A park without trees creates a city without history.

Harriet Tubman Square has the largest and most impressive collection of old-growth trees in Downtown Newark. The oldest trees are over 100 feet high, four-feet diameter at the trunk, and up to 150 years old. The City of Newark’s current proposal is to cut every single tree in our park. The only historical precedent for this is the 1960s project that killed every tree in Military Park to build the parking garage now buried beneath. Based on details and architectural plans revealed through an Open Public Records Act request, this animation shows what is planned for our park:

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Read the plans for the park.

Read our analysis of these plans.

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We cheer for the historic Harriet Tubman Park for a new, prosperous, and most of all just Newark.
However, nobody should even imagine cutting down these 66 century-old trees, oaks, elms, sycamores, all of which represent our history and particularly African-American experience. In America, trees symbolize both freedom and brutal oppression, should any sensible person forget. Unlike any historic treasures – architectural remnants, shriveled old maps, aged documents, or battled artifacts – these trees are among our most valuable historic icons, standing tall for our children.
Tubman embodied the notion of reclaiming the symbolism of trees and woods as tools of freedom in the black tradition. In the antebellum America, abolitionists always voiced lyrics about glorious trees that bore the fruit of freedom. Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, “Even if I knew tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plan my apple tree.” Tubman was famous for knowing the terrain of trees, woods, and swamps along her journey to freedom. In Tubman’s biography by Sarah Bradford, the black Moses said, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold though the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
On the other hand, Billie Holiday sang about fruits produced by these trees: “Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swing in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees/ …Here is a strange and bitter crop.” The blood of black men, women, and children who refused to remain silent, and who deserve justice, life, liberty, and love, over the hate that surround them.
Last year, Rutgers Newark restored the history and voices of Frederick Douglass in the Historic James Street Commons. Let us not forget, Douglas also said, “If Americans wished to partake of the tree of knowledge, they would find its fruit bitter as well as sweet.” It is unimaginable that Tubman will allow these venerable trees of knowledge to be annihilated.

A Different Kind of Radiant City: Bucharest

Comparing Le Corbusier’s plans for Paris with Ceaușescu’s plans for Bucharest

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Abstract: Comparing Le Corbusier’s unrealized plans for Paris and dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s completed plans for the Romanian capital Bucharest reveals similarities in their urban forms. Analysis of three features in both cities – their nineteenth-century urban forms, the integration of twentieth-century plans into the existing urban forms, and the political symbolism of each plan – reveals the two places as reflections of each other. The comparison matters because it establishes an unconscious aesthetic link between the progressive (almost utopian) urban designs of an architect like Le Corbusier and the repressive (almost dystopian) urban designs of a dictator like Ceaușescu.

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Utopia and totalitarianism are both engaged in a mirroring game, tirelessly sending the same image back and forth as if utopia were nothing more than the premonition of totalitarianism and totalitarianism the tragic execution of the utopian dream. Only the distance that separates a dream from its realization seems to stand between the two.

– Frédéric Rouvillois
Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World [1]

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Introduction

The so-called “Free World” of capitalist democracies in Western Europe and North America has long been contrasted against socialist regimes in Asia and Eastern Europe. Long since the fall of communism, the political game continues. The two forces are represented in western media as if locked in a battle of good vs. evil: the so-called freedom and tolerance of western ideas vs. the so-called isolation and intolerance of foreign places without “free and fair elections” like China and Russia. The conventional narrative of architectural history contrasts the two worlds: the glass-walled and transparent skyscrapers for international corporations that pierce the skies of European and American cities vs. the massive geometry in stone for Soviet ministries with opaque and Orwellian sounding names like the Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives. Students are told the two worlds built in different styles and used architecture for contrasting ideological purposes.
What this political narrative leaves out is the “mirroring game” between regions. Leading civil engineers like the Swiss-born Robert Maillart and architects like the Swiss-born Le Corbusier traveled to and built government projects in Moscow. Russian architects admired the tapering limestone mass of New York City’s Municipal Building and adapted this form with few modifications for the shape of the prototypical Soviet skyscraper. The widespread demolition and rebuilding of cities that utopian architects proposed sometimes found a more receptive audience in Eastern European cities than in the capitalist cities of Western Europe that were anchored to tradition and private property. To analyze the mirroring game and to break down the false dualism of the “free” vs. “un-free worlds” is too much for one essay.
Instead, this essay will analyze the “mirroring game” between two cities. This article will compare the urban form of Paris – that imperial and industrial capital of the nineteenth century – with Bucharest. As a form of endearment, Bucharest’s residents nickname their city “Paris of the East” because of the quantity of French-inspired art and architecture from the nineteenth century. What interests me is less the old buildings of Paris and Bucharest because both cities are rich in neoclassical civic buildings and bourgeois apartment houses inserted into the late medieval fabric of streets. What interests me more is the twentieth-century history of these cities where they took divergent paths.
In Paris, massive urban renewal plans for modernist style “towers in the park” were made in Le Corbusier’s 1925 Plan Voisin. The un-built proposal would have demolished all of central Paris to carve through a superhighway lined with tower apartment blocks. This linear city was to be the capital of the new French state, which Le Corbusier hoped would be governed by a technocrat elite instead of fickle elected politicians. Le Corbusier’s plans for Paris would have produced a landscape devoid of the features people like most about Paris: its crooked and narrow corridor streets, pedestrian boulevards, and diverse building types built in the uniform earth tones of limestone. Paris would have lost all this.[2]
In Bucharest, comparable plans were realized in the 1980s during a brutal process that demolished a quarter of the central city. Over 40,000 people were displaced in the largest peacetime destruction of a capital city in European history, second to Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris. Dozens of churches were smashed and thousands were relocated, often with a day’s notice and with requirements that they sign and pay for the demolition of their own homes. In its place, Romania’s dictator carved through a French-style boulevard wider and longer than the Champs-Élysées that was lined with parking spaces and tower apartment blocks.[3]
The comparison of Paris and Bucharest is richer than just an analysis of “the distance that separates a dream from its realization.” The differences between the two programs of urban renewal are just as revealing as their similarities. At the formal level, the rebuilding plans for Paris and Bucharest have little in common. The “towers in the park” on the outskirts of Paris have all the attributes of modern structures: horizontal bands of windows, concrete walls, flat roofs, and an aversion to ornament of any kind. By contrast, the 1980s urban renewal apartments and government ministries along Bucharest’s main boulevard are anti-modern. Although built with modern technologies, their external architectural language parodies antiquity with arches, columns, cornices, and limestone. Because of superficial differences between Paris and Bucharest, the comparison of their urban renewal plans has never been made. Nonetheless, the comparison reveals the modernist streak behind Ceaușescu’s built urban form, as well as the oppressive streak behind Le Corbusier’s unbuilt urban form. Understanding the mirroring game between Paris and Bucharest presents the utopian and totalitarian states as mirrors of each other, where one is “the premonition of totalitarianism” and the other is “the tragic execution of the utopian dream.” Which city is the utopia and which is the dystopia is, however, a false dichotomy that will be deconstructed.

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Figure [i]: Plan Voisin: The red cross-shaped buildings were 60-story office towers for elite administrators of the French state. The smaller red-shaped buildings set on the blue background were three to five story apartments for workers. A road network designed for different speeds of traffic cuts through the new city, as if to form the linear spine holding urban life together.

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Plan Voisin

An artist turned architect made a startling proposal in 1925 to demolish all of central Paris. The entire two-thousand-year old city between the Arc de Triomphe to the west and the Bastille to the east was to be cleared of buildings and rebuilt with 28 concrete and glass towers of 60 floors each. From their towers, workers would survey Paris rebuilt as a park. They would, to quote from the artist’s description of his project, “behold a dense mass of trees swaying beneath them. The stillness is absolute.”[4] Surrounding these towers, elevated highways stitched the city together in bands of concrete and asphalt. At the new city center, two highways converged at a vast subterranean shopping mall and transportation center with airport above. In no uncertain terms, he described his proposal’s sublime beauty: “When night intervenes the passage of cars along the highway traces luminous traces that are like the tails of meteors flashing across the summer heavens.”[5]
No details were provided for the subways, sewers, or water supply critical for the 400,000 residents living in this rebuilt Paris. No specific plans were made for the churches, libraries, theaters, or civic gathering spaces needed to support the cultural life of Paris either. This was an artist who, after all, fashioned himself an engineer and scientist but whose formal training extended little further than engraving watches in a Swiss village. This was an artist who looked down on trained architects and city planners, called for all professors at the École des Beaux-Arts to resign, and thought that Rome was “all the horrors”[6] and had built no worthwhile architecture in the four hundred years since Michelangelo’s death. “Architects,” he wrote, “live within the narrow confines of what they learned in school, in ignorance of the new rules of building, and they readily let their conceptions stop at kissing doves.”[7]
The artist was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known by his nom de guerre as Le Corbusier. The project was called the Plan Voisin, which evolved into his proposal for the so-called Radiant City of the future. The public backlash against the Plan Voisin was swift and immediate. Alongside Albert Speer’s plan for rebuilding Berlin as Hitler’s world capital Germania, the Voisin Plan is among the most ambitious and well-known un-built proposals for a European capital city.
In the Athens Charter of 1933, Le Corbusier again described the ideal city in a list of proposals: Urban life and streets should be designed around the car. Urban centers should be depopulated of buildings, railroads, and industries for building parks, towers, and segregated roads with different speeds of cars. Urban forms should be shaped by an elite group of technicians, scientists, and planners. Most of all, cities should be systematized and reorganized around motor vehicles to reflect the new political, social, and economic structure of modern society. Le Corbusier hoped the transformation of urban life would become a vehicle for the larger transformation of society. As Le Corbusier concludes in words reminiscent of socialism: “Private interests should be subordinated to the interests of the community.”[8] Who defines the “interests of the community” is a question Le Corbusier leaves unanswered – the people themselves or the technocrats who know best?
Le Corbusier’s plan was designed for the wrong place, at the wrong time, and in the wrong political climate. The taciturn French state in the 1930s lacked the political will and motivation to follow through with so controversial a plan. Le Corbusier, in turn, interpreted resistance to his proposals as justification for political change. Elections and the messy business of democracy produced a negotiated urbanism of private vs. public that balanced the rights of individual property owners with slum clearance projects, highways, and new parks that represented the public good. What Le Corbusier needed in the 1930s was a central state that could overrule the interests of property owners and urban residents to plough through a new vision of urban life: his vision. In frustration at the challenges of his own career and with the failure of the French state to resist German invasion in 1940, Le Corbusier turned to the anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, and pro-Nazi Vichy state for employment. If democracy could not realize his urban visions, then perhaps other systems could. It was Hitler, after all, who had the power to build motorways and ambitious public works projects for the German people, and it was Le Corbusier who was often accused in the 1920s of building in a style too “Germanic.”[9] However, the Vichy made no attempts to ever follow through with Le Corbusier’s idea, and so his proposals for Paris remain paper architecture. Le Corbusier’s modernism was compromised by his tendency to align with any political party and system that promised to execute his urban visions.

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Figure [ii]: Ceaușescu’s plans for Bucharest overlaid over the bulldozed urban fabric. The areas in gray were cleared of buildings to erect the new buildings in black. The Victory of Socialism Boulevard slices through the new city. The building at left is the Palace of the Parliament, the heaviest building in the world that consumes as much electricity, light, and heat as a medium-sized city.

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Bucharest

The irony is that visions of total urban demolition and reconstruction came closest in the communist states that the Vichy and Nazis were allied against. Granted, public housing projects in places like New York City or the Pruitt-Igoe houses of St. Louis have all the attributes of Le Corbusier’s urbanism: car-centric urban superblocks and cruciform shaped towers set in landscaped parks. But the urban renewal projects of Western European and American cities still represent a negotiated urbanism of new vs. old, preservation vs. replacement. No American city was ever demolished in its entirety for a tabula rasa urbanism, although the scale of destruction in places like Detroit comes close.
Instead, the wholesale destruction of cities in post-WWII Eastern Europe was an opportunity to rebuild cities on fresh ideological lines. Most of Warsaw, Moscow, East Berlin, Dresden, Belgrade, and Bucharest were destroyed first during WWII and then by the Soviets who erased much remaining architecture associated with monarchy and the bourgeoisie. In Warsaw, for instance, medieval buildings were deemed as symbolic of Polish identity and were therefore meticulously restored. Warsaw’s nineteenth-century bourgeois apartment blocks in the image of Paris were more likely demolished, even if they had survived the war intact. In both Eastern and Western Europe, the rebuilding of cities was part of an effort to write urban forms in service of postwar society.[10] In western cities like Rotterdam, for instance, the medieval city of canals was entirely bombed in WWII and rebuilt around the car and highway as primary modes of transport. As George Orwell writes: “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”[11]
Bucharest’s construction from 1977 to 1989 stands out for the degree to which the demolished and rebuilt city reflects the egomania and aesthetic tastes of an all-powerful master builder: Nicolae Ceaușescu, dictator of Romania from 1967 until his 1989 show trial and execution on allegations of genocide. Ceaușescu was no Le Corbusier and never encountered Le Corbusier’s work during his no-more than middle school education that ended at age eleven. Le Corbusier’s exposure to Romania was also brief, amounting to more than a few sketchbook pages from his extensive European tours. But the irony is that despite Le Corbusier and Ceaușescu knowing nothing of each other, the urban plans they produced overlap in an unconscious ways: Le Corbusier the architect who wanted to become a dictator vs. Ceaușescu the dictator who wanted to become an architect. Utopia and dystopia claim to have nothing in common but, on closer looking, are distorted fun house mirrors of each other.
Having introduced the two plans and their ambitions, this essay will break the comparison of urban forms into three parts. Firstly, the nineteenth-century urban forms of Paris and Bucharest will be compared. Secondly, the proposals in both places to build linear cities will be introduced. The failure of both linear cities to respond to and fit into the existing and ancient urban fabric will be then described. Thirdly, both urban forms will be analyzed as political statements about their respective societies.

