I heart NY

Monday 23 Aug 2010

WAN's US Correspondent, Sharon McHugh, takes a river cruise that makes her see Manhattan in a rather different light...

New York’s skyline never looked so good as it did last Saturday from aboard the teak decks of the Manhattan, a 1920s style yacht that left Chelsea Piers for a nearly three hour architecture cruise around Manhattan. I was one of the 50 or so passengers that were aboard The Around Manhattan Official Boat Tour, sponsored by AIANY and cultureNOW. The cruise, which sets sail every other Saturday from now through December, circumnavigates Manhattan in a stylish vessel fit for royalty as expert guides survey more than 150 of city’s best buildings. At a cost of $75, which includes a complimentary drink and canapés, the tour is well worth the price of admission.

On the day of our cruise, August 14th, the weather was spectacular. We set sail from Chelsea Piers located at 23rd Street and the Hudson River, which we learned from our tour guides, was built for the Titanic. As we pulled up anchor and made our way out to sea, the skyline of the far west side came into full view, evidencing the remarkable transformation that had taken place there. There they stood all in a row like celebrities on Oscar night: Jean Nouvel’s gleaming glass tower, Gehry’s IAC Headquarters with its billowing sail aesthetic that looks quite convincing from the water and The Standard Hotel. In the foreground is the High Line Park serving as the new front door to many of these adventuresome structures.

From here we headed south on the Hudson to Lower Manhattan. With the Statue of Liberty to our right and Ground Zero to our left it was somewhat prosaic to be perched between this great symbol of freedom and this hallowed site where freedom was tested and continues to be contested… While the current focus here is whether to allow an Islamic Center to be built a few blocks from Ground Zero, the physical devastation that long characterised the area is finally showing signs of recovery. SOM’s 7 World Trade Center, which was completed in 2006, looms large on the skyline albeit somewhat unbalanced the result of it being the only tall building there. It will soon be joined by David Childs’ One World Trade Center, the steel for which now stands 32 stories high. Nearby is the recently completed Goldman Sachs tower, by Pei Cobb Freed and Partners, and Gehry’s soon to be completed Beekman Towers, which will bear the moniker of the tallest residential building in New York City.

As we made around the southern tip of Manhattan edging toward the Brooklyn Bridge, one of 18 bridges on the tour, a very different Manhattan came into view. Here the storey was not one of transformation but rather the promise of transformation- as evidenced by the large number of projects on the boards that seek to re-vision large swathes of land - such as the South Street Seaport, which is being reworked by Beyer Blinder Belle and SHoP, Governor’s Island, which will be transformed from a military outpost to a thriving mixed used community by West 8, Diller Scofidio +Renfro and Rogers Marvel; and the redevelopment of the waterfront from Battery Park City to the East River, which is being led by the Rockwell Group and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. While such large-scale projects are challenging to realise, particularly in an economy such as this, there is much optimism is in the air.

Further up the East River, the United Nations complex awaits a much-needed makeover. Gazing across the river toward Brooklyn, the Domino Sugar Factory awaits transformation by Rafael Vinoly. As we reached Harlem, something fresh and new was creeping in - big box stores with parking garages in tow had arrived in Manhattan. As we cruised past the residences of the Upper East Side, including Gracie Mansion, and made our way to the northern tip of the island, a sea of concrete and towers gave way to a verdant landscape, low rise buildings and rocky cliffs- revealing a Manhattan that still has vestiges of a wilderness.

As we made our way back to the Hudson River and sailed under the George Washington Bridge, we cruised past Riverside Park, the new residential towers of the Upper West Side and caught glimpses of Foster’s Hearst Building, Piano’s New York Times building, and Cook and Fox’s Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park. As we sailed past I.M Pei’s Jacob Javits Center and made our way back to Chelsea Piers, I was reminded of a couple of things.

Manhattan is an island. No matter how well one thinks they know the city, this tour will surprise even the most astute observer. For architects who make the journey, think of this tour as a 3-D version of Matteo Perocoli’s Manhattan Unfurled - only here those beautiful pencil drawings have come to life in real time. While Manhattan has many new buildings of interest, it’s how they go together that most interests me and this perspective can only be found from the water.

Whether you are an architect or architectural novice, an out-of-towner or native New Yorker, The Around Manhattan Official Boat Tour is the ideal venue to see the city up close and personal in all its architectural splendor.

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

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