New York never stands still. Not only is it the city that never sleeps—it's the city that never stops tearing down and building up. As A. J. Liebling, a native son, once put it, "It is one of the oldest places in the United States, but doesn't live in retrospect like the professionally picturesque provinces. Any city may have one period of magnificence, like Boston or New Orleans or San Francisco, but it takes a real one to keep renewing itself until the past is perennially forgotten." Liebling wrote those words in the late 1930s, just after New York had undergone a spectacular burst of architectural ingenuity—a building spree that included the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center—that shaped the iconic picture-postcard skyline of 20th-century Manhattan.
After World War II, however, architecture in New York seemed to lose its edge. Yes, there were a few fantastic projects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum and the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe. But as the 20th century drew to a close, the creative capital of America had become host to the avant-garde in every art form except architecture. While cities like London, Berlin and Tokyo—as well as Seattle, Los Angeles and Dallas—were constructing astonishing projects by world-class architects, New York was stuck in the past. New buildings tended to look faux old-fashioned or cheaply sleek. People used to say the design mantra of the city's real-estate developers was "Form follows finance." The problem, says Mark Wigley, dean of architecture at Columbia University, was that New York had told its "citizens to expect mediocrity."
Now that mind-set of mediocrity is giving way to a new period of magnificence, worthy of Liebling's accolade. Just take a taxi up gritty Eighth Avenue. First you'll cruise by the elegantly soaring New York Times tower by Italy's Renzo Piano, its glassed-in courtyard home to a garden of 15-meter birch trees. In the distance, you'll see the Hearst Building designed by Foster + Partners of London, a stunningly muscular glass-and-steel high-rise. Farther down on the West Side is Frank Gehry's first major New York project, the IAC Building, a m?lange of pleated milky glass walls. Construction is booming downtown as well, with signature condos designed by Herzog & de Meuron of Switzerland and France's Jean Nouvel; another Nouvel design—for a sculptural tower of more than 70 stories—is planned next door to the Museum of Modern Art; it will include apartments, a hotel and expanded MoMA galleries. And the art-world aristocracy is flocking to the New Museum of Contemporary Art on the Bowery, in a luminous new building by the supercool Tokyo firm SANAA.
And it's not just the international rock stars of design who are reinventing the face of the city. "There are probably more architects per cubic foot in Manhattan than anywhere else in the world, but they have been working everywhere but here," says Wigley. Now the best of those firms are returning to their home turf—including a younger generation that is putting cutting-edge ideas about technology and sustainability into the design of chic small hotels or neighborhood fire stations. "The climate has been wonderful," says Gregg Pasquarelli, a New Yorker whose firm, SHoP, has grown from five to 75 employees in just 10 years, with current projects ranging from a 3km-long park on the East River to a 40-story apartment tower. "I love that architects like Nouvel are in town—it's good for all of us."
Design that points to the future is one highly visible way for New York to maintain its competitive edge as a leading global city—a point not lost on the office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. With a growing influx of international business and tourism, the city is finally becoming a 21st- century design destination as well as a place with an almost mythic history as a cultural and financial capital. A number of top international architects have been waiting in the wings for years to design in New York—some struggling with projects that ultimately were not built. Now they are having their Manhattan moment.
To understand this turnaround in the design climate, you need to look back to 9/11. In the aftermath of the horrific attacks—aimed not just at American interests and values but directly at the most famous buildings in the city—New Yorkers were galvanized. Determined that the rebuilding should exemplify the best, the public rejected the first banal plans for Ground Zero in a mass public meeting in 2002. Officials were forced to organize an international design competition, which attracted the intense scrutiny of the mainstream press. Citizens turned out for public forums and hearings; they wrote letters to the editor; thousands even submitted their own design ideas. "You'd be riding the subway and hear ordinary people kicking around the names Norman Foster and Daniel Libeskind [two of the competition finalists]," recalls Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect, planner and a senior vice president at Related Companies, the development firm. Despite the public pressure, the current plans for Ground Zero include such highly compromised designs as the Freedom Tower, by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Nonetheless, the passionate outcry of a vocal, sophisticated citizenry has had a lasting impact. Since Bloomberg took office in 2002, his appointed officials have actively sought to raise the level of design in the city.
About the same time, one private project signaled the radical shift in attitude toward high-profile architecture. The award-winning veteran New York architect Richard Meier, who hadn't built anything in Manhattan since the 1960s, designed a stunning pair of glass apartment towers on the edge of Greenwich Village overlooking the Hudson River. The Perry Street Towers attracted a huge number of stories in the press, and the apartments sold quickly to celebrities such as Calvin Klein and Nicole Kidman.
