Architecture review: Columbus Circle under wraps, out of commission

“Discovering Columbus” comes to roundabout

As regards the redevelopment of Columbus Circle that was unveiled five years ago, I was spectacularly wrong. When the project was still in the planning phase, renderings were published in which, amid fountains and flowers, dozens of New Yorkers could be seen sitting in that illustrious traffic circle in a state of manifest happiness. At the time, it seemed evident to me that, with Central Park half a block away, no one would ever brave the onrushing traffic to sit in the middle of a roundabout.

It turns out, many people are now eager to do precisely that in this linchpin that connects Midtown to the Upper West Side. But if you go to the Columbus Circle island today you will find that it is in lockdown mode, as it has been, in varying degrees, for the past three months, and as it will remain for the next two months at least.

In recent years, whenever I’ve walked down Broadway toward Midtown, I make a point of traversing Columbus Circle, which is in every respect so much better than it was in the 1970s: Back then it was a dismal asphaltic pit that was closed off most of the time and inhabited mainly by the homeless who straggled over from their dwellings in the nearby Coliseum. Its success it so great that now it has become an essential point of reference in the urbanistic consciousness of the average New Yorker. But within that context of success there is much to lament.

So why the lockdown? It’s for an installation created by the Japanese conceptual artist Tatzu Nishi: He plans to surround the statue with a wooden box, the size of a living room, and adorn it with furniture to fit that role. This reconceiving of a prominent public statue — an experiment that the artist has carried out in Liverpool, England and Basel, Switzerland as well — is supposed to be, I gather, a cheeky, post modern deflation of the pomposity of 19th-century public art.

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

In one rendering of the project, the living room rises on a perch of four constructed pylons that have a sleek, modernist aesthetic to them. But the look of the thing, and even its artistic consequence, are not what concern me here. What provokes my indignation is the decision of the Parks Department, which holds sway over this tiny island, to lock down the site, in whole or in part, for almost half a year, thus denying the citizens of New York the right to use their city in the way in which it was intended to be used. As anyone who has visited the city’s parks knows all too well, what with their fences and barriers and detours and interminable construction sites, this high-handed institutional disregard is typical of how the department consults the interests of the citizens.

Just as typical, the work began at precisely the moment when the weather — after a dismal April and May — started to get better, and it will end with the onset of winter. Why this project could not have been undertaken in the winter months — like Christo and Jeanne Claude’s The Gates Project back in 2005 — and why it required that the area be closed off for so long, is a mystery. Half a year has been lost in the interests of pulling off a post-modern stunt.

While we’re at it, allow me briefly to make a collateral point that the charm of the place is consistently vitiated by skateboarders, who find the steps at the base of the statue to be an irresistible invitation. Their raucous, heedless assaults upon the steps and benches not only damage them but threaten the safety of everyone who has gathered on the island. The Parks Department prohibits these skateboards, but does nothing to enforce the prohibition. Which means that the rest of the citizens will just have to accept the vivid likelihood that, at any time, they may get hurt. That of course will not happen in the foreseeable future, since the place, as I have said, is now closed off to the public.

James Gardner is The Real Deal‘s architecture critic