S K Y L I N E | 8 | Mad About Zoning

The Week Ahead

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Good grief, it’s March again. This time last year, on the precipice of the mighty Covid vortex we have yet to escape, we were still grumbling about things like the L train, awkward small talk over cheese cubes on tiny sticks, or, say, getting lost in a labyrinth of bidets and appliances at the kitchen and bath expo in Vegas. Ah, what we would give for these woes of yesteryear... 

Despite the colossal shift in our ways of living, New York endures. It definitely is not dead, and it’s time—more than ever— to have serious, engaging dialogue on how to plan the city we want it to become—need it to become. Covid has struck hardest in our working class communities, magnifying the cracks of a city that, as much as we love it, has long been broken. Severe inequity continues to place a heavy burden on our citizens while corporations become more powerful in shaping our built environment. New York’s zoning laws have only exacerbated this divide. For this week’s SKYLINE, Zazu Swistel takes down the latest zoning proposal from city council member Corey Johnson. Check it out below. 

In other news, today kicks off Women’s History Month, and there are many chances this week to hear some inspiring female voices in architecture and design. Here are some to look forward to: 

(3/1) Pascale Sablan presents “Reframing Utopias” with Michael Stone-Richardson at Rice (3/1) Nerea Calvillo talks about Aeropolis at Cooper Union (3/2) Sheila Kennedy and partner Frano Violich discuss their firm’s work for the Architectural League’s First Friday series (3/3) Mexican architect Rozana Montiel lectures at Cornell (3/3) Allison Grace Williams, founder of AGWms_studio, speaks at Berkeley (3/3) Mabel O. Wilson lectures at Sci-Arc (3/4) Julie Bargmann gives the Daniel Urban Kiley Lecture at the GSD

Scroll down for more upcoming events.

And read on for a hefty stack of dispatches from last week’s goings-on. If you would like to write up an event for us to include in SKYLINE, get in touch: editor@nyra.nyc

-Alex Klimoski

RED-FLAG: A COMPREHENSIVE ZONING PLAN RUN BY DEVELOPERS?  ZAZU SWISTEL

Full disclosure: I’m not a trained planner, nor a bonafide urbanist. Just call me a New York red-flag hunter looking for built environment injustices.

After living the majority of my life among the disproportionate effects of urban neoliberalism, such as displacement, corporate white-washing, energy-sucking demolitions, cheap and toxic material usage, abused labor practices, ecological destruction, etc., I am astounded at any logic that strips away regulation. And yet, a recent proposal put forth by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson does just that with a potentially transformative citywide zoning plan.

Before I go any further, let’s acknowledge our current system, which is more than unregulated and borders on undemocratic. A land owner or developer looks for land to construct the cheapest yet tallest building with a maximum allowed zoning footprint; shoves in as many apartments as possible; and jacks up the rent to reflect the perceived “luxury” of the new building. The red-flag neoliberal capitalist approach is to put a building lot, a single block, or an entire neighborhood through a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, better known as a ULURP

Our land-use system is in dire need of reform. ULURP was created in 1975 to ensure that everyone is simply aware of a rezoning. But often, it is used as an under-the-table trade between the private and public sector. The approval process is knowingly unjust and undemocratic. Even though the developer will have to cough up significant cash to upgrade the infrastructural neighborhood needs, eventually profiting off of hundreds of New Yorkers’ rent is likely to be more rewarding than winning the lottery.  Red-flag: The Mayor appoints the members of the City Planning Commission who can veto or approve a ULURP before it goes to the City Council. Ultimately, through closed-door politics, the Mayor has the final say. Almost no changes have been made to New York City’s planning process in the last several decades. True, there have been minor adjustments along the way, but in the end these have not amounted to noteworthy policy changes. And none of them have been able to mitigate the private sector’s ravenous hunger for growth, nor addressed the severity of inequitable living and violent gentrification that has occurred in this city over the course of the last forty years. And here we are again! 

On December 17th, 2020, Johnson, proposed a comprehensive 10-year plan called, “Planning Together.” The proposed bill takes all the existing rules and organizes them from the top-down in a blanketed regional-scale perspective: “This citywide comprehensive planning framework would streamline and integrate more than a dozen planning and budget-related documents, reports, and plans already required by local law, to dramatically improve coordination across City agencies.” The red-flag being: what is “already required” will be “streamlined.” No significant changes to the current system will take place, but the proposal aims to make it easier for rezonings to move through the system. The thinking being, if we could speed up rezonings it would be less costly, stimulate growth and mitigate developer greed. It eliminates certain bureaucratic measures that currently make the developer’s job difficult.  Red-flag, red-flag, red-flag. 

