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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
LocationBrooklyn Bridge Park - Pier 6 - Beach Volleyball Courts, Brooklyn Bridge Park Greenway, Brooklyn, NY 11201, USA
Architect in Charge
O'Neill McVoy Architects Project TeamBeth O’Neill, Chris McVoy, Rusudan Margishvili, Georgios Avramides, Steven Shimamoto, Eirini Tsachrelia
NV/design architecture Project TeamTom Van Den Bout, Brenda Nelson, Kim Letven, Marcello Pacheco
PhotographsCourtesy of O'Neill McVoy Architects, Courtesy of ODA