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Figure [iii]: Les Halles, the central marketplace of Paris, was a metal-framed building with walls of glass resembling a greenhouse. Built in the 1850s in the image of London’s Crystal Palace, the site of Les Halles would have stood at the geographic center of Le Corbusier’s plan and was therefore proposed for demolition. Parisians consider the 1970s demolition of Les Halles an architectural and cultural loss.

Figure [iv]: The Bucharest marketplace near present-day Piața Unirii was a metal-framed building with walls of glass in the image of Les Halles. It, too, was demolished for Ceaușescu’s urban renewal plans. The distant construction cranes are assembling the new city. The French connection is no coincidence. Engineers like Gustave Eiffel built bridges and hotels in Romania, while the Eiffel Tower’s iron and steel are sourced from Romanian mines.

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1. Nineteenth-century city

Traditional urban forms are centered on the street. For centuries, the streets of European cities developed in piecemeal fashion, gradually filling out the open land in a chaotic jumble of streets. Buildings rose straight up at the property line with the street, thereby producing a dense and vibrant urban culture of narrow streets. With buildings so close to the street, and with windows looking down onto the street, public space became an outdoor room of sorts. Surrounded by buildings and activity on all sides, the street was open to all. But with the coming of the modern age, the narrow streets of European cities became crowded with the noise and fumes of traffic. The public street that belonged to all social classes was now privatized for car owners. This produced what Le Corbusier condemned as the corridor street. As he writes: “Il faut tuer la rue-corridor” (We have to kill the corridor street).[12]
The boulevard was the nineteenth-century response to perceived problems with the corridor street. Haussmann carved dozens of straight, wide, and tree-lined boulevards through the narrow alleys, winding streets, and crowded neighborhoods of medieval Paris. Haussmann’s projects brought the appearance of medieval Paris into the nineteenth century, transforming the old architecture of Paris into a modern capital of the French nation and colonial empire. Miles of boulevards had new tunnels beneath for the city’s water supply, sewers, and subways. Along these streets there also rose new apartment buildings of uniform materials, floor heights, and neoclassical architectural style.
Rather than a contrast to the corridor street, the boulevard is an extension and improvement on earlier streets perceived as dangerous and crowded. Haussmann’s boulevards were carved through Paris to ease the movement of people and delivery of city services. At the same time, boulevards produced the urban culture of the café, department store, park, and the pedestrian (also known as the flâneur). The boulevard is a public place to see and be seen. In equal parts, the boulevard and traffic circle frame views of defining symbols of urban culture, such as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Arcul de Triumf it inspired in Bucharest, both of which are limestone arches celebrating military victories and set in traffic circles. In line with this military theme, the boulevard can also be read as an attempt to rationalize urban growth and to control the city’s population. Boulevards built after the 1871 socialist uprising known as the Paris Commune were allegedly sliced through neighborhoods where political dissidents lived, so as to facilitate armies marching into the city on the broad, flat, and long expanse of the new streets. In theory, a barricade is harder to erect on a boulevard than on a corridor street.
The nineteenth-century boulevards inserted into the street network of Bucharest were never as extensive as those in Paris. Nonetheless, the map above does show two French-style boulevards lined with apartment buildings. One street travelling north to south called ___ and the other east to west called ___ intersect at the city center (top center of map). Occasionally, other Bucharest streets radiate from traffic circles in the image of Paris. Along many of Bucharest’s old city streets there rise limestone and stucco apartment buildings in the French Second Empire style. The varying floor height, varying amount of ornament on each floor, and mansard roofs on Bucharest’s nineteenth-century buildings all express externally the class divisions of upstairs vs. downstairs and masters vs. servants these buildings contained internally.
The Second World War destroyed large swaths of Bucharest, while Paris was spared despite Hitler’s orders to bomb the city and leave it “as a field of ruins.”[13] As the Soviets swept through Bucharest in the closing months of WWII, they installed communists in power and began the process of destroying symbols and confiscating property linked to the nineteenth-century monarchy and French-speaking bourgeoisie that governed Romanian society. Walking through Bucharest, the change in political system is imprinted on changes in architectural style. In parts of the bombed out city center, Parisian style apartment buildings stand side by side with postwar socialist towers. The new towers lack ornament and have uniform floor heights and window sizes, as if communicating outside the equality of residents inside. The architectural style of Bucharest changed from the ornament, curves, and craftsmanship of the Art Nouveau to the pre-fabricated concrete geometry of new buildings, as if symbolizing Romania’s transition from the Western European to Soviet sphere of influence, and from nineteenth-century romanticism to twentieth-century modernism.
However, what Le Corbusier and Ceaușescu proposed for Paris in the 1920s and Bucharest in the 1980s were above and beyond ambitious than the boulevards and apartment houses of the nineteenth century. To be fair, both saw themselves as following and expanding on the earlier tradition of Haussmann. Yet the point was not to become Haussmann or to interpret the urban fabric through new buildings. Rather, the point was to outdo and to overwrite all that had come before. Builders and planners like Haussmann had only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, was to change it.[14]

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2. Linear City

Le Corbusier’s demolition proposals for Paris re-focused the new city around the highway. All buildings were pulled back from the street and surrounded by gardens. Buildings turned away from the street, and by extension society turned away from the street as the organizing principle of urban life. Le Corbusier expands in his typo-rife list of recommendations that condemn traditional urban forms:

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51. The existing network of urban communications has arisen from an agglomeration of the aids [sic] roads of major traffic routes. In Europe these major routes date back well into the middle ages [sic], sometimes even into antiquity.
52. Devised for the use of pedestrians and horse drawn vehicles, they are inadequate for today’s mechanized transportation.
53. These inappropriate street dimensions prevent the effective use of mechanized vehicles at speeds corresponding to urban pressure.
54. Distances between crossroads are too infrequent.
55. Street widths are insufficient. Their widening is difficult and often ineffectual.
56. Faced by the needs of high speed [sic] vehicles, present the apparently irrational street pattern lacks efficiency and flexibility, differentiation and order [sic].
57. Relics of a former pompous magnificence designed for special monumental effects often complicate traffic circulation.[15]
The new superhighway that cut straight through Paris in no way corresponded to the existing street system and was opposed to traditional urban forms centered on the sidewalk and street. Le Corbusier insisted that streets were only for cars. As he writes: “the alignment of housing along main traffic routes should be forbidden.”[16] The Plan Voisin contrasts with traditional corridor streets and boulevards. The public and multipurpose functions that the street once served – as traffic artery, as sidewalk, as park, as play space, and as framing device for “relics of a former pompous magnificence” like the Arc de Triomphe – have all been segregated in the Plan Voisin to different parts of the city. One area is for industry, another for wealthy, another for parks, another for play, and still another for the working classes. The main thing that links these disparate parts together is the linear form of the highways, on which these different elements of urban life are strung together like beads on a necklace.
Ceaușescu also saw urban life as an unwieldy force to control and to regulate. Instead of the superhighway Le Corbusier proposed for Paris, Ceaușescu desired a French-style avenue called the Victory of Socialism Boulevard that was a few meters wider and a few meters longer than the Champs-Élysées. Unlike the real Champs-Élysées that became a fashionable open space and shopping street, the Victory of Socialism Boulevard had no luxury shops to speak of along its length. Bucharest residents saw their boulevard in an unfashionable light. As if expressing the boulevard’s anti-urban quality on land that displaced thousands of people overnight, residents renamed it the Victory over Bucharest Boulevard. The nickname expresses discomfort with the boulevard’s vast scale, wide streets, apartment superblocks, and dimensions that are out of place with the rest of Bucharest’s granular urban fabric. Rather than enhancing urban life, the boulevard’s scale could provide a backdrop for military parades of soldiers and tanks, that is, a different kind of “mechanized transportation” from what Le Corbusier described.[17]
Ceaușescu was himself uncomfortable with the culture, business, and unpredictable quality of urban culture. There is in Ceaușescu’s vision of Bucharest a desire to systematize and control the greatest sources of discontent and the middle class intellectuals who inhabited the area of the city he demolished. Le Corbusier desired and called for all scholars in the École des Beaux-Arts to resign, but he had no power to fire them.[18] Ceaușescu did have that power, and his rule was marked by the arrest, torture, imprisonment, or firing of any person who objected to his demolition of Bucharest and cult of personality.
Ironically, French monarchism is the cultural reference behind socialist Bucharest’s rebuilding. The Champs-Élysées terminated at a public square called the Place de la Concorde, beyond which was the palace of the Louvre set in the landscaped Jardins des Tuileries. Bucharest’s Victory of Socialism Boulevard ended at a vast public square of dozens of acres, in which over a million Romanians could assemble before the nation’s capital building, called the People’s House. From his viewing stand at a balcony in the exact center of the building’s facade, Ceaușescu hoped to view the assembled crowds and to survey the city down the length of his boulevard. The balcony and chambers behind the balcony are modeled after rooms in Versailles and the Opéra Garnier. They are the point of convergence around which the entire city plan and state revolves; all is visible from the center. The rhetoric and place names speak of socialism, but the visual imagery is of Louis XIV, the Sun King of the City of Lights and the descendant of the Capetian kings. Ceaușescu, too, took after the image of nobility through the royal scepter he brought with him and his chosen honorific titles: “genius of the Carpathians, “source of our light,” and “treasure of wisdom and charisma.”[19] Incidentally, both Ceaușescu and Louis XIV were short men with double chins and chose in later life to mask their age through requiring all official portraits to show them in the strength of virile youth. In media appearances, Ceaușescu was quick to delete any instances of his lifelong stutter appearing on camera. This is not so much to say that Ceaușescu saw himself as Louis XIV as much as to imply that external opulence of the urban form compensates for deeper insecurities. That the People’s House was never finished and is now empty of people and activities, a fitting metaphor for the failed Romanian state.
In reorienting the city around new visual axes and reorienting society around new cultural institutions, both plans marginalized the traditional centers of urban culture. The area cleared for Ceaușescu’s Bucharest consisted of churches, monasteries, schools, and the range of all businesses and housing types for different social classes. The new city he built was monolithic in land use and function: a boulevard lined with identical housing blocks and government ministries set in geometrically landscaped open areas. The largest of these open areas was two hundred acres of flat and roughly landscaped open space that surrounded the People’s House, land that was once home to thousands but now served only to elevate and frame the center of power in splendid isolation. Monuments in Ceaușescu’s Bucharest are like pieces in a museum display case, surrounded by empty space and set in isolation to be viewed from all sides.
For all the demolition and displacement of thousands of people his project would have involved, Le Corbusier described his plans as, in fact, enhancing the urban form by preserving a select few monuments of old Paris. The Garnier Opera House, Palais Royale, National Library, National Archives, Élysée Palace, The Louvre, Grand Palais, Petit Palais, Place Vendôme and a handful of Gothic churches like the Church of Saint Augustine and Church of Saint Laurence were saved. In old Paris, these monuments were part of the urban fabric and of the neighborhoods that surrounded them, visual and cultural focal points for urban life. In Le Corbusier’s proposal, these monuments sat in isolation and were cleared of all surrounding buildings, which in so doing saved individual buildings but destroyed the neighborhoods and urban culture that produced those buildings. Driving down the highway through the new linear city, the monuments and churches of old Paris would have been visible on either side of the road. Set back from the street, they would have risen in splendid isolation like large road signs, each stripped of all deeper meaning and reading only “I am a monument.”[20] In the Plan Voisin, churches have become like trailer homes that can be rolled away and placed anywhere.
Bucharest’s Orthodox churches and institutions were the centers of urban life; their spires were the symbols of tradition in the urban skyline. But religion had no place in Ceaușescu’s vision of a socialist and atheist society. For instance, under the pretext that the 1977 earthquake had damaged landmarks and made preservation impossible, Ceaușescu proceeded by every means possible to weaken and dismantle history. Văcărești Monastery, built 1716-22, was the largest monastery in Romania, once home of the largest library in Southeastern Europe, and ornamented with hundreds of frescoes and stone carvings. While preservationists were in talks to save the monastery, Ceaușescu proceeded under cover of darkness and with no public records to strip out the windows, demolish the steeples, and later still to use the building as a stage set for a WWII reenactment film with live munitions. Ironically, WWII did not destroy the monastery and left Bucharest’s urban form intact, but Romanian soldiers dressed as German soldiers destroyed their own city decades later. This rendered discussions to save the building a mute point before historians could even develop plans. Plans to build an amusement park here never materialized, and the land at the former monastery remains a barren field adjacent to the People’s House.[21]

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Figure [v]: Weighing 9,000 tons, the Mihai Voda Orthodox Church and its standalone tower were rolled 289 meters.

