post the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Yale University. I already mentioned it houses the Voynich manuscript, but it also has one of the 48 remaining copies of the Gutenberg Bible. From the outside it looks like an impenetrable white box. Like this.

But the interior looks warm and spacious.

And the light you see coming from the walls is not lighting. The walls are made from translucent Danby marble, letting in a limited amount light. I like to think that the architects designing this had old cathedrals in mind, with their stained glass windows that look dull on the outside, but sparkle and explode in color from the inside.

I leave you with one last library. The Royal Library Copenhagen, Denmark.


Thanks to Ana for the original link where you can find yet more interesting libraries.

February 26, 2011

Parc de la Villette

For the record, I loved this park before I knew these few tidbits from Wikipedia:
The park was designed by Bernard Tschumi, a French architect of Swiss origin, who built it from 1984 to 1987 on the site of the huge Parisian abattoirs (slaughterhouses) and the national wholesale meat market, as part of an urban redevelopment project. The slaughterhouses, built in 1867 on the instructions of Napoléon III, had been cleared away and relocated in 1974. Tschumi won a major design competition in 1982/83 for the park, and he sought the opinions of the deconstructionist philosopher, Jacques Derrida, in the preparation of his design proposal.

No, really! I can prove it. Here is a portion of an e-mail I sent friends on May 5th, 2008:
[On] the train home I noticed at one elevated point a park that I had seen before, but never really knew what it was. So I hopped off and went exploring.
The park is in the north east part of Paris, around an artificial canal. It extends (the park that is) for miles. Bike trails, people sunbathing, people playing sports on the grass, picnicking, shouting, laughing, running, leaping, gazing, strolling, kissing, lounging, smiling, singing…I took my shoes off and walked barefoot in the grass thinking to myself that I am in a larger, contemporary, live version of Seaurat’s famous “La Grande Jatte.” …


I had no idea this place existed in Paris. There were completely modern foot bridges, passages, spaces for basket ball, kids’ playgrounds, and lots of open space, obviously. At the very end of the park, but audible for a half mile before you get there, was a group of maybe thirty drummers and percussionists. They had an audience of hundreds either standing around, or bobbing their heads, or outright jumping around to the beat (ok that last one was just me, but I enjoyed it). And they played a continuous piece for a good thirty to forty minutes. Really, for anybody who is planning on coming to Paris next, I recommend it.


Here are some photos of the park and the various structures within it. (photos by Filip Kanački)

This last one a model of the Cité de la Musique, at the end of the park, designed by Christian de Portzamparc.

And here is one of Tschumi’s designs of the red metal structures that punctuate the park. (stolen from New Clear Dawn)

February 18, 2011


The crazy architect Lebbeus Woods has a blog. A recent entry was written by (a certain) Diane Lewis.

She recounts watching a documentary about Einstein and seeing one of the photos of the solar eclipse on May 29th, 1919 that Arthur Eddington used to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity.


For some reason the image seemed familiar to her. Then she remembered Le Corbusier’s plan for the Palace of the Congress at Chandigarh.


The aha! moment:

She writes: The ideas of architectural order revealed in the cut—the plan and section, as read in the extreme artifice of the two-dimensional section—here captures the entasis of celestial motion, the moment and flux of the resistance of the void, and of forces that can be seen as registered in a dialogue with materiality or a force field of light motion.

Read the full blog entry here.