The exhibition of Paul Rudolph’s Lower Manhattan Expressway project currently on view at the Cooper Union may appear at first glance to be an academic excavation of a historical artifact, a lesser-known work by a prominent architect best remembered for individual buildings rather than for his visions of the metropolis. Although done under the auspices of a Ford Foundation grant, the Rudolph project was the last – and by then already belated – attempt to bring to life the Robert Moses plan for running a major highway across Lower Manhattan. Why revisit it now?
Must we remain forever trapped between the twin poles of Jacobs and Moses? And, what is the role of architecture in all this?Most visitors, design professionals and laymen alike, predictably — and understandably — shudder at this reminder of Robert Moses’ scorched-earth policy of city building and laud the heroic efforts of Jane Jacobs and her fellow-activists who saved the city by stopping the project – and by stopping Moses, this time for good. At the same time, for some architects and urbanists (including, one imagines, the exhibition organizers) this feeling is mixed with a great deal of envy about the possibility of “thinking big” that no longer seems to exist in this country but is still encouraged — in fact, often mandatory — in Asia and the Middle East. The real value of the exhibition, however, lies not in evoking nostalgia or relief but in prompting a reflection on two very timely questions: Must we remain forever trapped between the twin poles of Jacobs and Moses? And, what is the role of architecture in all this?
Both the excesses of Robert Moses and the achievements of Jane Jacobs have been well rehearsed by now. The particulars of their battle are specific to their time and place but its legacy remains relevant and has become even more urgent. In the intervening years, many in the architecture and planning community have reached a sensible consensus that “No city can survive without the personal engagements beloved by Jacobs, but no city can thrive without master builders such as Moses,” as Edward Glaeser put it in his article in The New Republic last year.
The argument for this balanced view has been eloquently made by a number of critics. They also take pains to remind us that the “good” Moses, who left a legacy of numerous parkland and infrastructure projects still benefiting the public, and who actually managed to get things built, should not be lost in the heat of the battle. But in the real world Jane Jacobs has carried the day. A conversation with practically anyone outside the profession, excepting those with a vested interest in large-scale development, would leave no doubt that, when it comes to urban development, the “small is beautiful, big is ugly” polarity is now accepted as an article of faith across the political and social spectrum. Among the liberal-minded, it is manifest in the non-negotiable Nimby-ism of community activists and even of their non-activist neighbors, and in the current proliferation of grass-roots adaptive reuse initiatives to reclaim small urban parcels for green or other community uses. For the conservatives, it is bound up with the fear of big government, infringement on private property rights and the anathema of taxation. For the former, the very mention of “thinking big” raises the specter of evil Robert Moses; for the latter, of evil socialism.
To a large extent, this polarity has become so firmly embedded in the public discourse because it has often played out through a number of highly visible battles, with the news media doing its usual best to depict them as dramatic black-and-white conflicts rather than as complex and nuanced issues. But the profession (the word is used here as shorthand for all those professionally involved with the subject) bears part of the blame. Although different ways of thinking about the city have been put forth in academia and in architecture circles, at least in this country most of these ideas never made it out of the insular world of professional discourse and into the mainstream conversation or to the proverbial corridors of power. The one exception is the New Urbanists, whose ersatz nostalgia is, in the final analysis, the logical descendant of Jane Jacobs. They have succeeded in defining the public agenda on behalf of the profession, not only in the popular mind but on the legislative level as well (i.e. the Livable Communities Act currently under consideration in Congress). Even the data-driven approach of PlaNYC is essentially Jacobsean in its privileging of incremental change over massive intervention. There is also perhaps an element of resignation in the face of reality: politically and fiscally, piecemeal adjustments are much easier to implement, especially in today’s social climate.
New York City is in a unique position of being a laboratory of practically every urban condition.But the livability of the city cannot be reduced to bicycle lanes and rooftop farms, however welcome they may be. The city needs a viable and diverse – i.e. not exclusively service-oriented — economic base and a coherent macro-structure. It is as much a matter of practical functionality as of its spirit, its raison d’etre, which makes the city fundamentally distinct from a town. Small towns exist best in a stasis, having achieved a kind of perfection in the here and now. The big city thrives on being visionary, on always trying to imagine what it can and will be, on possibilities of the future. The density and the coexistence of contradictory forces is what makes the city exciting and sustainable, in every sense of the word.
The seeming inevitability of the Moses/Jacobs polarity led to the triumph of the Jacobs camp: who, after all, would vote to replace their neighborhood playground with a sewage treatment plant (never mind that we fully expect our sewage to be treated somewhere)? But the fallacy of this polarized way of thinking is particularly apparent and relevant now — locally, nationally and globally.
The infrastructure of the larger, denser and older US cities like New York is usually thought of as being already in place; it needs upgrading, maintenance and improvements — but not major interventions. Yet many of the same problems that the Moses projects (including deservedly scrapped ones like LoMEX) attempted to tackle have simply been left to fester for decades and are not likely to go away. There is still, for example, an undeniable need for efficient transport of goods and services from the west bank of the Hudson River to the east bank of the East River – i.e., across or around Manhattan – which was first identified by the Regional Plan Association almost 90 years ago.
