The Little Backstage House

LittleHouses

12 Charles Lane (left); Penthouse on Charles Street.

Fran Leadon

The fifth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City includes hundreds of new projects built since the last edition in 2000. Among them are the large-scale projects and some big-name, obvious choices: Michael Van Valkenburgh’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Polshek Partnership’s Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, Gehry Partners’ IAC Center, Atelier Jean Nouvel’s 40 Mercer Street, and Peter Gluck & Partners’ Bronx Prep Charter School. The late Norval White, FAIA, and I compiled lengthy lists of buildings and parks. I would then visit them, take photos and notes, and we would write and edit each other’s text for the new Guide. Those lists of projects were generated mostly from studying Architectural Record, the New York Times, The Architect’s Newspaper, Curbed.com, and Metropolis. But some of the most interesting, new projects are the ones that didn’t get much publicity and were happened upon by chance.

Take, for instance, a tiny jewel of a project in the West Village I discovered, quite by accident, during the summer of 2008. Designed by the firm Christoff:Finio and completed just prior to my visit, the project is a mod version of the traditional carriage house, incorporating fragments of a burned-out 150-year-old masonry shed. Facing narrow, shady, often muddy, cobble-stoned Charles Lane, it is wedged among projects that have received more than their share of press: Asymptote’s 166 Perry Street, Richard Meier & Partners Architects’ triplet towers (165, 173, and 176 Perry Street), and one block north, the Hotel California-like Palazzo Chupi by artist Julian Schnabel (described in the new Guide as “an eruption of competing balconies and faux-Venetian details”). Christoff:Finio’s carriage house is a taut, icy, bluish grey cube sheathed in glass at the second floor and beautifully crafted bent steel louvers at the ground floor. It is an inconspicuous project, backstage amid its more theatrical, look-at-me neighbors.

I snapped some photos, noted the address, and moved on (I was on my way to photograph the multi-leveled wonders of Schnabel). But I was curious enough to write the project a letter, addressed simply to “12 Charles Lane.” I asked the owner for some necessary details so I could include it in the new Guide: who, what, why, and when? I didn’t hear anything in reply, and eventually my letter came back to me in the mail, marked “no such address.” No such address? Talk about inconspicuous!

Then last fall the project won an AIA award, and only then did I finally know the name of the designers: the 10-year-old partnership of Martin Finio, AIA, and Taryn Christoff. Finio, who teaches at Yale, worked for years in the office of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, and the influence is obvious in his treatment of slick materials and surfaces. The same firm, it turns out, had designed the boxy penthouse addition to a mid-19th-century neo-Greco row house fronting Charles Street; the carriage house was the backyard. I had noticed the penthouse many times before (it was finished in 2004) and didn’t think it fit very comfortably onto its masonry rooftop. But their carriage house fits beautifully into its backstage context and doesn’t brag about it. I wonder what it’s like on the inside?

Note: The AIA Guide to New York City, Fifth Edition, will be released on 06.07.10 by Oxford University Press, and can be pre-ordered at amazon.com. There will also be a launch party at the Center for Architecture 06.02.10 to celebrate the publication. To RSVP, click here.

What About the Bronx?

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Bathgate Educational Campus (left); Bronx Prep Charter School.

Andrea Barley (left); Cinthia Cedeno

I gave a lecture a few weeks ago at the annual conference of the Historic Districts Council, at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights. I showed about 100 photos, a small fraction of the 40,000 we’ve snapped during the last two years of preparing the upcoming new edition of the AIA Guide to New York City. I included old and new projects from southern Tottenville to Tribeca, Battery Park to Bayside, but neglected to include images of the Bronx; there simply wasn’t time. During the question-and-answer session, one fellow rightly asked, “What about the Bronx?”

The truth is, much significant new work has been built in the Bronx since the Guide’s last edition in 2000, and that section of the book has been radically altered to include dozens of these new projects. Of course, there have always been architectural delights in the Bronx. Among my favorites are the bucolic assemblage of mansions in Riverdale known as “Wave Hill”(now a garden and cultural center), the ranks of majestic Art-Deco apartment blocks up and down the Grand Concourse, Stanford White’s and Marcel Breuer’s classical and Modernist masterpieces at Bronx Community College in University Heights, and the industrial behemoths of the South Bronx, especially McKim, Mead & White’s Bronx Grit Chamber and Kirby, Petit & Green’s American Bank Note Company. The South Bronx, of course, has been notoriously crumbling for generations, long emblematic of a failed experiment in post-war public housing and urban renewal in the wake of post-war suburban migration. So we were pleased to find a largely re-energized South Bronx, fun to explore and fun (for a change) to write about. Leading the rebirth is a group of innovative schools designed by local architects.