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Figure [vi]: Church of Saint John the New 1986,

near present-day Piața Unirii

Figure [vii]: And again today, now wedged between two Soviet-era buildings that hide and belittle the religious architecture

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At least eighteen other churches and monasteries were destroyed under armed military guard, but a few were saved. With local tourists and onlookers from the United Nations, a dozen churches weighing thousands of tons were jacked up and rolled away on railroad tracks to new locations out of the way of the new boulevards’ paths. In their new locations, taller and Soviet-era buildings encircled the churches, hiding visibility of the old architecture from the main streets. Like Le Corbusier’s proposals for Paris, the parts of old Bucharest that were salvaged became isolated monuments decontextualized of the neighborhoods and streets that once gave them meaning.
In an ironic twist of fate, Bucharest is now building the People’s Salvation Cathedral. Situated next to the detested People’s House, it is the world’s largest Orthodox church. The new church will be taller than the People’s House in hopes to reframe the focal point of Bucharest’s skyline. Other proposals included erecting a wall of capitalist skyscrapers around the People’s House so as to block all views of it, as if inverting against Ceaușescu the very methods he employed against the church and private property owners. Architecture is a response to trauma. The urban landscape again becomes a political landscape for competing ideologies.[22]
The demolition and dislocation of Bucharest’s stone churches is an uncomfortable comment on the instability of culture. Churches, hospitals, and grand public buildings are inter-generational monuments that are supposed to outlive us and provide aesthetic vehicles for us to communicate with history. When they are demolished, the experiences of nearby urban residents and their connections with history are severed. The plans in both Paris and Bucharest to demolish this history reveals how deep the efforts of Le Corbusier and Ceaușescu were to sever society from past ways of thought and to rebuild society from the ground up. That the new city should coexist with the old churches and monuments was not enough; history must be erased for the new society. The urban form becomes a political statement, in which case the wanton destruction of history is justified on both economic and ideological grounds.

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3. Urban form as political statement

National leaders have long realized the importance of buildings as symbols of larger political projects.
Inspired by French principles of urban planning, Washington D.C. was measured out in 1791 on the uninhabited, desolate, and swampy banks of the Potomac River. The street network is as ambitious as Paris, but it was for a young nation with population four million. The plan symbolized the imperial ambitions of young America to settle the west and conquer nature. More than a century of urban growth and new construction would be required for these ambitions to become reality.
Inspired by the linear city of the Plan Voisin, Brasília was laid out in 1960 on Brazil’s vast unsettled interior of dry and grassy plains. Streets were planned as if to form a pictogram from the air of a bird in flight (or is it an airplane, or some modern rendition of a Mesoamerican city?). Brasília’s urban form was not designed for pedestrians, was rich in political symbolism, oriented around the “mechanized transportation” of the car, and symbolized the aspirations of the new government to colonize the vast nation’s interior.[23]
Canberra in Australia, Naypyitaw in Myanmar, New Delhi in India, Abuja in Nigeria, Nur-Sultan in Kazakhstan, Ankara in Turkey, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, and Yamoussoukro in Ivory Coast are all political projects like Washington D.C. and Brasília, capital cities plotted out of thin air onto unsettled regions. The urban form was recognized as an active and necessary agent to bring about a new society. The construction of all these new capitals was justified on economic grounds (the existing capital city was too small or crowded for growth), political grounds (the new capital was better located near the geographic center of the country), and ideological grounds (the new capital would symbolize a reorientation in national values). In other words, the urban form of capital cities is aspirational and transformational, aiming to use urban planning to reshape public discourse.[24]
Both Le Corbusier and Ceaușescu tied an architectural and planning project to the larger social project of reorganizing society. Yet what sets their projects apart from the traditional urban form of capital cities is that they proposed to build in the city center, right in the middle of urban life. All the other cities mentioned were either built on undeveloped land, or they were new additions at the edge of existing cities. For instance, the plan of New Delhi was created by the British Empire in the 1910s through 30s with hopes to solidify colonial rule over India. New Delhi’s urban plan was as ambitious and symbolically rich as proposals for Paris and Bucharest, but it was built at the city edge of Old Delhi, effectively co-existing with the old city as an alternative to traditional urban forms. What Le Corbusier and Ceaușescu advocated through their architectural projects was a larger political project bordering on revolution. It was not enough that new society should inhabit new buildings; it should replace all previous urban forms that had existed for millennia. New ways of life and new means of production are needed in utopian society, and these goals require revolution against traditional urban forms.
The choice of capital city is strategic because it would provide a model for the rest of the country. Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris inspired copycat projects in satellite cities like Lyon and Marseilles, as well as colonial capitals like Rabat in Morocco, Algiers in Algeria, and Tunis in Tunisia. Influence flows from centers of culture and power, along with new forms of art and architecture. The hope in both Paris and Bucharest was that, by rebuilding the capital city, the path for the rest of the country would become clear in an instant.
France was an undisputed colonial power in the nineteenth century, and Paris was the center of empire. The urban forms and boulevards of this capital city were as much practical projects for the movement of traffic and people as political projects to frame the monuments and institutions of French culture and governance. Paris is an imperial city with boulevards designed to frame views of, say, the Arc de Triomphe (a political symbol), the Madeleine (a religious symbol), the Gare de l’Est (a technology symbol), the Garnier Opera House (a cultural symbol), and the Louvre (a royal palace). Paris’ urban form communicates who is in charge. In this way, Le Corbusier’s project would have attempted to bring Paris into the twentieth century, as if to update the urban form so as to remain a relevant symbol of France’s modernity. By the 1930, Hausmann’s boulevards designed for the pedestrian and carriage would have symbolized an older political order and system. Le Corbusier would have replaced these older symbols with new symbols that represented the technocrat elite he hoped would govern French society.
By contrast, Romania was never a global power, but it had all the ambitions to reshape itself as one. Romania existed during the Cold War as a Soviet satellite state, within the Russian sphere of influence but never directly controlled by Moscow. Despite its Slavic neighbors, Romania looked to Western Europe to find, for instance, their first king from Germany and their national architecture with French Art Nouveau influences. Later, Ceaușescu had global ambitions through foreign aid to Africa and close relations with Iran, the United States, and Britain. Despite Ceaușescu’s numerous flaws, foreign policy was seen as one of his regime’s genuine strengths. At the same time, he banned all abortions and contraceptives so as to force population growth through unwanted pregnancies, causing 500,000 children abandoned in Romanian orphanages. Rebuilding Bucharest was part of this larger political project. Bucharest’s urban form copies the model of existing imperial powers, but it is above and beyond ambitious anything Romania would need. Seventy percent of the rooms in the People’s House remain empty in anticipation of a Romanian state with millions more people that never came to be. Bucharest’s urban form must be read as a political project well beyond in size and scale anything that the city needed. France, by contrast, has a capital city whose architectural size and ambitions align with the global reputation and power of the French nation.
Central to imperial and global ambitions is the desire to standardize and systematize language, arts, and communication so as to govern a large area that has a unified culture. Socialist Realism was itself a standardized aesthetic within the communist world. Dozens of Soviet-inspired skyscrapers for government ministries as far-ranging as the Sino-Soviet Friendship Building in Shanghai, the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, the Seven Sisters in Moscow, the Latvian Academy of Sciences, and the House of the Free Press in Bucharest are all variations on the same architectural tower type with silhouettes like wedding cakes. Ceaușescu did not create an international style of architecture that Romania exported abroad, but what he did promote in the last years of his rule was what he called systematization. This was a program to demolish every city and village in Romania. Seven to eight thousand villages were declared redundant, bulldozed, and their occupants moved to new pre-fabricated apartment towers in concrete.[25] City centers were demolished and rebuilt as concrete shopping malls. Later, when food and funding ran out during Romania’s economic crisis of the1980s, citizens renamed the unfinished shells of these urban shopping centers as “hunger circuses.” Estimates range, but by 1989, 85 to 90% of Romania’s 29 largest towns were razed and rebuilt, with an additional 37 towns partially demolished. Government plans called for 90% of all pre-WWII buildings to be demolished for Soviet-style apartment blocks. The aim was to produce a homogenized built environment by the year 2000, the better to govern an obedient people.[26]
Le Corbusier also believed in standardizing the world. He proposed a new international measurement system called the modulor, whose basic unit was the height and proportions of the human body, through which all other things in the world were measured with respect to. The International Style for buildings that Le Corbusier promoted, as well as the automobiles that would service Le Corbusier’s modern city, have no cultural boundaries. His own career marks him as a French architect, but he was not restricted to France. The technologies of globalism are universal, consistent, and not adapted to local conditions. The skyscrapers that the World Trade Organization, Exxon, and the Trump Organization erect in cities around the world are near identical architectural forms, and symbolize the same globalist values in different cultural contexts. In other words, the popularity of McDonald’s is that customers get the same thing wherever they go, and that consistency is key to both the company (which saves money through economies of scale) and the consumer (who knows what to expect). Our society does not measure things with Le Corbusier’s modulor, but the increasing standardization of building components from places like Home Depot is very much in the same vein of creating a house that acts like a car. Parts can be swapped out interchangeably. If houses are “machines for living” and cars are machines for movement, then by Le Corbusier’s logic, cities are machines for social engineering and require new urban forms that make social engineering possible.

