Thursday, October 25, 2012

West 11th Street Cemetery, Manhattan

This ancient Jewish cemetery occupies a seemingly disoriented triangular lot on a block of West 11th Street near the corner of 6th Avenue. In fact, this cemetery used to be a rectangle, and it is the now-triangular shape and the history behind it that makes this pleasant pocket-cemetery such a special place.

With graves dating back tothe 1790s, this cemetery predates the implementation of the vast network of carefully gridded streets that is the primary characteristic of Manhattan’s urban pattern. Originally aligned orthogonally to its surrounding neighborhood, it was severed diagonally through its center with the construction of 11th Street in the early 1830s, which also resulted in the re-alignment of all surrounding properties to adhere to the new street pattern. Graves that had existed where the new street was cleared through were relocated to the newer Jewish Cemetery on West 21st Street. The remaining portion of the cemetery was deemed sacred ground due its use as a cemetery, and was allowed to remain intact in its now-crooked and severed state.

Like Broadway, with its serpentine path that follows an ancient Native American trail, the cemetery represents a rare moment in the unrelenting gridiron plan of Manhattan in which something from the past is allowed to poke through this highly ordered urban surface. In its triangular form, the cemetery is aligned with both the vanished pattern of historic winding streets in nascent Manhattan and the gridded pattern of the modern city, serving as a uniquely physical connector between these two moments in time.

Interestingly, this house with an angled facade sits just down the block at 18 West 11th Street. Originally built in the 1840s and reconstructed in the 1970s after an explosion, the house's reconstructed facade may very well be a nod to the crooked cemetery at the other end of the street.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Granary Burying Ground, Boston

The Granary Burying Ground in Boston is another example of a great outdoor room. Despite its large dimensions, it retains a character of intimacy due in large part to the strong sense of enclosure formed by tall adjacent buildings and a dense canopy of centuries-old trees. With tall intersecting building masses encircling the space and only one opening out into the street, there is a strong separation from the rest of the city. The space provides visitors with a sense of refuge that is almost comparable to the feeling of being inside a deep river-carved gorge lined with trees and surrounded by rocky cliff faces.

There are several layers of visual and cultural interest within the space. A varied backdrop composed of alternating brick surfaces and multi-pane windows provides architectural interest and adds scale to the space, while colonial-era tombstones with intricate carvings add interest and a sense of historic identity at the level of the pedestrian. (Graves include Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere). Trees provide a pleasant and shady canopy for the space while also contributing an added layer of visual interest that changes with the seasons.

Part of the burial ground's interesting character also comes from its amorphous shape. Although such amorphousness is often disorienting in older city street patterns where it interferes with navigation and a pedestrian's sense of direction - an experience anyone navigating this section of Boston has surely encountered - here the burial ground is only open to the street on one side and so its charming amorphous shape does not interfere with the strong sense of orientation that this single opening creates. Instead the unusual shape serves as a source of visual interest that gives character and unique identity space precisely because of its peculiarity.

Surrounded by a dense cluster of tall buildings, the undeveloped land of the cemetery stands out as a unique landmark and attests to the unique role that cemeteries can play in older cities to preserve unique and surprising moments of open space even in the densest parts of the city -- a phenomonen which can be similarly observed in New York's West 11th Street Jewish cemetery or St. Paul's Churchyard in New York's district, both of which will be discussed in future posts.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Seagram Building Plaza, New York

The plaza in front of the Seagram Building has all of the formality and grandeur of a Renaissance piazza. By setting his massive bronze-tinted tower back from Park Avenue to create a corporate plaza -- an avant-garde idea when it was completed in 1958 -- architect Mies van der Rohe created an opportunity for a grand square bookmarked on either end by monumental structures. His own monolithic tower anchors one side, while the grand Charles McKim-designed Renaissance revival Racquet and Tennis Club building serves as a similarly monumental focal point on the other side.

