Throughout these late winter and spring months, work crews have been feverishly drilling, planting, laying, grouting, irrigating, digging and welding outside of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in preparation for summer, when crowds of tourists and city dwellers will be looking for a shaded seat or a grassy knoll on which to perch with a sandwich or a friend.
The problem is, and has been, that Lincoln Center Plaza as it was conceptualized and built in the 1960s was neither shaded nor grassy and that one would be hard pressed to find a reason to linger when there are no shops, no eateries, no vendors, no space that fosters interaction. The aforementioned reconstruction, which includes trees and benches, comes at a time when city space and urban planning is being re-evaluated; in a city of 8 million, we cannot afford to have barren architectural monuments and open spaces that serve only the few. Even the Statue of Liberty has been put back to work, with the reopening of her crown to visitors planned for July 4, 2009.
One would think that this urban introspection is a new phenomenon, one born of the increasing population in New York City as well as the influx of visitors from elsewhere in our more mobile, credit-fueled global community. But, in fact, we are merely revisiting an old debate: are cities meant to be monolithic grids or lush communal places? Whose values should be represented when ground is broken on a new building, stadium or park?
This question was most ferociously argued in the post-war decades of the 1950s and 1960s. George Stoney, documentary filmmaker and educator, made a series of films on the subject in 1964 entitled Metropolis: Creator or Destroyer? Two films from this multi-part NET series, How To Look at a City and How to Live in a City, employ architectural scholar Eugene Raskin to narrate and educate the audience on “good” uses of urban space. According to Mr. Raskin, whose theories on urban planning coincided with those of urban theorist Jane Jacobs, an urban space ought to serve multiple purposes to a multitude of people, should offer the opportunity for humans to watch other humans (one of our favorite pastimes) and ought to have a mixture of architectural elements that both anticipate an open public space and offer texture to the landscape. Rockefeller Center, built around the golden Prometheus and sunken rink and adorned with a variety of visually interesting elements (office buildings, shops, restaurants, a sitting area and a landscaped promenade), is a “good” urban public space. It allows employees and visitors an area in which to work and play. It beckons pedestrians on 5th Avenue to walk down the Promenade and into the plaza. Geographically, it’s a dot on the map of Manhattan, but if you’ve ever spent a warm spring day sitting at one of the circular seats outside in the plaza or on the benches in the Promenade, you know of what Raskin speaks: you feel as if you are in the center of the universe. There are diners to watch, flowers to admire, shop windows to browse. In the winter, there is The Tree and ice skaters. In the summer, there is a farmer’s market. As of late, large scale contemporary art has been installed just out of Prometheus’ reach at the top of the rink, morphing this iconic space into an outdoor art gallery. And below the street level, there is a maze of shops and eateries and service providers offering everything from sushi to a shoe shine.
In contrast, Raskin and Stoney pointed to Lincoln Center, a project of urban development potentate Robert Moses and still under construction at the time of the films’ making. Lincoln Center occupies an entire city block and yet there is no reason for the idle pedestrian to come to the Center; in fact, unless you have tickets to a performance or have research to conduct, there is no reason to come at all. The plaza is inhospitable, without comfortable seats or café tables to share with a friend or colleague. Even those of us who come to work in the Plaza have to leave it to get a cup of coffee or a bite to eat. For such a large, open space, there is very little to see or do. Richard Tucker Square, the tiny traffic island into which one emerges after disembarking from the 1 subway train, with its trees, green market and café tables and chairs, is more heavily populated than the formidable Lincoln Center Plaza. Which leads me back to the jackhammering and sawing outside of the library. The new restructuring is meant to reimagine Lincoln Center as a more welcoming, user-friendly space; to lure people into enjoying the Plaza independently of the performances being made inside its grand buildings. 50 years later, it is being de-Moses-ified and made into a usable public space. Point: Team Inhabitable City.
Go ahead- take a look around you and you will see the lessons of George Stoney’s films throughout the city: Grand Central Station can be visited and enjoyed without the intention of getting on a train and Central Park can accommodate every possible activity, from weddings to roller disco to Capoeira. Even the Brooklyn Bridge, as utilitarian a structure as any in the city, is a destination for tourists, lovers, joggers, bikers and Brooklynites heading home after a day of work or an afternoon of shopping; the wooden planks of the pedestrian walkway offer a boardwalk feel while the view gives a unique perspective on New York’s harbor. The Metropolis films were made in 1964 and yet they illuminate the problems and experiences city dwellers face today. They are not about 1964, but about human nature and that will never change. Which is why the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The Library for the Performing Arts preserved every film in the series so that scholars, New Yorkers, architects, enthusiasts, students or simply the curious will get to benefit from them now and 100 years from now. You don’t need a degree in urban planning or a position in a firm, you just need a library card. If you would like to screen these or other films in the collection, call the Reserve Film and Video Collection at (212) 870-1741. All films must be requested at least one week in advance.
The Metropolitan Opera House under construction in 1964. Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company