The Speculation Studio: Governors Island, The Sixth Borough?

The Future History of New York City | View of Manhattan Looking South | Muchan Park, Luc Wilson, Leigh D’ambra and Scott Hayner
The Future History of New York City | View of Manhattan Looking South | Muchan Park, Luc Wilson, Leigh D’ambra and Scott Hayner

Late last year, Vishaan Chakrabarti, whose passionate rallying cries for infrastructure investment and urban density are familiar to regular readers of Urban Omnibus, unveiled a radical proposal (dubbed LoLo, as in Lower Lower Manhattan) to connect the Financial District to Governors Island through a land bridge made of landfill, replete with a new mixed-use, high-rise, green infrastructure community.

The setting for his presentation was a conference called “Zoning the City”, convened by New York City’s Department of City Planning and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and Chakrabarti’s premise was how to zone for a modern Central Business District, for affordability, for livability, for energy and waste, and finally for resilience. He armed his argument with planning instruments and infrastructure developments, such as the transfer of air rights and the provision of waste-to-energy facilities, and he closed with a bold vision to create a projected “88 million square feet of development and generate $16.7 billion in revenue for the city” in a neighborhood that is currently harbor.

Even if all the proposal provokes is discussion about the crucial intersection of waterfront planning, densification and big ideas for New York’s growth, it is notable for its provenance. LoLo was conceived by students in a Columbia University graduate studio, led by Laurie Hawkinson with the collaboration of Chakrabarti,  for which students of architecture and real estate worked together on a site – Governors Island – and a topic – ‘speculation’ – that have both gotten a lot of play in the past few years and whose implications and possibilities are far from exhausted. The historic significance of Governors Island and its protected status as a park need not preclude the intensification of its use as an integral part of New York City’s infrastructure and landscape. And as for ‘speculation,’ the term has distinct and specific definitions in both architecture and real estate, but with the common meaning, according to Hawkinson, of “taking a really big risk.” For Chakrabarti, ‘speculation’ is a word that “aptly describes the prerogative that designers and developers share, which is to imagine that which does not yet exist.” Hawkinson directs the advanced studios at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). Chakrabarti directs Columbia’s Real Estate Program and has recently launched The Center for Urban Real Estate (CURE), an independent think tank at Columbia that aims to “redefine sustainability as dense, mixed-income, mixed-use, transit-based urban development.” The LoLo project has progressed from a student project to the basis of serious study on land creation by the team at CURE, which is engaging experts and City officials to explore the hurdles — from environmental concerns to marine navigation concerns — and the possibilities of the scheme.

The point of Urban Omnibus studio reports is to redress the tremendous intellectual loss that occurs when a student project is completed and young professionals are unleashed into the world. Very seldom do the hard work, dogged research and often revelatory design schemes that students produce ever make it out of the studio environment and into a wider, real world conversation. LoLo is a rare exception, finding its way into the “Zoning the City” conference, The New York Times, CBS Local News and ongoing conversations throughout New York and beyond.

The Speculation Studio marked the first time students from these two programs worked together on a design studio, and signals an overdue evolution in architectural education. The boldness of the schemes and the cogency of the accompanying financial analysis explode the myth that considering financial implications in a student design process will constrain creativity and innovation. Read on for a conversation with Hawkinson about the studio’s theme and site, about the nature of the collaboration between architecture and real estate students, and about the return of big ideas. –C.S.

The Future History of New York City | Plan | Muchan Park, Luc Wilson, Leigh D’ambra and Scott Hayner
The Future History of New York City | Plan | Muchan Park, Luc Wilson, Leigh D’ambra and Scott Hayner
Cassim Shepard (CS):

Tell me about the idea for this studio.

Laurie Hawkinson (LH):

We did this studio in the fall of 2010. Vishaan and I had been discussing collaborating on a studio that brought architecture and real estate students together to work on a joint project. Governors Island seemed timely and not completely exhausted as a subject of study. We also felt that the present constraints placed on Governors Island by local, state and federal authorities – its edge cannot be altered; permanent housing is prohibited – were something that should be questioned.

Given the desire to bring together students from architecture and real estate, we wanted to choose a topic that grew from the common ground between the two professions. That’s how we came up with “speculation.” Even if architecture and real estate look at the topic differently, it’s something both groups of students can engage. In architecture, we’re always speculating because we are making; we’re speculating on conditions that aren’t here yet by projecting into the future. And in real estate, projecting into the future takes on a financial aspect. We talked a lot about value: where you create value, how you create value. When you speculate, you also have to establish certain assumptions that you take forward. The students’ initial research led them to statements of “we’re assuming that the population will be X, or that the value here is Y, then we can do Z.” We made ground rules and set stakes, and we wanted students to consider issues of density, of energy; we wanted them to ask where and how is this city going to grow? 

