Sunday, December 29, 2013

Hunter's Point South Park

by Robin Lynn

It takes more than a while to build a waterfront park, so it’s worth returning to see newly completed sections. More than fifteen years ago landscape architect Thomas Balsley created the schematic design for parkland along the water’s edge in Long Island City, Queens, and today he’s still watching over design and construction.

Hunter’s Point South Park (Center Boulevard between 50th and 54th Avenues) opened in August 2013, next to Gantry Plaza State Park, the older initial area designed by Balsley and Weintraub & di Domenico. (see Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes, p. 119). On October 9, 2013, I re-joined Balsley to see the new area. Why re-joined? In 1998 I was with him when I organized a Municipal Art Society tour of his then-new 2.5-acre Gantry Plaza State Park. I expect to be with him in the future, timeline unclear, when his final park section is built on a bluff south of Hunter’s Point South Park.

Tom led this Archtober tour with Michael Manfredi of Weiss/Manfredi, the New York-based architecture firm, whose work deftly integrates architecture and landscape. They are collaborating with ARUP, a global firm specializing in infrastructure, to create the landscapes, park facilities, and streets of the new residential developments along the Long Island City waterfront. Manfredi characterized the successive sections as “charms on a bracelet” with their own expenses, programs, and settings.

Hunter’s Point South Park is city-managed. (New York City took back this stretch of land from the state prior to the city's 2012 Olympic bid for an ultimately unbuilt Olympic Village to and from which athletes would be transported by the ferries that are the only part of that plan to be realized.) What the city park and Gantry Plaza State Park have in common are the same killer views: the United Nations Secretariat Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building across the East River, and now the geometric contours of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island (see Guide, p. 139).

Against this amazing backdrop lies a great green elliptical space, sited between Long Island City’s streets and the East River, large enough for a regulation-size soccer field to fit within. The whole swirling mass is covered in green artificial turf, with natural grass on raised land around it. (The politics of green are interesting: The director of the City Planning Department wanted real grass, while the Department of Parks and Recreation, knowing that the area would serve the gym needs of a new public school across the street, did not.) The compromise: an altered topography, with active folks getting a flat artificial turf to play on, and parents and lovers getting grass. A lovely, continuous granite band divides the sections, and provides more seating.

What else? The Rail Garden, with rails in the ground, alludes to the area’s industrial past when rail cars arrived here and went by barge across the East River. Native grasses, which once populated the area, playfully sway among the rails. In the “foyer” area, there are appealing banquettes close to the street for visitors who don’t want to walk the full width of the Rail Garden to the water.

The covered canopy of the open-air pavilion by the New York Water Taxi dock (café to come with the requisite movable chairs) has a nautical quality with pleated panels capturing rainwater. The Southern pine wood on the deck, treated in Scandinavia to alter its cellular structure to perform like a much harder wood—such as the scarce teak or ipe—was used here for the first time in a city park. Nearby there’s a dog park, really two parks, one for small dogs, one for large dogs. “Dog owners are the new parents of the city…and they need to make social connections,” says Balsley.” Maybe the animals enjoy the views too.

The area across the street from Hunter’s Point South Park is a whir of building activity. Following the economic downtown of 2008, and to spur development, the city decided to build its parks first and then issue requests for proposals for buildings. The new housing, in construction or being planned, will eventually have a mix of 5,000 units of affordable and market-rate housing. In the meantime, the parks are open for business, with one more section to come.

Further reading:

Friday, August 23, 2013

Brooklyn Bridge Park Update

One of the purposes of this blog is to provide updates on the places covered in Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes. Many of our major new urban landscapes—Hudson River Park, the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park—were conceived to be slowly unfolding things. This is not unusual in the design and construction of major parks: Central Park opened in stages.

Brooklyn Bridge Park is not only a work in progress, but its design is a continuing process. In the book, for example, I reported that the philanthropist Joshua Rechnitz had, right at the time of the book’s writing, offered a staggering $50 million to Brooklyn Bridge Park to construct the Fieldhouse, as it was to be called, below the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, to the north of Pier 5, roughly on the line of Montague Street. The central attraction of the Fieldhouse was to be a velodrome with a 200-meter banked track for fixed-gear bicycle racing—Rechnitz’s passion, and that of a small but hardcore group of New Yorkers who bemoan the city’s lack of such facilities. Well, the plan is off. First, many park advocates criticized the idea, saying that a velodrome was far too specialized a use for valuable public parkland. Supporters of the plan pointed out that the Fieldhouse would contain facilities for many other activities as well. In the end, park officials determined that $50 million, while a breathtaking amount when considered as a donation to a public park (Philip and Lisa Maria Falcone reportedly gave $10 million to the High Line), simply wasn’t enough to build the Fieldhouse to the specifications everyone wanted.
Here is a rundown of the some of the changes in Brooklyn Bridge Park since the writing of Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes:


The summer of 2013 marks the second seasonal appearance of the Pop-Up Pool at Pier 2, about at the line of Pineapple Street. The 30-foot-by-50-foot, 3½-foot deep pool was designed to be temporary, and is scheduled to remain in the park only through the summer of 2017. It cost $700,000 to build.