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The comparison of Paris and Bucharest should not be reduced to a simple morality tale of urban planning gone wrong. Bucharest might be an unconscious and twisted realization of megalomaniacal proposals like the Plan Voisin. The aesthetic similarities between Paris and Bucharest underscore the comparison of dream and reality, source and inspiration. However, to attribute the failure of Le Corbusier’s plans to the strength of private property and capitalism to resister urban renewal and the iron fist of the state is too simplistic.
Le Corbusier saw his plans as operating within the framework of market-driven and technocratic capitalism, not socialism. The Voisin Plan was for a future French society governed by syndicalism, a political system that glorified not a leader but the rational organization of modern life and its capacity for a liberating productivity. Hence, the plan tried to imagine what a beautifully organized modern city would look like. Like Haussmann’s urban renewal projects that paid for themselves, Le Corbusier hoped his city would be self-financing. The initial outlay of capital to acquire and demolish medieval streets for modern boulevards was paid for by the increased property values of buildings erected along these boulevards. Less discussed in Haussmann’s Paris is the extent to which urban renewal projects in the urban core displaced the urban poor to city edges, creating a circle of elites in the city center surrounded by less desirable suburbs. Many of those displaced in Bucharest were also moved to unfinished and desolate housing towers at the city edge. Like Haussmann, Le Corbusier hoped that corporations would pay for his rebuilding of Paris and would reap the rewards. This did not happen; thousands of people were never displaced for urban renewal. However, the more recent process of gentrification has displaced many of the people and features from the central city that Le Corbusier would have found most objectionable about urban life: buildings without plumbing and elevators, crowded apartments, the smoke and noise of steam engines, and factories pressed up against residential areas. Although planners did not displace the population of central Paris, market forces remade the central city in the image of global capitalism and, in so doing, displaced the social classes that had lived there for centuries. Central Paris has the most AirBnB rentals of any city in the world, and the company is accused of giving apartments to the jet-setting elite that would otherwise go to actual residents. The recurring civil unrest in Paris is concentrated in the modernist “towers in the park” that surround the historic urban core, and which ironically Le Corbusier advocated for as the healthier alternative to traditional urban forms in the city center. The minorities and immigrants living here feel removed from their place of work, must commute to the city center, and are alienated from French society. Le Corbusier wanted to rebuild central Paris. His plans failed, but in a twisted sense his image of the city took root across the globe. The pencil-thin new skyscrapers of New York, London, and dozens of other cities have become playgrounds for the global super-rich. The club of corporate technocrats holds the real power in capitalist society, and they are supported by a precarious underclass of housekeepers, security guards, and gig workers. Like the syndicalists a century ago, tech leaders today promise that technology and the internet will liberate productivity.
The Romanian Revolution of 1989 toppled Ceaușescu’s dictatorship and left his plans for Bucharest in a state of partial completion. The new capitalism had little desire to finish these plans because of the communist oppression they symbolized to the Romanian people. At the same time, a more nuanced assessment would be that Ceaușescu’s Romania symbolized not communism but, rather, the worst excesses of crony capitalism. In later years, Ceaușescu was buried in his own cult of personality, world of incalculable wealth, assets hidden in foreign bank accounts, and appointments of friends and family in high places. The Romanian people joked that everyone in Ceaușescu’s inner circle had nepotism to go around that the country had “Socialism in One Family.” As the 1980s brought economic hardship to Romania, and as the 1979 Iranian Revolution cut off oil supplies central to Romania’s economy, Ceaușescu cracked down hard through surveillance, oppression, and torture on unions, strikes, and workers demanding higher wages. The crisis was worsened by his decision to pay off the country’s foreign creditors and foreign debt through austerity measures and rollbacks in public services like health, education, and infrastructure. When workers dared to strike, Ceaușescu called in the military. No surprise then that one of the crowning moments of Ceaușescu’s career was a state visit to meet Margaret Thatcher and the British royal family, where he, too, was treated like royalty in exchange for signing lucrative trade agreements. Among Soviet Bloc countries, Bucharest retained the most independence from Moscow and the “most favored nation” trading status with the United States. Presidents like Nixon and later Reagan were hesitant to condemn Ceaușescu’s excesses and destruction of cultural heritage because they perceived Ceaușescu as a possible ally against the Soviet Union. Was the rebuilding of Bucharest in the image of socialism, or was it in the darker image of a technocratic oligarchy? At what point does Haussmann’s vision of Paris become megalomania?
The entry of Romania into the European Union has resolved some instability like food shortages and lack of consumer goods, but globalization has introduced new instabilities to Eastern Europe. Since the collapse of communism, skilled and young workers have left Romania and other Eastern European countries. From places like the Gara de Nord, Bucharest’s main rail station, millions of migrant workers now stream to Western Europe, where a restaurant worker abroad can make as much as a doctor at home. In places like the Gare du Nord, Paris’s main rail station and the busiest in Europe, ethnic groups like the Roma congregate and struggle on through begging and petty theft. As English-language rock music plays on local radio stations, Romania again looks beyond its borders for wealth and cultural influences.
The initial statement that Paris is “the premonition of totalitarianism” and Bucharest is “the tragic execution of the utopian dream” does not capture the full picture. In both cities, the rhetoric of Le Corbusier and Ceaușescu presented the pre-existing urban form as formless, empty, chaotic, and therefore needing the planner’s light from above. The city of darkness justified creating the city of lights. In both cities, the creation of the city of lights produced a new darkness in the cultures that were lost, the people that were displaced, and the oppressive symbols of absolute power embedded in new urban forms. Which is the city of dark and which is the city of lights becomes ambiguous on closer examination. The two leaders were different in their approaches, intentions, and images of the ideal city, but there are shared and darker underlying similarities.
The dichotomies of Paris and Bucharest, capitalism and communism, modernist and postmodernist architecture, utopia and dystopia start to fall apart. Bucharest’s urban form employs modern technologies but is built in a visual style that references monarchy and antiquity. In what era and ideological framework does this place Bucharest? Is Paris the utopian version of dystopian Bucharest? And, if Paris is a utopia, for whom is it a utopia? How could Ceaușescu’s Victory of Socialism Boulevard, one of the worst failures of city planning, be inspired by Haussmann’s boulevards that, we are told, get planning and public space right? Is the unhinged force of capitalism or the oppression of Soviet Socialism more responsible for destroying traditional urban forms?
Analysis of Paris and Bucharest raises larger and more fundamental questions about the feasibility of realizing utopia through architecture and social engineering alone. Le Corbusier’s vision for Paris emerged in the 1920s at a time when society had an unquestioning faith in progress and optimism in the technologies of airplanes, railroads, and science to advance humanity. Le Corbusier’s architecture was shaped around and celebrated the emerging technologies of glass, steel, concrete, and the automobile. Technology, Le Corbusier believed, must be incorporated into architecture and used in service of building a new society, a new Garden of Eden. Yet the horrors of World War transformed the technologies of modernity, like airplanes, chemical labs, and freight railroads, into agents of humanity’s own self-destruction and genocide. By the late twentieth century, the world had become skeptical of technology’s promise of progress and of architects’ promise that urban surgery to cities could further the project of democracy. Utopian projects Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, and Ceaușescu’s Bucharest appear outdated to modern eyes.
In this context, Ceaușescu’s Bucharest is a cultural outlier, a project completed in the 1970s and 80s at a time when most other planners had turned away from ambitious urban renewal projects. In the 1970s and 80s, American cities were abandoning the “towers in the park” and massive public housing projects in favor of improving urban neighborhoods through conservation, instead of demolition. At the same time, old Bucharest was being demolished and reshaped in accordance with the same urban planning principles that the planning profession had begun resisting in other countries. Before the wrecking balls and demolition crews had even begun their work, Bucharest had become yesterday’s city of tomorrow, a project completed in the 1980s that looked back to the 1880s. And yet, in the thirty years since the fall of communism, Bucharest’s wide boulevards and empty fields are still haunted by yesterday’s vision. City planners have yet to identify land uses for hundreds of acres that Ceaușescu cleared of buildings but never developed. Past, present, and future all blur together in the urban form.
What is today’s vision of tomorrow, not just for specific cities and buildings but also for society as a whole? And if the so-called “creative class” of planners and intellectuals that have governed society since the fall of communism are unable to offer alternatives for the utopian city of the future, will society resurrect failed visions of urban renewal in the hope of making things great again, whatever “great” means?[27] Recent opinion polls indicate that if Ceaușescu were alive today and were to run for president, over 50% of Romanians would vote for him.[28] As the world sees a resurgence of nationalism, as China grows as a world power, and as right wing government take power in democracies around the world, there is still hope for Le Corbusier’s visions of the future.

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Figure [viii]: Le Corbusier waved his hand above his urban renewal plans for Paris and declared: “The advent of the machine age has caused immense disturbances to man’s habits, place of dwelling and type of work […] Chaos has entered into the cities.”[29] This chaos must be solved through new ways of living that use machines to restore harmony between man and nature.

Figure [ix]: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. – Opening lines of Genesis[30]

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Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Robert Fishman, the advisor in my architecture PhD program, for his research on Le Corbusier and utopian urban forms that inspired this essay. I am grateful to my parents and pet dog whose companionship supported my research and writing during a challenging pandemic.
In a more twisted sense, I am grateful to the local universities and institutions in my native Newark, New Jersey. Their urban renewal actions from the 1950s to present day that demolished hundreds of historic buildings and dislocated thousands of people inspired me to consider the consequences of tabula rasa urban planning. More than an isolated instance of misguided urban renewal in a single American city, the demolition of traditional urban forms in the name of modernism has happened across the United States and world. Reading about utopian projects to build the ideal city inspired me to situate my subjective individual experiences in the larger history of architecture.

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Bibliography

Fraser, Valerie. “Brasília.” In Building the New World: Studies in the Modern Architecture of Latin America, 1930-1960. Verso: New York, 2000. 212-72.

Minkenberg, Michael. Power and Architecture: The Construction of Capitals and the Politics of Space. New York: Berghahn Books, 2014.

Rouvillois, Frédéric. “Utopia and Totalitarianism.” In Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World. New York City: New York Public Library, 2000. 316-32.

Scott Brown, Denise; Robert Venturi; and Steven Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas Book. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972.

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Paris:

Fishman, Robert. Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

–––––. Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier. Boston: MIT Press, 1982.

Le Corbusier. “Charter of Athens.” The Getty Conservation Institute. 1933. https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/research_resources/charters/charter04.html.

–––––. “Plan Voisin, Paris, France, 1925 (Extract from Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Oeuvre complète, volume 1, 1910-1929).” Fondation Le Corbusier. April 29, 2021. http://www.fondationlecorbusier.fr/corbuweb/morpheus.aspx?sysId=13&IrisObjectId=6159&sysLanguage=en-en&itemPos=2&itemCount=2&sysParentName=Home&sysParentId=65.

––––– and Jean-Louis Cohen (introduction). Toward an Architecture. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007.

“Reflecting on the concepts of streets,” Urban kchoze, December 18, 2014. http://urbankchoze.blogspot.com/2014/12/reflecting-on-concepts-of-streets.html.

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Bucharest:

Barris, Roann. “Contested Mythologies: The Architectural Deconstruction of a Totalitarian Culture.” Journal of Architectural Education (1984-) 54, no. 4 (2001): 229-37. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1425657.

Danta, Darrick. “Ceaușescu’s Bucharest.” Geographical Review 83, no. 2 (1993): 170-82. doi:10.2307/215255. https://www.jstor.org/stable/215255.

Cavalcanti, Maria de Betania. “Totalitarian States and Their Influence on City Form: The Case of Bucharest: Journal of Architectural and Planning Research 9, no. 4 (1992): 275-86. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43029085.

Dumitru, Alexandru. “Destroyed Bucharest.” Bucharestian. http://www.bucharestian.com/Destruction.html.

Gheorghe Apostol, Alexandru Birladeanu, Silviu Brucan, Corneliu Manescu, William Pfaff, Constantin Pirvulescu, “Letter of the Six, March 1989,” Making the History of 1989, Item #698, https://chnm.gmu.edu/1989/exhibits/unique-experience-of-romania/primary-sources/3.

Gillette, Robert. “Ceaușescu Getting Rid of Inefficient Small Villages.” Los Angeles Times. December 17, 1985. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1985-12-17-mn-30002-story.html.

Giurescu, Dinu C. The Razing of Romania’s Past. Washington D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1989.

Iuga, Liliana. “Reshaping the Historic City under Socialism: State Preservation, Urban Planning and the Politics of Scarcity in Romania (1945-1977).” PhD diss. Central European University, 2016.

Ronnas, Per. “Turning the Romanian Peasant into a New Socialist Man: An Assessment of Rural Development Policy in Romania.” Soviet Studies 41, no. 4 (1989): 543-59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/152536.

Walker, Shaun. “Romania comes to terms with monument to communism 30 years after Ceaușescu’s death: Bucharest’s notorious Palace of the Parliament bears witness to the folly of dictator shot dead on Christmas Day 1989” The Guardian. December 22, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/22/romania-palace-of-the-parliament-communism-30-years-after-fall-nicolae-Ceaușescu-christmas-day.

 

Footnotes

[1] Frédéric Rouvillois, “Utopia and Totalitarianism” in Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World (New York City: New York Public Library, 2000) 316.

[2] Robert Fishman, “Plan Voisin,” in Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier (Boston: MIT Press, 1982), 205-212.

[3] Maria de Betania Cavalcanti, “Totalitarian States and Their Influence on City Form: The Case of Bucharest: Journal of Architectural and Planning Research 9, no. 4 (1992): 275-86, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43029085.

[4] Le Corbusier, “Plan Voisin, Paris, France, 1925 (Extract from Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Oeuvre complète, volume 1, 1910-1929),” Fondation Le Corbusier. http://www.fondationlecorbusier.fr/corbuweb/morpheus.aspx?sysId=13&IrisObjectId=6159&sysLanguage=en-en&itemPos=2&itemCount=2&sysParentName=Home&sysParentId=65.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Le Corbusier (author) and Jean-Louis Cohen (introduction), “The Lesson of Rome: Rome and Us,” in Toward an Architecture, (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007), 211-12.

[7] Ibid., “Eyes that do not see,” 149.

[8] Le Corbusier, “Charter of Athens,” The Getty Conservation Institute, 1933. https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/research_resources/charters/charter04.html.

[9] Fishman, “Quest for Authority / Vichy,” in Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century, 235-252.

[10] Liliana Iuga, Two Meanings of Reconstruction, in “Reshaping the Historic City under Socialism: State Preservation, Urban Planning and the Politics of Scarcity in Romania (1945-1977),” PhD diss. (Central European University, 2016), 67-77.

[11] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Secker & Warburg, 1949).

[12] “Reflecting on the concepts of streets,” Urban kchoze, December 18, 2014.

http://urbankchoze.blogspot.com/2014/12/reflecting-on-concepts-of-streets.html.

[13] “Historically, the loss of Paris always meant the loss of France. The Führer repeats his order that Paris has to be defended. […] The strongest measures to quell insurrection inside the city must be taken. […] The bridges across the Seine are to be prepared for demolition. Paris must not fall into enemy hands except as a field of ruins.” Adolf Hitler, 1944.

[14] “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” – Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, 1845

[15] Le Corbusier, “Charter of Athens,” The Getty Conservation Institute, 1933. https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/research_resources/charters/charter04.html.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Darrick Danta, “Ceaușescu’s Bucharest,” Geographical Review 83, no. 2 (1993): 178.

[18] Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, 211-12.

[19] Danta, “Ceaușescu’s Bucharest,” 174.

[20] Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas Book (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972).

[21] Alexandru Dumitru, “Destroyed Bucharest,” Bucharestian. http://www.bucharestian.com/Destruction.html.

[22] Roann Barris, “Contested Mythologies: The Architectural Deconstruction of a Totalitarian Culture,” Journal of Architectural Education (1984-) 54, no. 4 (2001): 229-37.

[23] Valerie Fraser, “Brasília” in Building the New World: Studies in the Modern Architecture of Latin America, 1930-1960 (Verso: New York, 2000), 212-72.

[24] Although his book never mentions Bucharest, inspiration for the line of critique taken in this section of the essay is inspired from: Michael Minkenberg, Power and Architecture: The Construction of Capitals and the Politics of Space (New York: Berghahn Books, 2014).

[25] Per Ronnas, “Turning the Romanian Peasant into a New Socialist Man: An Assessment of Rural Development Policy in Romania,” Soviet Studies 41, no. 4 (1989): 543-59, http://www.jstor.org/stable/152536.

[26] Dinu C. Giurescu, The Razing of Romania’s Past (Washington D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1989).

[27] Donald Trump, “Executive Order 13697: Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” National Archives, December 23, 2020,

https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/12/23/2020-28605/promoting-beautiful-federal-civic-architecture.

[28] Raluca Besliu, “Communist Nostalgia in Romania,” openDemocracy, April 13, 2014, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/communist-nostalgia-in-romania/.

[29] Le Corbusier, “Charter of Athens,” The Getty Conservation Institute, 1933. https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/research_resources/charters/charter04.html.

[30] “Genesis” 1:1-5, New International Version.

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Figures

Figure [i]: Faut-il raser Paris ? Le plan Voisin de Le Corbusier (1925), 2021, image still from film, Le Tableau de Paris, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRQ7-A_mhyk.