Farm Park | Six plans | Breanna Carlson, Peter Katz, Georgina Lalli, Pedro Zevallos
Farm Park | Six plans | Breanna Carlson, Peter Katz, Georgina Lalli, Pedro Zevallos

Did you find any differences between how real estate students and architecture students talk about creating value?


It was amazing to observe how much they traded hats all the time. When the groups were presenting, you might not be able to tell which student was studying in which program.

For instance we had one project that was a vertical farm. The students figured out the cost of the tomato they were going to sell there and how they were going to make it work; they were so precise about all of the metrics and that really galvanized them around the power of the knowledge that they mutually brought to the table.

Flux City | Renderings | Eun Kyoung Kim and John Phinney
Flux City | Renderings | Eun Kyoung Kim and John Phinney

To propose these Metabolist, Archigram-like forms and then to run a pro forma on them and make it work was amazing to see.” -Vishaan Chakrabarti


Tell me about some of the other projects in this studio.


Another project added a lot of vertical density in the East River, creating a kind of archipelago of islands going from Governors Island up the river, mindful of shipping channels and other factors. Other projects included a proposal for an Olympic Park that transforms into housing over time, an educational institution, a major convention center. The infrastructural logistics are what become very interesting about these projects. You have to get large numbers of people there in very short periods of time. The real estate students helped define the metrics: if you build a new subway line, where would it go? Or if we are going to rely on ferries, how many will there need to be? As architects, we tend to simply draw a little dotted line and say, “we’re going to put a ferry line here.” But in this studio we were able to delve a little deeper to ask what is really involved in creating the kinds of infrastructure to support large-scale interventions.

Flux City | Section | Eun Kyoung Kim and John Phinney
Flux City | Section | Eun Kyoung Kim and John Phinney
A history of landfill in Lower Manhattan
A history of landfill in Lower Manhattan

Take the example of the Olympic Village proposal for 5,000 units of housing: you have to consider how an Olympic athlete can get within 20 minutes to any venue. So you have to think about the network when you’re working with that kind of a scale. If you’re doing 23 units on, say, Wooster and Grand it’s a different story – you may have parking issues, but you’re not going to have to deal with major infrastructural issues like water and energy.

Of the six projects that the student teams designed, the scheme entitled “The Future History of New York City” which proposed what we are calling LoLo — by Muchan Park, Luc Wilson, Leigh D’ambra and Scott Hayner – was the most extreme. It was also incredibly thorough and realistic. They began by looking at environmental issues, and the topic of dredge started to direct their project: the metrics of dredge, where it goes, and how to project that into the future and assign it value.

In addition to looking deeply into dredge, they were also working with a parametric model. And, for me, the most powerful aspect of the project is the way they created a new zoning protocol that takes into account energy and rising water levels to make a responsive system. In other words, instead of just caring about the setbacks and the shadows on the streets and things like that, they were calculating energy points people would get for acknowledging solar orientation or surface area.

The Future History of New York City | Parametric models used to calculate zoning protocols for density and for projecting value | Muchan Park, Luc Wilson, Leigh D’ambra and Scott Hayner
The Future History of New York City | Parametric models used to calculate zoning protocols for density and for projecting value | Muchan Park, Luc Wilson, Leigh D’ambra and Scott Hayner

If you bundle all of your intentions and speculations together, it’s much more powerful, especially at this scale. The proposal explained how to get water from the city (there’s no water on Governors Island currently), how to create a wastewater treatment plan, how to capture rainwater. They thought about how to build the new land with a slope that would retain water and would also anticipate flooding in the future. They thought about how to create conveyance and transport systems. They also staged it in a very smart way: it’s much cheaper to build a subway system by dropping a concrete tube into the water and then building landfill around it rather than burrowing through hundreds of years of Manhattan. Again, the real estate students helped us think through these issues.

The really brilliant part is that way the landfill connects existing Lower Manhattan to Governors Island. The real estate angle is the strong feeling that the proximity to – the extension of — Lower Manhattan is what will maximize value. And they did this without compromising the landmarked park space on the Northern end of Governors Island. So it makes for a kind of Central Park green space.

Capacity creation  – adding landfill, decking over railyards, upzoning around transit corridors – is fundamental to our future.” -Vishaan Chakrabarti


So what happens next with this project? It has gotten a lot of attention. Vishaan presented it at the “Zoning the City” conference and then there was an article about in The New York Times.


