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  3. Brooklyn Bridge Park: What a Design by O'Neill McVoy + NVda Says About the State of Architecture

Brooklyn Bridge Park: What a Design by O'Neill McVoy + NVda Says About the State of Architecture

Brooklyn Bridge Park: What a Design by O'Neill McVoy + NVda Says About the State of Architecture
Brooklyn Bridge Park: What a Design by O'Neill McVoy + NVda Says About the State of Architecture, Garden Spiral Tower on the Harbor. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects
Garden Spiral Tower on the Harbor. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects

In Mark Foster Gage’s essay “Rot Munching Architects,” published in Perspecta 47: Money, the Assistant Dean of the Yale School of Architecture strove to find meaning in the current design landscape. Taking the essay title from a larger stream of expletives spun across the facade of the Canadian pavilion as part of artist Steven Shearer’s installation at the 54th Venice Art Biennale in 2011, Gage found truth in the vulgarities, arguing that - in a very literal sense - “architectural experimentation has left the building” as the discipline has been made impotent under the hostage of late capitalist ambition.

Last summer, when Brooklyn Bridge Park unveiled 14 proposals as finalists for two residential towers at the park's controversial pier 6 site, you could be fooled into thinking that design is alive and well. A caveat of the park’s General Project Plan (GPP) was to set aside land for retail, residential and a hotel development, in order to secure funding and achieve financial autonomy. The plans had already fueled a decade of legal battles and fierce opposition from the local community, with arguments ranging from the environment, to park aesthetics, to money-making schemes, but last year a bright outcome appeared a possibility, when the park unveiled the competing plans including those by Asymptote Architecture, BIG, Davis Brody Bond, Future Expansion + SBN Architects, WASA Studio, and of particular interest, O’Neill McVoy Architects + NV/design architecture (NVda).

Harbor Pair and Pedestrian Bridge. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects View from Manhattan. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects Garden Spiral Tower. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects Brooklyn Waterfront. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects +15

As a reduction of green space and views were two of the chief concerns of park users and local residents, O’Neill McVoy and NVda made public demands a priority in their "Harbor Pair." For the taller "Garden Spiral Tower," the pair proposed a repeating pattern of concrete slabs that establish interior space and terraces, designed to give the illusion of parkland extending vertically. At the top of this tower there would be a public restaurant, affording the building’s views of Lower Manhattan and New York Harbor to the masses.

Concept Diagram. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects
Concept Diagram. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects

Site as Portal. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects Site Concept Diagram. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects Site Plan. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects Structural Concept. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects +15

The shorter tower, "Light Sliced Housing," is cut into thirds, a device that allows each residence to have corner windows – a first in affordable housing – and also enables sunlight to pierce the structure and maximize the morning rays granted to the parkland and Pier 6 to the west of the structure.

Site Circulation. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects
Site Circulation. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects

The circulation surrounding the towers is another boon to the public. In their project description, O’Neill McVoy and NVda stress how the towers embrace their role as anchors to the park:

The building pair form a multi-modal southern gateway to the Park, integrating safe pedestrian access, dedicated and slow vehicular traffic, bike paths, and public transportation. Nearby waterborne transit completes an ideal location for access to the wide variety of uses at the site. A new pedestrian bridge over the BQE safely and directly connects the Brooklyn Bridge Park to State Street and nearby subway stations.

Environmental Diagram. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects
Environmental Diagram. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects

Aware of the ecological imperatives of any new construction, particularly in parkland, the towers are outfitted with green roofs, collect stormwater for irrigation and water closets, are heated and cooled with geothermal wells, and collect wind energy. The "Light Sliced Housing" would generate 15 percent of its energy from turbines, and the "Garden Spiral Tower" would allow residents to purchase individual turbines for their own energy use. The design was, in short, a socially and ecologically thoughtful design that seemed a strong contender for Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation support, or to at least make waves with the park-visiting public - but no such acclaim was to be had.

Winning Design Proposal. Image Courtesy of ODA
Winning Design Proposal. Image Courtesy of ODA

As we perhaps should have known or expected, or as Mark Foster Gage might have predicted, ODA was announced as the competition winner in July with two blockish, nondescript towers. Admittedly this may not sound too unsettling, except for the fact that ODA was not one of the 14 finalists announced last August, and published in-full here. When asked about the design, Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation President Regina Myer offered a range of benefits to the ODA plan, citing more affordable housing, fewer apartments overall, and a total height three stories shorter than the maximum heights limits in the park’s General Project Plan. These reasons might convince a skeptic of ODA’s merit, except there was no explanation as to how a winner who had not participated in the competition was selected – especially vexing as the design is being lauded for thoughtfulness and practicality, when the same attributes existed in other proposals with more compelling results.

View from Manhattan. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects
View from Manhattan. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects

Given the dramatic design differences between the O’Neill McVoy/NVda proposal and the chosen ODA design, it might seem fitting to cite the arguments of Koolhaas in Delirious New York, where Rem famously equated Manhattanism to an architectural lobotomy, where interior and exterior are separate, and “the Monolith spares the outside world the agonies of the continuous changes raging inside it.” The sentiment would give clear currency to ODA’s winning design. However, Delirious New York is now almost forty years old, and while column-free boxes like Yamasaki’s World Trade Center may have then been novel attractions, such structures are now exceedingly common and stylistically stale. The ODA design is a grid-adhering box that maximizes floor area, while providing little in terms of design distinction. It is little more than a block meant for inhabitation. In the past, Manhattan thrived by flying in the face of convention and setting the course for architectural innovation. With the capitalist agenda now working the strings of architecture, the real lobotomy is between the discourse and those with the money to shape it. The pitfalls and secrecy at Brooklyn Bridge Park are not just a loss for parkgoers or the city of New York, but the design agenda at large.