The Bathgate Educational Campus, by John Ciardullo Associates, on Bathgate Avenue, just west of Crotona Park, is neo-Constructivist, with walls in startling colors sharply dividing three separate high schools within. Right around the corner on 3rd Avenue is Peter Gluck and Partners’ Bronx Prep Charter School. Gluck, designer of the equally impressive East Harlem School, uses primary colors and everyday materials (sheet metal siding, for instance) to vividly express the various functions within. Heading south (three non-scenic miles by car along the Cross Bronx and Bruckner Expressways, or two miles on foot, using the southern edge of Crotona Park as a shortcut) is WXY Architecture’s Bronx Charter School for the Arts, on a rather unlikely site along an industrial swath of Longfellow Avenue. We were so happy to find this project that we described it this way in the new Guide: “Hooray! Another great new school! This one uses natural light and colored brick to transform an existing factory building.” After so many years of architectural misery in the South Bronx, when design was often implicated in the destruction of communities, who among us would not rejoice at the arrival of this zesty group: scholarly architecture for budding scholars. Hooray, indeed!

Note: The AIA Guide to New York City, Fifth Edition, will be released on 06.07.10 by Oxford University Press, and can be pre-ordered at www.amazon.com. There will also be a launch party at the Center for Architecture 06.02.10 to celebrate the publication.

Norval White, 1926-2009

Norval-photo

Norval White in France, 2008.

Fran Leadon

The manuscript for the fifth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City was completed on December 15, 2009. Two weeks later Norval White, FAIA, was suddenly gone. He died of a heart attack at his home in Roques, France, on December 26. Of the previous four editions of the guide (1968, 1978, 1988, and 2000), the first three were co-authored with the indefatigable Elliot Willensky, FAIA, who passed away in 1990. The two made quite a pair, by all accounts (White, taciturn and tall; Willensky, loquacious and mutton-chopped). I never had the pleasure of meeting Willensky (I was still in college when he died), but I have had the great honor of knowing Norval as collaborator, friend, and mentor.

Norval was a practicing architect and well-known professor (at Cooper Union and City College) in addition to his work as a writer and historian. He maintained his own practice, and for years was a design partner at Gruzen Samton (he was the lead architect on such notable projects as Essex Terrace in East New York, Brooklyn, and 1 Police Plaza on Park Row, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge). A New Yorker through and through, he was born and raised on the Upper East Side but lived in later years on Pierrepont Street, in Brooklyn Heights. He was a leader in the unsuccessful but influential fight to save the original Penn Station (he picketed alongside Willensky), and while he was a staunch preservationist, he was admirably open to new ideas (and a fan of the firms Herzog & deMeuron and SHoP in recent years).

Norval “retired” to France in 2005, but remained more up-to-date on the architectural goings-on in NYC than just about anyone I know. He daily perused the postings on Curbed and Brownstoner, and devoured The Architect’s Newspaper, compiling meticulous lists of buildings in progress. In January 2009, he flew across the Atlantic and spent a month touring the city, joining me for madcap, careering drives through the five boroughs (one pell-mell dash around Brooklyn featured Connie Rosenblum of the New York Times riding shotgun, furiously scribbling away, trying to keep up with Norval’s one-liners). During one drive through Lower Manhattan, every street corner and building seemed to prompt a memory for him (“I went to a party there, on the third floor, in 1954”), and he would grill me whenever he saw a new building under construction: who designed it, when would it be finished, what did it replace? Full of curiosity and energy, he insisted we cover everything from Battery Park to Chelsea in one day. Exhausted, I finally convinced him to break for lunch at the NoHo Star, where he continued to snap photos at our table: the staff, the food, the light fixtures. There was simply no stopping him. When I told him some months later that my students and I had finally completed all the photographs for Manhattan, his response was, “What about Brooklyn?”