The students that worked on it have now graduated, but have continued to work on it as alumni. Vishaan has taken the project to the Center for Urban Real Estate (CURE) for additional study and we are organizing a roundtable discussion about the proposal this month. Vishaan and I are dead serious about it. We have invited some expert guests to whom we will present of the project and then discuss how to think about it more seriously.


Given the amount of work done on zoning protocols alongside an actual scheme for the infill and design and development of that infill, it seems there are a lot of things that can be learned from the project – whether or not it goes anywhere.


It’s kind of funny when you propose extreme or seemingly impossible conditions, and then you realize that there are other people who are thinking along similar lines. And then there is a plan from the turn of the 20th century, a proposal similar to this one. It turns out that it’s not so unreasonable of an idea and we’d like to engage the City in discussion about it.


How rare is it for a project that emerges in the context of a graduate architecture studio to get put out there to generate discussion?


It’s pretty unusual, I would say. There are certainly exemplary student projects, and sometimes they might submit to a competition and receive some notoriety. And I think more and more students are becoming more entrepreneurial about their work at school. But it is rare for a project to have an afterlife such as this. And perhaps the collaboration with students of real estate enabled this project to live on beyond the studio. But there are other ways that the public might engage with a proposal such as this beyond the real estate implications.

What architects do is make ideas visual. The real estate component on its own wouldn’t necessarily produce imagery that makes viewers say “Wow!” Architects think about how people read and understand information and therefore are able to encourage people to imagine something as outrageous as a land-bridge to Governors Island, and see that maybe it’s not so outrageous after all.

Laurie Hawkinson is principal of Smith Miller + Hawkinson Architecture. She received her Masters in Fine Arts from the University of California at Berkeley, attended the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program in New York and received her Professional Degree in Architecture from the Cooper Union. Professor of Architecture with tenure at Columbia University, she is currently the Director of the Advanced Studios at the GSAPP; and has served as visiting professor at SCI-Arc, Harvard University, Yale University, Parsons School of Design, and the University of Miami. Significant completed projects include the Corning Museum of Glass, the Wall Street Ferry Terminal and “Strategic Open Space” Public Realm Improvement Strategy for Lower Manhattan. Projects currently under construction include the new Land Ports of Entry at Champlain and Massena, New York and a new Emergency Medical Services building for the City of New York. Collaborative projects include the North Carolina Museum of Art Amphitheater and Site Master Plan, the Museum of Women’s History and the NYC2012 Olympic Village. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Wooster Group and serves on the Contemporary Arts Council of the Museum of Modern Art.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Studio Reports

Student research and propositions from design studios with real-world implications.


cy a adler January 12, 2012

January 12, 2012

Decking over NYC rail yards makes economic and environmental sense.
The space should be used to attract industry and jobs.
In addition the MTA would be able to make $$$ which would keep subway costs down.
Who is working on this?

Clogging the New York estuary and Governors Island at enormous cost with un-needed office space makes no sense.

Cy A Adler

envirohazard January 12, 2012

While (I think) the point of this UrbanOmnibus post is about the success of combining two often disparate graduate programs, I find little comfort in the overall excitement that this project has garnered and the sheer lack of its critical discussion.

The fact remains that the LoLo project is a detrimental concept for the city and a detrimental concept for the term sustainability. For instance, encouraging landfilling when we should be talking about coastal retreat, and the opportunity cost of new infrastructure development when we should be reinvesting in existing neighborhoods, are two issues among many others.

I agree that we need to “redefine sustainability as dense, mixed-income, mixed-use, transit-based urban development,” but if Chakrabarti and CURE suggest that LoLo is the appropriate response, then they are sorely misguided.

SMS January 18, 2012

I ventured onto this article expecting a set of ideas and designs that would re-invigorate Governor’s Island as more than a summer staple for the natives of NYC. I dreamt too quickly based on the title of the article.

I most certainly agree with the comments of cy a adler and envirohazard. More buildings? More congestion? Density may have been poorly mistaken as synonymous of congestion because these proposals are clearly (and poorly) designed. Sustainability, let us not forget, is also about the means as well as results.


Torsten Adair September 9, 2014

Interesting idea.
However, the current footprint of Governors Island will need to be reserved for parkland and civic use.
The sale of the island to the city requires that no permanent housing be constructed on the island.

What of the estuary? The Buttermilk Channel has a strong current. Will this exacerbate it?
How high will that Brooklyn bridge be to accommodate ship traffic?

And then there’s the elephant in the room:
Instead of spending Billions on lawsuits and landfill, why not increase the density of other areas of New York, which already have infrastructure, but suffer from neglect? (Exhibit 1: East Broadway in Brooklyn, along the J train.)