Figure [ii]: Maria de Betania Cavalcanti, “Totalitarian States and Their Influence on City Form: The Case of Bucharest, Journal of Architectural and Planning Research 9, no. 4 (1992): 280 fig. 1, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43029085.

Figure [iii]: Les Halles Marketplace in Paris, photo, telerafi.com

https://telegrafi.com/rrnofte-teatri/.

Figure [iv]: Marketplace in Bucharest: Andrei Pandele, “30 Astonishing Vintage Photographs Capture Everyday Life in Bucharest Under Ceausescu Era of the 1970s and ‘80” Vintage Everyday, May 11, 2018,

https://www.vintag.es/2018/05/andrei-pandele-romania-photos.html.

Figure [v]: Mihai Voda Orthodox Church: Kit Gillet, “Eugeniu Iordachescu, Who Saved Bucharest’s Churches, Dies at 89,” The New York Times, January 11, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/11/obituaries/eugeniu-iordachescu-dead.html.

Figure [vi]: Church of Saint John the New in 1986: “Urbán Tamás,” Fortepan, 1986,Biserica Sfântul Ioan cel Nou

https://fortepan.hu/en/photos/?q=bucharest,%20urban%20tamas.

Figure [vii]: Church of Saint John the New in 2019: image from Google Maps street view.

Figure [viii]: Le Corbusier with Plan Voisin: Robert Fishman, Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier (Boston: MIT Press, 1982).

Figure [ix]: Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, 1508-12, Vatican.

Branch Brook Park Interactive History Map

As featured by the Branch Brook Park Alliance as the official park map

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Navigate this interactive history map of Newark’s Branch Brook Park. Click on map features to learn about park amenities, recreational spaces, and historic features. Map annotations are paired with explanatory texts and comparative photos of past and present. Beneath each annotation is the Google Maps link that will display directions to that point in the park from wherever you are standing.
All historic images are from the archives of the Essex County Parks Department and Newark Public Library. Browse their digital collections or contact the agency to visit their archives. All descriptions are sourced from the Cultural Landscape Report that documented the park’s history and renovation.
Map created by Myles Zhang
Map texts by Linda Morgan, Curtis Kline, Myles Zhang, Maeher Khosla, and Jack Barron
Contemporary photos by Curtis Kline with Mouli Luo

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Scenes of Branch Brook Park Past and Present

The park’s change over time becomes visible in this series of past vs. present photo comparisons. The once meticulously landscaped gardens and flowerbeds of the old park mature into the large trees and dense foliage of today. At the same time, many architectural follies and ornamental buildings have decayed to the point that no traces remain of their former existence. Old postcard views date from c.1900, while contemporary views were taken by Curtis Kline in summer 2021.

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Southern Division Buildings

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Boat House

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Boat House

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Lover’s Lane Bridge

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Ornamental Arch

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Sand Court

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Bandstand

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Southern Division Landscapes

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Cyprus Tree Promenade

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Reservoir

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Flower Garden

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Flower Garden

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Wisteria Walk

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Wisteria Walk

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Branch Brook Lake

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Middle and Northern Division

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Police Boats

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Wading Pool

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Rustic Footbridge

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Field House

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Tiffany Falls

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Warren Street School Demolition

As featured in:
1. Darren Tobia for Jersey Digs

2. The Vector, NJIT’s student newspaper
3. Read my analysis of campus architecture for some context on this demolition.

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“Those historians want to keep these old bricks. I can’t see why you’d want that s**t. F**k it. We might just slip in some new bricks. You can’t tell the difference anyway.”

– Conversation overheard between demolition workers at the Warren Street School

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“The university has never demolished any historic building of any value. Name one.”

– President of the university during a community meeting in October 2020

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When walking past the historic Warren Street School in spring 2021, a demolition scene by the local university shocked me. The building had been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, together with five other Newark school buildings. Therefore, the drastic destruction should have been under state and local reviews. But demolition was approved on April 1, 2021, on April Fools Day.
The 150-year-old school was built by Jeremiah O’Rourke, the Supervising Architect for the U.S. Treasury Department and the architect of Sacred Heart Basilica and some of the largest civic structures in 1890s America. Before the university acquired the building in salvageable condition, it was the home of American History High School, founded by beloved Professor Clement Price to promote learning of American and local history by coming generations. Even with its windows now stripped out and demolition equipment parked around it, the grand master work for Newark’s proud history of public education was crying for this painful end delivered by the wanton and shameful act of university leadership.
At the orders of the university president, a short-sighted acceleration of demolition around the campus in the country’s third oldest major city has been savagely damaging the city’s history. These actions add to the list of hundreds of buildings already demolished in the area. While institutions like Rutgers and developers like RBH and the Hanini Group have embraced historic preservation, this university still insists on wiping the slate clean of history that it views not as an asset but as an inconvenience.

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The future of any great institution depends on the preservation and appreciation of its own history. I believe in saving old buildings not just because they are pretty. More than an argument for historic preservation on aesthetics alone, history – and the visible presence of history – shapes our appreciation for the sacrifices of those before us. Passing by the Warren Street School for twenty years, I thought every time of the thousands of immigrant children who attended school here for over 170 years uninterrupted. I thought of the Irish and Italian brick masons who carved the school’s terracotta ornaments by hand on wages of 5 and 10 dollars a day. I thought of these children’s parents, who came to Newark by steamship and steam engine to give to their children a better shot at life than they could ever dream of. I thought of the architect who built this building in the 1880s with care and love and hope that better civic architecture will produce better citizens.
It is the burden of history that shapes us, and it is on our commitment (or failure) to interpret and enrich history for the next generation on which each of us will be judged. I am reminded of architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s words in 1963 when she described with horror the demolition of New York Penn Station.
“Until the first blow fell no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance. Somehow someone would surely find a way to prevent it at the last minute – not-so little Nell rescued by the hero – even while the promoters displayed the flashy renderings of the new sports arena and somewhat less than imperial commercial buildings to take its place.
“It’s not easy to knock down nine acres of travertine and granite, 84 Doric columns, a vaulted concourse of extravagant, weighty grandeur, classical splendor modeled after royal Roman baths, rich detail in solid stone, architectural quality in precious materials that set the stamp of excellence on a city. But it can be done. It can be done if the motivation is great enough, and it has been demonstrated that the profit motivation in this instance was great enough.
“Monumental problems almost as big as the building itself stood in the way of preservation; but it is the shame of New York, of its financial and cultural communities, its politicians, philanthropists, and planners, and of the public as well, that no serious effort was made. A rich and powerful city, noted for its resources of brains, imagination and money, could not rise to the occasion. The final indictment is of the values of our society.
“Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

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Learn from the past.
Live in the present.
Plan for the future.

This was the inscription mounted at the Warren Street School’s entrance, which demolition cranes tore off and crushed in the dumpster. A site that once had a past, now has no past to learn from and to inform the present and future. Through demolition, our link with history is severed.

Bulldozer Urbanism

As featured in:

1. Preservation New Jersey: Ten Most Endangered Historic Places  May 18, 2021
2. After Warren Street School Demolished, James Street Named ‘Most Endangered’  May 18
3. Newark Historic District Designated as Endangered  May 18, 2021
4. James Street Community Rushes to Stall NJIT’s Demolition of Historic School  May 6, 2021
5. Nothing Lasts Forever, Not even at NJIT   February 1, 2021
6. SHPO Delays NJIT’s Plan to Raze 4 Historic Buildings    January 8, 2021
7. NJIT’s Plans to Demolish Buildings in Historic District Temporarily Derailed   January 7, 2021
8. Old Jail Could Inspire Youth to Stay Out of Prison – But Only If It Survives   July 4, 2020
9. NJIT’s Plans to Modernize Its Campus Could Cost Newark Some History   March 12, 2020

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James Street Commons demolitions completed and proposed as of April 2021

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Note: Visiting NJIT’s architecture school at age six and seeing students working there was what initially inspired my desire to study architecture. NJIT is an asset to Newark, and the school deserves the quality of campus architecture to match. I wrote and circulated this essay about NJIT’s under-performing campus design to members of NJIT and the Newark community. I am sharing it online, too, in the hope that future leaders of NJIT will collaborate with the community to create campus architecture that is culturally and historically sensitive to Newark.

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A Pedestrian’s Observations

Experiencing NJIT’s campus from the street

In publicity materials and in meetings with Newark residents and historians, the New Jersey Institute of Technology emphasizes the quality of its campus architecture and its track record of historic preservation. The school highlights its Central King Building (formerly Central High School) and Eberhardt Hall (formerly Newark Orphan Asylum) as trophies of historic preservation.
However, beyond its fortified campus carved out during the 1960s era of “urban renewal,” the university is now escalating its demolitions in the neighboring James Street Commons Historic District. Listed since 1978 on the National Register of Historic Places, this neighborhood is the city’s first historic district and contains some of Newark’s most significant historic assets. The spending of millions of dollars on building demolitions is odd when NJIT faced a 35 million dollar budget deficit in the first half of 2021,[1] and when other Newark institutions and developers are following an opposite path of historic preservation.
As NJIT expands into the James Street Commons Historic District, there is concern that new construction will not improve the built environment. For instance, NJIT’s proposal for 240 MLK included few to no windows at pedestrian eye level. The entrance to the parking garage and trash collection was from the side of the building that faced toward the residential neighborhood. Several other structures in the neighborhood are also at risk or have already been demolished by NJIT, such as Mueller’s Florist, which was a former corset and tin toy factory built in the 1880s to 1890s. Similarly, NJIT acquired the c.1890 brownstone at 317 MLK for ~$450,000 in livable condition. In following weeks and months before NJIT received demolition approvals, windows were left open and removed, thereby accelerating decay and water damage. The current demolitions follow a longer pattern among hundreds of other buildings demolished in my neighborhood. This would all be okay if only there was better quality architecture to replace what is being lost.
I write this essay as a series of architecture observations followed by recommendations. Firstly, I provide examples of how NJIT’s current campus design is detrimental to neighborhood street life. Secondly, I document the neighborhood’s appearance before and after NJIT’s interventions through my photo comparisons of past and present. Thirdly, I provide examples of more sensitive models for alternative neighborhood redevelopment.

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Completed in 2017, NJIT’s athletic facility is the newest building on campus.
The pedestrian view along the sidewalk has no windows.

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Demolition of the 140-year-old Bowers corset factory in progress (aka Mueller’s)

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Map of NJIT campus. Buildings that face toward the street with no windows at or near eye level are indicated with red lines. Surface parking lots and parking structures for commuter students and faculty are indicated with red squares.

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1. Architecture of Fear at NJIT

NJIT’s newest architecture does not actively promote urban street life. For instance, Fenster Hall opened in 2004 at a cost of 83.5 million dollars. The architect Charles Gwathmey told the audience at the building’s dedication: “University buildings…have an obligation to give the campus a sense of place, and happily, that is what we are achieving here.” The main entrance to Fenster Hall faces inward to the campus community. Meanwhile, the side that faces toward the neighborhood and city is the parking garage and eight stories of bare concrete that rise straight up with no windows at ground level.

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The photo above is the side of Fenster Hall that faces toward the neighborhood. The emergency police call box and video surveillance signs might make out-of-town car commuters feel safe. But defensive architecture perversely has the opposite effect of making local residents, who must live with this architecture, feel excluded and surveilled.
Activist and urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote that attractive and safe neighborhoods to live in will always have “eyes on the street.” In her ideal neighborhood, shop windows, apartments, and urban life always face to the street. In active and mixed-use neighborhoods where people both live and work, there is always 24-hour street life and therefore people looking from their windows onto the street at all times.
The blank walls and surveillance cameras surrounding NJIT’s campus can be justified on grounds of public safety. However, hostile architecture that turns away from the city eliminates eyes on the street and, ironically, encourages the kind of crime it was built to defend against. In successful campus architecture, there will be reduced need for surveillance cameras.

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The side of Fenster Hall that faces toward the city discourages street life and looks like a fortress. There once was a brick mansion here like the Ballantine House or Krueger-Scott Mansion.

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Metropolitan Correctional Center in Brooklyn
Google Earth street view image

NJIT Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

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Sidewalk view of NJIT Microelectronics Center

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Warren Street School: NJIT says the building is too fire damaged to save.
The photo above shows the building after the fire.

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Warren Street School before

 

and during NJIT’s demolition

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Warren Street School before

 

and during NJIT’s demolition

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Another project is the demolition of the Warren Street School for NJIT student dorms. NJIT announced demolition plans in fall 2020 on its website. The Warren Street School from the nineteenth-century is by Jeremiah O’Rourke, a resident of Newark and the same architect as Sacred Heart Basilica and some of the most important civic structures in the US. The Warren Street School passed preliminary review to be included on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also be included in Preservation NJ’s 2021 list of the ten most endangered historic sites in the state.
As a final image, here is a photo past and present of NJIT’s architecture school. At left is the Victorian structure named Weston Hall, built c.1886 as NJIT’s first home. At right is the architecture school that now occupies this site. Originally, Weston Hall faced toward the street and city. Now, the current building at this site faces away from the city and presents its rear toward the public street.

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One of NJIT’s first homes at Weston Hall[2]

was demolished and now looks like this.

When NJIT’s architecture school hosted a Regional Plan Association conference in 2004, the organizers were afraid that Mayor Cory Booker and attendees could confuse the permanently locked street doors for the building entrance, shown above at right. A note was left on the door: “Mr. Mayor, please enter through the door inside the campus.”

