Beyond Buildings


Death to the Javits Center--and all Big Bad Boxes

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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 huts.

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 impact.

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.


Comments (7 Total)

  • Posted by: aaronbetsky | Time: 12:17 PM Tuesday, February 07, 2012

    Re the comment on Cincinnati: I believe our own convention center is one of the boxes that closes itself off from the city, and I also believe that our stadia have proven not of generative of urban activity as the backers hoped --though the Banks area now is riding on crowds from the Reds stadium

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  • Posted by: aaronbetsky | Time: 12:15 PM Tuesday, February 07, 2012

    I have to agree, perhaps the lobby can be saved as part of some future development. Aaron Betsky

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:02 PM Tuesday, February 07, 2012

    It's interesting that you do not mention your own city's big box, (Cincinnati, is it not?) the Duke Energy Convention Center. At 750,000 square feet it is identical in size to the Jacob Javits center. Yet the metropolitan population of Cincinnati is roughly 2.1 million while the metropolitan population of New York City is around 18 million. Perhaps the expansion is justified ? Your convention center is also "just blocks from the Great American Ballpark and Paul Brown Stadium, home to the Cincinnati Reds of Major League Baseball and the Cincinnati Bengals of the National Football League.",according to your local convention center autority's website. Me thinks you protest too much about us gotham's foibles and municipal missteps and not enough about what is going on right there in your own front yard.

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  • Posted by: brunelles | Time: 11:03 PM Thursday, February 02, 2012

    I meant Javits not Jarvis

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  • Posted by: brunelles | Time: 10:55 PM Thursday, February 02, 2012

    I was there exactly 10 years ago for a Linux convention during the week of January 30, 2002. I went to Punxsutanwey on (on 02/02/02) during my drive home (to Michigan) from the Jarvis Center. From my memory of the convention, the 9/11 events were talked about, but people were moving on and Linux brought us geeks out to that convention center. As an architect of buildings and licensed in 4 states, I remember Jarvis had that glass atrium filled with light, you almost did not want to go outside. The building was rather difficult to find for us outsiders of New York and I remember the parking as rather skimpy. Like parallel parking around the place. It is hard to believe that 10 year later to the day, I am reading this story about demo'ing Jarvis. - Dean Tidwell AIA NCARB

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  • Posted by: Fred J. Wittenberg | Time: 6:39 PM Thursday, February 02, 2012

    Wasn't there megabucks just spent on rehabbing the JJCC? Now it's going 2B replaced? I'm glad 2C that $$$ R being wasted in the Big Apple just like in the 2nd City. Keep up the good work in this recession!

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:48 PM Wednesday, February 01, 2012

    Unfortunately what most everyone overlooks is the incredible open and light filled space that is the glass encased lobby of this convention center. The area is magnificent and breathtaking and could easily function in the future in another capacity, but it is going to be tossed out with the bathwater while it should be preserved in any future redevelopment scheme. New York has few grand interior spaces that are open to the public and this should be saved

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.