The 79th Street Boat Basin is a Robert Moses-era Works Progress Administration project, completed in 1937, that currently houses an underground parking garage, a seasonal cafe, a year-round marina and is part of a tangle of infrastructure that provides multi-level entry and exit to Henry Hudson Parkway. This past fall, third semester graduate students in architecture and in lighting design at Parsons The New School for Design were given the opportunity to reimagine the site. Designers in both programs worked together to study the site at various scales, exploring large ecological and urban issues, edge and river conditions, and environmental factors such as solar orientation, wind, tides and rising water levels. Each student then worked individually to determine the best use for the existing rotunda and to design a physical intervention that repurposed the site for the new use proposed. We recently sat down with the studio’s instructors, David Leven — principal of Leven Betts Studio and director of the graduate program in architecture at Parsons The New School for Design — and Derek Porter — principal of Derek Porter Studio and director of the MFA program in lighting design at Parsons — to discuss the site, the studio and some of the student work. –C.S.
Urban Omnibus (UO): Tell me about the Integrated Studio.
David Leven (DL): The idea is that Master of Architecture students and Master of Fine Art in Lighting Design students will work on a single site. The two groups do the site analysis together and then work on their designs separately. It’s an idea that we’re constantly tinkering with.
Derek Porter (DP): This semester the studio focused on the lighting and architecture programs. Next fall we’ll also include our newly launched interior design MFA program. So we see this as a way to bring together our three graduate programs to think collaboratively and intellectually about their given disciplines and also a unified effort toward understanding a site, urban conditions, and social activity in a variety of ways.
UO: Tell me about the site.
DL: The site is at the 79th Street Boat Basin, specifically the rotunda that we nicknamed the “donut.” It’s directly on axis down 79th Street with the Museum of Natural History. So there’s a very nice linkage between the museum and Central Park across the street, and then the line going straight towards the river, ending up at the circle, which lies in the Robert Moses-era in-fill along the west side of the city. A number of circulatory and infrastructural conditions collide in the site: the highway, the train running beneath, the city grid of 79th Street, as well as the bike path and the circulation meandering along the parks. The neighborhood next to it is heavy in housing and — as some students found — light in shopping and simple foodstuffs. So that became part of the investigation that some people looked at. Another element is the marina: There is a community of people who actually live on the water there.
DP: What called us to the site was the complexity of the overlaps involved: the amount of vehicular and pedestrian movement horizontally on top of the earth, but also the amount of subterranean movement. It’s multi-tiered. There is an amazing confluence of movement, speed, and human activity. It forced the students to wrangle with these complexities and to interject their actions carefully with the goal of making some kind of improvement or increasing clarity of passage.
DL: In this semester’s studio, part of the goal was to focus on energy and larger ecological and environmental issues, especially as it relates to the edge of the city. Traditionally, this type of edge condition is a bulkhead. So we asked students to feel free to break down that hard edge between city landscape and river. And to critique it. And then to roll these environmental issues and concerns into the design of their projects in terms of the envelope of the building, shading systems, the movement of the sun.
DP: What’s unique about Parson’s MFA in Lighting Design is that it’s focused on design. Lighting education traditionally has come out of schools of engineering, which tend to emphasize quantification and measurement of light rather than intellectual studies of light’s contribution to society and to experience. We emphasize the phenomenon of light — sociologically, physiologically, psychologically — and its impacts on humans as users and participants, particularly in dense urban environments. And we have this great laboratory — New York City — right around us.
UO: In the context of this studio, how did the two disciplines inform each other?
DL: In the first third of the studio, we gave the students assignments to analyze specific physical elements and to choose an environmental issue to couple with their analysis.
DP: The exercises were skill based, so the two groups of students were sharing knowledge of very specific, tangible skills in communication, graphic control, software knowledge with each other. And then, of course, they were documenting the information that they’ve created through maps and diagrams and then disseminating all of that information across the studio. The mass of information collected and then shared becomes the basis for the individual design work each student would subsequently develop on his or her own.
DL: Each student was asked to decide what the function of the site — its architectural program — should be. The rotunda itself provided a very strong framework to work in, but I think we were surprised by the complexity of the building, which unfolded as the students’ work progressed. For example, one of the common things that had to be dealt with in this project was how to move people from one side of the highway to the other. Access to the site is weak. So that was something that students all had to solve in the projects.