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2. The campus of NJIT before and after urban renewal

When the Historic Sites Council was reviewing recent demolition applications for old buildings in the James Street Commons Historic District, one of the commissioners asked: “If NJIT is taking something away from the community, what is it giving back?” This is a more fundamental question that goes beyond historic preservation. All buildings have a lifespan, and preservation is not always possible. But if a building is demolished, the building that replaces it needs to be higher quality and more actively contribute to the quality of street life than what was there before.
NJIT is a commuter school, and most educators who work at NJIT live outside Newark. This is unfortunate because Newark would benefit from having NJIT more involved in the local community. In some ways, NJIT community members who choose to live outside of Newark cannot be faulted because many Newark neighborhoods are not aesthetically pleasing. Therefore, it is in the school’s own interest to make the surrounding neighborhood a more pleasant place to live, walk, and work.
Unfortunately, the photo comparisons below illustrate that the walkability and aesthetics of my neighborhood have deteriorated since the 1960s. Universities are drivers of upward social mobility, economic growth, and knowledge production. NJIT deserves credit for this. However, the university’s built environment falls short of expressing progressive values. Architecture that presents a blank wall to the street does not benefit the city aesthetically. More crucially, this does not benefit the students’ educational experience either. Architecture that turns away from the city communicates to students that the urban environment is not safe and not worth engaging in.
In 1962, after over ten years’ preparation, the Urban Renewal Project NJ R-45 (Newark College Expansion), with federal capital grants of $7,674,309 and millions more of state and local bonds, displaced more than 1,300 families. Through eminent domain, the state demolished 87.5 acres of brownstones and historic structures next to the now James Street Commons Historic District. Five years later, the government expanded the urban renewal projects and displaced thousands more people for the campus of UMDNJ. The resulting civil unrest of July 1967 injured 727 people and killed 26. Newark’s reputation still suffers from the legacy of urban renewal.
These photos were all taken in 1960 immediately before the neighborhood’s demolition for NJIT. The wholesale demolition of old buildings, while unfortunate, was an opportunity to build back better. This opportunity was squandered with defensive architecture. Moving forward, NJIT must take every opportunity to shift toward a more inclusive and street-facing campus.

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Mueller’s Florist in 1960[3]

Building demolition in 2021

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Intersection of Warren and Summit Street in 1960[4]

The site is now a parking lot and building with no street-facing windows at eye level

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Warren looking west to High Street in 1960[5]

The same scene today. The university bookstore here has no windows to the street.

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Summit Street above Raymond Boulevard in 1960, home of a paper box company[6]

Now a multi-story parking garage for commuter students and faculty

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251 to 245 MLK in 1964[7]

Now a parking lot for St. Michael’s and NJIT

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Summit Street and New Street in 1960[8]

The winch used to lift up bales of hay is visible in the upper left of carriage house.

Fenster Hall now stands here.

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Intersection of Bleeker and Hoyt Street in 1960[9]

Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

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3. A sensitive development model by Rutgers Newark

Rutgers made urban renewal mistakes in the past. But with a new university administration, the school is learning from past mistakes and becoming a better citizen of Newark.

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Rutgers Living-Learning Community (Image courtesy of RBH Group)

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Completed just last year is Rutgers’ Living-Learning Community on the full block just next door to the Hahne’s Building. At this site within the same James Street Commons Historic District as NJIT’s continuing demolitions, Rutgers inserted new student housing as infill within the urban environment. Existing structures at three of the four corners of the site help to mask the scale and mass of the new construction. The building is not too tall, includes ground floor stores, and employs brick materials and floor heights that mirror the neighboring brownstones and businesses from the nineteenth century. The result is a project of high quality that not only responds to its environment but actually feels safer and more pleasant to walk past.

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Teachers Village (Image courtesy of RBH Group)

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Similarly, the Newark Teachers Village by Newark-born Richard Meier looks toward the street and stimulates street life with ground floor activities. The project is a first in Newark because it is targeted at encouraging educators to live in the community where they work. The developer was selective about preserving some old buildings to create a more visually rich and organic streetscape of old and new. The average building is no higher than four to five stories and includes frequent setbacks and varieties of materials. Although construction of the NJIT campus displaced an entire neighborhood, there is the opportunity for new construction to resemble the quality of urban life that was lost.

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Urban renewal done wrong:
NJIT’s Cullimore Hall on Bleeker StreetMost of the façade has no windows and detracts from the quality of street life.Those boxes at sidewalk level are mechanical equipment.
Urban renewal done right: Rutgers’ Bleeker St. brownstones just one block from Cullimore Hall.These are a few of the brownstones that Rutgers fixed up and turned into university offices. The building entrances all face toward the city. Rutgers put a flowerpot at sidewalk level.

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Urban renewal done wrong:
Warren Street SchoolThis school was built in the 1890s by Jeremiah O’Rourke. NJIT demolished this landmark.
Urban renewal done right:
Old St. Michael’s HospitalThis hospital was built in the 1880s by the same Jeremiah O’Rourke. The Hanini Group is renovating this building.

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Old St. Michael’s Hospital and Warren Street School are two vacant and landmarked buildings by the same architect, built with the same method of brick construction, in the same neighborhood, and at the same period of time. However, one of these buildings is being demolished by NJIT while the other is being saved. The Hanini Group is transforming St. Michael’s Hospital into apartments and an arts center. Adaptive reuse of the hospital might be more expensive than demolition, but the success of a project must not be assessed on profit alone. As a non-profit and educational institution, NJIT needs to think longer term about higher quality projects that might have lower profit margins.

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Urban renewal done wrong:
NJIT Fenster HallParking garage at Fenster Hall: The rock landscaping in the foreground and the bare concrete wall are unpleasant to walk past.
Urban renewal done right:
Rutgers Living-Learning CommunityRutgers’ new parking garage: There are street trees, brick walls, and shop windows at ground level.
What sets NJIT’s Fenster Hall and Rutgers’ Living-Learning Community apart is the attitude of the institution to the Newark community. Fenster Hall turns its back to Newark and expresses fears of urban life. Rutgers’ newest projects are part of the city and neighborhood at a later time when Rutgers reassessed its responsibility as an urban citizen. Infill housing and historic preservation put “creative restraints” on developers and institutions. When developers like Rutgers incorporate history into their projects, the process, approvals, and financial cost might be more difficult, but the project is universally of higher quality.
The priorities and values of an institution are reflected in the architecture it creates for itself. NJIT should be an asset to Newark’s economy with so many faculty and staff who genuinely care about Newark. The school deserves better architecture that reflects its commitment to Newark. NJIT and developers alike need to think about historic preservation and the pedestrian scale in all future projects.
“Transformation is the opportunity of doing more and better with what is already existing. The demolishing is a decision of easiness and short term. It is a waste of many things—a waste of energy, a waste of material, and a waste of history. Moreover, it has a very negative social impact. For us, it is an act of violence.”
– Anne Lacaton recipient of the 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize

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Endnotes and Image Credits

[1] https://www.njit.edu/pandemicrecovery/njit-fiscal-update

[2] https://newarkchangingsite.wordpress.com/ Images scanned from the collections of the Newark Public Library

[3] All historic images are from the Newark Public Library’s collection of photos by Samuel Berg: https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3A96b40a0d-640a-46c0-bf48-8a232b155ccb

[4] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3Ab1889dcf-5009-4e8b-bbec-588c63fe3e9a

[5] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3Ae3100c3e-2ac2-4fb2-b42a-987ffbc0f781

[6] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3Ad65f7167-96a8-4e45-bb72-594ec57bf295

[7] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3Af94bf759-2be2-45dd-8e88-e3dd43ca8296

[8] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3Af58b08d8-f527-49d3-b841-2176bbba54d1

[9] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3A0286e6d3-b8ac-46b7-8968-5e8a39f863e2

Book Review of “Saving America’s Cities”

Lizabeth Cohen. Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019. 547 pp.

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The memory of mid-century urban renewal will always evoke images of the bleak brick towers and windswept plazas of crime-ridden public housing. Urban renewal projects airdropped into the city fabric caused demolition and dislocation. This colossal failure has been epitomized by Robert Moses’ automobile-oriented vision of New York City. The Power Broker by Robert Caro described Moses stubbornly going alone to remove 1,500 families and pave the Cross Bronx Expressway through their vibrant neighborhood.[1] By contrast, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs vividly described a sentimental city life with lively streets of safe neighborhoods. Pedestrians stroll along short city blocks while residents watch from brownstone stoops in her quaint Greenwich Village alleys.[2] The two polarized visions of activist Jacobs vs. authoritarian Moses have set the terms of the debate on city design and, by extension, about the government’s role in structuring urban life. Lizabeth Cohen, a Harvard historian of twentieth-century America, critiques the current dichotomy: “The lack of subtlety that I have lamented in current historical understanding of postwar American urbanism stems partly from its frequent framing as a monumental battle between the clashing visions of the villainous Robert Moses and the saintly Jane Jacobs.”[3] Between these two schools of thought, Cohen introduced the largely forgotten “Master Builder” Ed Logue to dispel misconceptions about urban renewal.
Logue serves a curious alternative to the polarity between Jacobs and Moses. Despite her biographical focus, Cohen does not lionize Logue’s dedication, but recounts his lifetime of successes, false starts, and imperfections. Logue came from a Philadelphia working-class family with an Irish Catholic background. Serving as a bombardier during WWII, he first experienced a top-down city vision from the air above Berlin and Dresden. Trained at Yale with a full scholarship, Logue was committed to the New Deal idealism of government serving the public good. His life, however, demonstrated how even the best of planners could not get the ill-conceived legal framework behind urban renewal to work most of the time. One reviewer of Cohen’s book asks in Architect Magazine: “How could such a clear-eyed, honest, and progressive guy, talented at getting lots of money from the federal government, oversee so many disastrous projects?”[4]
Through New Haven, Boston, and New York City, Cohen traces Logue’s city planning career of working against far larger anti-urban political and social forces. During his time in New Haven (1954-60), Logue planned to rescue the falling city by bringing suburban shoppers downtown. He built the Oak Street Connector for shoppers’ automobiles. This highway stub severed the urban fabric with an asphalt band of parking lots and uprooted a largely low-income Black community. However, Logue’s Chapel Square Mall in downtown New Haven, with indoor shopping and garage parking, never brought in enough enthusiastic suburbanites to survive against competing forces of anti-urban decentralization. What Logue called a “pluralist democracy” in New Haven planning actually relied more on experts’ work than on input from affected citizens.
Touting his approach of “planning with people,” Logue worked in Boston (1961-67) to break the city’s thirty-year economic stagnation. Unlike in New Haven, Logue created a “negotiated cityscape” of old and new in Boston and preserved some of the oldest architecture, such as Quincy Market. However, his ambitious Brutalist inverted ziggurat of the Government Center, next to a desolate brick-paved plaza, evoked an oppressive aura. His successful housing projects, particularly in the African-American Roxbury neighborhood, defied James Baldwin’s characterization that “Urban Renewal means negro removal.”[5]
Logue’s next career move (1968-75) landed him in New York City to lead the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) for 33,000 residential units, including thousands of affordable housing. After the “long, hot summer of 1967” with riots in 159 cities, President Nixon formulated his “suburban strategy,”[6] by appealing to suburban Whites’ fears of the inner city and Black insurrection. In a hostile climate, Logue encountered his political match from suburban residents. The wealthy Westchester towns vehemently opposed Logue’s attempt to place middle income and affordable housing in their backyard. The downward spiral of urban America became unstoppable. Neither urban renewal, nor affordable housing, nor highway construction could restrain the core middle urban tax base from driving away to the alluring American dream of “little boxes on the hillside,”[7] with “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”[8]
Ousted from UDC, Logue settled for the final stage of his career (1978-85) at the South Bronx Development Organization. To revive the South Bronx with affordable housing, Logue no longer turned to demolition, as the urban fabric had already been devastated by arson, blight, and White flight. Logue recognized that the government had ceased investing in shopping malls, city halls, or intensely designed architecture. Instead, as if admitting the defeat of high-density urban development, Logue worked with residents to rebuild formerly urban Charlotte Street along suburban models of prefab homes with white picket fences. In a thriving nation of suburbs, the suburb had now come to the city.
Logue’s career capstone in the South Bronx was not polished architecture that he preferred, but the development that people desired. Community participations brought all stakeholders to the table, as Logue increasingly practiced. Over time, he realized that the top-down approach taken by urban redevelopment experts had serious limitations. People in the affected neighborhoods deserved to realize their vision of urban communities diversified with respect to income, race, and age. Their voices were the best insurance for equitable services for schools, transportation, retail stores, and affordable housing.
As Cohen asserts, Logue and urban renewal defy fast judgments. Across each decade, and in each of those three cities, Logue’s urban renewal had shifting goalposts, developed at various scales, and involved different levels of community participation. To attribute the flaws of urban renewal to arrogant individuals or to austere designs for “towers in the park” is to ignore the larger picture. As Logue’s battle for affordable housing in suburban Westchester revealed, the problem rests less with urban renewal itself and more with the nation’s social, economic, and political agenda against cities.
Throughout his career, Logue’s honorable goals proved impossible. With the Cold War fever in the ‘50s, the erosion of social tenets in the ‘60s, and post-Watergate suspicions against authority in the ‘70s, American public ceased to believe government had a mandate to bring about a just and equitable society. In his 1981 inauguration address, President Reagan expressed the core of the conservative belief: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”[9] During his final years, Logue watched helplessly as America increasingly turned to private investments for deteriorating infrastructure, eroding affordable housing, and shrinking essential services. Contemporary cities are defined by accumulated wealth, racial disparity, and privileged consumption. Even with Section 8 vouchers and “inclusionary” zoning, affordable housing is largely unavailable to diverse communities.[10]
The intriguing story of Logue’s life suggests that the fate of cities cannot be left solely to top-down developers or government bureaucrats or market forces. A process of negotiation is needed in order to bring all interests to the table. A spirit of experimentation defies an authoritarian way to remake cities. Paradoxically, to respond to a national emergency, Logue, a lifelong New Dealer, believed that the federal government’s pivotal role is essential for successful negotiations and experimentations. This would be the legacy of urban renewal, as Cohen concludes, that “the master builder” would want us to honor.