Norval constantly told me to stop what I was doing and “Go out! Go out!” He didn’t like it when I was editing photos at home, or doing research on the Internet. The AIA Guide has always been first person, fly-on-the-façade research, conducted on-site by hiking through neighborhoods like old-time newspaper reporters on the beat (like Joseph Mitchell with an architecture license). Architectural research is always the most accurate, and the most fun, when it is conducted at stoop level, looking hard at the city from its sidewalks, up close. Norval didn’t want the Guide’s readers sitting at home. He wanted them to explore the city, to walk New York’s streets, and to ramble through its parks.

To read the New York Times tribute to Norval White, FAIA, see “Norval White, of AIA Guide, Dies at 83,” by David W, Dunlop, 12.30.09.

The Last Minute

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(L-R): Museum of Arts and Design; HL23; Diana Center (Nexus Hall).

Fran Leadon

The manuscript of the new edition of the AIA Guide to New York City, two years in the making, is due at the publishers next week, with publication scheduled for June 2010. Oxford University Press, the publishing house on Madison Avenue full of young, enthusiastic editors, is waiting patiently for us to deliver the finished 1,100-page book. The Guide is an unusual project for Oxford, in that Norval White, FAIA, and I are not only providing the book’s content (text, maps, and photographs), but the camera-ready design and layout as well, from the title page through the index. For the last month we have been in constant communication with our designer, Teresa Fox of Foxprint Design, and our copy editors Yuliya Ilizarov, Angela Starita, and Jeremy Reed, as we finalize the design of the new Guide.

This fifth edition represents a rather drastic re-imagining of previous editions, bursting with hundreds of new entries, more detailed maps (including each building footprint), larger photos, an expanded index, new neighborhoods in the Manhattan and Brooklyn sections, more landscape architecture projects, and more information about not only what is existing, but what has been demolished (detailed “Necrologies”) and what has been planned and promised but not built (yet). We hope the result is a Guide that explains the totality of 21st-century New York in all its spatial, cultural, and historic complexity.

As a design instructor, I spend much of my time in class teaching my students how to manage their time effectively, and I often scold them for doing things at the last minute. So it’s interesting to me that I should find myself in exactly that frantic state, running around the city at the last possible moment, visiting projects, snapping photos, and trying to squeeze one last project into the Guide. Yesterday, for instance, I went up to Columbus Circle to get a good shot of Brad Cloepfil’s, AIA, Museum of Arts and Design. (I wasn’t happy with the photos we already had; it turns out that MAD is difficult to photograph well, for reasons I don’t quite understand.) Two days ago I ran over to Chelsea to snap photos of Neil Denari’s HL23, which is nearing completion and warrants a photo in the Guide. Last week I was at Barnard College, shooting some nice early morning shots of Weiss-Manfredi’s Diana Center (Nexus Hall).

Last week I also discovered a nice project completely by accident as I was walking along West 123rd Street in Harlem: Keith Strand’s diminutive office and residence he calls “123 House.” Sandwiched between tall apartment buildings, 123 is a modernist take on a Federal-style house, with photo-voltaic panels punctured by a swinging glass hatchway in place of the traditional pitched roof and dormer. I squeezed 123 House into the Guide at the last possible moment, between entries for Greater Metropolitan Baptist Church and the Refuge Temple (formerly Harlem Casino), just as Strand’s actual house got squeezed into its sliver of a site.

Down the Arthur Kill

ArthurKill

(L-R): 5414 Arthur Kill Road, Tottenville; Charles Kreischer House; St. Peter’s Lutheran Evangelical Church; Manee-Seguine Homestead.

Fran Leadon

I made nine trips to Staten Island last summer, visiting hundreds of buildings and parks for inclusion in the upcoming fifth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City (Oxford University Press, 2010). One trip was by ferry (free); the other eight were by car (Verrazano-Narrows Bridge tolls: $88). Staten Island had been a mystery to me before my recent forays. Now I have a better sense of its geography (twice the size of Manhattan), its architecture, and its history.

One unique feature of Staten Island is the undercurrent of rural life peaking through more recent development. If you look hard enough, there are fragments everywhere of an agrarian and seafaring life that now seems distant in the city’s collective memory. But change came relatively recently, its remaining farms and open tracts of land mostly plowed under by the wave of suburban development that followed construction of the Narrows Bridge in 1964. While there are still stretches of virtual wilderness on the island, especially along its southern shore, many historic settlements such as Sandy Ground and Princes Bay have been virtually obliterated over the last 30 years by banal tracts of cookie-cutter housing.

