Thursday, February 18, 2016

History of the tenement: complete series

Here is the complete list of posts, in order, in the series on The History of the Tenement in New York (I've included the popular A history of the slums of New York post that complements the tenement history):

    Preface: A history of the slums of New York

Why are tenements so diverse?

Anti-Catholic town, Anti-Catholic architecture
How architecture began in NYC

    (an outlier hypothesis)
    A digression

Banks, Romans, fashion-mongerers and modernism
What Roman architecture tells us about our notion of time and fashion, progress, and our cultural personality

Ghetto real estate
How and why the slums -- and the apartment building -- began

The inverse law of ghetto real estate
The economics of exploitation

External vs internal
A summary so far of the divergent purposes of design

Political history
Clarifying the origins of our two political parties and their significance for the immigrant labor ghetto

What's a tenement?
Law and changing perceptions

A market lesson in brick
The oldest and tallest tenement, and how it got that way

New Law, Old Law, Pre-Law, lawless
Quick history of housing laws and how to identify tenement periods

Don't believe what you read
...or see on a cornice or on a NYC gov't document

Don't trust historians
How the limits of professionalism can mislead

And ignore the know-it-alls
Know their bias and agenda

Personality, humor and taste
in tenement design of the 1880's and 90's

From the depths of Schopenhauer and Wagner to the surfaces of Nietzsche and Wilde
Romanticism and aestheticism merge in a tenement on Madison Street

The last hurrah of wealth and privilege

The law of unintended consequences
What conduces to freedom, expression and innovation?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The law of unintended consequences

Garbage transformed New York forever. It preserved the old and turned the new into the spectacular and grandiose. How? Here's the story.

Social reformers in the 19th century replaced the eugenics explanation for poverty -- that the poor were poor because they were genetically defective, incapable of civilization by their very nature -- with a socio-economic explanation: substandard living quarters. The tenement's core defect was the airshaft, the space between two tenements in the interior of the lot. Its purpose was to bring natural light and fresh air into interior rooms, but it turned into a permanent mulch for garbage instead. Dug to the foundation, and without easy access or egress, garbage once thrown into it, stayed there. It was unsanitary. When it burned, the airshaft acted as a flue to spread the fire. The airshaft caused many deaths during its twenty-two year reign.

Reform came with the New Law and its requirement that every multiple dwelling have a large courtyard for garbage storage-and-removal. The courtyard prevented redevelopment on single lots -- if you had a four story building covering 80% of the lot, redeveloping it to six stories but with a large courtyard would lose rental space not gain it. As a result, only landlords or developers owning multiple adjacent lots could redevelop a building. Owners of single lots were out of luck. They had to sit with their property as is forever. Historical preservation was not the intention of the New Law, but that was its consequence.

The exception was the corner lot, of which the law allowed nearly 100% lot coverage. So you'll see four and five story tenements all in a row in the East Village on 2nd Avenue, for example, between spectacular New Law tenements on the corners like bookends.

The New Law tenements, despite being constructed along distinguished, elegant principles of the Academie des Beaux Arts, and are impressively grand, harmonious, and dignified, are actually repetitive, largely unimaginative and full of mass-produced ornaments. They look like impressive mansions of the wealthy, but they are not particularly interesting. Once you've seen a few different styles, you've seen them all. Ironically, people view them as special because they are expensive looking, while the Old Law tenements, original, wild, unique, distinctive, are viewed as cheap, mass-produced and without design.
Two New Laws, about as distinct as New Laws get
The invention is limited by the narrow range of ornaments available and the structural elements in which they can be arranged. Occasionally you'll see unusual and subtly distinct solutions to structural design, but more often you find easy iterations of the familiar. This little mini-frieze ornament can be found all across the city without any alteration:
The gryphon frieze on Avenue B
not to mention all those corner stones, pediments, broken pediments, scrolling pediments, every one of them imitations of models two thousand years old. They are beautiful...and stifling. The age of wild invention, of personal design was ended by academic principles of superior right and correct standards. 

Garbage and the law of unintended consequences. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


Stanford White: a rich man's architect for whom interior design was as important or more important than the facade or the structure. After all, the rich enjoy the interior; the exteriors belong to the plebeians.

White was one of the many exponents of the City Beautiful Movement, a moment in US Gilded Age history when the matured nation recognized itself as international. It began with the Chicago Exposition in 1893 which brought European trends for Americans to immitate. New York now had in Chicago an American competitor, and compete it did. The models would all be drawn from the principles of the Parisian Academie des Beaux Arts, which meant Greco-Roman temples and derivatives. For tenements it meant uniformity of ornaments, abandonment of masks in favor of a select few frieze designs and abstract elements of architraves. The Gilded Age movement expressed itself fully, though, in the bank building. It's no surprise that White's masterpiece was the Bowery Bank. But the structure is full of surprises.

