Volume 80, Number 3 | June 16 - 22, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photos by Albert Amateau

Paul Goldberger at the Village Alliance’s annual meeting.

Architectural savant says ‘fauxcade’ is a failure

By Albert Amateau

“There’s no better place to talk about why architecture matters than the Village,” Paul Goldberger, Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic, told the Village Alliance business improvement district’s 17th annual meeting last week.

“Why Architecture Matters,” Goldberger’s latest book, published last year, provided the title of his talk at the business improvement district meeting. But he also fielded questions from the audience about development projects that have been on Villagers’ minds in recent years.

One audience member asked for Goldberger’s opinion about the “fauxcade” — the false brick facade — proposed for the concrete subway ventilation building planned for Mulry Square at the intersection of Seventh and Greenwich Aves.

“I love the word ‘fauxcade’ much more than I like what it refers to,” Goldberger said. He called the Mulry Square project “unfortunate” and said, “A simple, understated, modernist building would be the best option.”

Martin Dresner, president of the Village Alliance, left, and Doug Gross, the BID’s vice president, at last week’s annual meeting.

Architecture goes in and out of fashion, Goldberger observed, referring to St. Vincent’s Hospital’s quirky O’Toole building, which community preservationists championed when the former hospital had proposed replacing it with a 278-foot-tall new building.

“The design was dismissed for years since it was built in 1964, and preservationists now feel they have to protect it,” Goldberger noted. “The deep, dark underside of preservation is that much of it is motivated by fear of what would replace it.”

Regarding New York University’s 2031 development plans, Goldberger said he liked to think the university was genuinely interested in being more sensitive to the neighborhood, and hoped that the Village could hold N.Y.U. to its promises.

“I have some concerns about the Silver Towers,” he said. The university needs to carefully consider any proposed changes to the I.M. Pei-designed complex, Goldberger said. He declined comment on the university’s latest plan for the Silver Towers complex, saying he hadn’t studied it closely.

“Is Bloomberg friend or foe?” asked one man in the audience.

“I might draw a line on a development before the mayor does,” Goldberger said, “He likes projects bigger than I would like, but he’s aware of the importance of the physical city,” Goldberger said of the mayor.

Bloomberg’s support of the High Line ranked high in Goldberger’s estimation.

“Giuliani just didn’t get it. If he were mayor, [the elevated rail line] would have been torn down,” he said.

Goldberger praised the mayor’s commitment to bicycles. He also gave high marks to the temporary pedestrian mall at Times Square.

“It siphons off Broadway traffic to the side streets very gradually before reaching the pedestrian area at 47th St.,” he observed.

Goldberger, however, dismissed the mayor’s unsuccessful proposal for a New York Jets stadium over the West Side Rail Yards. The plan included an underground mall with small shops that was supposed to make the stadium into a neighborhood.

“As if an 80,000-seat stadium could be transformed by a row of little boutiques,” Goldberger remarked.

Another questioner asked if Goldberger thought it was appropriate for a community to weigh in about the architecture of a project.

“Up to a point,” he replied. “I don’t believe in architecture by legislation,” he said, but acknowledged that a community has an interest in how a street looks.

“Streets matter more than buildings,” he said. “Architecture doesn’t exist in isolation — buildings have to work together. I see architecture in terms of experience and feeling. It has to challenge us as art should, but it also has to protect and nurture us,” he noted.

Goldberger invoked the late Jane Jacobs, the Village resident whose ideas about what makes great cities have become fashionable after being derided when first published 50 years ago in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

“She didn’t believe everyplace should be like the Village, but she believed cities are organic and could heal themselves,” he said. “She gave us a model for skepticism about planning and dogma.

“But the Village is not the same place now. In some ways, it’s too big and too gentrified. Leaving it alone was a natural conclusion from her ideas then. Now, leaving it alone leads to gigantism — homogenous design — the opposite of what she admired,” he said. “She taught us to use our eyes before we believe in theories,” he added.

Goldberger also noted that Jacobs, who was arrested during demonstrations against huge Robert Moses projects two generations ago, is now cited by elected officials to justify projects that would have appalled her.

Honi Klein, executive director of the Village Alliance BID, thanked Goldberger, who now writes the Sky Line column for The New Yorker and holds the Joseph Urban Chair in Design and Architecture at The New School.

The BID, under the jurisdiction of the city’s Department of Small Business Services, provides supplemental sanitation and public safety service, landscaping and business promotion covering a 44-block area. The district includes both sides of W. Eighth St. and St. Mark’s Place from Sixth to Second Aves., both sides of Sixth Ave. between 13th and W. Fourth Sts., and both sides of University Place between 13th and Eighth Sts., and includes 403 businesses. The organization’s $1 million annual budget is funded by a special tax assessment on property owners. This April, the BID donated $206,193 to the Department of Parks and Recreation to maintain Washington Square Park; the Village Alliance holds an annual food event in the square to raise the funds.

Klein reported that the BID last year repaired the bluestone sidewalk border that the city installed along Sixth Ave. 22 years ago. The BID also added holly bushes to the Ruth Wittenberg Triangle on Sixth Ave. between Eighth and Ninth Sts. and replanted the Astor Place Garden on the subway triangle island at Fourth Ave. and Astor Place this spring.

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