Sunday, January 25, 2009

Urban Disobedience

Everyone has a favorite building. We may not have consciously thought about it, but we all have that building that we associate with our own happiness. Maybe we had a good experience in that building, maybe we like the story behind the building’s construction, maybe it was the first building we looked up at after a goodnight kiss, or maybe we genuinely admire the architecture of the building…whatever the reason may be, I encourage you all to think about the building that makes you happy, the one that you associate with a great moment in your own history or the history of the world.

After having been fortunate enough to see and experience the breathtaking Renaissance cathedrals of Europe, the colorful Buddhist temples of Southeast Asia, and some of the most historic religious structures of the three Western religions in the Middle East, I come back home for my favorite building. The Flatiron Building, just south of 23rd Street between Fifth and Broadway, here in the greatest city in the world, is unequivocally the building that does it for me. Whenever I find myself in need of some inspiration, a little pick me up after a tough day of work, or if I just need to spend some time away from my apartment, I find myself heading straight towards the Flatiron Building. I equate this to some sort of perceptive, sympathetic, well-cultured magnetic field.

So why this admiration for such an odd shaped piece of architecture? Could it be the beautiful limestone and glazed terra-cotta fa├žade that references the three distinct sections of a classical Greek column and is adorned with ornate symbols of the classic style? Could it be it’s proximity to Madison Square Park and the incredible photo ops that it offers? Could it be the commonly held beliefs that the building was New York’s first modern skyscraper and the first building to built in its trademark triangular shape (both of these notions are actually flawed as the first skyscraper in New York was the Park Row Building completed in 1899, and the first triangular shaped building was the Gooderham Building in Toronto, built in 1892; the Flatiron was not completed until 1902). Could it be the symbolic nature of the building and all the attention that it receives in popular culture (Sprint television commercial, David Letterman credits, Spider Man movie, etc.)? Could it be that the awe-inspiring artistic luminance that eminates from the building on a cool, clear evening?

The short answer to all of these questions is yes, but there is something more. Something more deeply psychological, more deeply philosophical, more personal. As I have previously noted, NYC is a grid city through and through. We appreciate the grid for its convenience, its comprehensibility, and its symmetry. There is something mathematically beautiful about right angles and parallel lines. But as in life, the most consequential experiences come when we are taken out of our comfort zone, when our previously held notions are turned on their head and we are exposed to new schools of thought and new courses of action. The same goes for architecture, and there is no better example than the Flatiron Building. With its unique shape, the Flatiron throws conventional notions of architecture and building to the wayside. It turns its nose up at the steel boxes that dominate the New York skyline. It potently disregards the orthodoxy and obstinance of our beloved grid. It represents true architectural rebellion in a city where rebellion has become more a good topic of conversation than a call to action. Where else in this city can you so clearly see down two avenues at the same time (it doesn’t hurt either that these avenues happen to be Fifth and Broadway)? What other building comes to such a dramatic point at the intersection of three so historically and commercially important roads.

Oscar Wilde once said that “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.” The Flatiron Building is the architectural archetype for such a view. Progress is not achieved through comfort. Beauty is not achieved through convention. Inspiration does not come from the standard. I guess it’s no coincidence, then, that I find myself time and time again wandering towards the Flatiron.

Monday, January 19, 2009

New Yorkers and Our Beloved Grid

What would New Yorkers do without their grid? This question crosses my mind every time I am forced to spend a few minutes on Google maps when someone asks me to meet them at Bleecker and Thompson. Why can’t we meet on 23rd and 6th? We both know where that is.

Whether or not you are a fan, you must admit that we New Yorkers take great comfort in the presence of the grid. We understand the grid. We can envision the grid. We appreciate that when out-of-towners come to visit, a street corner suffices as directions. No third right after the second stop sign across the street from the Starbucks. An avenue and a street is all they need. We know that when the numbers are increasing, we are heading North and that a right turn will get us going East. We enjoy saying things like “Evens go East” and “LPM” (Lexington, Park, Madison). Our favorite subways are the 123 and the 456 because they too understand and adhere to the principles of our beloved grid. We hate the F and the V and get uncomfortable when others tell us to use it. We still don’t understand why Lexington, Park, and Madison were spared numbers or why Fourth Avenue only sometimes exists, but we have come to accept these slight inconveniences because we realize that is not all that hard to remember. We have also come to accept and even embrace Broadway because we view it as the great hypotenuse of our city. We still don’t understand why it is there or who put it there, but there is something romantic about it, so we accept it as our own. Plus, it provides for some interesting architecture (more on this later) and irregularly shaped parks, so we have decided to forgive its presence. We, however, still meet with great resistance the byzantine and rather tortuous streets of Greenwich Village and Soho. We leave those streets to the artists, musicians, and writers among us who inhabit those areas and who have sufficient left brain capacity to decipher them.

So why does the grid exist in the first place? A little history lesson. We owe the presence of the grid to the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 formulated by Gouverneur Morris, lawyer John Rutherford, and a surveyor by the name of Simeon De Witt. The plan called for the orderly settlement of Manhattan between 14th Street and Washington Heights with 16 avenues running north/south and 155 orthogonal cross streets running east/west. The cross streets would all be 60 feet wide, except for 15, which would be 100 feet wide, and today make up the two-way cross-town streets (14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd etc). Two notable features of today’s city were left out of the plan. The first is Broadway, which had been carved out hundreds of years before the grid was erected. It was originally known as the Wickquasgeck Trail during the time of the Native American settlers and served as the main road of New Amsterdam when it was settled back in the 17th century. The second feature is Central Park, which was not even thought up until 1853, when the poet William Cullen Bryant and landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing led a push by many efficacious New Yorkers for a chic open-aired park.

