Gotham – An Urbanist in New York

Start spreadin’ the news, I’m leaving today, I want to be a part of it… Joanne Reitano’s academic and excellent book The Restless City (A Short History of New York from Colonial Times to the Present) expresses the diverse and relentless nature central to capturing New York’s spirit as a restless city. This is exactly how I found it when visiting last month with my wife as part of a landmark year for me (reaching the grand old age of 40!).

Once we arrived at JFK and literally fired into Gotham via a yellow ‘bullet’ weaving through lanes of traffic at speed we knew we had arrived at the restless city.

As Reitano eloquently states, change is at the heart of this great city and central to its history. I had a sense of this historic flux by reading Edward Rutherfurd’s tome New York prior to going, but nothing prepares you for the event when you approach Manhattan.

Instantly around the fringes of the city as we approached (and subsequently throughout our stay) I could see what the urbanist Lewis Mumford acknowledged: that ‘conflict’ is embedded in the “creative audacity” that makes cities like New York so vibrant, complex and progressive in the first place. I agree with Mumford who talked about the city as an unstable community that welcomes strangers, embraces individuality and energised by change – Bold and Bustling, Exciting and Inventive, Arrogant and Aggressive.

What is fascinating about New York is the irony that underpinning the structure to the complexity is an urban fabric and built form regimented with enforced order. As with most successful cities however it is not about pretty buildings. It is the balance between socio economic factors, cooperation and competition, creating a blend of tensions and interactions to make successful and vibrant places to work, rest and play in.

As a great lecturer of mine once said: places for Citizens not Subjects.

Whilst thinking about our time there, clearly as a tourist the snapshot of the city is pushed through a dyeline of key streets and spaces, the must see iconic parts. But walking the length of Manhattan, and traversing slices east and west you begin expand this mind map of this great city.

Far from being dull and regimented the city scale and character changes effortlessly between areas and districts. What struck me is that the majority of buildings are mainly unfussy allowing the street activity (the ‘events’) and the spaces around the buildings taking centre stage. I think to the detriment of lesser cities too many architects feel compelled to shape and gift wrap buildings with tinsel, failing to accept their ‘present’ to the city is already last years model, with no batteries included!

New York therefore succeeds, the skeletal frame and nervous system are in place allowing it to flex, adapt and evolve as it always has through the human activity and built form. Great examples of this for me are Union Square and Bryant Park, populated and made fantastic spaces to sit, eat, drink, shop or simply pass through. The High Line running through the Meatpacking District and into Chelsea offers another different experience of the city – essentially it feels democratic, free, and open to all as a space, or moreover series of spaces and events.

I like Bernard Tschumi’s analysis in his book – Architecture and Disjunction where he talks about Events: ‘…there is no architecture without event, no architecture without action, without activities, without functions.’  He believes New York’s successful urbanity is the intense and rich collision of events and spaces… he may have something there…

…One thing is for certain, we can’t wait to return and experience the event that is New York!

By Gareth Howell