Start with the exterior. Lying on the Bowery, a street that curves concavely to the west, the lot on which the Bowery Bank is slanted, slightly rhomboid -- the sides are not perpendicular to the street. To compensate for the angle, and still have a grand three-dimensional entry with depth that would give the impression of a single point perspective in a rectangular space, White foreshortened the north side of the arch so that the coffers of the arch on the northmost are a bit smaller than the ones just next to them, and those are smaller than the ones next to them to the north side until the southmost coffers are about twice the size of the northmost ones. The difference is so gradual that you will not notice it at all unless you look up and carefully attend. It is so unnoticeable that I can't find a single photo online of just the coffers showing the gradual change in relative size. This photo gives a sense of it once you know -- otherwise it just looks like the photo was taken from a spot to the right.
White could have designed a rectangular entry, compromising the regularity of the interior space. Instead he preserved the interior, contorting the exterior. It pays to go there and see it yourself, since the play on perspective is even more effective when seen through two eyes.

The interior seems exactly as extravagant as you'd expect: huge columns made of multicolored veined marble, holding up a huge coffered dome, also marble but unblemished white. It's a spectacular space, impressive wherever you look.

You'd never guess that there is no dome. The coffered ceiling is held up not by the columns, but by an unseen metal frame above it. The columns could not possibly sustain a dome -- they're hollow plaster with rolls of burlap inside. Both the columns and the ceiling are not marble but cheap plaster, the columns cleverly painted. All of it is fake, a fraud. But you'd never know.

What had begun as a movement to enhance the grandeur of the city, ended as an empty showcase for wealth -- ornament for the sake of show not for structure, mere appearances, the display of wealth for the sake of impressing, junk jewelry and lots of it, unrepentant exhibitionism.

The Gilded Age was succeeded by social reform emerging out of revolutionary sentiments socialist, communist and anarchist. It was a reaction to this excess of pompous, self-congratulatory wealth. The Beaux Arts structure was replaced by the inspiring utopianism of Art Deco, closely associated with the cult of the social-political hero -- Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin and FDR. Only later did the sound socialist principles of the Bauhaus return architecture to sanity, morality and service to the working class.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Paper-pushing paper-pushers pushing persons

Here's what's most wrong with bureaucracy. The categories of right and wrong are budgetary items, not human concerns. Where the budget allows for discretion, no process is necessary. Through these little items, a world can be changed without accountability or transparency or process.

I spoke again to a Parks and Recreation deputy about the placement of the ping pong table in Tompkins Square Park to find out what their decision process was. Recall that Parks placed it right smack in the middle of the seating space that is used only by either a mixed group of homeless people or low-income people of color. It was uniformly avoided by the mainstream, the middle-class, the young white gentrifiers. For the homeless especially, this was a space to socialize with the only people who want to socialize with them, who like and respect them, identify with them: other homeless people. Socializing is an essential need for a social species. For some of these folks, it seems more important to them even than a home. The park is public; they have every right to be there. They are not criminal or disruptive; they are not less human than anyone else, or less a part of the public than anyone.

This was the second Parks deputy I've asked about the table. From his answer, it seems no one in the Parks Dept. knows that there even was a second ping pong table. They are in good company. The local Councilmember was not informed of it, neither was the Community Board. The Dept. deputy said that a ping pong table addition is a minor item.

That's evident from the lack of process, consultation with the councilmember and the community. I tried to explain to the deputy that while from the perspective of the Dept. it is minor, it might be an important matter to people, you know, human beings that are supposed to be served by the park and its administration. He responded that this was a minor decision. I tried again to explain that from the Dept.'s budget or definitions it may be minor, but for the people affected, it may be important. He responded, no, this is a minor decision. Then he complained that if the Parks Dept. consulted on every minor decision, nothing would ever get done.

In other words, they are clueless as to what decisions effect important changes in the park because they evaluate major and minor only through the budget lines. Driving the homeless from their socialization space is not a budget item in the Ping Pong Category Line. Social control has found its hiding place in the paper-pusher's pile.

The month before, a different Parks deputy suggested that the choice of placement was intended to drive away the homeless. That certainly is not minor. It's probably illegal to identify a specific, non criminal demographic for exclusion from a park without any process.

So either Parks is clueless or it is conducting gentrification and displacement through unaccountable means. Here's the map I presented to the Community Board. You'll notice the top right section "USELESS" indicates a roughly 2500 square foot space that is not only empty, but unused by anyone. no one goes there because there's nothing there, it's a dead end, it's not in a crosswalk. It's just a large, dead space in a park. It's an embarrassment to the administration. It's large enough for two or three ping pong tables. All it needs is a barrier -- row of benches, say -- to prevent ping pong balls from running into the basketball courts.