DL: This project was the most ambitious project of the MArch section. This student proposed an ambitious connection from the Museum of Natural History all the way down 79th Street to the rotunda. He literalized the connection through what we’re calling the Bioswale Boulevard. The project dealt with stormwater drainage in a holistic way for the city.
He began by looking all the way back to existing or preexisting drainage routes that predate the city grid. He proposed a kind of filtering system that would bring people and water to the middle of the donut, to a well of filtered water, so it was kind of Utopian in its desires, but it also had a very nice small-scale approach to it. So he was looking at sections through 79th Street all the way down and then also used a series of photographs to look at the East-West boulevard. And then in his intervention inside the donut he was bringing people underneath the highway through the northeast side of the donut and into this big, filtered, vertical cavern and then spilling out on the southwesterly side.
Bike Hub / Dance Club
DL: This project was called the Bike Hub / Dance Club. Initially, this student didn’t know what to do with the site. He was interested by a dance club that used piezoelectric technology to create energy from the movement of the dance floor, but he was was also interested in potential uses for this site that involve bikes. So the studio group suggested that he put them together, since we’re talking about two different populations operating at completely different times of day.
DP: Within the initial group-mapping project, I remember this student had worked with lighting students to understand the study of diurnal patterns and use of the heliodon and then to look at the cycles of day and night. That’s a very good example of how the two populations learned from each other. It obviously affected his architecture project.
DL: I think the Bioswale Boulevard was one of the most successful in terms of its far-reaching approach. The natatorium project was one of the most successful in its purely architectural resolution. It had a very radical engineering approach in the beginning which was to deck over the highway and to connect the park seamlessly back to Riverside Drive. After the decking occurred, the question became, “what do you do underneath this monstrous deck you are creating?” The student then started to think about issues of water at the site, which led him to explore water and pools and a natatorium as a possible program for the site. He designed a really intricate and beautiful series of pools for the natatorium.
This project quite successfully started to break down the sea wall, pulling natural riverwater into the site while pushing constructed pools outwards toward the river, thus blurring the boundary between the two systems.
DP: One of the lighting students explored the disparity of the above ground exposure to daylight versus the interior subterranean parking garage. By opening it up and including more plant life – turning the hard structure of the donut into a garden courtyard – the garage became more of a skeletal structure.
She studied the patterning of daylight distribution into the parking garage very carefully, such that the acclimation process of moving from a completely daylit environment to a partially subterranean environment was much more gentle and smooth. And the patterning of light – both daylight and electric light – that moved across the walls as you drive past made it a richer experience as well, reframing the transition from a complex urban context into a semi-enclosed private and more personally scaled environment.
Park / City Connection
DP: Another of the lighting design students took a similar approach to the Bioswale Boulevard in that both students were looking at the length and connection of 79th Street to the donut. She was specifically looking at daylight and exposure along 79th Street and this kind of canyon-like effect and then she wanted to determine how she could, in essence, pull the park from Hudson River and Riverside Parks into the urban context. So she separated vehicular traffic, took away one lane of parking and incorporated a bike path and green space to provoke these moments of pedestrian and social connection such as sedentary park activity, a bus stop, a bicycle path. And the use of the space changed through the course of the day: porous pavers allowed for parking in the evening but during the day the space functioned as park space. The formal planting areas and shading systems around bus stops relied on a consistency of materials. She incorporated similar shading devices and gathering spaces and other kinds of public activity spaces throughout the park and pedestrian zones to move people from the donut all the way up 79th Street.
DP: I think one of the successes of the studio was the breadth, the diversity of scales, of students’ approaches. For example, another lighting student decided to open the parking garage to the river for canoe and other waterfront exposure.
I think all of the students made some kind of physical intervention to reorganize or clarify the site in some fashion or another. Each brought his or her own discipline-specific emphasis that might have been adding daylight or adding some electrical lighting component that changed contrast ratios or coloration.
DL: And there was a large diversity of scales. As I’ve said, the rotunda itself provided a very strong framework to work in, but I think we were surprised by the complexity of the building, which unfolded as the students’ work progressed. I’m still amazed at how the students took on these huge studies and then kept narrowing down, kept zooming in, and were able to handle that scalar range. And to be able to get down to a level of resolution and detail in plan, in section and in concept while still addressing the larger issues that they had posed. Clearly, we’re all very interested in old, crumbling infrastructures that can support other uses and structures but, when repurposed, are rehabilitated and reinvigorated.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.