I was screaming, albeit muted on zoom, when I heard Johnson describe this proposal in its public hearing on February 23 that, “The bill does not propose, does not require and does not trigger specific policies, zoning actions, or budget commitments...but it can reduce developer’s costs when projects are consistent with the plan.” Absolutely unacceptable! Developers should be taxed and reparations should be consistently distributed for their destructive impact. City Planning Commission Chair Marisa Lago questions this proposal’s feasibility at multiple scales, but also suggests that with developers winning out, this proposal will cause more funds to come out of taxpayer dollars — to the estimated tune of half a billion dollars

In the urban planning discipline, most progressives support the idea of comprehensive planning. This practice looks at an entire region and, when done correctly, researches and collects data from community and neighborhood leaders and planning and infrastructure experts to determine what the city’s long-term goals look like. These days it often implies future climate crisis mitigations, equitable and affordable housing goals, reverse gentrification policies, etc. Simply put, it's a type of large-scale analysis with an organized timelined perspective. Cities across America have very much embraced it as an inclusive planning process that can inform and reflect much needed contemporary zoning laws. However, two major issues should be raised when considering a plan like this for New York City’s unique characteristics. 

Within New York City’s neighborhoods, our density and architectural setbacks vary drastically —very much determined by human and environmental light and air impacts. Meaning, if you look at the zoning map of New York City, you can quickly tell that we have ad-hoc, arbitrary zoning. Random lines separate neighborhoods illogically—some streets being commercial, swaths of blocks or even individual blocks being residential of varying densities, antiquated manufacturing peppered throughout, special districts doing their own thing, etc. But the reality is that we do have existing boundaries, and our built environment and diverse residents reflect them. The Lower East Side is not Tribeca; Crown Heights is not Park Slope; and Harlem is certainly not the Upper East Side. Observing this city, I have to question whether a traditional regional-scale, comprehensive plan is the correct methodology. Over the course of the last fifty years, our lackadaisical zoning has created unequal neighborhoods. We do not have the luxury to look at our city with any sort of blanketed plan. Some neighborhoods simply need preservation against gentrifying development (i.e. Crown Heights), while others need environmental and infrastructural support (i.e. The Lower East Side), while others desperately need low-income housing distribution (i.e. the Upper East and West Sides). Although the neighborhoods of New York touch shoulders, they are vastly different and require community voices to determine each one’s important needs. 

Planning Together fundamentally lacks this vital community perspective. Hunter College’s Urban Policy and Planning Professor Tom Angotti highlights this issue in his own Op-Ed for City Limits. As it currently exists, the community is ignored, and this plan “would continue to be controlled from the top, where lobbies with outsized influence rule.” A neighborhood going through a rezoning would be lucky to get one Community Board meeting where they are at least informed of upcoming development and given the opportunity to express their grievances and skepticism. Regardless, their opinion is disregarded in the eyes of developer money. This dehumanization is pathetic. New York City is in desperate need of more community-supported zoning policy and Corey Johnson’s bill does the opposite. How much longer must we wait for legitimized democratic and anti-racist zoning? 

*Red-flag: The Board of Directors at AIA New York are in favor of this proposal with some “important changes” that they believe “should be instituted to improve the bill.” The much needed community perspective is not included in their amendments.  

DISPATCHES

2/23

An Architecture of Fear
“Fear is a basic instinct we have had since birth,” began multimedia artist ANTONI MUNTADAS in a talk for Princeton’s Media + Modernity Program, THE CONSTRUCTION OF FEAR. Covering his work since the early aughts, Muntadas explored these constructions at the territorial scale, in contemporary border walls and medieval city walls; at the urban scale, in the gated communities of Sao Paolo, where fear has manifested through the selling of security systems; and at the architectural and bodily scales, through design elements such as fences, gates, cameras, sensors, and now, masks. Respondent MARY ANNE STANISZEWSKI, a historian, noted how Muntadas’ work has become increasingly “uncanny and timely.” RUBÉN GALLO, a professor at Princeton, commented that there seemed to be a dialectic between fear and fearlessness, which was picked up by MARK WIGLEY, who said that, if fear is a construction project, it is “almost the raw material of architecture.” Architects must have “a kind of courage…to perform fearlessness,” said Wigley. Nicholas Raap

