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.