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

First impressions of an unfamiliar city

I visited Nottingham today to study the design of the NET Metro public transport system and meet some of the people behind it. While I was here I thought I would have a look around.

As an urban designer I love cities. Discovering new cities, or parts of cities, is a bit of geeky hobby of mine. As a city nerd I am also quick to be critical about a city: what it does right, what it does wrong, what excites and what disappoints.  This was my fist visit to Nottingham. Here are some first impressions of the city...

My first impression was formed by the NET Metro itself. Quiet, efficient and clean. It gave me the impression of a forward thinking city. Somewhere that is investing in the future, not just clearing up the mess of the past.

I got off in the Gustavson Porter designed Old Market Square. The only reason for this impulsive departure was because it was the only thing about Nottingham that I knew about. So I thought I'd go and have a look. 

Old Market Square showed what can be achieved when the designer is brave enough to take out all of the crap and clutter. That level of emptiness can look terrifying when its on the drawing board, but alongside a building like the imposing, but unfortunately named, Council House it works beautifully. The materials were carefully contrasted with the sandstone slabs used everywhere else in the city and the details and standard of maintenance were top class. However, it was very sad to see that the innovative water feature, which was so important to the original design, was out of commission.

After Old Market Square I followed my nose and tried to spot something interesting and walk towards it. What took my eye was the cities way finding system, an effective network of signs and columns that is effectively a finger post system and a roving Rough Guide rolled into one. Taking the time to read and follow it transformed my experience of Nottingham.

Having seen part of contemporary Nottingham I was cast back in time to the Old Lace  Market. National chains gave way to smaller indie businesses in handsome red brick buildings, side streets and intimate squares. More info panels explained that whilst the city's lace production went back to Saxon times it was Thomas Adams' approach to production and employee welfare that helped put the city on the map.

Having had a glimpse of 19th century Nottingham and the hint of a more ancient past, I thought I'd try to see what the city could reveal about its medieval history. I followed the frequent info panels and found my way to Maid Marion Way, a cruel urban motorway surrounded by grey brutalist car parks, towering facades and stark structures that arrogantly divided the new city from its medieval past. Most British cities have places like this, but the experience was still a bitter disappointment. This area must be a future priority for the city council who will need to unstitch this sorry mess that segregates the city from 1000 years of history.

Once I'd reached the gates of the Castle I was disappointed to see carelessly located planters, devoid of actual pants (just mud) in front of probably one of the most important buildings in the city. It seems that the attention to detail, so evident in Old Market Square, had not managed to cross Maid Marion Way and had given up and turned back. This wasn't the only example. Other historic buildings, that would be celebrated in other cities, were left marooned in amongst disabled parking bays and double yellow lines. It seemed that the City Council, or certainly departments of it, are guilty of not being precious enough with some of their most prized possessions.

A short walk around the sandstone outcrop upon which sits the castle revealed Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, England's oldest inn, dating back to 1189 and a stopping off for medieval squaddies on route to the holy land. I expected to find some of them still there trying to master the most addictive pub game in the whole of Christendom. I was thankful that I got lucky and beat the game after twenty minutes.

In two hours, thanks to the information provided by the city council, I had a good feel for the city, it's past, present and its future. The question that i was left with was: for a city as good as this why does it have such a non-descript national persona? If half of this stuff had been in Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow the whole world would know about it. In a competitive market place for tourism and business investment Nottingham has more than enough assets to stand out but needs to shout more confidently about what a great little city that it is