Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Fall of a Giant

I realize that I'm one of only about three people in the entire city of New York who will even slightly miss this building.  It'd been called the ugliest building in Queens and possibly all of New York.  It was bitterly hated, which I think makes me even more sad about its demise.  It was kind of an unappreciated, underrated underdog.

It was the Queens Plaza Municipal Parking Garage (1975) by architects Rouse, Dubin & Ventura at the corner of Queens Plaza South and Jackson Avenue.  I was able to find practically no information at all about RD&V, presumably because everyone just wished this building would go away for the past twenty years.

Had I known it was slated for demolition, I absolutely would have gone down and taken some last pictures of it.  I didn't even see the demolition right when they first started; by the time I noticed, it was pretty much just a big pile of rubble.

Luckily, Google Maps is in many areas around five years old, so I was able to catch it there before they refreshed their views.  Unfortunately, these screen-grabs from Google's street views aren't that great.  I have no doubt that had I been able to go down there, with my own camera, on a beautiful bright sunny day, and spend an hour or more capturing it myself, that I'd have been able to make it very clear what I loved about this building, and that you'd have been able to see it, too.

I'm honestly not all that terribly broken up about it.  I know the building was wildly unpopular and the poor thing was looking extremely grim during its final days.  It never would've gotten renovated in a way that would have improved things much. There's going to be some big Tishman-Speyer monstrosity going up in its place. I can certainly admit that whatever goes up there will very likely be relatively better for the site and easier on the eye. I'd have been pleased if they'd gone with their first choice of architects, FXFowle, but evidently Tischman rejected their design. Who knows what they'll finally choose.

I think what disappoints me is that it was an extremely interesting and determined work of Brutalism.  Again, I get a lot of flack for my love of Brutalism, most everyone thinks it was fascist, unfriendly, and miserable.  But this building was so bold, uncompromising, futuristic, and monumental, all the elements that made Brutalism so wonderful.  It held nothing back, it had muscle; it was just a cool building.  And if you look carefully, it truly had great lines and massing, for the most part.

Because the style continues to be so unanimously despised, even in retrospect, I fear that over time, very few Brutalist works will be spared the wrecking ball.  This whole fascinating period in the late evolution of Modernist Architecture may ultimately be lost forever, with only a few token Pei and Rudolph structures left as a lonely reminder.

Furthermore, in finally taking a very close look at it, I see all kinds of opportunities.  Gut it, polish it up, reclad it in some really sleek, high-tech materials, add lush plantings and animated water features, replace a good amount of the overbearing concrete with huge expanses of glass and open other walls entirely, crack it open with glorious sun-drenched atriums.  You'd end up with a gorgeous foundation for the tower set to rise above the site.  If I had the time, energy, and the necessary blueprints, I'd do the drawings myself.  Even five years ago, I'd have known that never would've been possible.  No one would ever have humored the idea of saving this building, but I suppose I just always consider protecting our architectural heritage to be of great importance whenever it's reasonable to do so.

The proportions here are just stunning.  The turret on the left is perfectly placed to give the section to its right a pleasing length.  I just adore those powerful windows piercing through the second story like a space ship on steroids.  The rhythm of the bays is wonderfully poetic.  I also love how the internal structure is forthrightly expressed by the sort of pilasters in the concrete on the outer wall.  

The top two stories don't need to be parking garage, in fact they'd make great office space.  The open slots could be sealed off with some delicious silvery blue glass:
While I love the robustness of the rusticated concrete, it is oppressive here.  There's just too much of it.  It couldn't have been anything else at the time the building was built.  Now I envision rough rusticated Neutra-esque stonework for the base, maybe interspersed with smooth, bright pale, poured concrete, and aluminum tile cladding for the upper stories (think Richard Meier's Bronx Developmental Center), but very carefully composed to work with the existing volumes.

