Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pei Day

Since I just mentioned it, I figured I may as well talk about the visit to I. M. Pei's Kips Bay Towers, completed in 1963.

All Kips Bay photos ©2010, Ryan Witte.
This is a private housing complex, so Open House New York was really the only way to see it. Once again, DOCOMOMO came through both by arranging for access and showing visitors around with tours. We couldn't see inside one of the original apartments, unfortunately, but there were floor plans to check out.

I'm sure the organization has been watching Pei's work all along, but it seems like they've been paying an awful lot of attention to it recently. I suppose it's timely because his work has been in the news an awful lot. In fact, if they hadn't heard about NYU's upcoming plans for Silver Towers (which no one mentioned at the time) then the tour they sponsored of those buildings was somewhat prophetic.

I was lucky to have accidentally joined a tour led by Kathleen Randall, with whom I'd corresponded back and forth about Lincoln Center a few times by email. We'd never met in person, but when I saw her trusty name-tag, I figured it must have been her. I was right.

Like Silver Towers, Kips Bay Plaza, as it was originally called, was built by NYU. One might be inclined to suggest that NYU hire today's equivalent to an architect of I. M. Pei's caliber for the new buildings they're putting up--if they're going to overrun all of Greenwich Village with their garbage--rather than the firms of questionable taste that they have.

Kips Bay was middle-income housing and was intended in part to provide residences for the nurses and other staff of NYU Medical Center, which is directly to the east and will be the subject of a later post. I later asked if this had been a Zeckendorf property, and Randall said yes. I'm not sure why I thought that, except I knew he owned a ton of land at the far east of midtown, but I'm going to concede that I probably read that somewhere. I also asked if "we have Robert Moses to blame," which we do, but that wasn't difficult to guess. The area was mostly tenement buildings before this, and those kind of neighborhoods always made Moses' fangs drip saliva. It was a middle-income rental property until the mid-1980s, when it was converted into condominiums.

I've seen the buildings referred to as Brutalist, and I suppose they are quite clearly more Brutalist than they are International Style. But in my mind '63 is a little bit too early. The Brutalism here is not really evolved enough to give them the formal impact that title might normally evoke. I don't mean that to say that the architecture here is weak in the slightest, only that it doesn't have the overbearing fortress-like
structural quality of a lot of later Brutalism.

The buildings were built in much the same way as Silver Towers, one floor at a time out of precast concrete modules, rather than being hung from a steel frame erected first.

It gives them a pleasing rationality, in that the apartments were divided by window bays in multiples of three and five, which you can see in some of the longer shots.

It's great, in a way, that the individuality of the building's residents--how they choose to dress their windows--actually amplifies what's great about the design, rather than hindering it. It's somewhat refreshing considering how many modern buildings require Fascist co-op board regulations to maintain a sense of uniformity on their fa├žades.

Even more notably humane here is the landscaping. Looking at these towering slabs of concrete construction, the unaware viewer might see any other oppressive, dehumanizing housing project. The difference here is, first of all, that the landscaping is both so lush and so orderly.

The rambling, fake naturalism of the typical tower-in-a-park scenario is a sign saying, basically, Loiter Here. Towers of masonry with only the most reluctant, obligatory windows turn their backs on the greenery surrounding them as if to become their own separate, monolithic entities. Meandering paths force the contrivance of a natural setting while creating isolated nooks and hiding spots requiring extensive security measures and caustic flood-lighting.

Randall had actually pointed out how the ground floors of the buildings are quite open, airy, and filled with sunlight.

Despite their Brutalist leanings, the Kips Bay buildings are drenched in glass. While one might lounge around and enjoy the natural qualities of their inner park, the buildings are an audience, ever watchful, psychologically a great expanse of potential eyes. These grounds are no invitation to mischief. Instead the buildings are in sympathetic harmony with the landscaping around them, a relentless urban grid that nonetheless complements and supports its grounds. I guess I should mention that the inner gardens were once open to the public, and their being privatized did create some controversy.

In any case, it's encouraging to see an example of Modernist housing--especially when associated with the name Robert Moses--that really does seem to work so well and continues to work well so many years later. I overheard at least one woman involved with the open house who owns an apartment in the complex and appeared to have a sense of pride in that. It just goes to show that no architectural style is without potential for success when put into the hands of a talented practitioner.

At the end of this little tour we were dropped off in a sort of community recreation room space where they had some really nice large prints of old photographs from the original construction and immediately after Kips Bay was finished. There I got a chance to meet and speak with Abby Suckle, the architect who had renovated this part of the building. She was very nice and also told me about this fascinating website she started called, which is a way to keep track of galleries and gallery shows, but also all the public art that may only temporarily be on view around New York City at any given time.

Unfortunately, Randall had to run off to take around the next group of visitors (they were going out every fifteen minutes or so). I never got a chance to speak to her further (she'd told me she'd written a dissertation on Lincoln Center, I think she said while in college, so I was eager to ask her about it) or to formally say goodbye. Regardless, it was another great event from DOCOMOMO. The following day I participated in yet another one. That story later.

©2010, Ryan Witte

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