The Museum of Modern Art exhibition: The New City: Architecture and Urban Renewal – 1967

 

In 1966, Peter Eisenman proposed an exhibition on urbanism to Arthur Drexler, Director of Architecture and Design department of MoMA that they would organize together. The exhibition was to have professors from four Universities make urban design interventions in Harlem, New York. In 1967, The New City: Architecture and Urban Renewal was exhibited at MoMA from January 23rd to March 13th. Professors Peter Eisenman and Michael Graves directed a team from Princeton University; Professors Colin Rowe and Tom Schumacher; Jerry Wells and Fred Koetter and a team from Cornell; Professors Jaqueline Robertson, Richard Weinstein, Giovanni Pasanella; Jonathan Barnett, Myles Weintraub and a team from Columbia, and Professors Stanford Anderson, Robert Goodman and Henry Millon from M.I.T.

 

Arthur Drexler wrote an introduction Architecture and Urban Design. He stated that, “four teams of architects and planners associated with the faculties of four universities, Cornell, Columbia, Princeton and Massachusetts Institute of Technology” were commissioned to study “the blocks between 96th Street at the south to 115th Street to the north: and from the Hudson River at the west to the East River at the east.”

 

At the time, the term urban renewal was well known as a federal government program that began in 1954, programming blighted areas of the city to be demolished for new urban projects. Also, the Federal Highway Act of 1956 permitted areas to be demolished for highways. By the 1960’s these programs, through the efforts of those like Jane Jacobs, were urbanistically destructive as well as racist. Thus it is interesting that this exhibition would employ the term Urban Renewal at this time when that program was generally perceived as having been a failed project.

 

Also of interest, the site of the project was Harlem and the 60’s anti-establishment, cultural revolution that occurred in conjunction with race riots, reached its zenith in 1968 in New York and around the world. During this period the Advocacy Planning movement emerged as an idea about local bottom-up planning and against the master plan. This was organized by Richard Hatch and was strong in the African American neighborhood of Harlem. These MoMA projects were bold and large scale interventions, defined by the proposition to transform the existing city. So these proclaimed urban renewal projects, proposed in Harlem in 1967, might have seemed like a naïve and probably disastrous idea. However, they essentially went unchallenged by the public. Ada Louis Huxtable reported on it in the New York Times-1/24/67, and Richard Hatch wrote a critical review in Architectural Record 3/67.

 

The projects were not reactionary, but based on the prevalent theories such as the Team X projects of this period, whose theories and methods were utilized for much of the Federal urban renewal work. Nor were they very progressive, in relation to the Metabolist, Archigram or Super Studio work of this time. All of these movements argued to replace the existing city with some form of modern urbanism. By contrast, the MoMA projects, to varying degrees, worked with the existing city, particularly the ‘contextualist’ project of Cornell and the Columbia project over the Park Avenue train tracks. Thus the exhibition title, New City seems a bit of a misnomer since they worked with the existing old city. It might have best applied to the MIT project that was mostly creating a new town on new land in the East River. This project was largely independent of the City, except in the sense that land-fill has been part of Manhattan’s growth almost since it’s inception. The fact that exhibition designs were not part of the Urban Renewal project and did not propose a New City, is perhaps why these projects, that might have inflamed the critics and public, made no big news. This did not prevent Peter Eisenman from parlaying this into his next venture.

 

The Cornell project was sited from 96 Street to 155th Street and between Broadway to the west and Madison Avenue to the east – Figure 1-2. The problem statement was: How can we modify the existing grid plan to improve circulation, encourage the development of parks and new neighborhoods and clarify the order implied by the terrain itself? The Proposal statement was: Implicit in the site is a division into three zones, two of them should be developed as “the city in a park”; the third zone has been interrupted by new housing but still retains the grid plan of the traditional city: its character should be preserved.