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Endnotes

[1] Robert Caro, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: 1974).

[2] Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: 1961).

[3] Lizabeth Cohen, “Saving America’s Cities: Re-evaluating the complex history of urban renewal,” Public Seminar, October 1, 2019. https://publicseminar.org/essays/public-seminar-excerpt-and-interview-lizabeth-cohen/

[4] Elizabeth Greenspan, “Ed Logue and the Unexpected Lessons of Urban Renewal: A biography of the forgotten ‘master rebuilder’ challenges established truths about city planning,” Architect Magazine, January 29, 2020. https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/ed-logue-and-the-unexpected-lessons-of-urban-renewal_o

[5] James Baldwin interview with Kenneth Clark, 1963. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8Abhj17kYU

[6] Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton: 2006).

[7] From the song “Little Boxes” written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962, sung by Pete Seeger in 1963

[8] From Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign slogan

[9] “Ronald Reagan Quotes and Speeches,” Ronald Reagan Institute. https://www.reaganfoundation.org/ronald-reagan/reagan-quotes-speeches/inaugural-address-2/

[10] Kenneth Jackson and Lizabeth Cohen, “Urban Renewal in the Suburban Age: The Struggle to Redefine the American City,” Brooklyn Public Library: Center for Brooklyn History, October 23, 2019. https://www.brooklynhistory.org/events/urban-renewal-in-the-suburban-age-the-struggle-to-redefine-the-american-city/

Demolishing Public Space at New York Penn Station

What does old Penn Station’s loss reflect about the evolution of public space in New York City?

Written with Evander Price, recent PhD student in American Studies and chronocriticism at Harvard. Thanks also to Adam Brondheim for his insights about historic preservation in NYC.

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Download this essay as a PDF file

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The old waiting room, [1] once the largest indoor public space in New York City, is now a parking lot. [2]

Demolition crews began hacking away at the limestone walls, stone eagles, and thirty-foot tall Doric columns of old New York Penn Station in October 1963. In a construction industry where architects typically quote projects as lasting eighteen months, the demolition and rebuilding of old Penn Station lasted five years. At its 1910 opening, old Penn Station was the largest and most expensive infrastructure project ever built in New York City. The station’s associated service tunnels stretched 5.5 miles under the Hudson and East River. At 350 feet long and 150 feet high, old Penn Station’s waiting room was the city’s largest internal space. Construction cost $100 million, or $2.7 billion in 2020 adjusted for inflation. By 1963, this was the largest and most expensive structure ever demolished in New York City.[3]
In a 1963 conversation with The New York Times, the developer justified demolition as “putting passengers first” and then clarified: “The outside is the only thing of artistic value as far as I’m concerned. The handling of 200,000 passengers is much more important to me. […] In some areas the land is just too valuable to save anything that doesn’t fully utilize it.”[4] The developer’s aspirations for Penn Station’s replacement, however misguided, were no less monumental in their imagination: to construct a profitable office skyscraper and Manhattan’s largest arena for sporting events and conventions. Office workers and event spectators could move directly from trains to their seats without stepping outside, or engaging with the public space of the city streets.

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1968 advertisement for the new station [5]

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“The fact is that the redevelopment of the Pennsylvania Station into a $90 million building complex will transform the area from a static uneconomic burden on the railroad into a viable commercial and recreational center of benefit to the entire West Thirty-fourth Street neighborhood and the public at large.” – Allen J. Greenough, Pennsylvania Railroad President.[6]

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Architects have long positioned the demolition of monumental old Penn Station as a key moment in the discourse on historical preservation. This was, to quote leading New York City historian Kenneth Jackson, the moment when: “Human beings, myself included, have an unfortunate tendency to appreciate people and things only after they are gone. Pennsylvania Station is the catalyst for the historic preservation movement.”[7] The public realized that even a monument as expensive and permanent as Penn Station could vanish with no mechanism for the public to object. Activists pressured the city government to pass New York’s first ever landmarks preservation law in 1965.[8] Some historians, like Anthony Wood, have posited that the movement toward landmarks preservation began years before Penn Station’s demolition, and that this demolition was not critical in motivating landmarks preservation.[9] Nonetheless, in the following decades, the city protected over 120,000 historic buildings (comprising about 14% of New York City’s built environment).[10]
Less cited and discussed is how Penn Station’s loss parallels a larger late-twentieth-century trend to erode and privatize the commons. The demolition and rebuilding of old Penn Station is a lens to examine the competing tensions of economics vs. aesthetics and private vs. public interests. The demolition and reconstruction of old Penn Station mirrors the larger abandonment of government and corporate responsibility for maintaining and upholding public space.

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Although Midtown’s largest building in this c.1911 photo, skyscrapers soon surrounded Penn Station.[11]

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Old Penn Station as public space in a city of private interests

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In a city symbolic of rational capitalism and industry, old Penn Station spoke of an alternative and idealistic vision for future New York: a city of low-rise buildings and ample public space. The station’s architects McKim, Meade, and White disdained New York’s emerging skyscrapers. They toured Europe in preparation for designing Penn Station. European models of wide and long boulevards framing monumental buildings inspired them, such as the Gare de l’Est in Paris. At the time, the average building in Midtown Manhattan was no higher than six stories, and Penn Station – at over 150 feet tall – would have been among the neighborhood’s highest and largest buildings. For inspiration, the architects copied the main waiting room from Rome’s Baths of Diocletian.[12] This reference is more than aesthetic: Rome’s massive baths were as much functional infrastructure in a city without widespread indoor plumbing as they were civic and social spaces for all people to gather and socialize. By analogy, the Pennsylvania Railroad envisioned its waiting room – which was far larger and cathedral-like than the functional operations of boarding a train demands – as a civic and social space, an urban stage-set for the drama of commuting. Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist turned philanthropist who launched his business career as an employee of the Pennsylvania Railroad, wrote in his 1889 article The Gospel of Wealth: “Surplus wealth should be considered as a sacred trust, to be administered during the lives of its owners, by them as trustees, for the best good of the community in which and from which it had been acquired.”[13]
Old Penn Station operated as public space that belonged to the city at large. Ingrained in a visit to the museum (with an admission fee), the public library (with set hours and borrowing rules), or the church (with a dress code and participation rituals) is the management’s expectations of how one is supposed to behave. The rules of these rarified spaces narrow the social class and types of people who visit museums, libraries, and churches.[14] In contrast, the big city train station has fewer expectations of users. It is open at all times and to all audiences and social classes with few restrictions. Like the restriction-free spaces of Times Square and the public park, the monumental rooms of old Penn Station seemed to belong to everyone. It was one of those unique spaces created through private initiative, but where anyone could assemble in the shared experience of urban life.[15]
However, there was a crucial difference between normal public space and the “public space” of old Penn Station. The station was privately owned and subject to the whims of its owner who, unlike a government official responsible to the public, was duty bound only to company shareholders and employees. The public could use this station and construct it in the collective imagination as belonging to the city and the people, but the public’s use was at the property owner’s discretion. By the 1950s, the Pennsylvania Railroad was losing rail passengers to the increasing popularity of the automobiles, highways, and airlines. The company was bleeding money on old Penn Station’s upkeep to the sum of $3.3 million a year. Although the station’s appearance and location were a public service and an enhancement to civic life for the thousands of commuters, there was no profit to be made from this form of public service.[16] In other words, with no “business model” for the space to pay for its own upkeep, old Penn Station slipped into decay as the walls grew black from decades of soot and deferred maintenance.

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Erosion of the commons

By the 1960s, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s reasons for maintaining old Penn Station started shifting when they argued that they could only support the commons so long as they did lose anything financially. The now aging and indebted railroad no longer had the “surplus wealth” to think of the public interest and the “good of the community” to borrow Carnegie’s words. In demolition proposals, the developer clarified that new Penn Station would be financially self-sufficient. Revenue generated from the new offices and arena aboveground would support the upkeep of the station below ground, all the while generating surplus income to pay off the railroad’s debt. This is a frequent and often repeated claim among New York City developers: The creation and maintenance of public space must generate some profit. Or if no profit is to be made, the public should compensate the corporation for its gift. Hence, the lead redeveloper is quoted as saying about old Penn Station: “If anybody seriously considered it art, they would have put up some money to save it.”[17]
Old Penn Station had tall ceilings and, with no buildings above, ample natural light illuminated the interior. When the public saw this kind of space, they read it as open and public. When the owners of Penn Station saw this space in the 1960s, they read all this “empty” space as unused air rights. (Air rights refer to the space above a parcel of land that belongs to the property owner.) City law might limit building height to, say, fifteen stories. If the developer only builds a ten story building on a site, he will have five stories of undeveloped air rights. The discourse on air rights presents undeveloped (or underdeveloped) sites as not extracting the full height allowed, and therefore reducing the income that could be generated from the most profitable land use.[18] Thus in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s opinion, a vast and open station, although elegant, represented undeveloped air rights and a financial loss. In 1910, the powerful railroad was wealthy enough to sacrifice million of dollars on a monument and its annual upkeep. The railroad’s objective in 1910 was more about making a statement about their wealth and importance in shaping New York’s urban landscape. However, when 1960s developers measured the value of Penn Station heritage by its precise cash value instead of its intangible cultural value, preserving heritage started to look unrealistically expensive – not just an annual loss of $3.3 million but a loss of several hundred million dollars over several decades in unrealized profits that could have been pulled “out of thin air” so to speak.[19]
Beyond Penn Station, the larger discourse on the commons was also evolving. In previous decades, buildings like Rockefeller Center devoted almost half of the ground-level areas and many rooftops for public use, even though developers in 1930s New York received no tax benefits or compensation from the city for doing so. Other examples include the numerous early Manhattan skyscrapers whose ornamental appearance and decorative silhouettes enliven the urban landscape, even though more ornament outside does not boost the builder’s bottom line of more rentable office space inside the tower. However, with ever-rising land values, corporations were no longer willing by the 1950s to cede increasingly-valuable private land for public use (or even lower-density development) unless compelled to or compensated for doing so. In response, starting in 1961, New York City developed an increasingly complicated system of tax and building incentives for developers to be “civic” and invest in the commons. Examples include corporate green spaces and plazas. In exchange for setting aside a fraction of their land for public use, the developer is allowed to build higher or larger than the laws would otherwise permit. These resulting spaces are in some ways like the interior of old Penn Station, private space that has the appearance of public. These private-public spaces have opening hours, and often prohibit certain behavior like skateboarding, panhandling, and street music performances. Incidentally, city government approved the greatest number of these privately owned public spaces during the city’s near-bankruptcy in the 1980s, when declining budgets motivated city government to surrender power to the private sector.[20] Politicians today speak of contracting the management of public services to for-profit corporations. Privatized services in many states now include water supply, electricity, highways, immigration services, the military, space exploration (through public-private partnerships), and prisons with companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (recently rebranded “Core Civic” in an Orwellian twist). Capitalism and the profit-driven management of the commons is still seen as somehow purifying, making government more efficient, innovative, and flexible.[21] Penn Station’s demolition is an architectural symbol of the limits of historic preservation law, in particular, and the corporate erosion of the commons, in general.
The state and property owners’ expectations of monumental buildings seem fundamentally different from their expectations of traditional monuments like statues and parks. For instance, it is acceptable for the owner of Grand Central Terminal to think of rentable floor space, or for the redevelopers of the World Trade Center memorial to judge proposals based on how much or little land is set-aside for profitable office towers. By contrast, the land Central Park sits on is many times more expensive in unrealized air rights than the resale value of the timber that occupies the land, but that is beside the point because society does not measure the success or failure of the commons by the income it generates. There was a time a century ago when private investment in shaping civic spaces looked something like old Penn Station, Andrew Carnegie’s donated libraries, or even the New York City subway system’s ornamental mosaics. Even ornate nineteenth-century bank lobbies with imposing neoclassical facades have something “civic” about them and share much in common aesthetically with libraries and museums from the time. If only this kind of benevolent attitude toward the commons could be applied today to all manner of other civic institutions: streets, public markets, subways, or the rebuilt future Penn Station.

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Future Penn Station?

