Bland Boxes of Absence
Photo by Aaron Betsky
One of the things that I have noticed recently in many cities in the United States, but especially in New York, is the replacement of solid blocks with articulated surfaces, designed for production, by the kind of bland boxes of absence housing stacks of overpriced “lofts” or apartments. Sitting in my hotel room in Midtown last weekend, I looked out at layers of brick grids with recessed-glass infill interspersed by crème-colored stucco slabs with a few mullions pasted on, windows mostly flush to the surface, and no hint of underlying structure or scale. Two such structures were under construction to either side of my hotel–which was itself a notable example of such dissolution of form you can sink your teeth, or fingers, or eyes, into.
The overall development of which these forms is a symptom is the replacement of places to work with places to live. Buildings that once housed either offices or sweatshops are giving way to bedrooms and kitchenettes. Production is being outsourced, not just to far-away countries, but also to New Jersey or even to outlying boroughs. Manhattan is becoming a place for miniaturized work on computer terminals, shopping, spectacle, and for the privileged few to live. This is true in many American cities, with the one notable fact being that the flight of upper class living back into the core is much further advanced in New York than in most other metropoles. Zoning happens now not just within the city, but at a regional scale, with the rich living downtown and the poor being pushed into older suburbs.
Photo by Aaron Betsky
In terms of the buildings’ fabric, the development is driven by the economic logic that removes as much as possible expenditure from any construction. The aim of investors is to get their money in, make the building happen, and get out–with more money–fast. Computer programs are even better than smart architects at minimizing the amount of formal variation or material use.
To a certain extent, that is a good thing, as it means these structures use up less natural resources. I only wish that architects would represent that fact, rather than adding unnecessary moldings, coloring the buildings in soft pastels, and finding ways to give scale that don’t actually emphasize the lack of that attribute.
Walking or driving through Manhattan has become a more and more deadening experience as a result. Instead of the thrusting skyscrapers and self-confident blocks jostling for attention, tenants, light, and power, you find yourself surrounded with sameness. There is a thinness to these structures, from the walls themselves, to the ways in which they have been shoehorned into sites, to the fact that they do not continue any history or have any sense of character. If you were dropped down on many corners in Manhattan with your face shrouded and were then suddenly to see what was around you, I bet you wouldn’t know where you were. I wonder how many inhabitants recognize their own buildings beyond their pretentious names or the face of their doorman.
I know that nothing can be done about these developments, other than to hope that a few smart architects will manage to develop ways to use this logic to create something else. Certainly many European designers have figured out how to express economic necessity, and some of the new buildings along the High Line, such as the one designed by Neil Denari, point in a more expressive direction. But such so-called art costs money, and might even make the floor plans less efficient. I am afraid that Manhattan’s future is to descend into built, high-end and low-design mediocrity.