The Real Deal New York

James Gardner — East but Not Eden

Cornell and Stanford want to build on Roosevelt Island. Who has the better design?

December 07, 2011
By James Gardner


From left: The proposed campuses by Stanford and Cornell

The real estate business has been analyzed from almost every imaginable angle, from the financial and the aesthetic to the psychological and the sociological. But rarely, if ever, has anyone seen fit to approach the industry from the viewpoint of evolutionary anthropology.

Indeed, anthropology is, probably after chemistry, the last thing we think of with regard to real estate. And yet, how relevant it is to the development of Roosevelt Island, which — if Mayor Michael Bloomberg gets his way — may soon be home to a massive new campus affiliated with either Stanford University or Cornell University.

The East River island, which stretches for two miles (from 46th to 85th streets), has manifold blessings that should give it a leg up in competition with the outer boroughs. It is more intimately proximate to Manhattan than any of them, especially to Midtown, of which it affords the sort of view that should be worth a great deal of money. But the mere fact that this land is surrounded by water changes the equation completely. It is, as the saying goes, “So close, and yet so far.”

This long, narrow island, which is nowhere more than three blocks wide, has been an anomaly ever since the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, Wouter van Twiller, purchased it from the Canarsie Indians, when it was called Hog Island. Known as Blackwell’s Island in the 19th century, it was home to the New York City Lunatic Asylum, and a penitentiary that was rendered obsolete with the opening of Rikers Island in 1935.

There are few, if any, areas of Greater New York that have been developed to such a degree as Roosevelt Island with so little to show for it. It was the focus of intense speculative interest in the postwar years, especially around 1970, when the architects Phillip Johnson and John Burgee drew up a master plan for its development.

Unfortunately for the island, the ’70s were not a good time for New York — or for architecture in general. And though some top architects like Josep Lluis Sert designed several of the buildings there, they were all cast in the Brutalist style of the times, which has not aged well. Subsequent building additions on Roosevelt Island by the likes of the 75-year-old New York-based firm of Gruzen Samton have been scarcely better. Taken together, the place feels like a windy and slightly deserted outpost of a decade that was surely the low point in the city’s history. From Manhattan, the island can only be reached by tram or subway today.

However, two changes are afoot that may lift up the fortunes of the island.

One of these is the soon-to-be-completed Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, which was designed by Louis Kahn in 1974 (he had the plans with him when he died of a heart attack in the men’s room at Penn Station). Scheduled to open in 2012, it is largely of a piece with the Brutalist designs that dominate the mediocre architecture visible everywhere on Roosevelt Island.

The second — and more important — change is the possibility that a major university will build a campus on the island. By the end of the year (or, at the latest, early January), the Bloomberg administration will decide which of a number of prestigious institutions of higher learning will have the honor.

“Universities are always a major magnet for talent — and the world’s most dynamic companies always gravitate to places where they can find the best and the brightest,” Bloomberg said at a recent press conference, according to news reports. “Along with everything we are doing to diversify and strengthen our economy, a new applied sciences campus has the potential to be a real economic game-changer that will create jobs immediately, and for generations.”

To this end, the city is offering free land on Roosevelt Island and at several other sites (including Governors Island), as well as over $100 million in tax incentives, to lure a science and engineering campus to the city. There have been seven main submissions of plans, from Carnegie Mellon, Rockefeller University and Amity University in India, among others. However, Stanford and Cornell are thought to be the front-runners, and each would like to build on Roosevelt Island.

The city estimated that the work on the campus could create over 30,000 jobs and generate more than $6 billion in economic activity over the next 35 years.

The campus proposals submitted by Stanford and Cornell would each occupy around 16 acres just south of the 59th Street Bridge and just north of the Roosevelt Memorial.

The Stanford proposal depicts a complex of 10 buildings conceived in a swerving Neomodernist idiom, with the usual assortment of slightly off-kilter curves and swerves of the Deconstructivist idiom. Most of the buildings are about six stories tall, with a few slightly higher and only one true high-rise. Formally, they are conceived as curving slabs rising upon skinny pylons that have an impeccable Modernist pedigree going back to French architect and designer Le Corbusier. According to the renderings, they are largely conceived as curtain walls, though with strong divisions between the stories.

Cornell’s proposal, meanwhile, is decidedly more angular. Its corrugated metallic roofs promise none of the organic greenery of the roofs in the Stanford proposal. In the rendering it appears as a complex of eight fairly uniform structures with sharp, silvery angles whose aesthetic recalls the inexorable geometries of solar panels and microchips. The eight units are arrayed in the form of interlocking patterns resembling a sequence of W’s. Despite the absence, as yet, of more detailed renderings, Cornell’s proposal actually looks more interesting and seems to have the edge, even though Stanford’s proposal looks, at least on the surface, to be a little more environmentally friendly.

What is so heady about the prospect of a new campus on Roosevelt Island is that it might just be the one thing that could raise the fortunes of this ill-favored corner of the city.

It should now be clear to anyone that the massive efforts of the past four decades have been an atrocious failure.

While buildings surely have been built and inhabited on the island, it has never coalesced into the success that was hoped for, despite projects like the more recent multiresidential building Riverwalk.

An important university would promise thousands of young charges who would presumably wish to live on the island and infuse it with the sort of energy and relevance that so far have eluded the best efforts of the many planners who have tackled the problem of what, if anything, could be done with the former Hog Island.

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