american institute of    architects'    
      guide to   new  york cit  y
    four th     edition    (2000)

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    part three
continued from previous page.

The saddest loss of all--and it may have been a last-minute decision, as not all the "see Necrology" textual references have been deleted--is the Necrology, the end-of-the-book requiem for buildings lost since the first edition came out. Sad not just because of the powerful elegaic effect (though, this being AIA-NYC, it was far from overbearingly solemn) it provided in what could otherwise have been a fairly static "here and now" guide, but because of the active polemical role it served in raising awareness...and because it reminded us of a very important seed from which AIA-NYC grew; W&W were prominent among the AGBANY group of young architects who bucked Modernist orthodoxy by crusading on behalf of Penn Station in 1962 (and Willensky, of course, went on to a prominent role within the Landmarks Commission). As we know, that battle was lost, but the longer-term war was won; and AIA-NYC constituted, in a sense (and without stooping to anti-Modern boilerplate), a sort of "yesterday, Penn Station; today, the world" gesture. It was a deliberate enlightening tactic--it invited people, not just (not just? not least!) architects, to open eyes and see what's around ya. Historic buildings, new buildings, everything worth mentioning, a nice subtle stealthy way to raise the urban sensitivity vernacular--and the Necrology reminded us of how, unfortunately, transitory it sometimes is. City as religion, indeed--and these were the souls sacrificed on its behalf. Now, with the Necrology itself relegated to a silent necrology, there's a bit of a blank backdrop to the latest edition.

Also, there's been a space-saving pruning of entries--which in the absence of a Necrology, leaves one wondering how much was simply pruned and how much has been demolished since '88. (Likely rule of thumb: if it's pre-1945 and no longer written-up, more often than not it's probably been demolished. I hope.) A good deal of what's vanished is modern stuff deemed no longer worthy of singling out; for instance, within the West Side Urban Renewal District section (an idiosyncratic destination for the impressionable young archi-traveller staying several blocks north at the International Youth Hostel), the balance has been tipped to the rehabbed'n'original old-style urbanism of the side streets as only four of the 1960s-70s towers along Columbus Avenue have retained their entries...and one wonders why it's those four in particular (drawn out of a hat?). The paradox is that, perhaps with some due to its being "enshrined" (euphemistically or not) in earlier AIA-NYC volumes, such architecture might be more prone to sympathetic reflection within younger architectural circles today than in 1988. Indeed, the eliminations compound the paradox by making other 60s/70s retentions throughout appear like awkwardly highlighted vestiges from earlier volumes (and the unflattering thumbnail shots don't help).
               Take the Bronx. Credit where due, but I doubt classic UDC urban redevelopment projects such as Twin Parks in the Bronx are so vividly singular as destinations for the architectural tourist as they were a quarter century ago--at least, not in the manner conveyed here. Yes, I'm intrepidly interested (hey, I'm weird)--but given what and where they are (and their parallels to some of Toronto's once-vaunted public housing experiments today's urban reformers love to hate), I'd also be interested in their actual degree of success/failure over the years. (At least the photo shows that Davis Brody's Lambert Houses have been struck by the spray-on stucco fiends.) Oh, and such developments'd now be inextricable from, even outflanked by, the real albeit ordinary and extra-architectural street life and melancholy and ecstasy and crud around it (or nearby, in Belmont & Fordham)--and I reckon that even the most unabashed-yet-thoughtful 60s/70s Modernist archaeologist would vouch for that. But it's noteworthy that the Twin Parks plethora originally dates from the '78 edition, when the Art Deco apartment blocks along the Grand Concourse were barely if temptingly alluded to; then '88 saw Grand Concourse Art Deco covered head to toe, and today the popular ledger's swung so far on behalf of the Grand Concourse's older urban values that were this any ol' architectural guide, Twin Parks'd likely be at best shoved to cursory margins, as incidental urban experiments of olden time. Thankfully, it isn't (though the entries have been "shaved down")--but one still gets a feeling of naive boosterism left over from a past W&W professional milieu. It tries hard, but for the first time, ironically in part due to the floodgates it opened, AIA-NYC is showing its age.
               And don't think that Norval White doesn't recognize it--that no matter how you slice it, and whatever the authors' obligations in previous editions, old buildings and old urbanism (or even newer buildings sensitive to said "old" urbanism) had clearly become the popular victor and the ostensible real draw of such guides. And that earlier "architectural guidebooks", rightly or wrongly, to a greater or lesser degree, failed to see the true rich architectural forest for the Modernist-obligation trees. Thus there seems to be a Modern-conditioned architect's self-conscious yet incompletely consummated "war survivor's" distancing from Modernism in effect, which rubs uneasily against an equally self-conscious avoidance of Charlie Windsoresque anti-Modern populist boilerplate. (Among White's generation of guidebook authors, David Gebhard was also prone to such distancing in the end; his Iowa guide in the BUS series avoids like the plague or is at best apologetic about the kind of "non-contextual" Modernism--on college campuses and the like--that his earlier guides to California and Minnesota might have acknowledged more directly.)



NEXT: the odd oversight + a souped-up times square and a stripped-down staten island
in PART 4.



guide to guides AIA Guide to New York City entry in Omnitectural Forum's "Guide to Guidebooks"

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