West Side Story – competition to design redevelopment of Manhattan, New York’s Lower West Side – Brief Article

West Side Story – competition to design redevelopment of Manhattan, New York’s Lower West Side – Brief Article – Statistical Data Included

Catherine Slessor

A bleak and neglected tract of Manhattan on New York’s Lower West Side was the site for a major new urban design competition, intended to stimulate new ways of thinking about cities and their development.

Held under the auspices of the International Foundation for the Canadian Centre for Architecture (IFCCA), the first Design of Cities competition was won by Peter Eisenman, from an intriguing invited shortlist of Thorn Mayne, Van Berkel & Bos, Reiser + Umemoto and Cedric Price, British architecture’s iconoclastic elder statesman.

Conceived by Phyllis Lambert, founding director of the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal, the West Side project is the first in a series of major triennial urban design competitions aimed at generating provocative, large-scale ideas that are also economically feasible and buildable. Subsequent programmes will address the needs of different cities around the world. In the case of New York, the challenge was to establish architectural and planning benchmarks for an area that, despite its physical dereliction, appears ripe for imminent commercial development.

The vast riverside site is a 12 block corridor, bounded by 34th Street on its northern edge and 30th Street to the south. To the west lies the Hudson River; to the east, bustling Ninth Avenue. The estranged urban landscape of crumbling brownstones, car repair shops, warehouses, and railway yards, is straight from central casting, yet it also represents a frayed remnant of industrial New York that seems all the more precious as memories of Manhattan’s working class origins are inexorably erased.

Until recently, developers had shunned the area as commercially unviable, but city planners, including Joseph Rose, Chairman of the City Planning Commission and a member of the IFCCA jury, regard it as a major development corridor. Last January, proposals were adopted to build a new sports stadium in the corridor, along with a relocated Madison Square Garden. The site also encompasses the Manhattan terminal for a new rail link to Kennedy Airport and the imposing Beaux-Arts pile of McKim Mead & White’s General Post Office, soon to accommodate a new entrance concourse to Penn Station designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill (AR September). With such putative developments, together with the strip’s proximity to the existing Javits Convention Center (by I. M. Pei), it is hard to imagine a more appropriate urban stage for enacting an enlightened synthesis of architecture, planning and real estate.

Although the five finalists span three generations, all regard architecture as a medium for exploring wider urban relationships. Eisenman’s winning scheme transforms the site into a heroically scaled park running on an east-west axis from the Hudson River to Eighth Avenue. The park creates an undulating public path, described by Eisenman as a fold in the urban fabric. On the west side, this fold creates a pedestrian route from the riverfront into the centre of Midtown. At the east end of the park is a monumental office development at Eighth Avenue (on the current site of Madison Square Garden), and the proposed new Penn Station. Below the park are major new public elements, including a relocated Madison Square Garden, a media centre and an extension to the Javits Convention Center. The park is terminated on the west side by a new sports stadium (initially for staging the 2012 Olympic Games) built into the Hudson River beyond the boundary of the competition site. Where traditional urban schemes might treat the major structures along the site as isolated, object buildings, Eisenman’s proposal integrates them into a continuous, high-density fabric of public urban and park spaces, in which the ground is fashionably warped to define territories and functions.

Other proposals followed a similar pattern of megastructural intervention, adding hotels and retail space and expanding the convention centre. Reiser + Umemoto designed a huge, glass-enclosed year round public space and entertainment complex; Van Berkel & Bos envisaged a pier on the river and improvements to the Javits Center; and Thorn Mayne enclosed an urban park with a dynamically curved and fragmented sequence of buildings. By far the most whimsical submission came from Cedric Price. Claiming that the site was beyond repair by the addition of more buildings, Price proposed a series of 70ft tall ‘wind blinkers’ resembling windmills to catch breezes off the river and serve as the lungs of Midtown Manhattan. Though the competition was theoretical, city planning officials are holding discussions with the finalists about realizing some of their ideas.

COPYRIGHT 1999 EMAP Architecture

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group