A drive down the old Arthur Kill Road is instructive but disorienting, its hairpin turns unnerving. Twisting and narrow, the road was clearly built for the occasional horse and carriage, not for today’s rush hour SUVs. The Arthur Kill winds its way from the geographical center of the island at Historic Richmond Town past 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century graveyards and roadside taverns in Rossville and Charleston to the remnants of a former factory town called Kreischerville, where some amazing architecture awaits: the Charles Kreischer House, a turreted Stick Style extravaganza (1888), the trim, wood-framed St. Peter’s Lutheran Evangelical Church (1883), and Kreischer’s spare, functional worker’s housing (1890) — all landmarks in a veritable ghost town overtaken by woods populated by deer and feral cats.

The Arthur Kill ends in the far southern corner of the island at Tottenville, a village seemingly suspended in time. Along Main Street are all the sights one would expect to find in small-town America, including a Masonic Lodge and abandoned movie theater, an impressive collection of intact Queen Anne, Stick Style, and Italianate houses, and even one stunning but out-of-place Modernist specimen, the Dr. Henry Litvak House by architect Eugene G. Megnin (1949).

Landmarks on Staten Island are generally not treated very well. One would think that the Manee-Seguine Homestead (1690), an important example of 17th-century roadside architecture (it once functioned as an inn) would be beautifully restored and open to public tours. Instead, it is a ruin, concealed from view in a thicket, slowly decaying and returning to the earth. Historic Richmond Town is a vital collection of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century landmarks (houses, sheds, stores, outhouses, a railroad depot) originally located elsewhere on the island, now protected from demolition or gradual disintegration. Historic Richmondtown feels like a kind of intensive care unit for neglected buildings; an architectural hospital of sorts, where old Federalist and Queen Anne gems are rescued and brought back from the brink.

40,000 Photos Later…

Fran-Group

(Left): Fran Leadon, AIA, last winter in Midtown, with student Adrian Hayes and New York Times writer Constance Rosenblum. (Right): AIA Guide Research Assistants, December 2008. (L-R): Adrian Hayes, Amanda Chen, Christopher Drobny, Katja Dubinsky, Calista Ho, Marina Ovtchinnikova.

Douglas Moreno(left); Fran Leadon

This week we completed the photography for the upcoming fifth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City (Oxford University Press, 2010), with help from 22 student assistants from the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at City College. Our combined efforts over the past year have yielded well over 40,000 new photos of more than 6,000 buildings and parks from the northern tip of the Bronx to the southern end of Staten Island.

We began with a group of four undergraduate architecture students (Calista Ho, Katja Dubinsky, Amanda Chen, and Marina Ovtchinnikova) and three Master of Landscape Architecture students (Jon Fouskaris, Christopher Drobny, and Adrian Hayes), and tackled Midtown, the Upper West and Upper East Sides during the fall 2008 semester. The photos students began to bring back to class were extraordinary. Years of design studios had trained their eyes to analyze and question. They didn’t simply drive by and shoot the buildings; they really studied them. Beautiful details emerged: courtyards, faded signs, lanterns, cornices, pediments, friezes. Their work was extremely time-consuming and dependent on good light and weather.

Jon, Amanda, and Christopher continued their work into the spring semester, joined by two undergraduates, Glenn DeRoche and Douglas Moreno, and two Master of Architecture students, Bradley Kaye and Jason Prunty. Together we photographed the remainder of Manhattan (the Villages, the Lower East Side, Harlem, Upper Manhattan). Shooting photos in the winter months proved to be arduous. There were fewer good hours of light, and last winter’s temperatures were brutal (I almost got frostbite trying to shoot Yorkville one frigid week in January). As Manhattan neared completion, I redeployed three students (Bradley, Amanda, and Jon) to Brooklyn, and wonderful shots of Park Slope, Gerritsen Beach, Coney Island, and Sunset Park were added to our photo database.

By May we had finished all of Manhattan, and an enthusiastic group of undergraduate architecture students (Andrea Barley, Cinthia Cedeno, Mary Doumas, William Eng, Jaimee Gee, Tiffany Liu, Adrian Lopez, Ross Pechenyy, and Billy Schaefer) joined Jon for a summer ramble through the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, cameras in hand. Their work was painstaking. The students would make multiple visits to sites to get exactly the right shot, waiting for the light and shadows to cooperate. Frequently they were told to stop photographing by a homeowner or security guard (a constant, vexing problem).

