The Whitney Museum of American Art opened May 1 2015. It has one of the best green infrastructure addresses: being at the southern end of the High Line, and just south of the contemporary gallery hub in Manhattan, Chelsea, home for high end as well as highbrow contemporary art galleries, not the least being Dia Foundation.
Renzo Piano Building Studio was the architect, producing a building form that presents asheer wall to the Hudson, with expansive views of the Hudson, and lower west side Manhattan. The upper levels of the building step back forming outdoor terraces that catch the afternoon sun and broad and intimate views of lower west side Manhattan. There is a double height entry level, with the obligatory restaurant, and quite a good bookshop for those who still buy them. The landscape architect was Mathews Nielsen, though there isn’t much in the way of landscape left after the building.
A new build in crowded Manhattan is always something – 2014 saw the opening of the New Schools University Centre, by Skidmore Owings & Merrill, on the border of Greenwich Village and Union Square. In the case of the New School and the Whitney, lots of philanthropic donations underpinned the construction and future programming, something that Australia certainly is a long way behind.
These new builds, plus the regeneration occurring along the High Line, would be going some way to explain the resurgence in America post the GFC. Lots of construction but not just trophy buildings, the High Line has caused something of a change to the former meatpacking/warehouse district, generating huge turnover of buildings and a sweep of high end apartments replacing the presumably lower cost residences.
For instance, level 6 of the Whitney has great views of New York Sanitation Department. Surely this is a building begging to be repurposed given the location?
The building is new, and the landscape is settling in, what there is of softscape appears to be native meadow mix to blend with the planting palette on the high line. We missed a special exterior artwork – a sewer manhole cover by Lawrence Weiner – we only heard about it after the event – see if you can find it and send me a photo!
The building meets all the challenges of the site, and makes a great contribution to the wider public realm through the stepped roof terraces that offer those New York moments to the tourists, but can high end refurbishment and big statement green infrastructure projects be too much of a good thing? In May 2015, Jeanne Haffner, writing in the guardian, considered some of the pitfalls of high profile urban reinvigoration projects: “the High Line is now suffering from its own success: with more than 5 million estimated visitors to the site each year, this greening initiative has managed to transform the entire socio-economic character of the neighbourhood that surrounds it. Many small businesses and moderateincome residents have been forced to relocate due to rising land values, while even those who can afford it have begun to experience the downsides of living or working in an area that panders to tourists.” With the opening of the Whitney just one month ago, and in the perfect late spring weather, the crowds are only going to increase.
Haffner dubs this phenomenon “environmental gentrification”, noting the rising property values in the wake of a large-scale urban greening project. It is what developers and governments are looking out for, that value-add that can make or break a projects cost/benefit analysis. Here in Canberra Australia there is a planned first stage light rail project (that for mine is a long time coming), intended to revitalise the cities northern approach and to act as a game changer for intensive corridor development. There is a majority acceptance that housing density in Canberra needs to be increased along transport corridors (it is no New York), but the light rail corridor travels through the some very significant post war housing developments, planned to much lower densities that would now be the case, but the buildings have layers of heritage attached due to their architectural significance. And being public owned housing, the residents will be required to vacate their homes for the rebuilding period and likely move somewhere not quite so centrally located.
There are obvious winners but also obvious losers from such environmental gentrification, as land values increase to the point that lower income residents are forced to leave. Haffner notes “this exodus in turn transforms the sociological contours of the area and, by extension, the spatial segregation of the entire city.”
There are a number of measures that can be employed to reduce the problem of environmental gentrification. Key to this is identifying small scale interventions that
increase the environmental quality and public health of communities without the big ticket promenades plazas. It is necessary to bring the community along with the proposal, by including residents in the planning process. This is rarely done well in Australia. Recent infill developments in inner Sydney for instance have created whole new suburbs, such as the Central Park development at the southern edge of the city, and the apartments at the former Harold Park. While the developments bring benefits to reduced travel times and bring residents closer to places of work and study, the scale of the developments doesn’t always sit well with the existing urban fabric. There is a lot of new housing, but this seems to add to the housing boom in Sydney to the detriment of younger people trying to enter the housing market. I expect much the same outcome from those new properties adjacent the High Line.