In 2009, after ten years of living, working and teaching in Spain, Amanda Schachter and Alexander Levi, principals of SLO Architecture, began what would become a series of long-term projects in the Bronx. Dissatisfied with the charrette model of community involved design, they worked with local groups and high school students over several months to create Bronx River Crossing, a floating model of the Bronx River Watershed built of recycled materials. Along the way they forged a new model for deep community engagement and got to know the complexities of the Bronx River and its surrounding neighborhoods. In 2011, SLO undertook Harvest Dome, gathering discarded storm-snapped umbrellas and assembling them into a giant light-gauge spherical dome, floating it from Hunts Point in the Bronx to the Inwood Hill Park Inlet as a physical revelation of the city’s accumulated waterborne debris.
Their latest project is Bronx River Right-of-Way, a proposal to reuse a historically significant, but abandoned train station adjacent to Concrete Plant Park. The proposal severs the historic structure into two parts. The former head house would serve as a new entryway connecting the park to the adjacent neighborhood with a bridge over the railroad tracks. The former waiting room, which floats above what is now Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, would be relocated to the riverside and transformed into a boathouse for the increasing aquatic activity along the Bronx River.
All three projects take place in the context of the developing Bronx River Greenway, a vision for a continuous green ribbon along the Bronx River. Led by the Bronx River Alliance, the plan connects new parks (like the already built Concrete Plant Park and Hunts Point Riverside Park, which The New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman calls “perhaps the most unsung patch of heaven in New York City”), renovates existing parks (such as Starlight and Soundview Parks), and works with local groups like Rocking the Boat, Sustainable South Bronx, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, and the Partnership for Parks to help build, advocate for, and use these public spaces. Here, Schachter and Levi discuss their work documenting the changes along the river, creating lasting relationships with community members, and making proposals for how best to connect those residents to the new opportunities presented by the greenway’s transformation. –D.R.
What led you to start looking at this site along the Bronx River?
We both graduated from architecture school in 1996 and after about a year working in New York, we felt that Spain was where things were happening, where architecture was being made. We ended up living and working in Spain for ten years, five years working for other people, and then five years teaching graduate and undergraduate students in the “Cooperation and Architecture” programs at ESARQ-UIC in Barcelona. The focus was social action: bringing design students and residents of Barcelona’s marginalized neighborhoods together to work on long-term projects. A major characteristic of our work is spending long periods of time with others to get something done; nothing can be done in a moment.
This type of work – using these tactics, getting to know a city in this way, working with people over long periods of time – spurred us to rethink the entire paradigm of community-based practice.
To really get to know a place, you have to make something, and to do that, you have to be part of the place. For us, Bronx River Crossing — which was a project we worked on with local students to build a floating model of the Bronx River watershed, which we then navigated down the river — was about broadening understanding, expertise, and ownership. The American context of community design suffers from what I think of as “charrette syndrome,” which doesn’t work. Architects, designers, and planners come in, get a sense of what the community needs or wants, then walk away to let that short experience inform their hermetic work in the office. We wanted to change that approach completely. Instead of two or three weekends, we wanted to work with communities for six months. Instead of meeting with certain people who “represent the community,” we decided to meet with everyone.
It’s also a matter of trust. You get to know people and they get to know you over a long time. It’s very hard to get to know someone over a weekend.
What were your specific goals for the Bronx River Crossing project and what communities did you reach out to?
The first thing was to get to know the Bronx River watershed — the surrounding community, what’s been done already, what people want to see done, and what they are fighting for. But even after six months working with local groups, I didn’t really know the site until we started navigating the water.
The goal wasn’t for it to have immediate utility, but to be somewhere between art, performance, and real bonding among people. The bond and the experience were front and center, and the object itself was expendable.
Working with teenagers, you learn that they are not going to say anything to you until they’ve seen you six or seven times and know that you’re coming back every week, that you mean what you say. Then they start to talk to you. This confirmed for me this idea that the charrette form is dead. You have to spend time with people to achieve any kind of common experience. You create a laboratory for learning and making — it’s like a hive. The way you set up the work sends a sort of energy, spins it and gives it its own momentum that goes beyond the project.
That momentum led to two other projects, Harvest Dome and Bronx River Right-of-Way, which emerged directly from our work on Bronx River Crossing.
Tell me about Bronx River Right-of-Way.
As we got to know the River better during Bronx River Crossing, we came across this train station, the Westchester Avenue Station, that’s been abandoned since the 1930s. It’s proved impossible to reuse or rehabilitate, people have tried and failed. It’s sitting on top of Amtrak’s right-of-way, so the legal and safety hurdles are incredible, now more than ever because of homeland security.
The original building was designed by Cass Gilbert, so it has pedigree. It is a beautiful, if decrepit, building. And it sits next to Concrete Plant Park, which is a beautiful park recently created just alongside the river. But there’s no direct access to the building or the park from the main intersection at Westchester and Witlock Avenues. We felt, on a practical level, that this building could operate as the street beacon for the park, and for the water.