 

The design was in keeping with the urban design program that Colin Rowe began in 1963 and became known as the Cornell School of Contextualism. The early years of this program concentrated on integrating two existing paradigms; the traditional city-a solid mass of building with spaces carved out of it, and the “city in the park”, an early 20th century urban invention, primarily of Le Corbusier. The first did not seem to have enough open space for modern American needs and the second lacked density and vitality, so the project was designed to “mediate between them”. Thus three north south strips were organized as modern to the west and east, because the historical fabric was gone, and with traditional in the center, because the historical fabric was nearly intact. The western strip extended Central Park and Morningside Park to the Harlem River, introducing a landscape component. The project proposes towers and large scale structures in the modern space strips and transformed the semi-public space in the center of the traditional block center strip. “By the introduction of commercial establishments, academic institutions and recreational facilities, the site could become an uptown magnet displaying urban qualities scarcely attainable in midtown.”

 

The Columbia project was developed by a number of young professors that were to become the Urban Design Group within the City Planning Commission in the Mayor Lindsey administration of New York City. Their project site was the metro-north rail tracks that are below ground from 96th Street to Grand Central Station, but rise above ground north of 96th Street on Park Avenue. They worked with the existing context of one block to either side of the elevated tracks – Figure 3. The Problem statement was: How can we provide housing and other kinds of renewal without relocating the people for whom such improvements are intended, and at the same time convert neighborhood blights into acceptable components of the visual scene? The proposal statement was: By building over the railroad tracks new housing could accommodate nearby families before the areas they vacate are cleared for redevelopment. Use of air rights over the tracks would convert this major source of blight into a new building stretching from 97th Street to 134th Street. They proposed an elevated pedestrian boulevard over the tracks and commercial and community facilities at the major cross-town intersections. New buildings were graded down to the existing fabric to the east and west beginning with infilling vacant lots or abandoned buildings.

 

The Princeton project was located at the western edge of Harlem, along the Hudson River and extended east into the existing fabric – Figure 4. They stated the Problem: How can we make the waterfront both visible and useful, giving it an architectural weight that would relate it to major crosstown streets and lead to the development of new kinds of neighborhood and institutional centers? The Proposal statement was: The project calls for the termination of the 125th Street axis by a public plaza opening onto the Hudson River. The plaza provides the connecting link between the adjacent neighborhoods and the other elements for the new project. Largest of these is a two-building structure built over the river and extending thirty blocks north in a straight line. The project could be seen to relate to the investigations into megastructures of this period. It proposes to cut diagonal streets through the existing fabric north east to the Harlem River and south east to Morningside Park. It probably would require the eminent domain process that was instrumental for the Federal Urban Renewal program to achieve its removal of existing fabric.

 

The MIT project was on the eastern edge of Harlem involving the edge at the east River and a portion of the South Bronx – Figure 5. It stated the Problem: How can we develop large segments of new land out of relatively under-used, or miss-used, peripheral areas, so that they alter the character of existing neighborhoods by providing important new amenities? Their Proposal: Randall’s and Ward’s Island and the southern tip of he Bronx should be developed. Land fill operations already undertaken by the Triborough Bridge Authority should be part of a consistent plan: the two islands should be connected to each other and to Manhattan This project is unrelated to the geometric grid of Manhattan even though it states a desire to be connected. By creating a completely different kind of urban fabric with water orientations, it becomes a kind of new town, opposite to the attempt to graft Battery Park city onto Manhattan in its 1960’s plan, and to which it could be compared. It might however be seen to presage the ideas of landscape urbanism that try to work with post-industrial sites. The project proposed a significant ecological modification that went undiscussed.

 

This was the first public presentation of the Cornell School of Contextualism. The Columbia project was a site-specific mega structure and more interesting than similar projects proposed earlier for Battery Park City. It was perhaps the most implementable. The Princeton project was also a mega structure proposal that recognized the potential for New York City to transform the waterfront from a working port to new uses. Its connection into the surrounding fabric, requiring removal of existing fabric, was questionable. The M.I.T. project ventured into the realm of land reclamation, utilizing an often used strategy to transform and develop New York City. However, its relationship to the morphological structure of upper Manhattan and the South Bronx was questionable.

 

Exhibiting urban designs by academics at the Museum of Modern Art was unprecedented and bold. The four projects were not avant-garde proposals. They were varied formal propositions for a site that, in the late 60’s, was socially charged. However, it perhaps should have been called, “Interventions for transforming the Existing City” rather than the “New City: Architecture and Urban Renewl”. MORE


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