The Real Deal New York

The Village Vanguard

It’s time to move forward with NYU’s scaled-back superblock proposal
By James Gardner | May 01, 2012 07:00AM

It seems to be part of the very destiny of New York institutions, at least in recent years, to wish to expand, as though in obedience to the injunction of the poet Goethe that “you must rise or sink.”

Standing still, in New York, is no longer an option.

And so, just as our museums are expanding, Columbia University yearns to double its campus in Harlem, while New York University, with the 2010 announcement of its bold initiative NYU 2031, wants to increase the amount of real estate it occupies by about 2 million square feet.

As natural as NYU’s desire to expand, however, is the scandalized response to the proposal from West Village residents. A famously querulous bunch, the Villagers immediately organized protests arguing that such an expansion would ruin the character of the West Village. And, last month, NYU, which needs the space to meet both academic and housing needs, finally agreed to scale back its plan.

A proposed deal — which both Mayor Bloomberg and Borough President Scott Stringer are backing — has the school decreasing its original 2.3 million-square-foot proposal by 370,000 square feet.

Still, the move is unlikely to gratify the project’s many opponents.

A rendering of NYU’s roughly 2 million-square-foot expansion proposal, which was scaled back by about 370,000 square feet last month.
The proposed developments are on sites already covered by two superblocks — both between Mercer Street and LaGuardia Place. The northern parcel, the Washington Square Village block, is between Third and Bleecker streets. The second, southern site, which extends from Bleecker to West Houston streets, takes its name from the distinctive I.M. Pei & Associates buildings there, and goes by the name of Silver Towers.

The northern part of the expansion, which consists of two boldly curving academic buildings 14 and eight stories high and nestled between the two slabs of Washington Square Village, will be reduced in size by 85,000 square feet.

Meanwhile, a proposed 14-story building on the southern block is now planned as a seven-story, city-operated public school.

Also on the southern site, a zipper-shaped dormitory and academic structure — which will be built on the site of the Coles Sports and Recreation Center — is to be set further back from Mercer Street, thus providing more light.

The plan still needs approval from the City Planning Commission and the full City Council.

Allow me to say that I have not the slightest sympathy for the Villagers.

The entire ambition of NYU 2031 (that year being coincident with the institution’s 200th anniversary) is to develop properties already owned by the university.

And as for ruining the West Village, it may be of some comfort to the locals to know that the Village was ruined about half a century ago, by my computation. And the event that ruined the Village was precisely the construction of the two misbegotten sites that the locals — though they fervidly, and quite correctly, opposed them at the time — now wish just as fervently to preserve.

The communitarian ideals beloved by urban theorist Jane Jacobs, which had existed before that time, were bulldozed to oblivion by those developments, and the signature low-rise appeal of the Village largely disappeared with them.

Both of these superblocks are monuments to a style of urban planning that has long since gone out of fashion. They recall the golden age — but not in any honorific sense — of large-scale, top-down, human engineering. “Urban blight” (as it was then conceived by the likes of Robert Moses) had to be rubbed out of the cityscape, so streets were erased, and whole communities displaced, in order to raise truculently Modernist utopias.

True, it would be all too easy to find far more extreme examples of this sort of thing than these two sites. Especially the Silver Towers development, which was conceived as housing for the NYU faculty, yet was designed by Pei’s firm in the same distinguished style the firm later used in their Kips Bay Towers development.

Together, in fact, the three buildings that make up the Silver Towers complex constitute one of the best examples of Modernist architecture in the city, in terms not only of the towers themselves, but also of the interaction between them and the generous space that surrounds them.

Even the two hulking monolithic slabs that confront one another to form Washington Square Village, designed by Paul Lester Wiener, are better-looking, as buildings, than most other Modernist residential slabs in the borough, and that includes Gordon Bunshaft’s fabled Manhattan House on East 65th Street.

NYU President John Sexton
The problem, then, with the buildings that now occupy these sites is not so much their aesthetics as the overall concept of the superblock. The greatest problem confronting the sites is not what NYU, headed by John Sexton, has in store for them now, but rather what’s happened to them in the half-century since their completion.

As I’ve noted, when Washington Square Village and Silver Towers were conceived, they were not entirely bad as far as superblocks go: In addition to the fact that the buildings are elegant, and mostly well-made, the landscaping that originally filled the spaces between the buildings was well-intentioned. However, chicken-wire fences have risen around the perimeter of much of both of these blocks, which doubtless were intended to keep unwanted intruders out, but which, visually, look as though they were intended to keep inmates from escaping.

Although the gardens of Washington Square Village were ably designed by Hideo Sasaki, much of their intended charm has been lost. As for Silver Towers, its exemplary high-rises are marred by two of the ugliest one-story structures in the city, the vaguely flesh-tone Coles Sports and Recreation Center on its eastern flank and a Morton Williams supermarket on the northeast corner, housed in a thoroughly vulgar white-brick building.

With last month’s scale-back, the architecture of the proposed NYU buildings — which is being designed by SMWM (now part of Perkins+Will) together with Toshiko Mori, Grimshaw Architects and Olin Partnership — is still very much in the planning stage and there is little point arguing about their aesthetics at this point. Yet I will say that the bold curving forms of the two buildings planned for Washington Square Village would almost surely seem out of place, given the rectilinearity of the rest of the development.

Let it be said, though, that however well-intentioned and airy these two superblocks were supposed to be back in 1960, they now constitute a waste of space that Manhattan no longer has the luxury of supporting.

Perhaps most importantly, though, today’s architects can no longer be called Modernists. They have learned the lessons of Modernism and can implement them with greater skill and taste than most of the original Modernists did. Their forms tend to be cleaner and more inviting than in the past, and the buildings are, on the whole, more comfortable and commodious.

For this reason, whatever happens to the two superblocks (as long as something happens) will be a vast improvement over what we see there today.