And it can provide amenities to the park: bike rental and repair, restrooms, Parks Department maintenance space. Every park needs these functions. There’s a lot of interest in the site. Different organizations have come to the Bronx River Alliance saying, for example, is there a possibility for us to have a boathouse here? So, in a sense, we’re going about this backwards. There was a concrete batch mix plant that became a park without any space for services and activities. Our project is to provide such an amenity that is appropriate to and respectful of what’s there already.
This isn’t the kind of historic preservation that means leaving the structure intact.
Historic preservation isn’t about keeping buildings exactly as they are, but rather bringing them back to life, taking something venerable and making it radical and new. It’s a metamorphosis, not simply the butterfly preserved and pinned on a wall. It’s a change in state.
This building hasn’t changed since 1938, but we can turn it into the park’s newest element by shifting it. What was once an infrastructural node for the railroad now becomes an infrastructural node for the greenway, for the water. It’s a parallel use. You’re taking something that exists, sliding it, appropriating it and reusing it, and making it much more vital in the process. And since we had a network in place from previous projects in the Bronx, people came forward to help; you have these roots that grow. The circle widens.
We’ve been getting to know people in this area since 2009. We started working on this project in 2011, thanks to a grant from the Fitch Foundation, and we already had a sense of mutual trust with the stakeholders. The joy and the fun of all of our Bronx River projects is that we can work at different scales. We started with a larger, exploratory, adventurous project, and that led to an opportunity to try to solve one particular problem.
It’s also a different timeframe. This is a ten-year process, whereas Bronx River Crossing took six to twelve months. It’s almost geological time compared to the climatic time of the seasons.
The larger, initial investigation helped us be much freer about how we approached our Bronx River Right-of-Way work. We came at it from a different point of view, from the water. We saw it from that vantage point and thought that this building needs to be part of the park, part of the water. The water is the neighborhood. We want to help make that happen. We feel that, as architects, the best way for us to convince people that this should be done is to come in with a design ready, to show how it can work.
What does the waterfront access component mean for the project, for parks in general, and for the neighborhood?
Waterfront access is about more than getting down to the water. It’s about respecting the water, and incorporating it into your worldview as a neighbor. That takes time. You need to learn to swim, learn to boat, learn about the water quality. Rocking the Boat is a great example of a local environmental program that is not only beautifying and fighting the erosion of the banks of the river, but also taking samples of the water quality, finding out about the flora and the fauna, learning about the history, learning how to stock mussels that can clean the river. That’s what waterfront access really means.
How does the Bronx River Right-of-Way project tie into the Bronx River Greenway, as one piece of what’s envisioned as a long, continuous whole?
We see this as a complement to the Bronx River Greenway Plan that the Bronx River Alliance has been working on for years. One of the Alliance’s main goals for the plan is to create a continuous path along the river.
There are a lot of connections to be made. We’re proposing adding another jewel to the necklace. We’ve always seen the Bronx River as the social and spatial spine of the borough. Yet, historically, it’s acted as more of a divider than a connector. We want our work to promote the idea that people in different neighborhoods can meet at the river rather than turn their backs to each other at the river.
On a social level, we’re thinking about the river being a connecting spine. Bronx River Crossing was about literally bringing people together on the river. On a practical level, it’s about the river connecting people. The water offers this idea of connection to the whole city. You could take your canoe from Governors Island or the Gowanus Canal to the Bronx, spend a wonderful day at this site, learn about the Bronx River, and then canoe all the way down. The water itself is a means of uniting the boroughs. The Bronx is closer to the center of Manhattan than Brooklyn is, but I don’t necessarily feel that proximity when I take the 6 train. Yet on the water, there’s a different sense of time. So there are many layers of connection here.
Yet, not all waterways in New York are the same. Each waterway has its own personality and behavior. When you design for a waterway, you should know it. You have to be in it. The Hudson is not the same as the East River. And the Bronx River is completely different, it’s very calm.
Jim and Huckleberry Finn inspired us, combining the river with escape and coming to the essence of a place. For Mark Twain, it’s both escaping the stifling protocol of society, and recreating society on the river. People act differently in these projects because it feels different from their neighborhood, it feels like a new place where they can break out.
This phenomenon is something we noticed in Barcelona, at an urban beach called Barceloneta, which operates as a kind of escape valve. Someone could leave his or her office, walk to the beach, sit topless for hours, and then return. The Bronx River has that quality: an escape that brings you back to yourself. That duality is very interesting.
I think people know the river in the back of their mind as part of the neighborhood, but they never thought they’d experience it. And now they’re getting a quick canoe lesson and one hour later they’re on the river.
Robert Sullivan wrote a book called The Meadowlands, in which he takes this canoe trip through the wetlands of the Meadowlands. It’s all about the exotic of the toxic — the dioxins, the piles of debris from the old Penn Station, the buried gangsters, the shucked oysters from the Waldorf-Astoria. He saw it as an exotic retelling of the city, this code that’s hidden and that’s excluded from what we know of the city. I think that the Bronx River has that, but is still wholly within the city. Sullivan fetishized it a little bit. We don’t want to fetishize the Bronx River, we want it back. We want it to coexist alongside the city, and not have the city and the river ruin each other. You still want an escape valve, but you want it to be integrated into the city’s needs.