Reframing History as a Power Structure
“What didn’t kill you is what makes you American,” ruminated Mojave poet NATALIE DIAZ in her talk ORIGIN & MIGRATION / FREEDOM & LOVE, part of Cooper Union’s Intra-Disciplinary Seminar series. She declared that “indigeneity is a practice,” and, as such, demands a radical sensuality and relationality that rethinks the alien, the historical, the evident, the lawful. “History is not a story but a power structure.” For Diaz, “decolonization from the human as center” means that “autonomy only exists in relationship to,” and in this relationship, “reciprocity is alongsidedness.” She paired her words with those of her partner, poet Saretta Morgan, which flickered on screen as she read. Diaz closed with a reading of her poem “Like Church” from her 2020 collection Postcolonial Love Poem: “Remind yourself, your friends / They are only light because we are dark / If we didn’t exist, it wouldn’t be long before / they had to invent us”—a nod to literary critic and Black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers. Stephanie Choi

Preserving PoMo
If all that is solid melts into air, then all that is PoMo, one might say, melts into vibes. At least, that’s the gist of last week’s discussion, hosted by BEYER BLINDER BELLE—on the maintenance and preservation challenges of PoMo buildings, a part of the series POSTMODERNISM—COMPLEXITY AND CONSERVATION. The conversation featured JEFFREY M. CHUSID, LAURENCE BAIN, ANDREW WOLFRAM, REGINA NALLY, and was moderated by Beyer Blinder Belle partner and preservation architect GRETCHEN PFAEHLER. Covering a range of projects, including James Stirling’s No 1 Poultry and the Kresge Housing at University of California, Santa Cruz, designed by William Turnbull and Charles Moore, the discussion brought the existential nature of preserving PoMo architecture into full relief. Should shoddy, experimental materials be replaced like-for-like? What to do when inadequate 1970s detailing—say, flush-mounted single-pane aluminum windows, as in the case of Kresge—needs upgrading to meet 2021 energy codes? When in doubt, the each panelist explained in some way or another, aim for the spirit rather than the letter of the idea, be it an Italian hilltown, a heady mix of concept and off-the-shelf, or something else. Antonio Pacheco

Going Beyond the Double
Taking the virtual audience of almost 600 on a sprint through 21 projects from his previous 20 years of practice, WALTER HOOD delivered his public lecture as a Senior Loeb Scholar at Harvard GSD, entitled WHEN MEMORY IS NOT ENOUGH. Characterizing his earlier work as full of memory, ironic doublings, and “fusing the unfusable,” Hood said that now he finds himself more frequently “in a place where you don’t disrupt anything.” Hood alluded to W.E.B Du Bois’ concept of Black double consciousness—the internal conflict experienced by subordinated groups in an oppressive society. SARAH WHITING, dean at the GSD, said she sees “a greater multiplicity” in his work and life, and that Hood “always seems to go beyond the double.” Encapsulating his practice, Hood said he was “looking to forge a just city, a city that can actually come to terms with itself and see itself for what it is.” Nicholas Raap

Learning from Reyner Banham
TODD GANNON kicked off the symposium BLACKBOXING BANHAM, hosted by the Knowlton School at OSU, by asking “Why Banham, why now? Why return to another dead white male?” Suggesting a possible answer, ANTHONY VIDLER sought to “sketch a portrait that escapes the usual frames and certainly escapes the image that Banham himself wanted to present.” Moving swiftly through Banham’s life and writings, Vidler showed how Banham developed an anti-elitist visual practice of movement. Joining for the panel discussion, DORA EPSTEIN JONES wondered about “the corollary to that in the 21st century, movement itself isn’t the same mechanized movement of Banham…it’s AR, VR and all the permutations.” LYDIA KALLIPOLITI, summing up the talk nicely, remarked “I think of all [Banham’s] focus on episodic objects and properties that architects wouldn’t necessarily pay attention to was, in one way or another, denouncing the privilege of the profession.” Nicholas Raap

Bigger than Big
The long-awaited third issue of MANIFEST, “Bigger than Big,” kicked off its launch event series on a bespoke livestream stage last Tuesday with “Reconsidering Immensity.” Two of the journal’s three editors, DAN HANDEL and ANTHONY ACCIAVATTI (JUSTIN FOWLER was MIA), hosted alongside FELIPE CORREA. This gathering in “physical Zoom space,” as Acciavatti called it, led to some disorienting but memorable moments à la Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Enormous stage-hands intermittently reached into the frame to rearrange Zoom boxes and place handwritten name cards in front of the panelists. At the end, the full cast formed a pyramid – that quintessential figure of architectural bigness – to take on the largest questions. One from the floor: What of the “immensity of power and poverty for those who are subject to them?” If you missed it, there’s another launch today at Yale (see below). Phillip Denny

2/24

Talking in Circles
In SEAN CANTY’s talk SPIN-OFFS, hosted by Cornell AAP, the theme was circles. The lecture title, Canty explained, describes “a mode of designing and thinking,” that “co-mingles rotational geometries with flat ones.” The founder of STUDIO SC showed a sequence of dogtrot residences, courtyards, and turrets that investigate intersecting curves, folded cones, and convex voids. In the drawings, dotted lines radiated from Euclidian figures and delicate inflections converged with smooth planes, each operation meticulously inscribed in their proper Cartesian coordinates.

