A Behemouth on 125th Street
I guess it’s a real no-no to criticize a colleague’s work, but sometimes a project is just so bad [and so emblematic of a prevalent developer attitude] that one really has no choice. This project, whose ground breaking was just announced in the NYC real estate cyber world, is a mixed use development at the site of the long languishing Victoria Theater on 125th Street in Harlem — on the same block as the Apollo. Its design, if it can actually be called that, seems to epitomize the “something is better than nothing” attitude that has done so much damage to the street over the years rendering it an anonymous “anywhere” rather than the bustling “somewhere” it once was and, one can only hope, could still possibly be.
There are so many architects in New York who would have done an interesting building on this site that could have contributed to the renaissance of 125th Street as an important urban thoroughfare rather than the proposed extravaganza of pseudo-architecture that will do nothing but degrade what little is left of the street's architectural vibrancy. The building is a compendium of so-called architectural devices intended to give it character and to breakdown its ponderous scale. Ironically, they do just the opposite, creating a scaleless behemoth covered with gratuitous surface manipulations signifying nothing.
Clearly no building can be judged only on its own merits without considering its effects on the street, its neighbors and the city as a whole. Not only is this building an architectural monstrosity in and of itself, it is also a brutal insult to a once great street and a noble precinct of the city.
Are buildings and architecture synonymous?
It has always been an interesting question for me as to whether a distinction can be made between buildings and architecture. That is to say between structures that improve the world and those that only provide a function and just take up space. This is more than just a distinction between good architecture and bad, is no architecture better than bad architecture or pseudo architecture? Is Stuyvesant Town better than the awful buildings lining 4th Avenue in Brooklyn? Are there, in fact, buildings totally without architecture or does the very fact of building, particularly building something big, require a level of intention, decision making and choice that inevitably makes the built thing architectural?
Then I saw this photograph of a large group of buildings, perhaps an entire neighborhood in Pyongyang, North Korea, and the question was answered. This entire section of the city has been intensely developed, with tall buildings, and yet is totally devoid of architecture – this much is immediately clear, is it so different than the public housing projects of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago or any number of other cities? More difficult to understand, perhaps, is what it is that’s missing, the presence of which would make these structures more than just buildings.
If you didn’t know better, it would be easy to believe that the Pyongyang buildings are really some kind of ominous rendering of the set for some sort of apocalyptic sifi movie or a primitive Sim City-esque computer game run amuck – buildings sprouting and growing as the result of some mutant, metastasizing algorithm rather than a place for real people and real families to live. Nothing differentiates one building from another or one use from another or one part of a building from another. And, as horrifying as the skyline of these buildings might be, I can only imagine that the street level is even worse with endless blocks of undifferentiated streets.