The Newark Visionary Museum is Interboro’s submission to the “GLIMPSES of New York and Amsterdam in 2040″ exhibition, which will open on June 8, 2011 at the Center for Architecture.
I am an architect. I know what is to come by the principle on which it is built. . . Now you know why I dynamited Cortlandt. . . I agreed to design it for the purpose of seeing it built as I wished. . . My building was disfigured at the whim of others who took all the benefits of my work and gave me nothing in return. I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy, nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim.
-Howard Roark, from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead
Poor Howard! If only he had chosen painting, or poetry, or some other medium that he could have had more control over! If only he was born later, and could have lived through the 70s, where, joined by a coterie of theoretical “paper architects,” he could have pursued a pure, uncontaminated, unchanging vision that would have been his and his alone. Robert Moses famously said that when building in a crowded city, you have to “swing the meat axe,” but Moses learned later that crowded cities swing back: when visions for what cities should look and feel like make it off the page and into the world, they are sometimes so highly compromised that they are unrecognizable. Neither Radburn nor any other “model” Garden City ever got a greenbelt (the essential component, according to its primary theorists), a highway interchange is built where the Plan of Chicago’s civic piece de resistance was supposed to go, and Hope VI has replaced our Towers-In-The-Park with housing typologies—medium-density, low-rise townhouses—that the Towers-In-The-Park were themselves built to replace. Even when things were built according to plan, they didn’t evolve according to plan. When the Levittown historical society was looking for an original, unmodified house for their headquarters, they realized that almost none existed, as most had been transformed over the decades by resourceful inhabitants. Barring the sports fields, Central Park might not look so different than 1858’s Greensward Plan, but Olmstead’s hope that his park would inspire genteel, assimilative behavior would appear an idle one to anyone who spends time in it.
Broad Street in Newark is fascinating to consider in this context because it is a virtual museum of stalled 19th, 20th, and 21st century urban visions. Like objects in a museum, many of the buildings depicted here seem to occupy their own worlds, and are separated from the other worlds that surround them. Introducing our own vision (our glimpse) in this environment thus engendered a certain amount of self-reflexivity. Why would we succeed where Frederick Law Olmstead, Louis Danzig, and Henry Cisneros and so many other giants of city-making failed? One “big bang” seemed out of the question. Instead, what we present—apart from a critical historical context—is a collection of sensible moves at a variety of scales that we think could better integrate and connect the islands in the archipelago. Thus instead of introducing another part, we’re proposing ways to connect parts that already exist. These range from ideas for regional transportation (why not extend Manhattan’s 7 train to Newark?), to increased housing options (for example, better senior housing), to programs (boat tours of the Passaic River), to admittedly utopian policies (annexation and home-value insurance). Could there be a way to bridge Mies and McDonalds? If there is a criticism here, it’s that visions fail because they are too often conceived of as wholes, when inevitably they become parts of a whole. A self-sufficient suburb? A machine for living? Private, climate-controlled, drive-through shopping? These visions pursued phantoms from the start. Like Roark, they never fully understand the need for negotiation, interconnectedness, and interdependency.
Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, Georgeen Theodore, Lesser Gonzalez