Manhole covers of Japan do not disappoint. pic.twitter.com/gUbChDKpGE— Alexandra Lange (@LangeAlexandra) October 23, 2016
If there is a plaque commemorating the location of the entrance to Alfred Ely Beach’s pneumatic railway, built in secret below 265 Broadway, in lower Manhattan, the writer Sam Lubell and I did not find it on a ninety-degree day in August. Once upon a time, the basement of this building across from New York’s City Hall was frescoed and furnished with a piano, a plashing fountain, and goldfish tanks. Admission to the subway, which ran along a two-hundred-and-ninety-four-foot tunnel for three years, from 1870 to 1873, was twenty-five cents. Today, there is only an emptied-out bank branch, its basement piled with garbage and large rat traps. Such is the afterlife of transportation dreams, this one squelched by Tammany Hall’s support for the rival Central Underground Railway’s Broadway line, or perhaps the opposition of merchants who didn’t want the street in front of their shops torn up for a decade.
I met Lubell in lower Manhattan because the area proved to be central to his research. He and his co-author, Greg Goldin, have completed “Never Built New York,” a lushly illustrated compendium of almost two hundred utopian, dystopian, gargantuan, high-flying, and low-lying plans that never made it. As in their previous collaboration, “Never Built Los Angeles,” the authors have pulled images from scores of archives, adding concise histories of each project. The design of the book highlights the stories that boosters use to sell such schemes, with magazine-style pull quotes demonstrating how superlatives have always been part of the architecture game. “Casual, inspired living, minus the usual big-city clamor,” Frank Lloyd Wright said, of his “last dream” to turn Ellis Island into an experimental, self-contained city with glass domes holding theatres, hospitals, churches, schools, a sports arena, and a library. If anything, and for once, Wright was too modest in describing his ambitions.
In third grade, a tall, curious girl named Jane Butzner was expelled from school. A dentist had come to the school, George Washington in Dunmore, Penn., to talk to students about oral hygiene, and, at the end of his speech, he asked them to promise to brush their teeth, morning and night. Jane’s father, a doctor, had told her that a promise was a serious matter, not to be made lightly. So how could she and her classmates promise to brush their teeth twice a day for the rest of their lives?
The request put Jane in moral jeopardy. She would not raise her hand, and she made sure that the other students did not follow blindly. “Don’t do it,” she whispered. “Don’t do it.” Some of the children who had raised their hands put them down, sowing confusion. When Jane’s teacher found out what she had done, they argued, and Jane refused to back down. She knew she was right. “At her wits’ end, she expelled me,” Jane told an interviewer in 1992. “It came to me good and strong and fast that I was an outlaw.”
You don’t even need to go inside the new National Museum of African American History and Culture to get the point. Imagine the alphabet soup of agencies that govern the National Mall gave you a site, just to the right of the Washington Monument. When you came to them with your first idea, they cut it down. Too tall. So you draw a box next to the monument, a dotted square against the green lawn and the blue sky. Into that square you could fit a concrete donut like SOM’s Hirshhorn Museum, or a stone prism like I.M. Pei’s East Wing, or another box with columns like most of the other museums.
But you decide you didn’t have to fill that square or make a solid. Instead, you’ll make a gem. Your museum will be smaller, lacier, more mutable. Gold in the morning and glowing at night. The NMAAHC works like a power player who only speaks in a whisper. You have to lean in.
The $540 million museum, which officially opens on Saturday, September 24, couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune moment. The twin missions embodied in its clunky name seem to speak directly to the events of this year. #Blacklivesmatter has foregrounded African-Americans’ continuous struggle for equality, making the museum’s history section painfully current, while African-American excellence in popular culture has never been more obvious—even as the push for representation on screen continues.
“We were all cursing when it didn’t open last year, but I think it has special power now,” says architect David Adjaye, the project’s lead designer. “Every generation thinks we know the story, we’ve grown past it, we’re integrated, we’re done, and then a decade later there is memory loss. We go back to stigmatizing and dividing. In the 18th and 19th century, museums were about understanding the world. Now [that] we understand the world, we have to understand each other.”
I don’t typically think of Manhattan’s new architecture in terms of site. Location, yes, in terms of changing the perception of some existing block or neighborhood. One of the delights of BIG’s VIA 57, for example, is how it makes its location into a site, altering the geography of an area populated by meaty, faceless buildings by giving it sparkly topography. While one of the mysteries of Herzog & de Meuron’s stack of boxes downtown on Leonard is what, exactly, one might call its location.
Or so I (mis)remembered, kicking myself for being lower Manhattan-centric, after I paid a visit to Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s new Columbia University Medical Center building, the Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center. (Gensler was the executive architect.)
Traveling uphill from the 168th Street stop, Haven Avenue makes a right, turning parallel to the stony ridge that carries Washington Heights high above the Henry Hudson Parkway and the river. Three buff brick towers rise above older masonry buildings, housing for Columbia dental students since the early 1970s. Their height and footprint provide a rude sort of context for their new stepsister, lighter on her feet, more welcoming, more transparent.
Search the word “futuristic” on Curbed and, even without images, a certain look emerges. “Not a right angle in sight.” “Swoopy.” “Jetsons.” When the pictures load, there’s an overwhelming whiteness to go with the curves and the assisted floatation, windows like aerodynamic diagrams, columns like Tulip chairs, highlights like an early-2000s logo redesign. It’s a future that owes a lot to Buckminster Fuller and Zaha Hadid, and a little to childhoods spent at Epcot, but is now synonymous with Apple, via the radius corners and metallic sheen of products great and small.
Apple, under the meticulous design direction of Jonathan Ive, continues to dominate the collective imagination with a singular vision the tech’s future. The pinched end of my MacBook gives the visual illusion of levitating. My Apple monitor floats on its bent-aluminum stand. The corners of my overlarge iPhone draw no blood. Their collective uncolor stands in contrast to everything else in my house, and their material imparts a subtle sense of luxury. Thorstein Veblen wrote, over a century ago, about the handmade silver spoon, free of decoration, as a symbol of “inconspicuous consumption.” The iPhone, as a luxury that seems to be everywhere, partakes of the same soothing, shiny uniformity. Only the maker knows what’s under the hood.
Contrast that with the ThinkPad T400—so many laptops ago—I just dug out of a drawer. I religiously recycle my electronics , but I couldn’t let this one go. It’s a museum piece. It is heavy, thick like an architecture monograph. I blow the dust off and its matte black surface is unmarred. I try to open it and I can’t: I’d forgotten the gesture, once second nature, of sliding my thumb across the catch. A tiny button catches on the soft pad of my thumb, and I press. It opens with a satisfying click.