David Brussat


About David Brussat

David Brussat edits the Architecture Here and There blog, promoting traditional and criticizing modernist work, mostly in architecture but also in other arts. In 2002, he received the Arthur Ross Award for architectural writing, bestowed by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (then Classical America).


A townhouse explodes. What should replace it?

 By David Brussat

Our architecture writer takes issue with UES preservationists.  Story first appeared in Traditional Building  

In the morning of July 10, 2006, Dr. Nicholas Bartha, 66, took his own life by blowing up the townhouse he had resolved to live in until his death. The story of marital failure leading to lawsuits leading to the gas explosion is too sad to recount and beside the point of this post. The lot at 34 East 62nd St., on one of Manhattan’s wealthiest blocks, has been empty for a decade. The battle to build anew has pitted preservationists against each other, and exposes the preservation ethos at its worst.

The New York Times and The Architects Newspaper reported on the battle over the most recent design proposal.

The controversy reminds me of the 1845 Greek Revival townhouse in Greenwich Village that was demolished during a 1970 attempt by the Weather Underground to build a bomb. It was replaced in 1978 by a quasi-modernist townhouse of brick, designed by Hugh Hardy in the same style except that its three bays seem to swivel on a vertical access so that half of it swings in on the building facade and the other half swings out. Really quite an interesting response to the site’s history, much more ingeniously creative than might be expected of a modernist. Lovely, in fact.

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De Blasio’s Bait-and-Switch Zoning

 

New York Midtown Skyline in 1932

Midtown East skyline, 1932

 

Mayor Bill de Blasio has chosen a mighty strange way of celebrating the 100th anniversary of zoning in New York City. His zoning plan, approved in March, calls for more affordable housing for low-income families, but more housing affordable to the wealthy will be its main achievement.

 

A century ago last year New York City passed what is widely believed to be the first zoning ordinance in the country. At a time when skyscrapers were coming into vogue, the 1916 regulation set no height limit but sought to prevent structures such as the new 40-story Equitable Life Insurance Building from blotting out the sky. A formula used the width of streets to calculate required setbacks permitting sunlight to filter down to the ground. The setbacks ended up popularizing the wedding-cake style of Manhattan architecture for decades, but was originally intended entirely to make life more bearable for people on sidewalks.

 

De Blasio’s zoning changes make the 1916 law and its formulas look as if they could fit on a postcard. The changes bring mandatory inclusionary housing to a new level. First, they are mandatory. The reward for developers in city subsidies and zoning exemptions is negotiated in light of the number of affordable units. And deals are configured differently for different parts of town. Finally, local members of council get to tweak agreements for development projects in their districts.

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The social good of free beauty

 

cooper-hewitt

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

 

 

 

Taxpayers foot an endless bill for costly social programs intended to improve the lives of the underprivileged. One source of free improvement – a good that is not just free but joyful – is widely ignored by the helping professions. They probably do not even know it exists.  It is called beauty and is a product of architecture.

Architecture is not free, of course. But it is free to experience once somebody else pays for it. The beautiful paintings and sculpture inside the houses and apartments of the wealthy in Manhattan are not free for anyone to look at, but the architecture of these places, often including beautiful gardens and statuary, and often of greater value, dollar for dollar, than the stuff inside, is free for anyone to look at.

Anyone walking up and down Fifth Avenue can enjoy the ornamental carving and metalwork that adorn many of its older buildings. You do not need to have a trust account at the Knickerbocker or even a job to qualify to enjoy the nautical facade of the New York Yacht Club at 37 West 44th St., just around the corner from Fifth. Its three ground floor windows express the Baroque stern galleries of old sailing ships, with dolphins cavorting in the waves upon which the vessels seem to float.

Although many blank-faced buildings have arisen here in the past half-century, an astonishing collection of masterpieces remains, along with many more buildings that, in all their relative modesty, put their modern cousins to shame. The latter, speckled all too liberally along our bigger streets, serve to whet the appetite for the remaining abundance of classical grandeur, large and small.

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