Death to the Javits Center--and all Big Bad Boxes
The Jacob Javits Convention Center. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
If Governor Cuomo has his way, the Jacob Javits Convention
Center in New York will be meeting an untimely, though for most of us not
unwelcome, death. I doubt few will care.
When was the last time you went to a convention and enjoyed
yourself? Come to think of it, when was
the last time you went to a convention? I honestly can’t remember when I did, though I stopped by the Fancy Food
show at San Francisco’s Moscone Center last week and ate too many samples. Final question: when was the last time you walked
by a convention center and said: there is a thing of beauty? I rest my case.
The Javits Center is not bad as these things go. Designed by Pei Cobb Freed, it featuress a black façade divided into rectangles on the outside, and rather spectacular
columns on the inside. Beyond that, it
is like any other of its kind: very large, rectangular, closed to the outside,
and cavernous. People look and feel like
ants both inside and outside. What
interest there is comes from circulation (usually flying escalators) or
structure. Other charms have to be added
by whatever trade show is in town to festoon the place with graphics and little
Some very talented architects have tried to make something
of the type, but none have succeeded. Mies van der Rohe provided a heroic vision for Chicago, but McCormick’s
reality is considerably less breathtaking. Peter Eisenman tried to wiggle out of the box in Columbus, Ohio, leading
only to some visual confusion. In San
Francisco, they just buried most of the thing, which at least minimizes its
For a while these monsters kept growing, eating up
redevelopment resources as well as precious downtown real estate (in San Diego
and Vancouver right on the waterfront, no less), as cities found themselves in
a race to attract the largest shows. It
was never enough: I remember going to the Supershow, devoted to everything to
do with sports equipment, in the 1990s, and it was so large that part of it was held
next to Atlanta’s convention center in the football stadium. The next year it moved to Las Vegas.
The blight of the big box did not stay in its ever-bigger
containers. They necessitated huge
parking lots or garages that sat empty when there was no show or convention,
and the same is true for the hotels that surrounded these urban voids. Touted as ways to revitalize downtown cores, they more often than not contributed to our cities’ sense of desolation.
The Queens Convention Center, designed by Arquitectonica. Image credit: the Associated Press.
If the Governor has his way and private developers can raise
no less than $4 billion to create the biggest (Arquitectonica-designed, at this stage) bad box ever, the Javits Center will move to Queens, near JFK Airport. It will become part of the
landscape of infrastructure and rootless global economic nodes that is its
proper milieu. You won’t even have to come into the city when you “come to town” for a convention.
I hope other cities will follow New York’s example. Then, I hope they will tear down those sport stadia that were all the rage a few years ago, and in particular the ones devoted to football that are only in use a dozen times a year. If it is these bland and blank behemoths that are keeping our cities alive through the periodic infusion of cash and drunken visitors, those downtowns just deserve to die along with the misbegotten boxes.