It became clear that an architect-branded building, like a beautiful designer suit, could sell at a premium—and designer condos began to sprout around Manhattan as rapidly as Starbucks. Herzog & de Meuron's 11-story luxury building on Bond Street is defined by its gorgeous grid of bottle-green glass mullions supporting a glass fa?ade, while whimsically lacy gates of cast aluminum guard the street front. Blue—a 17-story condo by the Swiss-born, New York-based Bernard Tschumi—looms over its Lower East Side neighborhood and has become an instant landmark; with its blue-tinted glass and offbeat shape, it's visible from far across the city. What these projects have in common is a refreshing sense of freedom. Their stripped-down interiors are open and flooded with light (and sometimes visible to the neighbors) and stand in sharp contrast to the stodgy fortresses of stone or brick that dominated residential design in the city for a century. And on the outside, each of these projects has its own iconic presence.
Behind many of these cool condos is a new breed of young developer, attuned to an up-to-the-minute culture of design and technology. But the bigger, more-established realestate companies are turning to heavy-hitting architects as well—whether it's Gehry, who's designing the controversial Atlantic Yards arena complex in Brooklyn; or Foster, who, with SOM's Childs, is involved in the transformation of Madison Square Garden and Pennsylvania Station; or Meier, who's designing a vast residential complex— four 70-story towers—on the East River, just south of the United Nations. At a recent symposium at Columbia University on "Enlightened Developers," Louis Dubin, who was born into a family of property developers, spoke about the ethics of good design, which he said involve "emotional capital" as well as "financial capital." This doesn't imply taking one's eye off the bottom line. "It's not like you bring on these hotshot architects and lose money," Dubin said. "If you do it right, it is very profitable."
Developers have learned, too, that the city under Bloomberg looks favorably on good architecture. "I work very closely with architects and developers," says Amanda Burden, the chair of the City Planning Commission. "Things get through the public process quite quickly if they have design excellence. They can take quite a long time if the design is mediocre." Burden adds that she's not just talking about "signature office buildings but about low-cost housing as well. We are encouraging attention so those projects will contribute to the neighborhood and people will want to live there."
The city itself is an architectural client, whether refurbishing a small museum or building a new branch library. At the Department of Design and Construction, a Bloomberg program for design excellence has lured such first-rank firms as the Polshek Partnership, Deborah Berke and Grimshaw Architects to public projects, while some of the city's best small design firms have also been given new opportunities. Meanwhile, all over the city, the design of new plazas and parks—especially along the waterfronts that were long inaccessible to the public—has set the stage for more spectacular new architecture. One key site is the High Line, a rusty, unused elevated train line in lower Manhattan that was slated for demolition. Backed by the Bloomberg administration, a private citizens' group won a fight to preserve the High Line and transform it into an elevated esplanade; the first section will open in 2008.
The High Line plan—besides sending adjacent real-estate values soaring—has sparked an architectural orgy in Chelsea, which was already home to Manhattan's most stylish art galleries. A new branch of the Whitney Museum, designed by Piano, will front the esplanade, while Los Angeles architect Neil Denari's far-out design for luxury condos won a special zoning break so it can partially extend out over the High Line. A block away stands Gehry's luscious white IAC Building, built by Barry Diller as his corporate headquarters. "Architects are very competitive," says Burden. "You get a few people who want to come to a party, then you get everyone who wants to come." She's not exaggerating: Gehry's building has proved to be a catalyst, with new construction all around, including luxury residential buildings designed by the likes of Nouvel, Shigeru Ban of Japan, Robert A.M. Stern, Annabelle Seldorf and Audrey Matlock.
The challenge for all these architects is the tyranny of Manhattan's street grid. The tight, 19th- century urban fabric has hampered architectural visionaries in the past and encouraged the conservative design that's flourished in recent decades. Only a few architects have broken out of it: Wright with the Guggenheim (which Upper East Side preservationists might succeed in shouting down if he tried to build it today) or Mies's Seagram Building, as revolutionary for its graceful setback from Park Avenue as for the building itself.
Today's innovators are finding new ways to tweak their relentlessly rectilinear sites. Look at the New Museum, where SANAA partners Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa toyed with the conventional form, breaking it to look like an irregular stack of boxes—which became an ingenious way to allow daylight to stream into the interior. Or see Tschumi's Blue building—its oddball shape actually came about by maximizing what the zoning envelope would permit. And when a building goes off the grid, as Gehry's IAC does along the city's western edge, you can see his design in a whole new way. Try zooming up the West Side Highway in a cab; as you whoosh pass the IAC, its undulating pleats of glass look like they were made for speed.
Not everyone in New York's design world is euphoric. Economic and market restraints clearly limit what architects can do. "To my mind, there is not yet a single example of a great architect doing their very best work in New York," says Columbia's Wigley, "though there are very good things going on." And there's a real fear about the potential impact of an economic downturn. "We've been very insulated from what is happening in the rest of the country," says Peter Slatin, editor of a commercial real-estate letter, theslatinreport .com, "but I think it's going to catch up with us in the next six to nine months." Yet even if some stunning new projects on the boards get shelved, high expectations for design are once again part of the city's culture. These days, that's crucial to New York's place among the great global cities of the 21st century.