Pop-Up Pool 4
On its landward side a wall is formed by brightly painted stacked shipping containers. such as Brooklynites are familiar with, in the “pop-up” context, from DeKalb Market, the hip temporary artisanal market that operated until last fall in downtown Brooklyn. (But recently Robert LaValva of Manhattan’s New Amsterdam Market proclaimed the shipping container aesthetic to be “already a little passé.”) On the water side of the container-wall the space divides in two. On the south is the pool, which accommodates sixty swimmers at a time. On the north is a sandy area with umbrella tables where refreshments sold by Brooklyn’s Lizzmonade may be consumed. (The pool closes at six, but the refreshment area stays open, as a bar, until eleven.) The Pop-Up Pool operates through Labor Day, and will reopen next June.
We live in a “pop-up” culture, it seems. Pop-up markets, pop-up shops, pop-up cafés—and, at Brooklyn Bridge Park, a pop-up pool. When Robert Moses and Fiorello La Guardia built their jaw-dropping municipal pools in the 1930s, there was nothing pop-up about them. These were monumental structures—think Red Hook Park, McCarren Park, Astoria Park, Jackie Robinson Park—that were conceived to be among the defining public works of the nation’s greatest city. When the reputation of Robert Moses hit rock bottom following the 1974 publication of Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker, it was in large part because so much of what he had built was in such dismal repair. Jane Jacobs even suggested that La Guardia was a fatuous mayor for building so much, on the federal dime, that the city would thereafter prove unable to maintain. Today, those 1930s pools don’t look as bad as they once did. McCarren Park Pool closed in 1984 and stood as a majestic, threatening ruin until it was refurbished and reopened in 2012. When it opened in 1936, the pool could accommodate 6,880 swimmers. The renovated pool of today accommodates about 1,500. Still, the point Jane Jacobs made holds: You might build something for the ages that proves to be as evanescent as any pop-up.


One of the frustrating things about Brooklyn Bridge Park until recently was the lack of direct access from Brooklyn Heights, one of Brooklyn’s oldest, most beautiful, and most exclusive neighborhoods, situated atop the bluff overlooking the park. One had to enter the park to the south, at Atlantic Avenue, or at the north, near Fulton Street. Many park users felt that many residents of Brooklyn Heights wanted it that way. Long before a shovelful of earth was turned in the construction of the park, when it was just being discussed and debated at the community level, one heard many a loud concern raised about the prospect of hordes of people traipsing through Brooklyn Heights en route to or from the park. It’s still not as though the Heights has a truly intimate relationship to the park, but up at Middagh Street, in the northernmost section of the Heights, at Squibb Park, a dramatic pedestrian bridge, sweeping down from the bluff to the park below, opened last March. The bridge was designed by structural engineer (and MacArthur Fellow) Theodore Zoli, whose other credits include the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge (2008) connecting Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Omaha, Nebraska, over the Missouri River. A lengthy profile of Zoli appeared in the same 2010 Esquire magazine feature—“The Brightest: 16 Geniuses Who Give Us Hope”—that included that famously (or notoriously) fawning profile of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

Squibb Park 4
The Squibb Park Bridge leads out from a >1-acre park that Robert Moses built in the 1940s as part of the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. To enter the park, you have to descend stairs from Columbia Heights at a point just north of the northern terminus of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. With its old-fashioned park benches, old-fashioned lamp standards, Moses-vintage utility building, and utilitarian flagpole, and in the way the park’s nestled in a crook of the expressway, and in comparison with our Bloomberg-era landscapes, there is something deeply evocative about this park, something almost quaint: It looks like a set for a movie that takes place in 1950s New York.

Squibb Bridge 2
But that all changes, dramatically, as you step through a discreet opening in Squibb Park’s southwest corner onto Zoli’s narrow and very open bridge, suspended on tree-like supports and taking, about halfway along, a sharp right turn to deposit you in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The materials are black locust with steel cables and steel mesh, and, it’s been said, it’s constructed a lot like the pedestrian bridges found along hiking trails. It’s dramatic, as I said, but not as an object to look at, rather as an experience. As an object, it’s unassuming. As an experience, it’s unique, the descent (or, in the other direction, the rise) offering views never before seen, a continuum of viewing angles up and down the bluff that, before, only a bird could enjoy.