Look at the two intersecting cylinders at the corner:
The architects did this at a lot of key locations around the building.  There is no reason they couldn't both be curving walls of glass.  It's difficult to gauge the exact dimensions of the balcony, but with, say, a restaurant or café there on the third story, doors leading out to the terrace, and some concealing shrubbery around the perimeter (the adjacent elevated train notwithstanding), that's a great little outdoor space.

This one might work even better:
The terrace appears larger, and this is further away from the noisy elevated subway.  The moments at these corners are amazing, though.  The way all these different lines and curves converge is not only interesting and dynamic, but there's something really space-age about them, as well.

These huge spans of rough concrete wall, though beautiful sculpturally, are for sure problematic:
Imposing and downright dangerous, they'd have made Jane Jacobs start foaming at the mouth.  Something would have to be done with them.

Okay, so that metal gate hidden around that corner is a wreck, the recess is probably entirely saturated with pee, and at worst it's the most lovely hiding spot for a serial rapist.  But just replace the entire bay with glass, top to bottom, and make this corner a soaring, bright, shiny new entrance to a couple of storefronts or similar.  It could work beautifully.

All around the building, these thick slabs of concrete act as a type of storefront shelter:
They're absolutely horrid and should just be removed altogether.  But the proportions of this end wing are stunning, and I won't apologize for saying so:
Those awful planters also have to go, but the sidewalk could totally be planted with manicured trees and flower beds to great success.

The little pavilion at the end of this wing is another gorgeous moment:
The massing of the two sort of turrets that form it has the most impeccable sense of scale in relationship to the wing.  

It's a wonderful punctuation mark on this extending arm of the building.  It also has a sense of intimacy that creates a fascinating counterpoint to both the colossal main building volume and the fortress-like forms of its two turrets.
The grille seems to indicate that the right-hand portion is mainly mechanical.  But again, knock out that center section, replace it with gleaming, silvery glass, and you'd have a fantastic entrance lobby here.  The weeds on the roof are all I need to imagine the most magical landscaped gardens up there.

Though no doubt problematic where pedestrian safety is concerned, I love how the concave curve makes this corner on the left look so very sharp:
A circular fountain set into the corner with seating around it would easily solve any safety problems.

This stairwell is another great opportunity:
Replace the whole thing with a cylinder of glass, and cut a narrow, soaring, sunbathed atrium deep into the building.  Plantings and waterfalls cascading down one side, a grand, monumental staircase on the other.  I'm sorry, but that would be a truly majestic interior space.

Here again, the convergence of lines and curves at the corner is so well executed:

Back to where I started, more of those horrible sheltering concrete slabs:
I won't miss them.

I'll be happy to admit that the other end of this very long façade, the Jackson Avenue frontage, needs a lot of help:
At the middle of this long stretch to the left is a section of smooth pale concrete that advances about a foot out from the rest of the wall.  Obviously it was intended to break up the monotony.  While it's a refreshing break from the dark rusticated concrete, it's misplaced and awkward.  But the location of it is absolutely right.  What I want here is the main grand entrance to the tower rising above this existing base.  Silvery blue glass the full width of that section, starting at the foot of the building, bulging out at about the third floor, then sloping back in again to about 15 to 25 feet behind the front wall, and curving on up into a soaring glass tower.  Maybe a two- or three-story-high rectangular volume carved out of the curving glass to form the entrance.

Agree with me or not, I think anyone with a little imagination could find moments here that could work, if addressed with some finesse.  In any case, I think it's very unfortunate when a building gets such a horrible reputation as this one had.  People tend to just eagerly jump onto the bandwagon of hating, so they can no longer see what's actually there.  I will reiterate my disdain for Lewis Mumford: that miserable curmudgeon didn't like anything.  I have no idea why he even did what he did.  I'm in this business because I truly love architecture, and for me that love absolutely has to include a poor soul like this building.

Queens Plaza Municipal Parking Garage 
Rouse, Dubin & Ventura

©2008, Ryan Witte


horticolous* said...

Okay, having just read this post (May 2009) I'm a little late to the party. Thanks for this critical defense of the Queens Plaza Garage...

