If I had a bumper sticker that read, "I brake for good urban design," I wouldn't have to worry overmuch about getting rear-ended on Staten Island. So it comes as a shock when the citizens of this borough get quality design in return for their tax dollars.
The North Shore Esplanade Extension provides handsome access to the waterfront, a public artwork that is drawing art lovers from the other four boroughs and an addition to an esplanade that, if completed, will offer a range of architectural, scenic and historic destinations that even the Battery Park City Esplanade cannot match.
Like many of this Island's treasures, much of the esplanade extension is hidden from view. To get there from Bay Street, follow the curve of the high brick wall around the old Coast Guard site down the slope towards Siah Armajani's striking Tower and Bridge. Armajani's work is as layered with meaning as the Wallace Stevens' poem he incorporated into it. (Because of the works' complexity, I'll wait until the next issue to write about the Tower and Bridge.)
From Armajani's Tower, the esplanade extension is waymarked with large red buoys along a pedestrian pathway between the comparatively new Ferry Maintenance Facility and the long-empty historic buildings. The continuous roar from the exhaust grills at the rear of the maitenance building indicates the building's architect did not take into account the site's future development.
Despite the din, it's an interesting walk. The historic buildings are secured behind black wire fences, like evocative subjects awaiting a latter-day Piranesi. Weeds sprout from a capital on a portico marked "1869." Slate shingles slide off mansard roofs. Through sashless windows, one can glimpse high-ceilinged rooms and staircases with decorative risers.
Within a block, the noise fades and the pathway opens into a community plaza reminiscent of a European square: the buildings capture the space, making it into an outdoor room.
Landscape architect Donna Walcavage has transformed an interesting space into a place to spend time. An array of securely anchored celadon green benches, chairs and tables offer spots to chat or read or picnic or play chess. Nearly three dozen honey locust trees promise future shade. Granite slabs edge the planting beds and afford additional seating, while beautiful stacks of the pale pink granite offer children something to climb and everyone, another option for sitting in the sun. Underfoot is a well-laid masonry surface, inset with an enormous "rug" in grays and blues and bordered in a complementary rust-tinged bluestone.
The fourth wall of this outdoor room is the harbor. Manhattan's skyline, Brooklyn's waterfront and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge form a spectacular backdrop. At the water's edge are ferries and aging piers. One can smell the brine, feel the sea breeze and hear the slap of water against the pilings. And here, unlike the rest of the North Shore, one need not stand on a trash-strewn beach or parking lot to experience a place where land meets sea.
Many deserve to take a bow for the successful completion of this project (on time and under budget), but when I attended the ribbon-cutting, it felt a bit like going to a wedding where the bride and groom have non-speaking parts because the other members of the wedding have decided they are the real stars of the occasion.
Artist Siah Armajani had flown in from Minneapolis and was seated on the dias, but misidentified as the esplanade's architect (a look of dismay crossed his face). He was not asked to speak. Landscape architect Donna Walcavage was seated in the audience and never mentioned by name. The mayor, borough president, president of the construction firm and assorted agency heads thanked and congratulated each other.
Design is fundamental. Without a design, it doesn't matter who is willing to fund a project, build it, administer it, take credit for it or criticize it. Before anything gets built, someone must translate needs and desires into plans for stone and steel.
Because of the esplanade extension, the Coast Guard site is more than a collection of derelict old buildings and a mediocre new one: it has become a place in its own right. People are using it: commuters, families with children, couples out for a stroll, Manhattanites who have ventured off the Staten Island Ferry with a copy of a New York Times' article in hand.
People are looking again at the potential of the site, imagining that Dutch-gabled building as a cafe, imagining Islanders using that patterned surface as a dance floor on a summer's night, imagining a completed esplanade that invites exploration on foot or by bike -- from Armajani's Tower to the Alice Austen House and on to Battery Weed and beyond.
Whether this is an important step towards the realization of this Island's astonishing potential is hard to know. But if you want a taste of what that future could be, go looking for the hidden room.
