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Sam Hall Kaplan

City Casts Shadow on Architects

May 29, 1988|Sam Hall Kaplan

NEW YORK — Dominating the national convention of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) held here was the host city itself.

To be sure, the AIA put together an ambitious program of workshops, discussions, exhibits and speakers to engage the estimated 12,000 persons, including about 4,000 architects, who drifted in and out of the convention.

There was science fiction writer Isaac Asimov envisioning underground cities; public opinion pollster Louis Harris predicting the obvious, such as the further urbanization of suburbia, and New Yorker magazine writer and author Brendan Gill declaring architecture was in a "muddle," in part because of the overemphasis of the profession's superstars on style.

And then there were the superstars themselves, polishing their personae and matching invitations to private parties, a smattering of others expressing a commendable concern for the homeless and the cause of peace and the usual sincere debates over the future of the profession. Topping off the proceedings was a heaping portion of self-congratulations, for which the AIA is famed.

But all paled in the face of New York City, whose streetscapes, buildings and skyline were very much on display, exhibiting the successes, excesses and failures of the design profession. There also were an engaging range of special exhibits in museums, galleries and select store windows along 5th Avenue.

As a result, the conversations of persons attending the convention tended to be about buildings and exhibits they had experienced, not what they had happened to have heard or seen slides of at the convention.

A building all attending the convention experienced was the convention center itself, a sparkling, new, ingeniously structured and well-organized space named after the late Sen. Jacob Javits. Despite its massiveness, the center has a light, almost transparent quality, particularly in the lobby. And while the lower floor and seminar rooms were raw and could have used some color and light, the building seemed to work.

The center, located in the west midtown area, was designed by James Ingo Freed of I.M. Pei & Partners, the same team that is participating in the design for the addition to the Los Angeles Convention Center. It should only be as good.

Most persons who attended the convention also, at one time or other, traveled downtown to glimpse Battery Park City, a $4-billion, 92-acre residential and commercial development being built on landfill on the Hudson River under the aegis of an enlightened public-benefit corporation.

Distinguishing the project is a sensitive urban design plan of textured streetscapes, waterfront promenades, small parks and well-scaled and richly detailed apartment houses, very much in the mold of the desirable residential neighborhoods of Manhattan's Upper East and West Sides, which took form in the 1920s and '30s.

The vision fashioned by the architecture and planning team of Alexander Cooper and Stanton Eckstut (who have since gone their own ways) is quite appealing, and is an excellent example of what the urban design process can achieve if generously supported. There is a promise in Battery Park of not just a collection of pricey high-rise towers bunched together, but of a community with a sense of place, knitted by streets and parks.

Less successful is the commercial portion of the development, in particular the so-called Winter Garden in the new World Financial Center designed by Cesar Pelli. The first public event to be held in the Winter Garden was a gala party for the AIA.

The garden is an 18,000-square-foot space looking out to the west at the Hudson River and topped by a huge barrel vault of glass and steel, not unlike a 19th-Century train shed. In the space that connects the four towers of the World Financial Center is a grand staircase and 16 towering palm trees.

Unfortunately, the structure appears heavy, as do the oversized black-painted columns, distorting the scale of the space. The palms also seem out of place; more appropriate perhaps, and certainly more animated and fun, would have been an old-fashioned steam locomotive. Not helping either is the lack of a grand entry. Even when filled with architects for the party, the space seemed awkward and dull. More appealing was the unfinished park outside and a walk along the Battery Park promenade.

While not on any tour or the scene of any AIA event, a nondescript 31-story, brick condominium on East 96th Street, off of Park Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side, was the subject of much debate at the convention, as it has been among New Yorkers in recent months.

It seems the city's building department misread its own zoning map and allowed the construction of the 31 stories when, in fact, the project should have been limited to 19 stories. Apparently, it was an honest mistake on which the architect subsequently based his design, and the developer his anticipated profits.

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