Another Bend in the Bridge
I’m charmed by how Zoli, in the Esquire profile, remarks on his interest in the poet Hart Crane. The Squibb Park Bridge does not figure in the Esquire article, so Crane’s name does not arise in connection with it. It was in a house that once stood at 110 Columbia Heights, at Orange Street, two blocks to the south of Squibb Park, that Hart Crane wrote The Bridge.

View from the Bridge

A view from the bridge.


Theodore Zoli: Bridge Engineer, profile in Esquire.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Laurie Olin Receives the National Medal of Arts

On Wednesday, July 10, 75-year-old Laurie Olin became only the fourth landscape architect to receive the National Medal of Arts from the President of the United States. The others all had New York connections: Dan Kiley is represented in New York City by the atrium of the Ford Foundation on East 42nd Street and by Blackwell Park on Roosevelt Island; Lawrence Halprin’s firm was responsible for the plaza at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd on Roosevelt Island; and Ian McHarg, who founded the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania, was part of Wallace McHarg Roberts & Todd, which worked on the plan for lower Manhattan in the 1960s. But none left a mark on Manhattan remotely like the one that has been left by Laurie Olin. Olin, either with his onetime partner Robert Hanna in the firm of Hanna/Olin, or later through the Olin Partnership, is synonymous with the 1980s and 1990s transformation of open space that we also strongly associate with the writer William H. Whyte, whose 1980 film The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces wrought a revolution in urban perception similar to that of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961.

ET Bryant Park

Bryant Park (photo by Edward A. Toran from The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes).

We also associate Olin’s New York works with the self-described public gardener Lynden B. Miller, who contributed so significantly to Bryant Park and Wagner Park, which, with the Battery Park City Esplanade and Columbus Circle, represent Olin’s impressive corpus of Manhattan projects. Even small landscape designs are collaborative affairs, and it’s hard, even after careful study, to assign credit for specific features to specific firms or designers. At Wagner Park, Olin worked with, in addition to Miller, the talented Argentinian architects Jorge Silvetti and Rodolfo Machado.

ET Wagner Park

Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park (photo by Edward A. Toran from The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes).

At Columbus Circle, Olin worked with the renowned fountain designers WET Design.

ET Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle (photo by Edward A. Toran from The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes).

And yet, we seem to have no problem regarding Olin as the auteur of all these designs. Bryant Park is not simply a realization of the ideas of William H. Whyte, nor is Wagner Park simply a vessel for Lynden B. Miller’s container gardens. Each of these spaces hews to a vision that is Olin's own (or Olin’s and Hanna’s).

The first time Olin was ever mentioned in the New York Times was back in 1983. On May 22 of that year, Paul Goldberger wrote: “Next month...what may be the best public space in Manhattan in a generation—and surely the finest riverfront park in New York City since the esplanade at Brooklyn Heights was completed in 1951—will open. It is the Battery Park City Esplanade, a linear park that runs for 1.2 miles along the outer edge of the 92-acre landfill site on the Hudson River that will contain the immense Battery Park City development.” (In 1996, Goldberger would write, of another work to which Olin contributed, “Wagner Park is one of the finest public spaces New York has seen in at least a generation.”) The next Times mention came later in 1983, on December 1, in a piece in which Deirdre Carmody wrote “An unusual public-private partnership is planning an $18 million redevelopment of Bryant Park that will include a huge glass restaurant, a cascading fountain with reflecting pools, four food kiosks and a permanent security force.”

ET BPC Esplanade

Battery Park City Esplanade (photo by Edward A. Toran from The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes).

We may then date Laurie Olin's profound involvement with New York City to 1983. In that year, I had been in the city for four years, and no one—no one—knew where the city was headed. The problem-plagued 1970s—during which the city lost nearly a million in population—were more than fresh in people’s memories. And though the Wall Street turnaround boded well for city finances (only a few short years after the city nearly declared bankruptcy and was stripped of much of its financial home-rule), the crime rate was still going up (homicides would not peak until 1990), and many New Yorkers lived in perpetual fear. Amid the civic disorder—the growing homeless population, the graffiti, the fear of crime—it’s hard to think that anyone would look to parks as part of the solution. In fact, historically we have always looked to parks as part of the solution. Central Park was built in part as a means of pacifying the restive masses during a period in New York of even greater disorder than the 1970s. Robert Moses and Mayor La Guardia sought to take the edge off the Great Depression by building swimming pools and Orchard Beach and by the comprehensive renovation of all the city’s parks, which had been badly neglected during the prosperous 1920s. Olin—and those whom he collaborated with—were thus part of a tradition. This is something I thought of when I read Inga Saffron’s fine appreciation of Olin in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week. She wrote: “Olin is the product of the vast open spaces of the Pacific Northwest. Yet he ‘fell in love with cities’ at the precise moment when places like Philadelphia [where Olin’s practice has been based for many years] and New York were hemorrhaging middle-class residents, and has always seen parks as a means of seducing people back.”