But with circles come problems of tangent points, difficult corners, and residual skinny triangles which rarely lend themselves to use. These problems energize Canty, who said that, as a young architect, he often digressed into explorations of the circular form. The audience was keen on understanding more about his personal motivations for this obsession, but this was the closest the architect came to divulging any motivations beyond formal ones. Canty deflected the observant audience’s questions on the economy of the poché, logistics of construction, and absence of context. For now we are reserved to Euclidean geometries masterfully codified in drawings that, despite their density, manage to be light and inviting. Tiffany Xu

2/26

Awaiting Catastrophe, Designing Resilience
South Beach, Washington is in the least active subduction zone in the Pacific Rim of Fire. Although major geological events occur there only 250-500 years, they result in powerful megaquakes and tsunamis more than five stories tall, which can reach the shore in as little as 15 to 20 minutes. In the latest conversation hosted by the Architectural League’s AMERICAN ROUNDTABLE PROJECT, University of Washington faculty members ROBERT HUTCHISON and DANIEL ABRAMSON explained bluntly that, “the last such event was in 1700; we are in the historic window for the next one.” With remarkable foresight, the tiny communities of South Beach have banded together to erect the first vertical evacuation structure built in North America. BARBARA SWIFT, a Seattle-based landscape architect, pointed out that this is “relevant to a global audience,” as it demonstrates a “shift in the human capacity to understand these time horizons.” Lauren Cawse

THE WEEK AHEAD

Monday, March 1

Ilze and Heinrich Wolff, “Homage and Refusal”
12:00pm, Harvard GSD

Lecture with Jesús Vassallo, "Epics in the Everyday"
3:00pm, UCLA

Behnaz Farahi
5:00pm, Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design

Launch of Manifest Journal #3:Anthony Acciavatti, Ana María Durán Calisto, Felipe Correa, Dan Handel, and Laurent Troost on the Immensity of Amazonia
6:30pm, Yale

Reframing Utopias, Radical Anxiety / Radical Futures | Pascale Sablan + Michael Stone-Richards
7:00pm, Carnegie Mellon

Tuesday, March 2

Nerea Calvillo: Feminist Sensing to Land in Aeropolis
12:00pm, Cooper Union

First Friday—Distance Edition: Kennedy & Violich Architecture
6:00pm, Architectural League of New York

CARE-WORK: Space, Bodies, and the Politics of Care
10:00am, Rice

Wednesday, March 3

Allison Grace Williams | AGWms_studio
1:00pm, Berkeley

Why Architecture Belongs in the Museum: Giovanna Borasi
5:00pm, Canadian Centre For Architecture

Rozana Montiel: Something From Nothing
5:15pm, Cornell AAP

Green Design Advocacy in NYC
5:30pm, AIA New York

CARE-WORK: Space, Bodies, and the Politics of Care
6:00pm, Rice

Jonathan Marvel: Person Place Thing with Randy Cohen
6:00pm, AIA New York

Mabel O. Wilson: Studio&: A Black Study
7:00pm, Sci-Arc

Thursday, March 4

Allison Grace Williams | AGWms_studio
1:00pm, Berkeley

Carbon + Chemicals: Health Impacts of Building Materials
12:00pm, The New School

Spring 2021 Sciame Series: Kayode Ojo, Olu Obafemi, and Ebony L. Haynes
5:30pm, Spitzer

Surveying Modern Architecture: The Case of Cairo
6:00pm, MIT

2021 WDA Conference, Minnette De Silva: Constructive Dialogues
6:00pm, Princeton

Torkwase Dyson with With Ann Hamilton and Sandhya Kocha
7:00pm, Ohio State University

Daniel Urban Kiley Lecture: Julie Bargmann, “Modesty”
7:30pm, Harvard GSD

Friday, March 5

American Roundtable: Labor, Landscapes, and Legacies, River Valley, Maine
12:00pm, Architectural League Of New York

Saturday, March 6

This is not a Beaux Arts Ball
8:00pm, Architectural League Of New York

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