Friday, December 2, 2011

Island in the Stream

My latest excursion was a trip to see something really unique in New York. I'd been there I think only once before. This time I saw much more of it and looked much more closely. It's accessed by an unusual form of transportation that I think most people would be shocked to find in this city: a tram that was intended as a temporary measure and quickly became iconic. I'm talking about Roosevelt Island.

This was another event planned by the folks at DOCOMOMO New York Tri-State, and it was incredibly impressive. The best thing was the people they arranged to have speak to us, all of whom were so integral to the project. First to speak was Theodore Liebman, who was Chief Architect of the New York State Development Corporation that built up Roosevelt Island. Next was Lo-Yi Chan, who worked for I. M. Pei and designed the tram stations on both the Roosevelt and Manhattan sides of the river. And then there was Ashok Bhavnani, who I mentioned in a previous story. Finally, a well-spoken resident of the island since 1981, Marianne Russem.

There are a ton of interesting things about Roosevelt Island. One of them does not seem to be its nightlife. There are a few restaurants that look fairly nice, although I didn't have an opportunity to look at any menus. Other than that, there are a lot of empty storefronts. From some of the residents' reports, it sounds as if, after hours, it becomes a bit of a ghost town.

Getting in and out of Manhattan for an evening's entertainment sounds like a bit of a chore. The tram can stop running as early as 2AM. Cabbing it back to the outer boroughs for anyone who lives close enough to bother will generally cost around fifteen to twenty dollars, which seems even more worth it if you can share the ride with a friend. But keep in mind that, although it's geographically closer, a cab from Manhattan has to go over the Queensboro Bridge, make a U-turn, and cross back over another bridge to get to this island. It's served by only one subway line, the F train. If the F isn't running, you're $#!+ outta luck, and I wouldn't call the F the most reliable train. I think it would take a somewhat particular kind of person to want to live there, but that's still evidently a lot of people. The waiting list for an apartment there is estimated to take twenty years to turn over.

The uniqueness of Roosevelt Island stems from a few facts. It was a parcel of available land on which to build extremely late in the game, yet extremely close to the island of Manhattan. Although there are swaths of green at its northern end, the entire island of Manhattan had been more or less completely covered with development since the 1930s or '40s at the very latest. By the early-1970s, housing developments that would require the displacement and demolition of existing neighborhoods were almost universally seen as the most sinister of urban evils. Housing projects had promised so much and delivered so little, often making worse the very problems they had proposed to solve. It was the great, ironic, and miserable failure of the tower in a park ideal that had guided urban planning for forty-some years.

Despite the fact that many valuable lessons had been learned the hard way about this type of large-scale residential design and construction, it was all but impossible to put any of the new philosophies into practice. Grassroots neighborhood organizations had become much too vocal, much too savvy, and much too powerful to ever permit the wholesale destruction of urban areas again. And there was nowhere left to build on a large scale, except on Roosevelt Island. So what can be seen on the island is rare: large-scale, high-density, early-1970s residential architecture. What was built there was essentially a brand new town, built from the ground up, and built on late twentieth-century principles of urban space. The only comparison in scale might be gated, suburban housing tracts, but the fundamental differences are too obvious to bother discussing here.

A sort of side-effect of all this is the fact that Roosevelt Island's architecture by Johansen & Bhavnani is vaguely Brutalist, but displays a wonderfully domestic, sometimes even homey character, especially as it relates to the main street. One of the things I noticed on my first trip out many years ago was how modern the forms were, but yet seemed scaled almost like traditional row houses at times. Of course there are many towers to be found as well, but I think their proportions are sensitively handled.

It was originally called Hog Island when purchased from the Canarsie natives, then Manning's Island (1666), Blackwell Island (1686), and Welfare Island (1921), but was named for former New York State Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1973. The Blackwell House is the oldest building on the island and one of the oldest buildings in New York. It was finished in 1804 and restored in 1973.

Around the Blackwell House and here to its north is a nice little green area and fountain designed by landscape architect, Dan Kiley.

Mostly Roosevelt Island was used for the sequestering of people nobody wanted to have to deal with in Manhattan: criminals, the insane, the diseased, and the disabled. It's been home to prisons, asylums, and hospitals for the treatment of smallpox and polio. The focal point of the asylum was the Octagon (with the clever address "888," Alexander Jackson Davis, 1839), which is now the lobby of a high-end apartment building converted in 2006. Why anyone would want to live in an insane asylum I'm not sure, but it does look like a pretty fancy building now.

The Smallpox Hospital (1856), designed by the architect of St. Patrick's Cathedral, James Renwick, is probably the best known building on the island, especially amongst people who have never visited the island itself. It's lit up at night and quite visible from Manhattan. It's an extremely beautiful building and would have to be the absolute greatest place in all of New York City to have a Halloween party. I'm sure they'd never allow that. I've been wanting to see it in person for years, but I'll have an opportunity to do so soon, as I discuss below.

This gorgeously eerie photograph courtesy Too Much Glass.

It's appropriate that the island should be named for a president who happened to suffer from polio, considering a hospital dedicated to the illness was located there. As many of you may know, Louis Kahn designed a monument to Roosevelt which was intended to be built at the southern tip of the island around the time of its redevelopment. Almost thirty years later, Four Freedoms Park will finally be built there, just south of the Renwick Ruin. It will be this city's only work by Kahn, sadly (who designed the incredible Salk Institute and, for my South Asian readers, built this in Bangladesh, which must be absolutely astonishing in person). Although there are a few of his works in the tri-state area that will eventually be discussed on this blog at some point. It was pointed out that a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt stands at the United Nations directly across the river, so now husband and wife will be able to "talk" to one another.