But unlike Olmsted and Vaux, whose vision of urban parks was that they should be antidotes to the city, Olin has shown how small parks, at least, can, and perhaps must (though as we show in the book there has lately been a reaction against this line of reasoning), be of and not merely in the city. Olin’s parks thrive on urban density, and Bryant Park, as I’ve said so many times, feels like a party (even as it can at the same time feel like a refuge).

To call Bryant Park seductive is an understatement. And to say that Laurie Olin is one of the American creators most richly deserving of the National Medal of Arts is also an understatement.

I will say no more here. There is plenty about Olin in the book, and check out these links:

A very nice profile of/interview with Laurie Olin.

The Hanna/Olin page at the Cultural Landscape Foundation web site.

Olin and his friend Witold Rybczynski wrote a wonderful book on Vizcaya, the house and gardens that my late friend Henry Hope Reed called the most beautiful in America.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Socrates Sculpture Park

By Robin Lynn

Socrates Sculpture Park, on the water’s edge in Long Island City, is not an outdoor park covering hundreds of acres on a hilly landscape with precisely sited sculptures hidden among its hills and dales. It’s an urban sculpture park: a 4+-acre plot of land cheek-by-jowl with a Costco parking lot, separated from it by a prosaic chain link fence. It’s large by city standards and roomy enough to present multiple large-scale sculptures (changed annually), with enough space for the non-profit to offer outdoors movies and opera productions, yoga classes, and even kayaking off of its cove. Best of all, it can be reached by foot from the R train after an urban hike past auto repair shops and one-story factory buildings.

Socrates 2
Socrates Sculpture Park on the Long Island City waterfront looking across the river to Roosevelt Island and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Photo by Robin Lynn.
The park isn’t that old: It opened in 1986. But it’s ancient in terms of representing a topographical and cultural shift in the art world. First, it’s in Queens: giving validity to this outer borough as a cultural player at a time when Manhattan was the only player in town. Its organizers recognized the physical allure of the water’s edge, long before the city began developing its recent slew of waterfront parks. A lot of the park’s charm, and its breezes, are based on its location on the western shoreline in Queens (across from the East 80s, if you’re still counting in Manhattan terms).

Its founding even represented a bottom-up approach to developing open space, an idea gaining traction now as residents claim, and redesign, alternative open spaces such as traffic triangles, and work with the New York City Department of Transportation to bring more seating, less traffic, and more light into their neighborhoods. The well-known sculptor Mark di Suvero, whose waterside studio, where he creates his large-scale COR-TEN steel sculptures, is located just north of the park, was a formative player in developing the park. He and other artists began exhibiting art on this run-down plot of land slated for development; their visibility, their art, and encouragement from the community eventually led to the area being demapped and demarcated as an official city park, under the jurisdiction of the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation.

Today the sculpture park presents the work of emerging sculptors. In other words, this is not the sort of work seen along the median of Park Avenue where the selected artists are already well-known, many at the peak of their careers. At Socrates the sculptors are building their careers, doing well but could be doing better, and this exposure is very helpful indeed.
This summer the Architectural League of New York is presenting the winner of its Folly competition, with a work where architecture, design, and sculpture intersect to interpret architectural folly. Toshihiro Oki won with “tree wood” [sic], a whimsical, wooden structure that has nothing practical about it. The work—and it’s hard to know whether to call it art or architecture, but that’s the point—is on exhibit until August 4, 2013. It has a still-under-construction feel to it, although it’s complete. It’s just a force of linear elements that’s open to the elements, and fits perfectly into a park which was itself a folly back in the day.

Other works include “do it (outside)”—more conceptual than sculptural—where artists’ instructions are spelled out on long boards. Presented by Independent Curators International, and curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the art is cerebral, and evokes past art historical movements. In the continuing Broadway Billboard series, Brooklyn-born artist Chitra Ganesh creates a sort of end-of-the-world narrative entitled “Her Nuclear Waters.” These colorful works give off a cheerful sense of desolation. Should the end of the world really look this good?