As research assistants, the students weren’t acting only as photographers. We asked them to take notes on each place they visited, as we rewrote, updated, and added to the new edition’s text. It would not have been possible for us to complete the new edition in just one year without the help of our students. To commemorate their work over the last year, we will simultaneously snap one last “ceremonial” photo on September 23 at 11:00 AM. The building I have chosen was not included in the last edition of the Guide, but is a humble landmark and deserving of our undivided attention: Jane Jacobs’ house at 555 Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. I hope that AIA members and e-Oculus readers will come out to witness our “last photo.”



Down Under

DownUnder2

(L-R): Gair Building No. 5; Eskimo Pie Building; and 135 Plymouth Street in DUMBO.

Fran Leadon

Early in the morning on August 11th I visited the neighborhood known as Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass (OK, fine, let’s just call it DUMBO) to shoot some photos for the upcoming fifth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City (Oxford University Press, 2010), which I am completing with Norval White, FAIA. For those who experienced DUMBO in those long-forgotten days of the 20th century, a visit today can be a bit of a shock. Back then, circa 1994, the place was deserted. Most neighborhood activity seemed to revolve around the now demolished Between the Bridges bar on York Street and within Rudolph Daus’s 1901 former tin can factory at 135 Plymouth Street. That beautiful Romanesque pile, with monumental brick arches, was headquarters for a carting company that noisily compacted garbage on the ground floor. (I am somewhat happy to report this aromatic activity is still taking place there; the neighborhood hasn’t completely given itself over to cappuccinos and Jacques Torres chocolates.) After a series of shootings in front of 135 Plymouth in the early 1990s a police cruiser was positioned there 24 hours a day. That’s when I first visited DUMBO; a classmate of mine had a sculpture studio in the building. I had trouble sleeping.

Had I fallen asleep then, in 1994, and slept for 15 years and woken up last Tuesday, I would have thought I was in the middle of a film set for some happy, romantic comedy. Cafés? Restaurants? Children? Playgrounds? Bookstores? Pet stores (“all dog sweaters on sale this week only”)? Where am I? I still get a profound feeling of amnesia no matter how often I go to DUMBO. There are actual people streaming to and from the previously deserted and terrifying York Street station! (One indication of how quickly DUMBO has changed is the fact that the last edition of the Guide, in 2000, barely mentions it, and then only as an aside within the Fulton Ferry section of the book.)

The Landmarks Commission designated DUMBO a historic district in 2007, and there are many notable industrial buildings in the neighborhood in addition to 135 Plymouth. The former Grand Union Tea Company on Jay Street (between Front and Water Streets) was designed and built in phases from 1896 to 1907 by Edward N. Stone, and features an intact mosaic in the floor at the Jay Street entrance. Louis E. Jallade designed the onetime Eskimo Pie Building, originally the Thomson Meter Company, at 100 Bridge Street (between York and Tillman Streets) in 1908. Its beautifully arched façade has glazed terra-cotta decoration and was possibly inspired by Auguste Perret’s 25 bis rue Franklin in Paris. The Gair buildings, all seven of them, are extraordinary early (1888-1908) reinforced-concrete lofts erected by Robert Gair, a pioneering entrepreneur in the corrugated box industry. The Gair buildings form a solid mass that defines much of DUMBO and makes it feel as if the neighborhood’s cobble-stoned streets are spaces carved from a single piece of stone. Recent buildings by Scarano Architects, Gruzen Samton, and CetraRuddy tower above the bridges and don’t fit in as well as the older industrial buildings. Lately, we’ve been calling the area RAMBO (Rising Above the Manhattan Bridge Overpass).

The High Line is Real

HighLine-COMBO

The High Line

Fran Leadon

On July 9 I went for a stroll on the High Line, from West 16th Street to Gansevoort Street. It was crowded on a sunny Thursday afternoon, and the people seemed to be divided into two groups: those who lounged casually about, reading or chatting as if the High Line had always been there, and those who seemed, like me, to be in a daze with dumbfounded expressions thinking, “I’m on the High Line. I’m actually on the High Line.” The long-awaited linear park has finally come to pass.

