Beyond Buildings


Bland Boxes of Absence

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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.


Comments (2 Total)

  • Posted by: Sara Hart | Time: 10:28 PM Wednesday, May 23, 2012

    After years of passing a block-long abyss on 42nd and 10th, something finally rose up that will make the most cynical critic tear-up. Enormous in bulk and height, its black curtain wall is the inverse of a black hole and just as frightening. Designed by Arquitectonica (did no one learn anything from the Westin) for the Related Companies, the darkness encloses 63 stories of "luxury and ultra-luxury" residences. I was baffled by its banality, until I realized what it contained. You write that "art costs money," and that's the reason for the current embrace of architectural mediocrity. I suggest that "amenities cost money," and MiMA, as all that luxury is called, is larded with them. For example, the M Club is 44K s.f. of health, recreation, and entertainment facilities, including three landscaped outdoor terraces, full-size basketball and volleyball court, indoor lap pool, residents-only Equinox, indoor screening room, private party rooms, catering kitchen, Internet café, card and billiards lounge, outdoor cinema, to name a few. It also houses Dog City, and I leave you to imagine what that's about. Amenities do indeed cost money — money that investors will have to wait a long time to get back. This is a rental building after all, and there's just so much rent one can charge next to Times Square. Facing that reality, I'm assuming the developers were happy to sacrifice architectural form, texture, and urban context in order to make way for an outlandishly pretentious, members-only mall. Let's call it what it is. This wretched excess is becoming the norm, and it will kill New York's skyline over time. Priorities have changed.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 10:04 PM Wednesday, May 09, 2012

    Perhaps some scorn could be directed at the developers who "value engineer" these buildings to such a point that to expect any real "architecture" out of these projects is a pipe dream. There is only so much that can be done with design "us[ing] this logic to create something else." I would love to see a dollars to dollars comparison between a housing project in Europe and the US. The reality is that Europeans tend to VALUE design/beauty a lot more than the current "culture" in the United States and therefore they will spend money to create something with aesthetic value - unfortunately those projects/developers are few and far between.

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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.