It is not often that one thinks about emptiness in New York. In a highly dense city, void inevitably raises questions about the production, ownership and use of space. Elements of Composition, a two-part project presented by the Rotterdam-based artist collective Bik Van der Pol, exhorts us to (re-)evaluate these issues. The project was one of nine commissioned artists’ projects about specific regional and historic concerns presented as part of Living as Form, an exhibition and series of public programs organized by Creative Time that explored a vast array of socially engaged art. [See a review of Living as Form on UO here. -Ed.] Elements of Composition was comprised of a public, site-specific installation in two parking lots adjacent to the Essex Street Market, and a series of daily walking tours around the Lower East Side led by urban planners, architects and activists. The walks were meant to help visitors contemplate the history and future of the neighborhood in the context of its built and its vacant spaces.
I attended Bik Van der Pol’s introductory tour and Todd Rouhe’s Common Circular walk. Both activities explored the past, present and future of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) and its surroundings by walking participants through the space. The area covers five plots of land near the Williamsburg Bridge, between Grand and Delancey Streets, acquired by New York as part of a 1965 urban renewal plan to tear down existing tenements and develop low-income housing. In 1967, 1,852 families were displaced with the promise of a new housing development, but the plots have sat empty for 40 years, used only as open-air parking lots, due to lack of investment and a conflict of interests between developers, the city and the community. But this year, CB3 and the City Council approved development guidelines for the site, and preparations are being made for a 9-month environmental assessment process. To help us understand more about the history, future plans and concerns surrounding SPURA, Bik Van der Pol co-founders Liesbeth Bik and Jos Van der Pol compiled a booklet of anonymous interviews with developers, anthropologists, local residents and more, which they made available to the general public and which informed their series of walking tours.
Architect and local resident Todd Rouhe, during his walk, described “the failure of a housing model,” referencing the 1972 demolition of St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe as a milestone in the public perception of this type of project. He also cited the Kerner Commission report of 1968, which recommended significant investment in affordable housing as one course of action to combat racial inequality and urban violence. SPURA has its origins in this belief. As we walked, the visual impact of its empty lots heightened our awareness of the aftermaths of a failed paradigm, and the consequences of unresolved disagreements between community stakeholders, developers and government representatives. We also considered how a neighborhood recovers when a housing model fails, as Rouhe described the present-day efforts to activate SPURA’s vacant space, welcome back former tenants and create local jobs, made by Manhattan Community Board 3, GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side neighborhood association) and others.
On their walking tour, Liesbeth Bik and Jos Van der Pol also spoke about how competing interests can influence the urban void, this time using Bernard Tschumi’s Blue Building as an example. There, emptiness was not perceived as a dearth, but as monetary value – through air rights. From nothingness, a commodity is being created. The Blue building obtained air from its neighbors in order to build higher. As we walked through the high-end condominium, the apparent dissonance with the neighborhood’s aesthetics and spirit confirmed that these transactions are not made to benefit the community. So, we questioned, who is involved when the urban void is used for economic gain?
Framing Elements of Composition was “As Above, So Below,” a text installation painted on the surface of the parking lots, visible from the ground, though most legible from above. The installation aimed to imprint the concerns addressed by this project into the history of the Lower East Side through its documentation in the Google Maps archive. The abstract phrase acted as a visual claim for SPURA. “As Above, So Below,” encourages us to consider all the elements that compose the urban fabric; including the ones that have been erased, are hidden or remain unknown.
The artists of Bik Van der Pol advocate for action at the SPURA site backed by an understanding of its history. During the walking tours, we approached the materiality and immateriality of empty real estate, and the ways in which monetary value and social factors influence developers and city agencies as they determine the spatial distribution of our built environment. It surprised me the little I knew about the processes behind the shaping of neighborhoods. In the spirit of Living as Form (not to mention the recent events of Occupy Wall Street), Elements of Composition made clear that the community needs to be a critical force for pursuing the integrity of the built environment.
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.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.