Speaking of polio and the wheelchair-bound patients of the hospitals, it was decided from the start that all of the new construction, the entire island in fact, should be fully accessible by wheelchair. The planning was begun by Philip Johnson and John Burgee in 1969, and most of the major construction was complete by 1974, '75, and '76. But the point is that the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states that all new construction and alterations to any building accessible to the general public must be equally accessible to persons with different types of mobility, didn't go into effect until 1992, over twenty years later. In the early-'70s, it was as pioneering an idea as it was socially conscious and socially conscientious. Most of the ramps and similar features are well integrated into the design as a whole. These buildings could be a fantastic model for the seamless incorporation of equality in accessibility even today.

Another very interesting thing you likely would never know unless you lived there is that the island's waste is collected by a pneumatic garbage disposal system. It's the only residential community in the country to use such a system. We went to see the garbage plant and look in the window, but you can't really see much from outside. There's been a short documentary produced about it, which is surprisingly fascinating and fairly funny.

Nature Abhors a Vacuum from gregory whitmore on Vimeo.

Although it hints at it in calling attention to the narrow streets, the film doesn't mention that originally cars were banned on the island. Residents and visitors would drive over the bridge which led directly into the huge parking garage--called "Motorgate," in delightfully 1960s fashion--and just leave their cars there. Transportation around the island was (and is) supplied by electric buses. It's remarkably futuristic, if you think about it. But at one point I said aloud, "wait a minute...there are cars here." It must tell us something about our automobile culture that I'd already been on the island for a couple of hours before I noticed there were cars where there were not supposed to be. Even if (electric) garbage trucks had been allowed along with the buses from the beginning, the only other vehicles on the roads being garbage trucks would have been singularly unattractive.

The parking garage I think is a fantastic building. It was designed by the architects of Boston's wildly controversial City Hall, Kallman & McKinnell, and finished in 1974. The island resident, Marianne Russem, was able to half-heartedly agree that it's an aesthetically interesting structure. But she said most of the residents hate it because it's especially dirty and practically impossible to keep clean. Although photographs I saw of the interior looked pretty spectacular, I didn't have time to go inside it on this trip.

Roosevelt Island's school system was also a bit unconventional. All the residential buildings had small classroom wings incorporated into their designs. So from one year to the next, students would move from building to building to attend school in a different place. Russem said there were problems with this because the arrangement provided no centralized spaces like a gym or auditorium to accommodate school-wide functions. A main public school was built in 1992.

For anyone who might not know, New York City has an interesting public school system where, after their eighth year, students can choose and apply to attend any of the other public schools in the system regardless of location. As far as I know, the admissions process is similar to college applications, and many of the schools are specialized toward a certain field like science, technology, or the arts. My point being that after year eight, students from Roosevelt Island could choose to study elsewhere anyway.

In discussing the experience of her own school-aged children, Russem touched on a topic of relevance on this blog. Because this was a state project, it was required to house residents of a variety of economic levels. This would all seem perfectly great except that, as she pointed out, residents of different economic levels were divided up into separate buildings. She said it "created slums," not at all unexpectedly.

She was fully against the practice, as well, and likely her children's experience only amplified this. "Oohhh, you're from Rivercross..." other kids would say to hers, referring to the only co-op building in the bunch. Although all the buildings were built with swimming pools, the one at Rivercross is the only one that remains operational. Furthermore, it's extremely well maintained. The other pools sit dry, cracking, and unusable, which I found quite sad. I'm going to risk sounding naïve by saying I'd like to think this policy would be implemented differently--better, and with more integration--today.

It was during our stop at Rivercross for refreshments that Mr. Bhavnani spoke to the group, along with Ms. Russem. The enthusiasm for this project, the whole concept of this island, was palpable from all the speakers involved.

Knowing that this post was in the works, I recently went also to see Bhavnani's Kaufman Center Building (1978), on West Sixty-Seventh Street, which is of course very close to where I work. But it was substantially (though respectfully) redesigned by Robert A. M. Stern in 2008.

A few things became apparent inside Rivercross. One was that all the buildings are vividly color coded, as can be seen in the tile-clad elevator lobbies and the ornamental ventilation tubes.

The tubes, by the way, are a wonderful industrial detail, vaguely nautical in tone for the riverside site but without being too obvious about it.

Another was the way the interior spaces are interconnected with an amazing progression both horizontally and vertically. Hallways provide long vistas with distinct volumes cut out, brightly colored, and bathed in sections of natural light.

I had the idea in my head that we were going to see one of the apartment interiors and we didn't, but what we did go up to see was pretty cool. It was a tiny moment of futurism from Archigram that links two wings of the building. The tower it leads to feels surprisingly domestic, shows how much individual personality was possible in each unit, and can be accessed only through these tubes. It would never hold up under fire safety laws today. The tubes need to be replaced and for various reasons, namely that maintenance staff needs to access the top of them, sadly, they need to be reinstalled with roofs.

These may be some of the last images of the tubes in their original form.

This had actually been the official end of the event, but many of us continued along with Russem, who kindly offered her time to tell us more and answer additional questions. We walked north and discussed the school, I asked her about the wheelchair-bound residents and other questions about life on the island. We saw Motorgate and the turbine house for the garbage system. Finally we ended at the Octagon, where photos were not allowed inside. Most everyone opted to take the bus back, which was there as if on cue and I believe costs only fifty cents. It was a really beautiful day, so I decided to walk back, instead. Strangely, I still made it back in time to ride the tram with a couple of the people from the DOCOMOMO tour.

I had considered walking down to see the Renwick Ruin, but at that point I was a bit tired, it was getting late, and most importantly I was losing sunlight fast. I'll return when the Roosevelt Memorial is completed. In the meantime, I feel as if yet another corner of this city is within my conceptual grasp, and hopefully...yours, too!

All text and images ©2011, Ryan Witte, except where noted.