Chitra Ganesh, “Her Nuclear Waters,” at the entrance to Socrates Sculpture Park. Photo by Robin Lynn.
Within the park, the many works of sculpture, and sometimes multi-media art, have unlikely competition: a meandering path along the water’s edge, shielded from the sculpture by an allée of trees. In the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” school of thought, the park has built a perimeter walk where visitors can think about the art, and relax, while viewing the high-rises across the river in Manhattan, themselves a series of sculptural forms. For one year in the not distant past, there were even hammocks by the water’s edge, good for falling asleep after having taken in the art.

I’ve watched this relatively small sculpture park evolve from an underutilized lot, once a dumping ground, to a “gotta go there” space during the many years I’ve lived nearby. So I would be remiss if I didn’t mention an equally worth seeing smaller enclosed garden nearby in the Isamu Noguchi Museum—a five-minute walk south along Vernon Boulevard. The former factory, across the street from where the Japanese-American artist lived and worked from 1961 until his death in 1988, exhibits his life’s work—sculpture made from basalt, marble, metal, and other materials—as well as his tools, photographs of his studio in Japan, examples of his lightning design, and others aspects of his life and work.

The Noguchi Museum. Photo by George Hirose © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York.

But it is the outdoor sculpture garden within the larger museum that is astounding: among the most serene, yet dynamic, open spaces in the city. The high walls, covered with ivy, and open to the sky, enclose a small space with an artful arrangement of trees and sculpture. This private domain, one man’s sanctuary, is still and perfect, and keeps the city at bay. It is the opposite of Socrates Sculpture Park, an open-to-the-elements, come-one, come-all multi-purpose site, with multiple artists and points of view, where traffic pulses past the front gates. The two open spaces are point/counterpoint. Go look.


Socrates Sculpture Park
The Noguchi Museum

Friday, July 5, 2013

Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes Available for Pre-Order

Following some unexpected shipping delays, The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes (W.W. Norton) now has a publication date of August 5. That actually means the book will be in bookstores any time now, and is available for pre-order at Amazon. Many thanks to William Menking for his nice post about the book at the Architect’s Newspaper blog. He wrote:

This is the perfect book to consult before your relatives come to town and expect an insider’s tour of the city or before you pass by an unknown bit of green in the city. Many of the urban landscapes described in the guide are likely known only by nearby residents or only the most keen city observers.

The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes is Robin Lynn’s and my attempt at a first-ever survey of what we mean by the catch-all term “urban landscapes”: parks, plazas, green spaces, open spaces, atriums, trails, community gardens, even green roofs. Urban landscapes are more on the minds of city dwellers today than at perhaps any other time in history. In New York in recent years we have seen a revolution in landscape, as mile after mile of disused waterfront, once dominated by industrial uses, has been converted to linear parks. The High Line, a park built atop a disused railroad viaduct in Chelsea, has become one of the city’s principal attractions. And the city has banned vehicles from huge swaths of the roadbeds of Broadway and some other streets to create pedestrian plazas, replete with movable chairs and tables, rimmed by bike lanes.

Urban Landscapes

Our intention in the book is to look at these new developments in the light of what has gone before, such as Green-Wood Cemetery (pictured on the book’s front cover) in the 1840s, Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza in the 1890s, the reign of Robert Moses from the 1930s to the 1960s, and the influence of William H. Whyte from the 1980s to today. We may, indeed, say that each of these represents a distinct phase in the landscape history of New York City.

This blog has two purposes. One is to serve as a companion to the book. Here I—and my co-author Robin Lynn—can amplify certain entries in the book, make corrections, and add material for which we simply—a reality of the making of books!—ran out of room. (For example, both Robin and I very much wanted the book to contain an entry on Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens. That entry, instead, will appear, soon, on this blog.) Another very important thing: Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged some of the city’s landscapes, happened when the book was too far along in production for us to make changes. This blog will include Sandy-related updates to entries, as well as track any other changes to the landscapes covered in the book.

The blog’s other purpose is to be its own thing, to offer new perspectives on the city’s landscapes, to muse on landscape history, and to draw the reader’s attention to interesting places, exhibits, articles, and resources. For example, come back for my reviews of Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes, at the Museum of Modern Art through September 23.

Both book and blog are about more than just describing landscapes. They are about the unique power at the intersection of urban design and landscape architecture to alter the city dweller’s patterns of use and attention, and both to shape and to reflect his changing wants and needs.

At any rate, I hope you will buy the book, and I hope you will follow the blog and join in the discussion of what has been and will continue to be a central issue in the life of New York and other cities (yes, I will get to other cities, too) in the 21st century.