Volume 80, Number 26 | November 25 - December 1, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
N.Y.U.’s towering blunder inspires us to fight on
By Miriam Kaplan
I want to say that this statement from Mr. Pei is extraordinary good news. Not just because New York University has been defeated on the landmarks issue. But more importantly, because it shows how completely N.Y.U. miscalculated in this regard.
In all of our statements at the Community Board 2 hearings, we danced around the reasons for objecting to the fourth tower. We were addressing many important issues — in truth, not so clearly and starkly as the statement from Henry Cobb does — but we were on target.
And yet N.Y.U. couldn’t or wouldn’t hear the message.
With all their high-priced consultants — architects and lawyers — they couldn’t see how wrong they were about the overall design of the block. And they substituted all that foolish talk about dialogue for a true recognition of the spatial relations.
And in that is a great hope to take us forward. Just as N.Y.U. was blind with regard to aesthetics, they are blind to the intent of zoning. And it is that blindness that will defeat them in the end.
So far, it doesn’t look like we will have someone like Pei to come forward on a white charger in the coming battle — though who knows what may happen?
In the meantime, we move on with the confidence that we do see things more clearly than N.Y.U. does; and with the sure knowledge that these high-priced lawyers and architects are really only hired to see to the accomplishment of the will of those that hire them, and not to defer to excellence where it exists.
I have been studying the history of N.Y.U. this week: For the university campus and for several buildings around the square they had the services of Stanford White; for Bobst they had Philip Johnson; for the south superblock they had I.M. Pei — all of them great architects, who had a vision about what the architectural face of a great university should be and who had a tabula rasa on which to work.
For Plan 2031, N.Y.U.’s biggest redesign effort — probably since its former University Heights campus in the Bronx — the architects were constrained to work within an existing context. N.Y.U. hired big guns. But an existing context is not a proper arena for great architects who have their own vision and ego.
What N.Y.U. got was a plan that clashed as badly as plaid with floral print.
What was needed were not-so-great architects — people who could subsume their ego and come up with a design for new buildings that integrated with the existing landscape.
That the architects could not see the ugliness of their plans (not just the Pei block, but even more so the Washington Square Village block) is a serious mark against them, no matter how high their ratings. That no one at N.Y.U. could see the ugliness of the plans and reject them on that basis alone, reflects the fact that no one at N.Y.U. has any aesthetic sense nor any basis on which to execute good judgment.
Absolutely everything about Plan 2031 shows poor judgment: the sought-after rezoning to C6-2; putting retail on Mercer St. when there is plenty
of retail one block away on Broadway; housing 1,400 students in a dormitory on a block that has about 500 apartments; increasing the underground acreage, even though there is a stream that runs under the two blocks; eliminating the driveways on the Washington Square Village block, which would isolate the two slabs from each other, but more importantly would curtail the accessibility of
ambulances, school buses, deliveries and so forth to each of the complex’s buildings; putting retail in the ground floor of the Washington Square Village buildings, which would totally destroy their residential nature; installing academic buildings and a public mall between the two Washington Square Village slabs, which would absolutely destroy any sense of common community; closing the garage on the Washington Square Village block and replacing it with parking on the Pei block, with no mention of how Washington Square Village’s residents are to get from the garage to their buildings — even if an entrance were to be provided on Bleecker St., there would still be a minimum of
the equivalent of a three-block walk in the open from the garage to 1 and 2 Washington Square Village.
That top-class architects would sign off on such a design — which effectively destroys an existing residential community that provides some blessed open space in an open-space-starved part of the city — just to satisfy the expansionist plans of N.Y.U. reflects poorly on them. They may be world-class
but their behavior is that of hacks who go along with anything just to get the commission.
Getting back to Cobb’s statement: Just because we have this good news, we cannot relax. But we can go forward, in the full confidence that an army
is going to form behind us. Because I certainly believe that people will come out from the woodwork to support us — now that they have the confirmation that N.Y.U. so misjudged this one issue.
Kaplan is former chairperson, Washing-ton Square Village Tenants Association’s Task Force in Response to N.Y.U. Plan 2031