In preparing the new edition of the AIA Guide to New York City (Oxford University Press, 2010), Norval White, FAIA, and I have eagerly anticipated the completion of new projects (Atelier Jean Nouvel and Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners’ 100 Eleventh Avenue, Morphosis Architects’ Arthur Nerken School of Engineering at Cooper Union), but perhaps none so much as the High Line. I remember first seeing the High Line in the early 1990s when I was a student at the Yale School of Architecture. Back then, both the High Line and the area around it seemed like one of Anton Furst’s stage sets from the 1989 “Batman” movie. Far West Chelsea, circa 1992, was in a kind of suspended industrial time warp: beautiful and romantic but also decaying and crime-ridden. Exploring beautiful relics like the High Line was risky. Intrepid friends would scale the elevated railroad track and report that it was sublime, covered by wildflowers, but I was too cautious to try it.

The thing the High Line always had going for it was its strength. Designed to accept the weight of two freight trains, it was highly unlikely to fall down on its own. Thankfully, the sturdy structure stayed where it was, snaking in and out of old factories and warehouses from Gansevoort Street up to 34th Street. Abandoned in 1980, photographers, artists, and urban adventurers attracted to the beautiful desolation began describing it as a 1.45-mile-long elevated meadow, and visions of a linear park began to form in earnest during the 1990s. A community group, Friends of the High Line, ultimately saved the winding trestle through ceaseless lobbying and fundraising.

When the first plans for a High Line park were unveiled, I was, admittedly, a little nervous. I feared the master plan left too little of the actual trestle. The further the design by James Corner of Field Operations with Diller Scofidio + Renfro was refined, the more cautiously optimistic I became, and as I hiked around Gansevoort Market and Chelsea during the past year, shooting photos of the High Line in construction for the Guide, the more I liked what I was seeing. As a linear park, the new High Line is meticulously thoughtful, perhaps even a bit over-designed. Many of the original rails were preserved and re-presented as artifacts, and native plant species have been arranged in beds with considerable care. The trail bed is a series of interlocking concrete strips that seem to grow and dissolve as needed, occasionally curving upward to form a bench. There are wooden lounge chairs that roll on tracks, and a plunging amphitheater where the High Line briefly widens at 17th Street.

It’s all extremely well done, but the surprising thing is that the wonder of the High Line isn’t in the design work. It’s seeing a familiar landscape (Chelsea) from a new vantage point, above, beside, and through the neighboring buildings. It remains to be seen how the delicate details will endure trampling by millions of human feet. The High Line, inevitably worn and frayed by continuous use, may find its most natural and profound beauty 10 or 20 years from now.

The City in Transition: The Bowery

(L-R): Bowery Poetry Club, New Museum, Fruit Stand at Bowery and Grand.

Fran Leadon

On Sunday, May 10, I set out to photograph the Bowery for the upcoming fifth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City (Oxford University Press, 2010). I had just re-read Low Life, Luc Sante’s 1991 social history of 19th-century Manhattan and was curious to walk the Bowery’s length, from Chatham Square in Chinatown north to Cooper Square, and see what had changed since the Guide‘s last edition in 2000. I knew that the infamous old McGurk’s Suicide Hall had been torn down in favor of a new project by Arquitectonica, but I was curious to see what else was still there from the old days, and what was being built that was new and interesting.

De Bouwerie had originally been an Indian trail, then a bucolic lane winding through the farms, but it had become virtually synonymous with skid row by the 1850s, mythologized in comics and dime novels (and later in films) as a seedy district of flop houses, brothels, vaudeville theaters, and pawn shops. Today, little of the old skid row Bowery remains. The southern end of the Bowery is mostly discount jewelry outlets, Chinese jitneys (Fung Wah Bus at 139 Canal), and electronics stores. I passed a vacant lot at the corner of Hester Street, where the Music Palace Theater, reportedly designed by McKim, Mead & White, was recently demolished. Known in its later years as the Chuan Kung Theater, it was the last of the neighborhood’s Chinese language cinemas. Covered with sheet metal and murals, who knew a McKim, Mead & White building lurked underneath?

The Lighting District starts as the Bowery crosses Grand Street, and the Restaurant Supply District begins in earnest just north of Kenmare Street (Chairs! Tables! Stools! Dishes! Pots! Pans!). Colorful, wordy signs are the main feature here, but there are some architectural treasures as well, notably two landmark banks: Stanford White’s 1895 Bowery Savings Bank, just north of Grand, and Robert Maynicke’s 1898 Germania Bank, at Spring Street.

