Possibly the most 'urban' of the cities on this planet, one is easily in awe of this city. New York embodies the heart and soul of American life. The sheer scale, intensity and density of Manhattan is overwhelming, exciting, vibrant. It perhaps can be described as a microcosm of the great American cities. One might say, New York, is not just Manhattan. Still, it is hard to imagine New York without the impressive high-rise architecture and public spaces of Manhattan. In this blog, the intent is not to reduce the experience of New York to Manhattan only but to epitomise the character of New York City through Manhattan.
I visited New York with many expectations, reminiscing the image that was imprinted on my mind. Reading 'The Fountainhead' (aeons ago!!) had formed my early impressions of New York. I was so keen to experience the hyper-urban environment; that extraordinary feat created by collective imagination for a city; only to understand the meaning of what Ayn Rand describes, ‘’it is the man who made the skyscraper, so it makes him greater than the structure''.
New York exemplifies the dichotomy of uniformity imposed by urban planning and variety brought by subtle urbanism. The urban quirks and oddities that evolved through time have softened the imposition of the gridded nature of the city. This dichotomy is reflected in every aspect of New York's urban form. If the 'Street Wall' like the character of 23rd Street or, say, the Central Park West reinforces the grid and expresses uniformity in the third dimension, then the spatial oddities of plazas and pocket parks create that element of surprise and excitement. This overlay of the ever-evolving urbanism that unravels the intrinsic qualities and accentuates the spaces in between makes this experience of New York different from other gridded cities. It is as much about the subtle quirks of urban design as it is about the grand gesture of urban planning, and New York is where they are in harmony.
The multifaceted, literally, of seeing the city from the top, ground, and fronts and the backs highlight some interesting peculiarities. New Yorkers are really in awe of the city and enjoy the views from multiple levels. The creation of public spaces at so many levels, be it the rooftop bar (Refinery Rooftop is a must-see place), terraces (of various Hotels) and the competing observation decks of Empire State or Rockefeller Centre, the city provides ample options and opportunities to enjoy the city views. This appreciation of the city's urban form as a visual, experiential and as an essence of the capacity of the imagination, defines the chic culture of New York city.
As much as the views from the roof terraces are exciting, the view of the roof and its iconic wooden water towers is equally interesting. It is probably the most intriguing element of New York’s skyline. Whether it is still in use or if it performs its function is beside the point; it is undoubtedly a quirky feature that is part of the skyline.
I was amazed by the architecture in the city, visiting the landmark buildings to revel in the details of layout, fenestration, and engineering. The voids within the urban form, the accidental spaces within the public realm– the parks, pocket parks, tactical and meanwhile spaces, its streets, plazas, the High Line, and the 9/11 Memorial, made a lasting impression on me. There is a vital balance and experiential quality and variety in the serenity of Paley Park or the bustling Times Square. Amidst the hyperdense Midtown with many landmarks and architectural wonders, Bryant Park is the place to be. The everyday charm of the space is adorned with a popup open library, yoga classes, and everyday life to unfold. The majestic tree canopy buffers the high rise architecture and beautifully contains that everyday life in the park.
High Line, as an innovative idea created by transforming an abandoned elevated railway line into a vibrant public space, revealed another facet of the urban form; what was a back is now a front. As an exemplary revitalisation project, it has not only brought life to a redundant railway line. Still, it has initiated the regeneration of the wider district. This project has reinforced and amplified the discourse about the power of placemaking and the benefits it can bring to businesses and residents. This multi-layered urban realm and the dynamic relationship between these spaces is perhaps the most specific aspect of Manhattan.
K+K, my travel buddies, one foodie and one young traveller, were absolutely thrilled with the NY experience. The hyper density also means it is a compact city with a walkable scale, packed with exciting adventures and activities for everyone. Top on the K's list of must-visit was the American Museum of Natural History. A stroll along Broadway weaves through the diverse characters of the different neighbourhoods and is a walk one cannot miss. It offer visual and experiential pleasure gallivanting through beautiful parks, pocket parks, and incidental tactical spaces to architectural landmarks, shopping and restaurants.
DUMBO, MET, MOMA, and many more such acronyms, abbreviations, and nicknames are unique to the ‘Big Apple’ or the ‘Gotham City’. Of course, every city has its own lingo and expressions that become part of the everyday language. But New Yorkers know how to translate that into a brand, like NYC. True to the hype, New York is where ideas are born, innovations flourish, and trends are set. This is the allure of New York that attracts millions with a hope in their heart to 'Dream Big'.
New York lives up to the visitors' expectations as a great city with rich history reflected in its architecture, culture, and people. This magical city draws millions of people to its spaces and places; this coming together sparks creativity and innovation. It is constantly changing, evolving, and building upon the unique qualities that make it great. However, as an urban designer, I cannot help but imagine that ‘what if’ about the spaces and places I visit. Some interesting thoughts that one can imagine as a ‘case for change’ in New York.
Enough has been discussed worldwide about the benefits of being hyper-local, encouraging walking, cycling and creating opportunities for local. Barcelona's 'Super blocks' initiative offers excellent learning and insights to many gridded cities such as New York to apply simple solutions to achieve dramatic results. Restructuring and pedestrianising Times Square has already set in motion the drive to release spaces from vehicular use to pedestrian and cycle oriented plazas and tactical interventions. Taking a bold step further, New York Plaza Program if combined with Super Blocks, will bring that dramatic change revolutionising urbanism and public realm creating public spaces befitting this urbane capital of chic and culture.