New York

“Metamanhattan”

Whitney Museum of American Art

New York is a symbolic center and source, as well as a material manifestation of the 20th century, for artists, architects, and curators, and “Metamanhattan” attempted to describe this metropolis which agitates so many ambitions. This group exhibition of both serious projects and fanciful proposals created in the past 25 years for New York sites included interpretive accounts of the city as well as architectural and environmental schemes which offer either to evoke or to alter the magic of Manhattan. Conservatives, revisionists, and reformers were represented; beyond the unrest Manhattan incites, no discernible impetus was shared by all the artists and architects. Several projects investigated the role of nature in a context where virtually all environmental rhythms and impulses have been drummed out; others used the existing fabric of the city as a foundation for modifications. And some sought to highlight the power of human intervention, as well as the consequences of growth and avarice on the human spirit and the future of the city.

Alan Wexler’s Proposal for Manhattan Skyline—World Trade Center, 1973, skillfully combines the ultimate symbol of the city’s excesses with the potency of human energy to transform a static environment. Wexler orchestrates a continuous and changing light show which pares and modulates the blank elevations of that structure’s twin towers into a whimsical and unpredictable delight. Lorna McNeur, Alan Sonfist, and Roger Ferri cultivate the garden within the machine. McNeur’s astute analysis of Frederick Law Olmsted’s plans for Central Park serves as a metaphor for the Manhattan that could have been if the morphology of urban development had followed romantic sensibilities rather than the hard edges of the grid. Sonfist’s Time Landscape, 1978–79, proposes a series of open spaces sown with plant species indigenous to precolonial New York, creating a network of topographical landmarks. (An excerpt of this ambitious scheme has been realized at the junction of La Guardia Place and Houston Street.) Corporate Skyscraper at Madison Square, 1976, by Roger Ferri, employs the stepped skyscraper typology to create a cascade of rocky setbacks and vegetation where zoning envelopes meet vivid imaginings. Yet beyond its surprising appearance, Ferri’s concept is moderate and conforms to the parameters of high-rise addiction.

Anyone who has explored the southwest quadrant of Manhattan knows the strong, silent spine of the elevated West Side Rail Line. This disused freight-train spur enticed Steven Holl’s imagination to travel along practical lines of reapplication; his Bridge of Houses: Manhattan, 1979–81, proposes a linear community of small-scale houses and garden spaces. It is a slender splice of residential life documented in a brass and plaster model. A work by Simon Ungers, Laszlo Kiss, and Todd Zwigard (U/K/Z) reflects one of the saddest moments of Manhattan development, the construction of the Pan Am Building just north of Grand Central Station. No building feels quite so intrusive or looks more ungainly. Yet these architects propose that a kind of pleasure sphere alight on Pan Am. In a city with diminishing open space, the Pan Am Rooftop Addition, 1980, is a clever and whimsical use of what is available. The lighted globe recalls the mast for dirigibles on the spire of the Empire State Building; this urbane and civil gesture attempts to redeem a situation of misplaced monumentality.

While Manhattan stirs artistic aspirations, for many people its grim and unyielding realities subdue promise and hope. Michael Anderson’s Exposing Layers, 1982, looks beyond the pleasure of the city to the politics of design. Gentrification has become one of New York’s pervasive symbols; cosmetic improvements and artificially inflated real estate values are prophets of eviction for the poor, and messengers of doom for New York neighborhoods. Anderson’s work opts for political intervention as an esthetic objective. Overall, “Metamanhattan” joined many visions of transformation for the city; while few of the proposals led in unexplored directions, the selection and breadth of ideas did for a moment seem to contain and describe Manhattan’s overwhelming complexity, while diminishing none of its mystery.

Patricia C. Phillips