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Which Grand Central Vision Is the Best for New York?

The New York Time’s Michael Kimmelman described it as an “ennobling experience, a gift,” a lesson on what architecture, at it’s best, can be.

Indeed, entering the Main Concourse of Grand Central Terminal is a pleasure that rivals few others. For me, it took me by surprise: walking, as New Yorkers do, in a determined beeline through an undistinguished tunnel, I was suddenly struck by light. I stopped, as New Yorkers never do, to observe a vaulted, starry ceiling, the changing light, and multitudes of people whipping by.

Grand Central is one of New York’s most beloved icons, one of the few which tourists and natives share alike. Which is not to say, of course, that it isn’t in need of a face-lift.

The Terminal’s upcoming centennial, which corresponds with proposed re-zoning laws that would completely change the face of Midtown, makes now the perfect moment to consider how Grand Central’s grandeur can be preserved and its neighborhood reinvigorated. Last week, the Metropolitan Art Society (MAS) invited three firms to share their visions – and while SOM’s gravity-defying “halo” may have stolen the show, only one truly captured the spirit of Grand Central, and explored the full potential of what it could – and should – one day be.

Grand’s Growing Pains

100 years old,The Grand Central of 2012 suffers from two main ailments.

One, “acute overcrowding” and daily pedestrian traffic jams. Designed for a traffic flow of about 75,000, Grand Central regularly sees 10-12 times that many people in a day – a fact no rush-hour commuter could fail to notice. And with progress being made in the East Side Access Project, which will connect Long Island commuters to the station, those numbers are only expected to swell.

Two, a “dead” neighborhood. As any stranded Grand Central traveller knows, the station is effectively isolated from the rest of Manhattan by a 2-block radius of “nothingness”: after 7pm, there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go. As Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan points out in her article for Fast Co.Design, “the area is in danger of becoming an auxiliary neighborhood to Times Square, full of hotels and chain restaurants.” For one of Manhattan’s most historic neighborhoods, that would truly be a tragic fate.

But while a proposed zoning law modification by City Planning offers an incredible opportunity to tackle these growing pains, it also poses an imminent threat.

The Potential Pitfalls of Re-Zoning

The proposed plan aims to promote Midtown East (which, according to City Planning representative Frank Ruchala, has experienced virtually no growth in the last five years) as a viable, global business destination. Current law limits the size of new office towers: they must be smaller than those which stood when the law was passed in 1961. The new zoning would allow companies to buy rights to taller buildings, with the area around Grand Central getting the tallest zoning allowances.

Developers will also be required to pay a “district improvement bonus” earmarked for infrastructure upgrades, such as improving access to the subway, expanding public spaces, and creating pedestrian areas.

The change raises a few concerns: first, obviously, the fear of ever-more traffic in an already highly congested part of Manhattan; and, second, that developers could produce a “soulless,” financial district that would swallow Grand Central whole. In the words of one op-ed columnist for The New York Post, the million-dollar “strings” (a.k.a the improvement bonus) could “deter all but the richest, most ruthless developers.”

However, as the three plans presented at MAS show, there’s no reason why this doomsday scenario must come to fruition, that “big” must necessarily be “bad.” As Vin Cipolla, MAS president, pointed out: “the public experience must be at the center of the conversation — not the size of the buildings.” And indeed, all three firms, cognizant of the potential for a “private land grab,” focused on imagining a Grand Central that is the centerpiece of a lively public space.

Understated and Over-the Top

All three plans sought to improve accessibility and mobility, and bring the pedestrian from the margins to the forefront, by designing pedestrian-friendly spaces that would bring life back to Grand Central.

Foster + Partners’ vision, although not the sexiest, did the most to suggest logistical improvements that would vastly improve the current overcrowding of the Terminal: wider concourses, new and improved entrances, streets reconfigured as shared vehicle/pedestrian routes, enlarged underground spaces, pedestrian corridors lined with trees, sculptures, and cafés.

All great suggestions. But, in my mind, the practical plan left something to be desired.

The same could not be said of SOM’s vision, which has been reduced by the media to its most prominent feature: “the halo,” “the UFO,” “the flying donut.” Yes, the moving, circular observation deck (which rises above Grand Central for a 360-degree panorama of the city) clearly calls attention – and thank goodness, seeing as the entire point of the MAS summit was to generate debate about Grand Central’s future.

But let’s not forget that SOM’s plan also included the creation of pedestrian corridors and condensed public spaces – a plan to revitalize the Terminal at the ground level, which has little to do with the scene-stealing deck. Indeed, I’m inclined to agree with the analysis of Fast Co.Design’s Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, who says the deck is “a bit like an actual donut: saccharine, overwhelming, and nutritionally suspect.”

