Red+Black in the USA – New York

Red+Black in the USA

The United States of America, a cultural powerhouse and dominant world player. Over three weeks the Red+Black Architect took a tour through a few of the most iconic pieces of the USA. If you missed the start of this series, Click here to read from the beginning.

New York City – Public Architecture and Public Space

New York, New York. An urbanists wet dream. An international city rich in all forms of human endeavor and culture. From the theaters of Broadway, to the art galleries and museums lining Central Park, this city is treasure trove of experiences and activity. As a backdrop to this smorgasbord of humanity, is a diverse collection of architectural styles on display.

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

Beginning this brief exploration of public space and architecture, is Perhaps the most famous of New York’s Art Galleries, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). MoMA’s history spans back to 1929 when the first items were collected and displayed. Since then it has amassed almost 200,000 pieces of art from around the world. Over that time the building housing the collection, originally designed by architects Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone, has had several alterations. The most recent of these was a substantial  redesign and refurbishment between 2002 and 2004 by Japanese Architect Yoshio Taniguchi.

One of the most interesting aspects of this famous institution was the emphasis on design of all kinds. From graphic design through to products and digital innovations every aspect of the very broad field had been curated. Sitting proudly among this collection was the Gallery of Architecture. Here original models of famous buildings sat within a square room surrounded with photos renders and drawings of contemporary and modernist architecture. It is a taste of what could be achieved if Melbourne was to embark on creating a Museum of Australian Architecture as has been recently mooted by Alan Davies.

Whitney Museum of American Art

New York’s newest art gallery is the brand new Whitney Museum of American Art designed by famous Italian Architect, Renzo Piano. Located in Chelsea at one end of the Highline (see below), the gallery is part of a recent resurgence in this section of New York.

A new art gallery in New York will always beg for comparisons with the other world class galleries in the city. Perhaps the most striking comparison is to that of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Where Wright puts the visitors focus entirely on the interior, Piano offers the city as a backdrop in certain spaces. Wright’s building is all about the visitor experience within the curved sculpture, Piano takes more consideration into the practicalities of displaying the art. This pragmatic approach detracts from the potential poetry of the space. In some sense what has been achieved is a factory for viewing art. Efficient, calculating, industrial but not delightful in the way Wright was able to achieve.

Upon opening earlier this year it was reviewed by the New York Times, who put together a brilliant review of the architecture via an innovative website. Take a look here 

The High Line

New York’s most celebrated open space of late is the linear park known as the High Line. This park is the result of re-purposing the disused West Side Line of the New York Central Railroad into a pedestrian focused conduit which traverses the Meat packing District. The High Line was designed by landscape architecture firm Field Operations along with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro and has been progressively redeveloped in three stages.

As the path progresses through the city, it widen and narrows, passes through and between buildings and provides the traveler every opportunity to stop and smell the flowers (or sun bake) along the way. Full use is made of the height that the existing platform offers, with banked seating available to watch the street life and busy traffic below. The High Line also offers several curated spaces, where markets or community Lego building can take place on any given day.

Perhaps the only negative here is what happens at the ground level beneath the High Line. By drawing the pedestrian activity to the level above, the ground plane is at risk of being left a vacant inhospitable place. This is something that may require further intervention.

As far as the Urban and Landscape design on the High Line above is concerned the result is very high quality and yet subtle. The previous use as a railway is not ignored but embraced by the designers. The result is a superb urban experience which highlights the very best of city living.

Central Park

From New York’s newest open space, to it’s oldest, Central Park. In many ways this is New York’s most important space. It is this open space that makes New York work as a concept. At over 800m across and over 4 Kilometres long this massive piece of landscape architecture is one of the defining spaces of New York. Within the park is just about every type of outdoor public use imaginable. From manicured lawns to rough walking tracks through forest, public pools, lakes, sporting fields and performance spaces, Central Park has it all. Walking through the park it is often very easy to forget that you are in the centre of one of the largest cities in the world.

It was no doubt a very bold and controversial step in 1853, for such a large area to be publicly acquired for the provision of a park. It would be virtually unimaginable today, yet the space is in many ways New York’s greatest asset. The big lesson that must be learnt from this is to value and protect our city parks from being taken away piece by piece. In Melbourne it is really hard to justify the permanent loss of part of Royal Park, as happened in 2006, for a Commonwealth Games Village that was useful for just 2 weeks. The further loss that would have occurred for the construction of the East West Link would have been a further travesty.

New York is truly an international city of culture. It is an ongoing story about what happens when excellent design is valued and the public realm is prioritized. It is not without it’s problems, as all cities have, but there is a lot to like about this city of cities.


Architecture is for Everyone




About Michael Smith

Architect and Director of Atelier Red + Black based in Melbourne, Australia
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