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.