Moreover, for me, the beauty of Grand Central is that it’s not a self-conscious tourist attraction; rather, it attracts attention by default of its grandeur. A flying “donut” could not say the same.

The Happy Medium

However, the plan proposed by WXY Architecture and Urban Design fell somewhere between a “grand civic gesture” and a practical solution.

Much like the other plans, WXY’s suggested pedestrian-only streets and new public spaces. Like SOM, they suggested turning the Park Avenue Viaduct into a High-Line-esque pedestrian/bicycle path, with a glass floor and seasonal plantings. But WXY also proposed “unharnessing the potential” of the Terminal’s edges, linking the station to its neighborhood.

Even the proposed tower, featuring a roof garden and various “sky parks,” is less an iconic gesture than an expression of the prioritization of green, healthy spaces.

Although I’ll admit that the execution of the tower is somewhat lackluster, I believe that the tone of WXY’s plan is exactly spot-on. It provides all the necessary practical adjustments to the Station; prioritizes the life of the neighborhood; and, with a symbolic tower, acknowledges this new era of development. Instead of converting Grand Central into the sidekick of a modern-day marvel, WXY’s plan modestly proposes creating a “place people enjoy being in [and] not just running through .”

Under their vision, Midtown East would become a place to stop and ponder, and Grand Central would keep its rightful place of privilege. For me, it came the closest to what Grand Central is all about: “an ennobling experience, a gift.”

Which Grand Central Vision Is the Best for New York? originally appeared on ArchDaily, the most visited architecture website on 26 Oct 2012.

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ArchDaily U.S. Election Poll: Where do Architects Stand?

The outcome of the 2012 United States presidential election will have global economic implications. In the midst of one of the most severe global recessions in history, policymakers around the world are waiting to see which way the United States will go this coming November. Will it stay the course of potential recovery—as yet incomplete—set by President Barack Obama? Or will it veer to the right into the still vague and undefined policies of challenger Mitt Romney?

For architecture specifically there is much at stake in this, the most expensive presidential race in history, where two contrasting visions of government’s role in the economy are boiling over. The Democrats advocate a course of continued federal investment and regulation to steer the country through rough economic waters they say were created by eight years of Republican policies. The Republicans point the finger and say Obama’s policies have not succeeded. They prioritize bringing down the deficit, reducing the size of the federal government and less regulation. Both sets of policies claim to be the answer to get the economy growing again.

Regardless of who wins the chances that economic growth will magically spring back to pre-recession levels are slim to non-existent. But whose policies would be more likely to at least make the long climb out of the well more tolerable?

Vote in our Presidential Poll after the break

Some of the broader  issues to keep in mind: job creation; economic climate for small businesses (majority of firms); tax code; housing; infrastructure; government spending; health care; energy policy; foreign relations—especially in architecture hot-spots like China.

For more on policy positions, see the following links:

The Telegraph US Election 2012 Guide

The Washington Post also has a thorough breakdown of candidate positions on different issues. Just click on the issue to see a comparison.

As you may have guessed, I am biased. So for this reason we are conducting what we hope will be the definitive election poll for the architecture community. Other polls have captured a few hundred to a couple thousand respondents. Just image the sample we could get if everyone on ArchDaily were to participate. Where do we stand as a profession? Are firm owners more likely to vote differently from firm employees? Are there differences state-to-state?

Finally, if you are not a United States citizen, we would still like to hear your opinion about whom you think would make the best choice. So please take a couple minutes to answer the following questions.

You can vote until 23:59 EDT next sunday. We will publish the Poll results on monday.  
<a href=”http://archdaily.polldaddy.com/s/us-2012-elections”>Take Our Survey!</a>
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ArchDaily U.S. Election Poll: Where do Architects Stand? originally appeared on ArchDaily, the most visited architecture website on 23 Oct 2012.

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Atelier Gados: Stitching Spaces

Rio de Janeiro-based writer Robert Landon has shared with us his experience exploring the work/live space of Atelier Gados, designed by female-led powerhouse of Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten. 

Thrusting out of a green hillside in an upscale suburb of Basel, Switzerland, Atelier Gados seems deliberately to announce its difference from its staid neighbors – as it should. For Atelier Gados — the work of the young Basel-based Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten — is not just another conventional family residence, but the workshop of an avant-garde Basel clothing designer. In a little bourgeois valley otherwise divided into atomistic, private worlds, Atelier Gados is a place of commerce, a site of creation, an unlikely threshold where public and private are made to meet.

Continue after the break for more.

This unusual yoking continues once you head inside, since the atelier is also deeply integrated into the designer’s own home (built in the 1960s), with no firm or final boundary between store and workshop or workshop and living areas. Indeed, the beauty of Atelier Gados lies exactly in the way Rahbaran Hürzeler have bridged — or perhaps the better phrase is stitched together — so many competing demands, not just structurally but also programmatically and aesthetically.