©Tamara Coombs, 1996
Siah Armajani's Tower and Bridge have received high marks from the New York press as public sculpture. "The single most impressive piece this summer..." said the Times of the work which was envisioned as a pedestrian link from the ferry terminal to the newest section of the North Shore Esplanade. The assumption made by arts writers is that it functions well. As if function were easily achieved. My own view is that this Percent for Art project is certainly art of a high order, but fails in several ways as design.
Those who attended Armajani's talk at Snug Harbor in September encountered an enthusiastic and engaging individual, a passionate believer in American democracy who quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Dewey rather than fashionable French philosophers. One of his installations incorporates Dewey's 1932 observation: "As long as art is the beauty parlor of civilization, neither art nor civilization is secure."
Keeping Dewey's injunction in mind, Armajani usually designs artworks which are functional and which are meant to appeal to the non-art audience. Among his well known designs are his fine bridge across an expressway to the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis and Atlanta's Olympic Tower.
I catch glimpses of Armajani's Tower as I walk to the ferry, and sometimes from the boat as it approaches the slip. I find it a welcome and intriguing site: a handsome industrial construction, the stained glass lantern held above the Tower like a jewel.
In my view Armajani's piece also succeeds in celebrating the everyday act of walking to and from the ferry from the Esplanade, offering as a daily pleasure a visually complex structure that can not only be seen, but experienced. Each walker can move through spaces that enclose and expose, past windows and beneath a lantern set with orange slab glass, glowing brilliantly in early and late day sun.
The walker can look down crossing the bridge to see arcs of yellow and up to a Wallace Stevens poem, one line of which is perfectly positioned to be taken in at a glance: "...A Bridge Above the Bright and Blue of Water."
Unfortunately, most commuters simply bypass the Tower and follow a "desire path" under the ramp to the lower level of the ferry -- which they can board directly with a previously purchased ticket. The under-the-ramp route is the most direct and is on one level. Taking the Tower means walking up the stairs, across the bridge, up and around the ramp, down another set of stairs and into the terminal. In winter weather, the exposed ramp route will be used even less.
No doubt, the Department of Transportation wanted to bring passengers through the upper level waiting room, but human beings always ferret out the route that saves them time and energy. Most of the responsibility for this programmatic decision belongs to DOT. Other miscalculations are Armajani's.
A pair of cantilevered benches at the entrance to the bridge from the ferry terminal ramp are a humane touch, but they are hung foot-dangling high because the slope of the ramp was not taken into account.
Before the official ribbon cutting, those who climbed to the higher levels to enjoy the vistas discovered that an eight inch beam perfectly blocked their view in three directions on level six, in two directions on level seven and in all four directions from the top. In order to see the spectacular views, it was necessary to scrunch down under the beam (and easy to hit one's head). This mistake was so glaring that I thought for a time that it was intentional, but that would have been contrary to Armajani's philosophic beliefs.
Public access to the upper levels ended the day after the ribbon cutting. A handsome set of locked gates now block the stairs because those levels are not accessible to the disabled -- and the locked gates were the solution offered when the Eastern Paralyzed Veteran's Association objected to the lack of access. The Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990. Under ADA new construction open to the public must be accessible to all. Only the bridge level of the Tower is accessible; even the base is two steps above grade.
Armajani studied philosophy, not architecture or design. This is not in itself an issue, for some of the best architects of the second half of the 20th century lacked professional credentials (think Carlo Scarpa and Tadao Ando). He works closely with a Minneapolis engineering firm, which translates his rich ideas into structures.
But Armajani has said himself that he doesn't visualize well in three dimensions, a limitation compounded by the fact that he doesn't visit the sites very often and rarely supervises the installations.
If an artist takes on the role of designer, than he or she must take responsibility for the most fundamental aspect of design: the relationship of the designed work to the body in space, whether that body is walking with ease or seated in a wheelchair.
Ironically enough, a person in a wheelchair would have clear sightlines, and would be able to effortlessly enjoy the views from the top.
Of course, he would have to get there first.
© 1996 Tamara Coombs
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by David Goldfarb