I began noticing more and more hipsters as I walked north, and new modern buildings began appearing in quick succession: Keith Strand’s skinny condo at 195 Bowery, SANAA’s stacked mesh New Museum, and the shiny glass boxes of Arquitectonica’s Avalon development on both sides of East Houston Street. In the midst of all the new glass and steel, I noticed the Bowery Mission, at 227, still soldiering on, helping the homeless since 1879.

Just to the east of Bowery and East 1st Street, surrounded by the Avalon development, I peeked into Extra Place, a notorious little alley, formerly cobble-stoned and garbage-strewn, now paved and cleaned up (but still empty). Extra Place is just outside the back door of what used to be CBGB’s, at 315 Bowery. That renowned club closed in 2006, and while the building is still there the energy is not. Across the street is the Bouwerie Lane Theatre in Henry Engelbert’s old Bond Street Savings Bank at 330 Bowery. (Much recent building behind the theater on Bond Street, but that is another story.)

Further north at East 3rd Street is the fritted-glass and steel Cooper Square Hotel, swelling at its middle, by Carlos Zapata, and finally the buildings of Cooper Union, including the main 1859 building by Frederick A. Peterson facing Cooper Square, and an exciting new building behind it by Morphosis, all peeling steel scrims, just nearing completion. At Cooper Square the Bowery disappears, splitting into Third and Fourth Avenues, so I caught the IRT at the Astor Place station, crowned by Rolf Ohlhausen, FAIA’s replica cast-iron kiosk.

Photographing the City

(L-R): Charles McKim’s University Club on Fifth Avenue at West 54th Street; Hong Kong Bank Building, Canal Street; Giorgio Cavaglieri’s Engine Co. 59, Ladder Co. 30, West 133rd Street; Former Forward Building, East Broadway.

(L-R): Bradley Kaye; Douglas Moreno; Jason Prunty; Amanda Chen

Since last September my students and I have walked virtually every street in Manhattan. We’ve snapped 25,000 photos, visited just about every construction site in the city, poured over hundreds of architect’s websites, searched planning documents, and read miles of real estate blogs. It’s a huge project: we’re photographing new buildings and re-photographing old ones for the new AIA Guide to New York City, all 1,100 pages of it, one borough at a time.

Author Norval White, FAIA, (his original co-author Elliot Willensky, FAIA, died in 1990) needed someone to walk hundreds of miles of city streets, re-photograph everything from the fourth edition (Three Rivers Press, 2000), note significant changes (a favorite old café that’s gone under or a brownstone that’s bitten the dust), and to look through the peepholes at new construction sites and figure out what’s being built and if it’s notable enough for inclusion in the new Guide, which will be published by Oxford University Press in 2010.

When White enlisted me as co-author, I knew that I would need a lot of help if we had a chance of meeting our publication deadline. It was his idea that I would lead a squadron of my eager students from the City College of New York School of Architecture, Urban Design, and Landscape Architecture, fan out across the city, and (photographically speaking) wrestle Manhattan to the ground. I realized this was an opportunity to not only get the Guide done on time, but a unique new way to teach a class “in the field.” I hoped our perceptions of the city would change, as a succession of façades, gardens, streets, squares, statues, sidewalk clocks, signs, and people took up residence in our memories.

When I arrived for the first day of the fall semester, I discovered that the administration had, because of space constraints, given our classroom away to a seminar in construction technology. With no place to meet, I saw no reason why we couldn’t move our base of operations to the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. The Shack, designed by James Wines, was ideally suited as a place to launch our assault on the city. It provided everything a modern classroom requires: benches, trees, wireless Internet connection (so we could “skype” White and upload photos to our database), new coin-operated public toilets, and delicious hamburgers.

My students soon discovered this was a ton of work, time-consuming, physically tiring, rewarding but often frustrating: a doorman gets territorial (“no photos, no photos!”), a moving van blocks the perfect shot, the sun doesn’t cooperate. But the 14 students who toughed it out have been stellar, conquering Midtown (over 800 buildings!), the Upper West Side, and the Upper East Side last fall, and Harlem, the Lower East Side, Chinatown, and the Village this spring. 25,000 photos later, we are scheduled to finish shooting Manhattan by May 1. The students have also been instrumental in reporting from the field, noting additions and demolitions, and more subtle changes (for example, a façade described as white stucco in the fourth edition has been painted bright yellow: ouch!)

I am constantly amazed at the quality of my student’s photos. Included here is a preview, in color, of a few of the best of my student’s shots from the new Guide.