I used to have to take the bus from there down into Williamsburg -- and waiting for the bus all those years, I got the opportunity to see all the little amazing design details in this buildings.

My hunch is that this building, along with the recently demolished 1964 Holy Trinity Chapel on Washington Square and other despised Brutalist buildings, takes too long "to read" architecturally -- and the style uses a vocabulary most people don't even know.

There seemed to me to be moments in the Garage that were a lot like the kind of moments for which Peter Zumthor recently won a Pritzker... maybe Queens Plaza wasn't ready for that kind of thoughtful reflection.

Ryan said...

Grrr. I really freaking HATE NYU. I've ranted about them elsewhere, but I had no idea they were tearing down that chapel. Had I known, I definitely would have gone down and photographed it. Eggers & Higgins also designed the Guggenheim Bandshell at Lincoln Center and they were the offspring of the firm of John Russell Pope with whom they worked, completing the Jefferson Memorial and the National Gallery in DC after his death.

It's very true that Brutalism has absolutely no human-scaled delicacy to it. I'm not sure that's much of an excuse, however, since ancient Greek temples don't really have much of it, either. My problem, though, is that there is already so little good Modern ecclesiastical architecture out there that doesn't resort to cheesy neo-Gothic (etc.) cliches.

It's also true that Queens Plaza drastically needs a complete overhaul, to the point that the preservation or destruction of the garage wasn't going to really make much difference either way. My vote is to enclose the steel train trestles in arched brickwork or stone, to both dampen the cacophony of the train at street level and also to make the whole area far more pedestrian friendly with cafes and markets and lovely public spaces (like under the Manhattan anchorage of the bridge). I'm sure the city would never go for it, though, unless we get another WPA.

horticolous* said...

You know, I'm not sure I agree that Brutalism isn't "human scaled" -- in fact, the whole style is derived from Le Corb and his Modular Man, right? Kind of a "Humanistic counterpoint" to the Bauhaus slick-industrial type of modernism?

In fact, one of my favorite things about Brutalism is the human "hand" that's so apparent in the poured concrete -- a total departure from the mass-produced machine-slickness of the International Style.

I liked the Chapel ( I'm sure it's tremendously more artful than whatever NYU is building to replace it, but I don't think it was a great building... to my eye, there was something clumsy about the massing, as though it was meant to be sited on some open, suburban campus and not a tight, rectilinear lot.

People called it "The Bunker" -- I think I more skillful hand (like Kahn, maybe, and the lovely inside/outside transitions he did at Salk) could have opened the building up to the street better while still preserving the cocoon-like sanctuary.

The Garage was much better at it's relationship to the street -- but I have to admit that as I sketched the building and daydreamed about it, I always thought how it would look so great in some leafy, northern California suburb -- like Palo Alto, maybe. All that rough, crumbly concrete just begs for the counterpoint of lush, wet, tropical landscaping.

However, on someone's Flickr photostream, I recently saw some pictures of the Garage with a bunch of tall, dry grass growing on it's roof and it looks amazing -- like a natural limestone outcropping... totally a Planet of the Apes/Barbarella double feature!

Ryan Witte said...

I'm not sure I agree there. I think it was Brutalism's monumentality that really set it apart in the evolution of Modernism and, unlike the monuments of the past, it was still too rooted in industrialization to initiate any real symbolic dialogue at a pedestrian level.

And while the rough-hewn concrete was a staple, most of the great examples I notice around the city didn't use it, or at least not to the extent that Paul Rudolph did.

For an example of how welcoming and open Brutalism could be in the right hands, I usually point to Roche-Dinkeloo's Ford Foundation Building, one of my favorite structures in NYC. It has all the monumentality, and yet its atrium is one of the most stunning interior spaces imaginable, visible from the outside and daring you to enter.

You're totally right, extensive plantings on and around the garage would've made a huge difference. Definitely check out my post about Endo Pharmaceuticals.