New York

West 8

Storefront for Art and Architecture

The analogy might go something like this: Dutch landscape firm West 8 is to the Office for Metropolitan Architecture what Swedish bubblegum band Ace of Bass is to ABBA. Both West 8 and Ace of Bass are clearly derivative of iconic figures from their native lands who had made critical splashes (in architectural theory and ultra-white disco, respectively) in the United States in the mid ’70s. In both cases, the figures that the younger artists choose to emulate confirm their good taste, or at least their pop savvy, which is arguably more important.

“Fuck the park,” the catchiest single to date from West 8 frontman Adriaan Geuze, samples generously from “Fuck context,” that unapologetic justification for Bigness put forth by OMA lead vocalist Rem Koolhaas (included in the group’s recently released greatest-hits package, S,M,L,XL). “Fuck the park” appropriately sums up West 8’s aggressively urban approach to contemporary landscape design. The firm’s refusal to design nineteenth-century promenade parks for late-twentieth-century cities has led it to work with such untraditional material as broken pieces of deep red clay in a brilliantly executed design for the enclosed garden of the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.

With “Vertical Landscape, Green Manhattanism” (all works 1996), West 8 decided to take on Manhattan. “We’ve heard about this vertical city,” begins their homage to the island. Of course they have. They’ve read about it in Koolhaas’ 1978 “retroactive manifesto” Delirious New York, which strings together the ambitions of New York’s skyscraper-era architects, ambitions that unconsciously produced a wild culture of congestion and set into motion all sorts of unlikely populist social condensers (namely, Coney Island’s Luna Park).

Koolhaas closes Delirious New York by imploring a new generation of would-be avant-gardists to consciously extend the conditions of Manhattanism—that is, to make Manhattan even more like itself. Nearly twenty years later, West 8 wants to extend that polemic to Manhattan’s final frontier—the parks and green spaces designed to absorb the overdeveloped city’s nervous energy: “We’ve seen images of its skyscrapers, . . . astonishing pieces of vertical landscape, parks as ambitious as the Chrysler Building, the Empire State and Rockefeller Center.”

The actual proposals, presented as mini urban models accompanied by attractively low-tech photocollages, are nothing short of laughable—but in a way that makes you think twice after getting the joke. Vertical Park, a proposed forty-story bronze-skyscraper frame lined with green curtains requiring regular pruning, plants itself in the boring, “obligatory” plaza in front of the Seagram Building on Park Avenue. In 1:00 PM Square, bolstered by claims that the block in Manhattan “represents life [and] the green represents death,” West 8 envisions replacing the neo-Romantic Madison Square Park with a bushy urban food court replete with signage that would make it “Manhattan’s favorite lunch destination.”

A final contribution, City Light Spring, makes productive use of the leftover triangles in the middle of that “phenomenal piece of urban nature” known as Times Square. West 8 suggests four illuminated sunken lawns that project lights upward to add to the existing neon show. Atop the green glare, floating steel grids provide “a perfect home-base for the drunk crowd to get a taxi.” It’s a quaint proposal, wide-eyed with fascination and rife with endearingly bad grammar (“at night [Times Square] attracts a sensual and extrovert crowd in a continuous flow of nervous and noisy yellow cabs”), that dutifully follows Delirious New York’s recipe for Manhattanism right down to the last ingredient.

What’s missing from West 8’s Green Manhattanism is even a pinch of critical awareness. Consider, by way of contrast, what the original expositor of Manhattanism has to say about Times Square nowadays. A short Grand Street essay entitled “Regrets?” finds Koolhaas once again championing change as the essence of New York, which leads him to conclude that lamenting the end of public sexual culture in Times Square is pointless. But just when you fear that Koolhaas has actually bought the developer’s dream package, his attitude toward sex zoning shifts from complacent detachment to genuine moral outrage. “The leap from sick but energetic authenticity straight into the embalmed cheer of Disney,” he writes, “has an intolerable perversity.” Koolhaas has always known how to get the most out of his same basic hooks. And like ABBA, he still sounds good twenty years later.

Ernest Pascucci