Global. Timeless. Placeless.

These were the keywords from a publisher who was interested in my photography for the cover of a forthcoming book by architect Jan Gehl, who designed the new pedestrian spaces in New York City, including Times Square and Herald Square. Gehl’s new book is about people and the urban spaces around them. After taking 650 photographs, I was viscerally reminded that we love New York City precisely because its identity is so indelible and palpable. I began to wonder if this assignment was even possible in New York.

But in the end, my best photograph was one where location was subordinate to the humanity of the lived space. Where, for a second, I was able to forget the grandeur of New York’s architecture and remember that it’s the interaction of the people with the built environment that truly captures the essence of the city.  New York without people is still recognizable but unsettling and haunting, as seen in the  photography of Christopher Thomas. Or a city where the the line between model and reality is blurred, like the work of photographer  Patrick Messina.

The photo assignment took me on a pilgrimage through public spaces both contemporary and historic. From “park” to “public space,” the terminologies tell an etymological story. As architects and planners,  we are no longer designing parks isolated from the urban fabric, like in the case of the walled Central Park or the elevated Bryant Park, but we make use of underutilized and ambiguous spaces within our midst. We challenge the traditional strict separation of functions–pedestrian, automobile, building, open space–and now even question whether “green space” necessarily entails grass and landscaping. In sum, we undermine the rationality of the street grid put forth 200 years before.

But as users, we transform conceptual space into lived space, and give final proof of the validity of a design. The popularity of disparate open spaces like Bryant Park and the pedestrian islands between Times Square and Herald Square, demonstrate the foresight of New York’s urban planning and the adaptability of its citizens to new configurations. Forthcoming will be the recap of my photo journey, with additional suggestions of other great public spaces by borough in honor of the arrival of spring!

2 thoughts on “Global. Timeless. Placeless.

  1. I think capturing “global, timeless, placeless” is a difficult project — especially in New York — and at heart a sad one. The modernist “ideal” of form trumping history and context, I would argue, has only really been realized in areas devastated by the destructiveness of modern wars and social decay/blight.* In parts of Berlin, redeveloped Cardiff, the banlieue of Paris, and — I believe eventually and unfortunately — Ground Zero, you will see architecture from which time and culture have been excised (or perhaps, better put, repressed). Like most ideas, the modernist striving for a platonic form of a building is beautiful in isolation, but it cannot escape the history of this world in practice.

    *The exception would be on university campuses. But these are almost by definition idealistic spaces, areas set apart from the real world.

    1. I completely agree – I think the politicization of architecture, such as what we have seen at Ground Zero, also contribute to this “excising” because architecture is compromised to the economic needs for office space and to manage the competing interest groups who all want control of such a symbolic space. In 2002, my seminar paper was on an analysis of two Ground Zero finalist plans (one which was eventually chosen) and I’ve traced what has happened to the plans in the last 8 years and it is really just disheartening.

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