March 19th, 2006


Eurotrashville skyline

The other day I compared New York's skyline disparagingly to Shanghai's, saying New York threw a 20th century shape against the sky and Shanghai a 21st century one. I may have been a little sweeping; New York does have some exciting developments in store. There's Libeskind's Liberty Tower, of course (I'm not a fan, but I feel sorry for Libeskind, who's had his design chopped around horribly by the developer). But there's also an amazing building going up at 80 South Street, a residential tower by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. And there's the new New Museum on the Bowery, due to open next year, designed by Japanese architects SANAA (firm Click Opera favourites for their Moriyama House).

Do you notice something these redefiners of the famous New York skyline have in common? That's right. Unlike the guys who designed the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, they're not Americans. New York's 21st century skyline is in the hands of "Eurotrash" and Japanese. If you add this to the radical alterations made by the 9/11 hijackers (some of whom were, grotesquely, town planners), the question arises: Is the famous New York skyline becoming post-American?

Actually, I don't know if that question interests me much. Skyscrapers, like those other "American" symbols freeways and the hamburger, were invented in Germany. The Modern movement was international, New York is an international city. "European" artists like Marcel Duchamp spent most of their time here rather than back in Paris, and their contribution belongs just as much to the history of American art as it does to old Europe. Nationality, blah blah blah. What does interest me, though, is good architecture, wherever it comes from. And Calatrava's tower looks like great architecture; dramatic, innovative, futuristic, elegant, exciting.

According to the New York Times, Calatrava's tower is "an offset stack of 45-foot glass cubes, a dozen in all, each intended to house only one or two families. Resembling some of Mr. Calatrava's sculptures, but on a titanic scale of 835 feet, the tower would rise over the East River at South and Fletcher Streets, near the South Street Seaport and the Brooklyn Bridge. The developer, Frank J. Sciame... asked for help in remodeling his Upper East Side townhouse. Mr. Sciame, a contractor and a developer, said he was impressed by Mr. Calatrava's sculptures and by his Turning Torso apartment tower, under construction in Malmo, Sweden. He invited Mr. Calatrava to the South Street site, where the architect found a place to explore the torso theme on a colossal scale."

Curbed takes up the story: "Calatrava's unusual design is modeled after a sculpture he created about 20 years ago that now sits in his living room, according to Ayesha I. Khan, the building's director of sales. Redesigned for the waterfront site, each cube of the "Townhouses in the Sky" will be four stories high and encompass approximately 10,000 square feet. The first two cubes -- which create an eight-story, 60,000-square-foot base for the building -- are envisioned as the home of a major cultural or institutional user. The remaining ten will be residential units of four-story townhouses... clinging to a central core and fastened by spindles on either side."

These "townhouses in the sky" don't come cheap: they start at $29 million and max out at about $50 million. There are no plans for a public observation deck. So, personally, although I welcome the drama of the Calatrava project, I'm more excited by SANAA's New Museum, a space I'll actually be using. This shares something with 80 South Street and the Malmo building (there's also going to be a Miami one, apparently); a certain interest in stacking volumes askew:

"Each of the building's seven floors is represented as a distinct rectangular box," reports the aristocratic Herbert Muschamp in the Times. "These are stacked atop one another, in an off-axis composition, like a chest of partly open drawers. This arrangement allows variety in the size and proportions of each floor. It also creates setbacks that are used for open-air terraces and for skylights to naturally illuminate the galleries below. At night, the building's metallic exterior will be washed with artificial lighting from within." It sounds just like something you might see on Omote Sando!

What's more, the groundbreaking ceremony for the building last October struck a particularly un-American note, as Lower Manhattan Info reports:

"To cap off the ceremonial part of the groundbreaking -- before patrons and the general public were invited to take a shovelful of earth and symbolically move it -- a traditional and stirring Japanese Shinto ritual known as a Jichinsai was performed by the Reverend Mitsutaka Inui of the International Shinto Foundation. On the stage was a Shinto altar, replete with foliage, ceramics, and fruits. For ten minutes, the Reverend Inui sprinkled confetti bits of blessed rice papers to the four corners of the site as he sanctified the space. With the priest dressed in ceremonial white robes and a traditional black hat at its center, the silent, striking ceremony was accompanied by the quiet murmur of traffic traveling over wet roadways, as a kind of white noise behind the on-stage drama."

Shinto ceremonies for New York construction projects? Now that's what I call post-American!