Just off the narrow, crowded streets of Greenwich Village is a lush, spacious garden of drooping mature willows and sycamores.
New York University, its owner, fights for its destruction.
If the university prevails, two curvy towers shaped like chocolate drops will arise from the garden. The million square feet of new construction are the space equivalent of a hefty skyscraper.
In 2007, the university first presented its growth strategy in New York City. The plans included expanding along the East River where the university has a medical center and at Brooklyn Polytechnic, a campus it acquired in 2008.
But the controversial aspect of the expansion involved jamming three million square feet into the densely built blocks of prim Georgian row houses, stolid brick tenements and beefy industrial lofts that wrap Washington Square, where NYU was founded in 1831.
The university has grown incrementally, opportunistically and with no feeling whatsoever for the rich history, continued vitality and diverse architectural riches of the Village.
That’s why it has faced a well-organized wall of local opposition. The university has made changes, moving some elements around and agreeing to reduce the square footage.
That’s only made the proposal worse.
Almost all the growth in the Village will be piled onto two so-called Superblocks south of Washington Square. These were bulldozed in an ill-conceived “slum” clearance and rebuilt as Modernist slabs and towers in the 1950s and 1960s.
Taking Green Space
The new plan, designed by Grimshaw Architects, Toshiko Mori Architects and landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates proposes to plant a breathtaking 2.5 million square feet on the ample green space that flows around those buildings.
The doomed garden takes up about two-thirds of the northern block, running between a pair of 15-story housing slabs. It’s nominally open to the public but the entrances are well concealed.
The garden would be rebuilt and shrink to swirl around two curved, tapering “boomerang” buildings -- as NYU calls them -- that would house mainly faculty offices. The buildings are unbelievably intrusive considering that the university will cram two-thirds of the space underground, and that only two small light wells will relieve the windowless basement space.
On the block to the south, where urban renewal produced a handsome ensemble of three 1960s concrete towers by I.M. Pei, the university would leave space for a public school in one corner and build a one-million-square-foot, full-block-long building called the zipper on the eastern edge, behind the Pei towers.
The name comes from the serrated top, which would accommodate student and faculty housing. These quarters sit atop a high, solid wall of retail and academic facilities that form a more overbearing version of the eyesore gymnasium that currently occupies the site. The gym gets shunted underground.
I look in vain for some kind of urban ensemble or architectural grace. Each proposed building looks shaped in isolation, driven by how much space can be crammed in.
For a while I thought these expressionless shapes were simply cartoon placeholders for real buildings that could be developed with a great deal more sensitivity.
On the evidence of the university’s past defacements, the simplistic outlines will be turned into rote structures. The just-completed Center for Academic and Spiritual Life mocks religious feeling with a dull institutional box covered in leaf-shaped cutouts.
I still feel that much of the university’s growth could be gracefully accommodated, since the open space on the superblocks is largely useless, cut into senseless fragments wrapped in high wrought iron or chain-link fences.
But that would require a more holistic approach and some long-awaited forging of trust with the neighborhood. The empty windswept court and oversized driveway between the Pei towers, for example, is bleak and underused yet could be redesigned to gorgeously serve public and university alike.
Nothing about this plan speaks to the way the university will nurture the city just as the city nurtures it. There’s no physical expression of the future of education, which is in flux thanks to online learning and collaborative research that is dissolving ossified departmental boundaries.
Instead, the university treats its holdings like a real-estate game board, moving around the pieces in response to neighborhood pressure. Just weeks ago the university agreed to reduce additional square footage, but the cuts don’t pay off in neighborhood amenity.
The space that NYU has agreed to reserve for a public-school building, for example, was not part of its plan. It was introduced as a sop to neighborhood concerns, and it’s not clear when or whether it will be built.
On the plan drawings, the school floats aimlessly, further complicating rather than enriching the university’s equally aimless enterprise.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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