As I’ve written in the past, there are times when it’s instructive — or at least interesting — to ask the green building aficionado’s version of WWJD — call it WWJJT, What Would Jane Jacobs Think? The legendary urbanist and rabble rouser did battle with a wholly different set of powers-that-be than the ones that currently, um, be in New York City — where Robert Moses’s power resided in City Hall, the real power in New York City real estate today resides with the mega-developers to whom City Hall has effectively ceded power through a series of official and unofficial policies. But while it’s easy enough to figure out where Jane Jacobs — or her disciples, or anyone of good faith — would come down on grandiose mega-developments such as Riverside Center and New Domino, it’s perhaps even easier to tell where she would come down on some of the massive neighborhood overhauls being undertaken by NYC’s major educational institutions. While Columbia prepares for a massive $6.3 billion, eminent domain-powered neighborhood re-imagining of Manhattanville, NYU is already going ahead with the first stage of an equally ambitious — and much-protested — expansion in the West Village. Given that the West Village was Jacobs’ old stomping/living grounds, it’s likely that she’d be on the front lines with the protesters.
She wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. NYU’s expansionism is something of a litmus test for New Yorkers — New York Post types, desperate for a hippy to punch, hate the protesters; uptown liberal types (like myself, apparently) find themselves generally sympathetic to the idea of a less heroically developed and grandiose West Village. (As well as, in a bit more of a self-parodic way, sympathetic to anyone willing to take it to the streets) (Except Improv Everywhere, they should stop) There was, admittedly, a big-hearted but absolutely absolute absolutism in Jacobs’ attachment to the local and organic — not in a Kashi Good Friends Cereal sort of way, but in the way in which cities tend to have their own tectonics, and tend to create sustainable and sensible communities on their own. That NYU seems comparatively well-intentioned, or at least brand-sensitive enough to attempt to play the good neighbor in this case, is nice, but beside the greater point — the system isn’t working when the best that communities can hope for is that the Implacable Megaforces terraforming their neighborhood are of the comparatively benign higher-educational variety as opposed to purely profit-motivated mega-developers. (Just as the political discourse is dysfunctional when it pits cynical billionaires against moderately more tolerant billionaires) This isn’t the way that it is supposed to work, and for every community board taking a tenuously successful stand against this sort of thing, a great many more are either bulldozed by the political power of big developers and institutions or hornswoggled — as at Atlantic Yards or New Domino — by the city’s unwillingness to hold developers accountable for their higher-minded promises of affordable housing, public space, and so on.
So, no: no, this was not the way it was supposed to work. And yet it is the way things are happening, which means that — sadly but inescapably — citizens are reduced to spectators, and left mostly with the hope that what will rise after the political and literal bulldozing will be better than what was there before. Which brings us, belatedly, to NYU Law School’s Wilf Hall, which famously/infamously was built on land formerly occupied by several MacDougal Street townhouses that dated back to the 19th century and the famous Provincetown Playhouse.
The new building was designed by Morris Adjmi, and built to LEED Platinum standards and… honestly, it doesn’t matter to those who will be protesting it this weekend who designed it or what third-party certification it receives. But the building is built, and the historic playhouse has been demolished, and there’s no undoing that. And while it’s easy enough to sympathize with the West Villagers who want their community to remain as it has been and not tough to abhor the brand-building expansionism of NYU, this is also how cities grow and work. Buildings don’t get un-built. And the good news — because it’s possible, even when the various systems governing all this seem so terribly un-good — is that Wilf Hall looks pretty great.
At The Real Deal, architecture critic James Gardner gets literal with that bit of praise. “Truth be told, the new buildings, four nearly identical brick houses, each six stories tall, are far better, seen from the street, than the somewhat lower buildings that they have replaced,” Gardner writes. “The new Wilf Hall was conceived by the exuberantly contextualist firm of Morris Adjmi, if the word ‘exuberant’ may properly be applied to a style whose dominant ambition is to fit into a preexistent context as unobtrusively as possible. Its red brick façade plays very nicely with the similar cladding of Eggers and Higgins’ Vanderbilt Hall of NYU’s Law School, across the street, as well as Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates’ nearby Furman Hall at 245 Sullivan Street.” Gardner, who is a fussbudget but whose opinion I generally trust, adds something at the end about how the West Village “must get over” its “reflexive opposition” to this sort of progress, which is the sort of thing I imagine that Reasonable Moderate Adults don’t tell Bruce Ratner very often. But while that may be irritating (and irritatingly predictable), it’s hard to argue that it’s wrong.
For one thing, Wilf Hall is not a grandiose sore thumb — it was designed with a real architectural modesty, and designed well. And for another, it was designed with sustainability in mind, and offers a really impressive list of green design elements. That some of these fall into LEED’s more facile point-accumulating categories — beaucoup bike storage and showers for bikers are a good idea, of course, and we love us some green roofs, but you get the idea — is unsurprising, but there was also a good-faith attempt to preserve the original walls (and a modicum of the original purpose) of the Provincetown Playhouse. There’s a lot to admire in this particular instance, in short. And while it’s frustrating that “it could have been worse” so often seems like the best we can hope for in situations like this, it does not necessarily make the results bad. Just because the system doesn’t seem to work as it should doesn’t mean that Wilf Hall can’t be a success. But it does, perhaps, make it somewhat harder to celebrate.