However, the ultimate success of this space comes from the architectural and kinetic dynamism that adds vibrancy to this balanced formal composition of urban space. The Seagram Building's glassiness and dark color are complemented by the opaque pale masonry of the Racquet and Tennis Club. Both buildings have facades that are carefully organized into static, orderly geometric patterns; yet the classical quoins and rustication of the Racquet and Tennis Club are offset by the minimalist steal facade of the Seagram Building. Moreover, with busy Park Avenue cutting across one side of the plaza, there is a strong sense of movement through the space in both a physical sense and a visual sense, taking into consideration the linear views that this bisecting avenue opens up. In one direction there is a monumental view towards the iconic New York Central Building in front of the Met Life Tower, and in the other direction is another iconic view down an endless canyon of Midtown high-rises.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

North Square, Boston

North Square is a splendid urban composition. It has an asymmetrical triangular shape and an asymmetrical composition of buildings surrounding it. There is a pleasant variation of architectural facades and building masses, yet all are united by a similar scale. In its visual eccentricity and tight dimensions, North Square has much of the appealing character and charm as a Medieval European square.

The streets that branch off from the square are very narrow, themselves very similar to tight Medieval lanes. Hence there is a strong sense of enclosure within the square, with only minimal piercings to break the wall of buildings that surrounds this outdoor room.

The exception is on the south side of the square, where the buildings on either side of the space stretch inward towards each other yet never converge - instead they leave a broad opening that quite picturesquely frames a vista of Boston's financial district. This not only provides a pleasant distal focal point but also helps give visitors to the square a sense of orientation and a sense of location within the larger context of the city's overall urban form. There is a clear, perceivable visual link between two neighborhoods.

The square also has a palpable sense of identity and place through its link with Boston history. The square is anchored on one end by an ornate and visually eccentric Italian Catholic church, a manifestation of the Italian immigrant history that has played such a large role within the history of Boston and within this neighborhood, the North End, in particular. Facing onto the square at its other end is the restored colonial-era home of Boston's most famous revolutionary hero, Paul Revere.

The authentic cobblestone pavers that carpet the square further enhance the historic identity of the site and act as a visual marker to distinguish the square as a discernable and unique space, not just any old intersection of regular streets.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The High Line, New York

In light of a recent high-profile criticism of the The High Line that appeared in the New York Times Op Ed section, now seems like an appropriate time to extoll the spectacular urban space that is the High Line.

The High Line is special because of the unique perspective of the city it offers its users. Adapted from a long-abandoned elevated rail line, the park literally lifts pedestrians above the street, granting them an unusual freedom of unimpeded movement across city blocks. The view is equally spectacular and unique within the city; as one moves across the linear park, the view ranges from sweeping panoramas of the Midtown Manhattan skyline to up-close-and-personal eye-level peeps through the windows of adjacent buildings that the park seems to snake around and through. Blocks west of the park in the mid-20's form a staccato of tantalizing concrete-and-brick-framed vistas of the Hudson River, and park users are offered a voyeuristic bird's eye view of busy intersections where the High Line crosses over at 10th Ave & West 17th and Washington & West 12th. Recognizing this defining appeal of the High Line as a unique platform for watching the city, the park's designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro have incorporated theater-style tiered seating overlooking the street at 10th Ave and West 26th; where one might expect to find a move screen at the front there is an expansive glass window literally framing the performance of urban life.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Washington Mews, between Fifth Ave and University Place, New York

Walking through Washington Mews offers an opportunity to forget where you are. Easy to miss, the experience has more the feeling of a surprising escape than of disorientation. Lined with cobblestone pavers and ringed by flower boxes and vines framing small windows on stucco walls, this odd little laneway obscured by the NYU campus has the character of a quiet Mediterranean village. The buildings on this street - early nineteenth century converted carriage houses and stables that recall what pre-1920s Madison Avenue once looked like - are remarkably small in sale compared to the massive blocks of apartment towers that dominate this neighborhood. In proportion to these low buildings, the cobblestone street is almost wide enough to have the feel of a long piazza. Though the buildings of Washington Mews have been altered over time to accommodate new uses, the remarkably unchanged scale of this inconspicuous street offers a rare glimpse back through time to how many of the city's side streets may have appeared before the age of the skyscraper.