Garden Spiral Tower. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects
Garden Spiral Tower. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects

As antidote Mark Foster Gage offers a quote from artist Edvard Munch: “from my rotting body, flowers shall grow.” He elaborates “the ground of architecture will someday soon become fertile from decomposition; it awaits a new generation of seed-planters equipped with the self-worth, confidence, and ambition to resist the temptation of easily reachable, decaying ground fruit.” This is perhaps easier said than done and a bit melodramatic, but Gage’s underlying message is appropriate for this context. We need more architects who are willing to challenge the status quo, not just in major museum expansions or high-rises for the ultrarich, but with projects that have more egalitarian aims. The Harbor Pair of O’Neill McVoy and NVda indicates a way forward, one where architects make nice with the capitalist agenda, but in a plan that assuages public concerns through design ingenuity - if only we can convince developers of the benefits.

Brooklyn Waterfront. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects
Brooklyn Waterfront. Image Courtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects
Cite: Vladimir Gintoff. "Brooklyn Bridge Park: What a Design by O'Neill McVoy + NVda Says About the State of Architecture" 26 Oct 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <http://www.archdaily.com/775914/brooklyn-bridge-park-what-a-design-by-oneill-mcvoy-plus-nvda-says-about-the-state-of-architectural-design/>
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4 Comments

Ben · October 27, 2015

Interesting article. Although its comparing pears with apples. I do not think this terracing building does any good than the extruded box. These are prívate terraces any way. This reminds a bit of steven holls linked hybrid. A project that could be compared to the unite de habitation in its ideology and even its architectural manifestation. But at the end of the day it was a luxury building complex for rich people. It was a privatized object not an open space for the collective. If there is any spatial realm left for the architect, it is at the ground plane not at the tower. Terraces, no terraces, extruded block, elevated bridges, it is all capitalized. The only thing egalitarian is the ground. Why fool ourselves with these towers?

Scott Smith · October 26, 2015

Clearly by everything you have stated in your article you must realize it isn't up to the Architect. This building typology (and increasingly more of them) is all about profit. I hate to be the cynic but what do you expect? The developer wants to make money and in order to do that the building must be very efficient in terms of occupiable area. It's just reality in residential Architecture. At the end of the day, in my experience, this building typology is represented as a spreadsheet. Yes of course, the developer cares what it looks like and wants to make it attractive for potential tenants but it has to fit their numbers. It is very frustrating when you work countless hours at perfecting plans, making beautiful elevations and perspectives only to have a developer client flip through it to get to the spreadsheet. We as Architects have to do a better job understanding this and speaking their language - this is why developers have repeat Architects like Marvel, Cook+Fox, SHoP - they speak this language and the client knows what they're going to get before the design even begins.

Joshua Young · October 27, 2015 10:24 PM

I was just about to say the same thing (although perhaps less eloquently). Connecting the problem back to the architecture professional as a whole, especially given the circumstances in this particular case, is ill fitting. There were 14 other proposals, many of which were surely more befitting than the one chosen, and yet here we are. I haven't reviewed the other 13 designs, but given the thoughtful O'Neill McVoy + NVda design, it's safe to say that Architecture is alive and well here in New York.

Rebe · October 26, 2015

How much is this crazy structure that Mr. Gage dreamed about going to cost to build? And who's fault is going to be when it gets built for $2000 p/ sqft (due to Mr. Gages utopian dream) and by its own default must sell at $5000 p/sqft. What happens to the surrounding areas? Prices for existing realestate suddenly quadruples. Then the 'trendy designers, restaurants etc... Come into the area and wallah- yet another playground for the elites has been created and the ordinary folks are pushed out.

As architects or designers we live to claim we're responsible for fixing the problems yet what we always do is create them. Hypocrisy at its best.

Com_on · October 26, 2015

"We need more architects who are willing to challenge the status quo, not
just in major museum expansions or high-rises for the ultrarich, but
with projects that have more egalitarian aims".. Totally agree,BUT for that to happen, Architects need to engage with the problem. To change a big bad world,you need to fully understand the big bad world.The people who control/shape the built environment are the ones with money. Thats a fact. Reinier De Graaf made an interesting statement that even the most idealistic/utopian projects require finance.

Towards the end of the article, Mr Gage talks about how “the ground of architecture will someday soon become fertile from
decomposition; it awaits a new generation of seed-planters equipped with
the self-worth, confidence, and ambition to resist the temptation of
easily reachable, decaying ground fruit.” Here lies the problem with theorizing architecture. Cities/buildings will be built with or without architects.
Architecture as we know it is irrelevant.Today there are simply too many variables that influence how buildings are built. Architecture as a profession must be actively exploring territories (real estate,finance,politics,technology,etc) that influence the profession,
then it will die a slow death (heck it is already).

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