Architecture at a Crossroads

In the early 20th century, Manhattan represented the culminating and most extraordinary form of interdependence between architecture and urban morphology. Its unprecedented density, confined to an island and for the most part built within a gridiron, was relieved publicly only by streets, avenues, parks, the delimiting facades of which were all masonry, punctuated by discrete windows and articulated according to shared architectural, linguistic codes.  

Bordering these spaces were blocks mainly composed of continuous rows of contiguous, unmistakably autonomous buildings of varying heights. The occasional, exceptionally large, whole block-sized building both differed from and shared numerous characteristics with the blocks that were produced aggregatively.

Owing to the city’s discernible architectural consistency, it was possible for Hugh Ferris, the urban visionary artist/architect, to reimagine and render the whole island as a continuous, mountainous, crystalline formed city.  Represented this way, the dimensions of the largest among his envisioned outcroppings appeared inscrutable and, to this day, invite us to speculate on innumerable consequences for their interior spaces and circulatory infrastructures.  

Three quarters of Manhattan, as it exists today, was built between the 1900s and 1930s (1.) and continues to embody the architectural consistency and general massing that Ferris both abstracted and elaborated upon. In contrast, most of the late 20th and early 21st century buildings have significantly eroded the city's continuity.

There are many causes for this post-Ferrisian period of both radical and unpolemical forms of disintegration. The results have been catalyzed and distilled by several of the most important works by modern and contemporary architects – from Mies, Saarinen and Yamasaki to Foster, Gehry and Adjaye.  

The project for this studio is a multi-use development (affordable, market and student housing; office space, coworking space; shared lab and learning space; flexible art production and performance space) to be comprised of four separate buildings located on the corners at the crossing of an avenue and a street (7th Avenue and 23rd Street). 

Such a development, highly unlikely or implausible due to the economics and protocols of property aggregation, would be unprecedented in New York.  It would have the effect of binding together entities – urban blocks – never before unified, architecturally.  By doing so, the hypothesis at once foils and resynthesizes the persistent coherence and incoherence wrought by New York over the course of more than a century.

The question for architects working in New York today is whether to allegorically resume and transform the evocations of pre-war architectural and morphological consistency or to proceed with the contemporary drive toward arbitrariness and entropy.

1. This finding was among the conclusions of an analysis undertaken by KPF, an architectural firm in New York. “40 Percent of the Buildings in Manhattan Could Not Be Built Today”, By QUOCTRUNG BUI, MATT A.V. CHABAN and JEREMY WHITE, The New York Times, May 20, 2016