From the moment the Commissioners Plan went from dream to reality, there has been much debate surrounding the grid. It provides comfort, sure, but is the myriad of right angles too puritanical? Is our inner creative genius somehow inhibited by the mindless rows of parallel lines? Would we have been better off with winding roads, circular parks, and cul-de-sacs abound? Should we have followed what Metropolis Magazine calls the “hub and spoke” model of Paris? The answers to these questions are too personal for me to answer for you. What I do know is that you will thank the grid the next time your college roommate visits from our of town and all you have to say is “17th and 7th…across the street from the Starbucks.”

Sunday, January 18, 2009


I have been asked a number of times about why I started this blog. I have no particular expertise in architecture. I have no particular desire to enter the profession. So why muse on the topic? Why do anything? Inspiration. What follows are mine.

1. The Fountainhead -- one of those game changers. A novel about human tendencies, values, and idealism wrapped in an architectural blanket. This novel taught me that philosophy and architecture are intricately intertwined and that it would be foolish to view the two as mutually exclusive. Like Roark and Dominique, two of the most fascinating characters in literary history, I struggle to give credence to my idealist notions in a world dominated by realism. Perhaps, Gail Wynand provides a better model then for how to navigate such a dilemma. Either way, Ayn Rand clearly proves that architecture provides the ultimate framework for discussions of philosophy, politics, economics, ethics, egoism, art, and the human mind. There is here is no greater joy in the world than when you meet someone who gets the proverbially "it," and these people are few and far between, but anyone who has read the Fountainhead has gotten at least a glimpse of the mind of someone who has.

2. Art and architecture history - my interest in the art and architecture world began with a class in postmodern architecture taught by one of those great professors who actually made you look forward to attending lectures. That class led me to minor in the subject with subsequent classes in Greek art and archeology, Renaissance architecture, etc. It is now a true passion of mine.

3. Brain War -- In a struggle between my traditional right brained notions of myself and what I have only recently begun to learn about my personality, this represents a small but important victory for the left side.

4. Travel - To learn another culture is to open doors to the past, present, and future. What better way to understand a people and their values than to observe and interact with the structures and spaces in which they live.

5. The spark -- remember 7th grade social studies class when your teacher taught you the underlying causes of the American Revolution (French and Indian War, colonialism, taxation without representation), the principle causes (Stamp Act, Tea Act, Boston Massacre, Intolerable Acts), and then there was the spark (Lexington and Concord). Well, think of the above as the underlying and main causes. The spark, however, was a brief moment of zen. It came during a conversation with a friend from college about how to incorporate your true hobbies and passion into your working life. Naturally, my friend had successfully remedied this problem in his own life as he is currently employed by the Bronx Zoo as the guy that operates the sky ride. When the conversation turned to myself, I could not answer the question so easily. I think it would be cool to write about architecture, I said. So why don't you. Good point. Here I am.

The Paradox

The paradox inherent within the field of architecture is fascinating.

On one hand, architecture is the most egalitarian of the professional fields. It is the ultimate shared experience, the ultimate democracy. It can be experienced by anyone, anywhere, and at anytime. Though we often don't think of architecture as "consumable," it is actually the ultimate consumer good. We can avoid consuming apples or ipods if we so choose, but the ubiquitous nature of architecture lends itself to interminable consumption. From the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we fall asleep (and sometimes while we sleep), we are consciously or subconsciously experiencing the buildings and spaces we inhabit, frequent, and observe. This fundamental right and capacity can never be taken away from us. The masses are free to interpret structures and spaces as they so choose, and though two people may experience the same work of architecture in very personal and very different ways, the important thing is that both are experiencing it. The question is not how, but if, and the answer is yes.

On the other hand, architecture represents one of the more exclusive professional fields. Only a fraction of the population has the financial means to create a work of architecture . I decry those that confuse price with quality, but the realist (not the idealist) in me recognizes that architecture is expensive. I have seen 2% thrown around as the percentage of American home buyers who work with an architect, and though this number is often disputed, it is clear that we all do not have the means necessary to create such a work. The question of "what constitutes architecture" is definitely an important question in this context and one of great interest to me. More liberal answers may challenge the contention that "we do not all have the means to create architecture," but for now (with a promise to return to the topic in the near future), I will stick with more traditional answers. The other aspect that suggests the exclusivity of architecture is the profession itself. On par with being a physician, lawyer, or nuclear physicist, the architectural profession requires specific training in definitive techniques and principles. It requires mastery of mathematics, information technology, architectural principles and history, and a myriad of rather complex computer programs. This is stark contrast to professions like finance, advertising, and PR, where job openings are perpetually filled by eager graduates hailing from the oh so popular, but oh so general, college majors like psychology, history, and economics (majors not exactly conducive to the architectural profession). Seemingly anyone can wake up one day and suddenly enter these fields with few (what economists like to call) "barriers to entry." Perhaps these barriers to entry are part of the reason I decided to become a trader, but I leave this to future musings.

Herein lies the paradox: Many can observe architecture. Few can practice it. Many can admire architecture. Few can appreciate it. Many can critique architecture. Few can improve it.

In the pages of this blog, I aspire to neither create nor improve architecture itself. I only hope to shed light on a myriad of interesting observations related to the field, its intentions, its practitioners, and its constituents. Architecture itself transcends space, time, and humans themselves, and as the great American architect and father of modernism, Louis Sullivan, once said, "Our architecture reflects truly as a mirror." This blog aspires to be that mirror.