New York City is in a unique position of being a laboratory of practically every urban condition. Manhattan and some of the Bronx, with their density, geographic compactness, varied building stock and public transportation network, bear more resemblance to an older European city than to a typical American one. Much of Queens and some of Brooklyn are not dissimilar to a sprawling urban model like LA, with major arterial roads interspersed among disconnected neighborhoods not accessible to one another by public transportation. Some other parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx bring to mind the devastated, semi-abandoned inner cities like Detroit. And Staten Island is our own suburbia, complete with gated communities. The urban and infrastructural issues engendered by each condition run the gamut and mirror the wide range of issues confronted by other US cities which at first glance do not have much in common with New York. The need to integrate the ubiquitous automobile into the urban fabric — the real impetus behind most Moses projects — seems like an antiquated notion to us here, as we have come to a consensus favoring mass transit over the private car, but this hardly applies to most of the rest of the country or even much of the five boroughs. Because of its urban diversity, New York can still be a laboratory which yields results that could point the way for other American cities.
Although the Jacobs/Moses polarity is home-grown, its lessons are just as relevant globally. For a number of historical reasons, European cities were largely spared a Moses and thus had no need for a Jacobs. This, combined with a different political culture, has put many of them in the position of being able to contemplate and carry out large-scale urban interventions on a scale unthinkable here, without the destruction of historic city fabric.
The urgency of finding a “third way” between the extremes of destruction and fossilization, of megalomania and retrenchment, is nowhere more obvious than in the uninhibited urban development taking place in Asia and the Middle East. Impressive as this building boom may be, it is a top-down process promoted by governments and powerful private interests with close government ties and no public accountability; it leaves destruction in its wake, disregards human and ecological consequences, and mostly produces instant “just add water” cities filled with cartoon architecture. The Moses problem is playing out all over again, except this time on an extreme scale and within systems that do not have the constraints that he had to contend with. The local Jane Jacobs stands no chance of being heard, should she even dare speak up.
As we have learned to value the intricate urban fabric that Jacobs so astutely identified and championed, and are becoming increasingly conscious of the need to adapt and reuse, we also need to recognize that large-scale infrastructure intervention is not only still necessary but will become even more so in the future, as the cities continue to grow. The physical difficulties — and consequent great costs — of these endeavors (e.g. submerging major arteries below grade) will diminish as technologies improve and new ones emerge. But none of this will be possible without those quintessential Moses attributes that are not much in evidence in this country today: political will at the legislative level, political skill at the managerial level, and long-term financial commitment on both.
Which leaves us with the other question that the Rudolph exhibition puts front and center: the role of architecture. While architecture of most Moses projects can best be described as an afterthought, this incarnation of LoMEX, in the hands of a talented architect at the height of his career, appears to be driven by professional hubris. His relentless and monotonous language goes viral, infesting Lower Manhattan, overwhelming the little that it does not obliterate, and ultimately undermining its own raison d’etre. The experience of gradually absorbing what is on display in the spectacular model of the project is much like the slow dawning of terror one feels in a horror film.
Yet, at the same time, the Rudolph project also attempts to propose something much more interesting: a new form that would integrate architecture, infrastructure and urban space (unlike, say, Park Avenue which simply set up real estate parcels for development). He recognized that, in a dense city, only architecture could transform civil engineering into urban design. Unfortunately, the failure of projects such as his gave modern architecture – particularly that of the large-scale urban variety — a bad name with the general public and drove it to cling to the old brownstone as the sane alternative. As planning has become more of a social science, architectural design has become less of a participant in the conversation about urbanism. Even among architects, Koolhaas and other proponents of “formlessness” — although coming from a different set of ideas, such as the Situationist critique — have, ironically, ended up embracing a view not all that different from Jacobs: that fostering small-scale, unscripted and unpredictable human interaction will, by itself, produce a rich urban social environment.
But the embrace of non-form and the data-driven approach to city-making creates its own set of problems. Architecture, after all, is what renders the city recognizable and comprehensible. We may navigate the city through infrastructure — but we read the city through architecture. Architecture can create a place — infrastructure cannot. The misery of Penn Station and the glory of Grand Central are both shaped by architecture, not by infrastructure, regardless of whether the trains run on time. For this reason alone, architects – and not just planners and policy makers – have a crucial role in framing the discussion about urban design in this century.
Paul Gates and Zhenya Merkulova are founding partners of Gates Merkulova Architects LLP. Merkulova was a founding member of The Society of Young Architects, a group formed for the discussion of current ideas in architecture at The National Arts Club. She has written for and has been interviewed by a number of prestigious domestic and international publications, including Liberation and Newsweek. Gates has taught at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York and has served as a critic on architectural juries at Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and the Rhode Island School of Design. His writings and lectures include “Deus Ex Machina: Architecture and the Electronic Media” (A+U) and “Skyscraper Design and Urban Growth.”
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.