Before joining forces a few years ago, the firm’s founders — Iranian-born Shadi Rahbaran and Swiss-born Ursula Hürzeler — built up illustrious resumes. Rahbaran cut her teeth working under Rem Koolhaas at OMA, while Ursula Hurzeler is a veteran of Herzog & de Meuron, whose offices sit just down the street from Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten. How do the women harmonize these two titanic influences? Quite well, they say. Yes, Herzog & de Meuron are perfectionistic to the last millimeter, whereas OME is willing to forgive certain flaws if the concept is strong enough. However, both are willing to “try something new, to always push the boundaries,” says Hürzeler. Above all, both OMA and Herzog & de Meuron believe “you should not apply your own solutions to a project, but find the solutions within the project itself,” says Rahbaran.

Certainly the Atelier Gados makes good on this principle. The architects had to wrestle with a long list of restraints, including a steep hillside site, strict zoning regulations, and the desire of the client to preserve as much as possible the qualities of her original home. The bravura move was to create a 7m-long cantilevered overhang. First, it provides a useful visual difference from the domestic buildings around it. Just as important, it carves out workable space on a hillside site that would otherwise be nearly useless. Finally, the form literally thrusts itself away from the existing home, thus disturbing it as little as possible.

As you head inside Atelier Gados, you encounter a series of spaces that are delightful to be in and move through. They are at once cozily enveloping and spacious beyond the cubic feet they occupy, with windows that cleverly structure views of the surrounding hills. Other pleasures are subtler. For example, an apparent purity of materials and forms is belied by a surprising progression of shapes. As you move from entrance to shop to work area, squares and rectangles are stretched, twisted and crushed into trapezoids and parallelograms, as if the building’s design has had to accommodate itself (beautifully) to the formal difficulties of its genesis.

Architects: Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten
Location: Muttenz, Switzerland
Project: 2009-2010
Execution: 2010-2011
Structural Engineering : ZPF Engineers Ltd. – Sali Sadikaj, Nico Ros
Writer: Robert Landon
Photographers: Paul Clemence, Eik Frenzel, Philomene Hoel

Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (1) © Eik Frenzel, Philomene Hoel
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (2) © Eik Frenzel, Philomene Hoel
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (3) © Eik Frenzel, Philomene Hoel
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (4) © Eik Frenzel, Philomene Hoel
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (5) © Eik Frenzel, Philomene Hoel
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (6) © Eik Frenzel, Philomene Hoel
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (7) © Eik Frenzel, Philomene Hoel
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (8) © Eik Frenzel, Philomene Hoel
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (9) © Eik Frenzel, Philomene Hoel
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (10) © Paul Clemence
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (12) © Paul Clemence
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (13) © Paul Clemence
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (14) © Paul Clemence
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (15) © Paul Clemence
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (16) © Paul Clemence
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (17) © Paul Clemence
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (18) © Paul Clemence
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (19) © Paul Clemence
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (20) © Paul Clemence
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (21) © Paul Clemence
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (22) © Paul Clemence
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (23) © Paul Clemence
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (24) © Paul Clemence
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (25) © Paul Clemence
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (26) Site Plan
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (27) Plan of existing house, before addition.
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (28) Plan of new studio level. Yellow lines represent the existing house before the intervention.
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (29) Lower Level Plan, Studio Reception
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (30) Existing Upper Level, with new terrace
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (31) Section
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (32) Section
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (33) Existing Diagram
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (34) The Intervention Diagram
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (35) The existing house before the addition © Eik Frenzel, Philomene Hoel
Atelier Gados / Rahbaran Hürzeler Architekten (36) Under construction © Eik Frenzel, Philomene Hoel

Atelier Gados: Stitching Spaces originally appeared on ArchDaily, the most visited architecture website on 10 Oct 2012.

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Two Architects investigate the Evolution of #OWS

Our friends at Design Observer’s Places Journal have shared with us two fascinating articles, written by architects Jonathan Massey and Brett Snyder, that explore the physical and virtual evolution of Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) as it transformed from the privately owned public space of Zuccotti Park into the bustling micro-city of Liberty Plaza sustained by online media.

To learn how OWS has influenced architecture and urbanism, Massey and Snyder asks the following questions: What’s the layout of this place? What are its rules, and who owns it? How does its design shape possibilities for individual and collective action?

Continue after the break to learn more. 

Architecture Biennale Venice 2012: Questions without answers

Text and photographs: Jaakko van ‘t Spijker

As opposed to what certain critics and commentators have suggested about the opening week, they actually were there, the exhibitors with sociopolitical engagement asking relevant questions, at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale opening. What was lacking, however, were outspoken conclusions; the risky and exciting part of taking position after having made interesting observations. Where were the architectural mavericks, the polemical daredevils and provocateurs, to stir up and the debate and bring it further? It was in the Japanese pavilion that questions were asked as well as answered.

In one of the first pre-events of the Biennale, a surprise storm raged over the Venetian Laguna while in an old warehouse in Giudecca, MVRDV’s Winy Maas and his Delft University department The Why-Factory, put ‘the decline of the identity of The European City’ on the agenda by presenting a new EU City Manifesto. In a whirlwind presentation of ideas and themes that rivaled the storm outside, so much was said that the central idea or statement became blurred. The question and intention were as good and relevant as the presented manifesto was generic, if it even was an answer at all.

The event was a premonition of the character of the main Biennale that came to life the next day in the Giardini and the Arsenale in Venice. Gone was the storm, and under a sunny sky the party bubbled through two days of vernissages and openings. Numerous curators turned out to have embraced socio-political themes, most of them as open to interpretation and politically safe as is the overarching Biennale theme of this year: Common Ground. Sustainability, one of the big stories of the last decade, was virtually non-present. Re-marks on big themes were the flavor of this year’s exhibitions. Canada focused on re-housing in the context of migration, Germany on re-use of buildings, Holland on re-setting spaces, Zaha Hadid on re-interpretation of (Frei Otto’s) engineering, OMA on re-appreciating forgotten bureaucrats, Foster on re-grouping more or less all architecture. In themselves the majority of these exhibitions and pavilions were well made and intelligently put together, asking big and relevant questions.

In the perspective of the overall event however, the reasonability of it all became unsatisfactory. Common Ground started to trickle through the exhibition, conversations and presentations as a concept that provoked coining numerous politically correct and fair questions, while it steered away from answers. The impression arose that the architectural discourse is scared of looking for answers as these can have a biting political edge and produce risky design concepts. It is shifting towards a facilitating role, in which putting questions on the table is the main task. Such a self-important yet safe attitude can weaken the professional debate in the long run. It is the lack of answers that may have added to Wolf Prix’s irritation, when he wrote a brutal comment on the Biennale earlier this week.

A number of curators did take a next step towards explicitly showing their true colors. The Israeli pavilion stunned many by its intense and confronting exhibition: Named Aircraft Carrier (as in ‘’Israel being America’s unsinkable and well positioned largest aircraft carrier’’) it consistently displayed the combination of consumerism and violence that has shaped the current country, and can be seen as context to its architecture. Crimson, in their exhibition called ‘The Banality of Good’ introduced a moral edge, by demonstrating the way one design principle has been applied for entirely different purposes in the development of different generations of postwar new towns across the world, purposes that usually were not met. Eventually though, also these exhibitions left the answers to their sharp questions largely open.

It was Japan, with what ended up as this year’s winning pavilion, that presented both a question and answer in their show. Curated by Toyo Ito, the pavilion shows the process in which three young architects developed a community house with and for a tsunami-stricken community in Japan. Sensitive, poetic and practical, the impression left by this exhibition and by the presented community house design is disarmingly unpretentious and optimistic. The overwhelming amount of study models are proof of the ambition and energy that were put into the project by the architects. Displaying a process that oozes both engagement and design pleasure, the pavilion’s message is that (design-)answers do work, even if they are small and maybe vulnerable.

Strong architectural engagement needs good questions. It is the subsequent quest for answers in the form of concepts, theories and designs that completes it. Enough stormy questions were asked at this year’s Biennale, but the shortage in answers resembled the sunny opening days: clear and pleasant safety.

Architecture Biennale Venice 2012: Questions without answers originally appeared on ArchDaily, the most visited architecture website on 07 Sep 2012.

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AD Architecture School Guide: Forensic Architecture at University of London

When people think architecture school they think of training that teaches them how to make things: build spaces or develop sites for, primarily, human use. Over the years, this concept has expanded to encompass social activism. In the States, for example, there are programs like Architecture for Humanity, Project Row Houses, and Make It Right that address issues of poverty, displacement, and housing. Human Rights, however, extends beyond creating spaces for the economically disadvantages or impoverished. In fact, the term Human Rights often conjures up people’s rights within the context of conflict. Most people, however, do not think of architecture as encompassing the lack or destruction of structures.

Read about the Forensic Architecture program at the U. of London after the break

But studying spaces of contestation and those that have been fundamentally changed by conflict is an equally important endeavor. The intersection of Human Rights and spaces of contestation is the purview of Forensic Architecture, which is “the presentation of spatial analysis within contemporary legal and political forums.” At Goldsmiths, University of London, their Forensic Architecture program within the Department of Visual Cultures is focused on mapping, imaging and modeling “sites of violence within the framework of international humanitarian law and human rights.”