The demolition and replacement of Penn Station sits at an inflection point in the evolving definition of “public space.” Despite public outcry about the demolition of old Penn Station at the hands of powerful private interests, the current station is not publicly owned or managed. The semi-government entity that acquired all of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s assets after the railroad’s 1970 bankruptcy is Amtrak. At least on paper, and although it has never once turned a profit in its over fifty year existence, Amtrak is listed as a corporation with a CEO, stock, and earnings reports. Disgruntled citizens and preservationists cannot speak to or hold them accountable in the same way they can vote out elected officials. As the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Amtrak are both quasi-private “public-benefit corporations,” their executives are all unelected and political appointees. This creates several degrees of separation between those who manage public space and those who use it. What this means for the public is that the spaces the public might see as being public and shared by all – in this case our national rail network and places like the current Penn Station – are effectively private.[22]

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Proposal for rebuilding Penn Station across the street as the Moynihan Train Hall [23]

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There seems to be an innate discomfort among city leaders with the idea of investing in the commons without the intention to make some kind of measurable return on investment. New Penn Station’s current owners collect rent from this station’s commercial tenants, the arena at Madison Square Garden, and companies in the above office tower. However unattractive new Penn Station may be, it is at least profitable, which is as the builders who demolished old Penn Station intended.[24] Following this trend, the half-dozen (and counting) proposals over the years to rebuild Penn Station always included a major element of retail shopping and offices. The rebuilt Moynihan Station next door to Penn Station devotes more room to the operations of shopping concourse than rail travel.[25]
However, what made the old Penn Station so aesthetically pleasing was that the design did not consider retail profit. In the interest of aesthetic effect and having impressively large interior spaces, old Penn Station’s retail was segregated to a half-dozen shallow storefronts in the shopping arcade. The architecture was front and center. Rebuilding new Penn Station would require more than money. More importantly, rebuilding would require rethinking the long-held American assumption that extracting profit is compatible with the commons.

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Train concourse before and after, from the same camera angle

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Main entrance to waiting room before and after

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 Perhaps beneath this asphalt parking lot, fragments of the original waiting room floor remain.

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References

[1] Photo credit: Cervin Robinson and Edward Popko (for the Historic American Buildings Survey). Pennsylvania Station, New York County, NY. Retrieved from the Library of Congress: Digital Collections, www.loc.gov/item/ny0411/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[2] Photo credit: Myles Zhang. “Excavating Old New York Penn Station.” Myles Zhang, July 9, 2020, https://www.myleszhang.org/2020/07/09/penn-station/. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[3] Kenneth Jackson, Lisa Keller, et al. “Penn Station.” In The Encyclopedia of New York City: Second Edition. New Haven. Yale University Press. 2010. Pp. 987-88.

[4] Martin Tolchin. “Demolition Starts At Penn Station; Architects Picket.” The New York Times. October 29, 1963. Pp 1.

[5] Tom Fletcher. “Penn Station.” New York Architecture, http://www.nyc-architecture.com/GON/GON004.htm. Accessed 26 July 2020.

[6] Allen J. Greenough. “Redeveloping Penn Station.” The New York Times (letter). August 23, 1962.

[7] Hilary Ballon. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. New York. W. W. Norton & Company. 2002.

[8] George Siedel. “Landmarks Preservation after Penn Central.” Real Property, Probate and Trust Journal. Vol. 17, no. 2. 1982. Pp. 340-356.

[9] Anthony Wood. “Chapter One: The Myth of Penn Station.” In Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks. New York. Routledge. 2008.

[10] Myles Zhang. “A History of Historic Preservation in New York City.” Myles Zhang, November 4, 2018, https://www.myleszhang.org/2018/11/04/historic-preservation-and-new-york-city/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[11] Photo credit: Detroit Publishing Company. “Bird’s-eye view, Penn Station, New York City.” Retrieved from the Library of Congress: Digital Collections, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016812231/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[12] Ballon. “The Interior Procession.” In New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 60-73.

[13] Andrew Carnegie. “The Gospel of Wealth.” New York. Carnegie Corporation of New York. 2017. (Originally published in the North American Review in 1889.)

[14] Nikolaus Pevsner. “Railway stations.” In A History of Buildings Types. Princeton University Press. 1976. Pp. 225-34.

[15] Carroll Meeks. The Railroad Station. New Haven. Yale University Press. 1964.

[16] Ballon. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 93-101.

[17] Martin Tolchin. “Demolition Starts At Penn Station; Architects Picket.” The New York Times. October 29, 1963. Pp 1.

[18] Philip Weinberg. “Critical Areas: Landmarks, Wetlands, Coastline, Flood Plains, and Takings.” In Environmental Law: Cases and Materials Revised 3rd Edition. Lanham, Maryland. University Press of America. 2006. Pp. 98-108.

Personally, I believe the assumption that “air” is a commercial asset to be bought and sold fundamentally undermines the idea in the commons that air, water, and light are owned collectively by society.

[19] Ballon. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 95-96.

[20] “New York City’s Privately Owned Public Spaces.” NYC: Department of City Planning, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/plans/pops/pops.page. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[21] Brett Heinz. “The Politics of Privatization: How Neoliberalism Took Over US Politics.” United for Fair Economy, September 8, 2017, http://www.faireconomy.org/the_politics_of_privatization. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[22] Fawn Johnson, Rachel Roubein, and National Journal. “Amtrak Has a Trust Problem in Congress: Democrats want to give the rail service more money, and Republicans are demanding more accountability.” The Atlantic, May 13, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/05/amtrak-has-a-trust-problem-in-congress/456042/. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[23] Photo credit: Dana Schulz. “Cuomo releases new renderings of Moynihan Station as major construction gets underway.” 6sqft, August 17, 2017, https://www.6sqft.com/cuomo-releases-new-renderings-of-moynihan-station-as-major-construction-gets-underway/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[24] Ballon. “The New Pennsylvania Station.” In New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 153-175.

[25] Justin Davidson. “Every Plan to Fix Penn Station Ranked.” New York Magazine: Intelligencer, January 30, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/01/every-plan-to-fix-penn-station-ranked.html. Accessed July 26, 2020.

Excavating Old New York Penn Station

Also published by Viewing NYC in May 2019

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“Through Penn Station one entered the city like a god. Perhaps it was really too much. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
– Vincent Scully

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View of Penn Station from roof of Macy’s department store c.1910

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“Human beings, myself included, have an unfortunate tendency to appreciate people and things only after they are gone. Pennsylvania Station is the catalyst for the historic preservation movement.”
– Kenneth Jackson

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The accompanying audio is accurate to what the place sounds like from the locations shown. The audio for old Penn Station is my imaginative reconstruction of how the original station might have sounded like, based on recordings from MoMA. My project was also inspired by this 2015 New York Times article about the subtle influence of sound on how we experience urban space: “Penn Station’s low ceilings suppress sound, which becomes hard to make out, an audible metaphor for its rat’s maze of architecture.”

 

“You feel that your life is being lost in a room where sound dies. We need reverberation.”
– architect Renzo Piano on the design of the current Penn Station

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When New York Penn Station opened in 1910, the Pennsylvania Railroad boasted in advertisements that their vast new station was built of travertine marble from the same ancient Italian quarries as the Coliseum and Pantheon. Old Penn Station was rich in the architectural language of Greece and Rome. The façade comprised a colonnade of massive, Doric columns that stretched almost 450-feet end-to-end; it was inspired from temples on the Greek Acropolis. The main waiting room, at 314-feet-long, 109-feet-wide, and 150-feet-high, was modeled on Rome’s Baths of Diocletian. The project was as much an aesthetic gesture to the emerging City Beautiful Movement as it was a political statement: The Pennsylvania Railroad was here to stay, as permanent as the Penn Station it built.
The finished station, however, was an architectural contradiction. The Neoclassical exterior concealed what was, belowground, an extensive and, at-the-time, hyper-modern system of tunnels, electric trains, and communication systems that conveyed millions of people, baggage, and mail from street-level to each of 21 platforms. Aside from the solid stone columns of the main façade, most of the interior was of thin limestone, marble, and plaster sheets mounted on a metal structural frame. The seeming permanence of the stone walls was a cover for the steel frame and modern technology within on which this Neoclassical stage-set rested.

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Just over fifty years later, on October 28, 1963, demolition began. The Pennsylvania Railroad, burdened with debt and aging infrastructure, was selling off its most profitable real estate assets – its land, buildings, and equipment – to stay afloat until it declared bankruptcy by 1970. Through the same two Hudson River tunnels that building materials for the original Penn Station were delivered, some of the same rubble now passed. Much of this rubble was carted off and dumped in the New Jersey Meadowlands adjacent the tracks where commuter trains still pass. The Pennsylvania Railroad used, quite literally, the station’s technology to cannibalize itself, and as the foundations for the new, and current, Penn Station.
Searching for remnants of old Penn Station, I found historic photos from the New York Public Library, Historic American Buildings Survey, and Library of Congress. I returned to the same locations in fall 2019 to re-photograph these images from the identical camera angles. The resulting and visible ghost of the lost Penn Station presents a strong-clear vision of what Penn Station used to be, and by extension, what it could return to, given financial commitment and political will.

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Train concourse: past and present from the same location

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The current subterranean warrens represent a clean break from what was here before. As long as Madison Square Garden chokes Penn Station for air and light from above, the current lightless and oppressive Penn Station is here to stay. The current station’s cheap ceilings of corrugated metal, garish electric signage, and exposed concrete floors ironically proved more durable than the Roman marble and limestone of old. The current station is not so fleeting and has, in fact, existed longer on this site than the station before it.
Surprising still is how, for many New Yorkers, it seems inconceivable that the permanent and imposing appearance of the original station could, one day, vanish without a trace. This old station is more dream than reality, and it seems almost impossible to imagine the current arrangement as having anything to do with what came before. So little of the original station – and the pride in civic life and New York City this station stood for – remains visible. Interestingly, more of the original architectural fabric survives belowground than meets the eye aboveground.

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View from corner of 31st Street and 7th Avenue in 1962 and 2019. The structure is unrecognizable aboveground.

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32nd Street entrance to waiting room in 1962 and 2019
The southeast corner of the still-standing General Post Office is in both frames, in the far left hand distance.

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In the five years that demolition and rebuilding lasted (from 1963 to 1968), Penn Station remained in active service. While builders demolished the old station above, commuters continued to pass by on the platforms and corridors below. For this brief moment, the two buildings lived side-by-side, until the present building swallowed almost all visible traces of the past. In spite of this loss, the confusing floor plan of the current Penn Station has much to do with remaining traces of the original. Column for column and void for void, the current Penn Station is built within the fabric of the original. The old Penn Station, completed 1910, had 21 tracks on 11 platforms. The new Penn Station has 21 tracks on 11 platforms. In the demolition process, not one track or platform moved. In the five-year re-construction process, none of the tracks and platforms were moved, and most of the stairs between concourse and track-level survived. This similarity enables us to situate parts of the old structure in relation to the new.

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Frame of new Penn Station rises simultaneous to the demolition of the old c.1963-68
Passengers in train concourse as new structural frame divides them from the soon-to-be-demolished glass canopy of the old station.

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Train concourse before and after insertion of the new structural frame, from the same camera angle

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The above cross-section of old Penn Station’s waiting room shows the extent of change. The orange line indicates the elevation at ground-level to which the architectural fabric of the old building was demolished. Above this line, nothing of Penn Station survives. Below this line, most of the original structure, tracks, infrastructure, stairwells, and the general contours of the original rooms survive, except now hidden.
After the Roman Empire collapsed, its architectural monuments to empire and power fell into disuse; many were repurposed for more humble and practical purposes. The Coliseum became a stone quarry, the Roman Senate House a humble church, and the Theatre of Marcellus a medieval fortress. New purposes were developed in the shells of old monuments. When a building is reused and altered but still bears visible traces of its earlier form, architectural historians call this creation a palimpsest. A palimpsest is neither of the present nor of the past; it is a mixture of both. For instance, the two square fountains of the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan mirror the locations of the now-vanished Twin Towers. For a modern and young city in world terms, Penn Station is New York City’s largest palimpsest.

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Shopping arcade in 1911 and 2019

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View from 7th Avenue shopping arcade into the waiting room in 1911 and 2019

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“Cutaway illustrating the principle of adaptive reuse.” Drawing by architectural children’s book illustrator, David Macaulay, proposes to discard the “non- functional” spaces of the medieval cathedral by erecting a Styrofoam drop ceiling just above the floor. Everything above – light, soundscape, and ornament is “superfluous” to the cathedral’s function.

The oppressively low ceilings of the current station are the structural division between the public areas belowground and the now private (formerly public) areas aboveground. These ceilings also align to the border between the infrastructure of the original station that survives and the architectural fabric that was lost.
The Pennsylvania Railroad made the decision that made the most economic sense: to keep the infrastructure beneath and decapitate the “non-functional” aesthetics of the soaring ceilings and open spaces aboveground. This was valuable land that could be put to more profitable use. Into these empty “air rights,” the corporation could insert Penn Station’s new functions of Madison Square Garden and office towers that would, at last, generate additional income. While exploring the station, I discovered this palimpsest valued the practical and made absolute economic sense: Who needs to enter the city on the scale of a titanic-sized god when humans require spaces no higher than 8-feet-high to pass through?

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A cathedral with a drop ceiling

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The shopping arcade in 1911 and 2019
Statue of Samuel Rea is in the shadows.

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President Samuel Rea

The nuances of this palimpsest become clearer from inside the building. Passengers entering the old station proceeded down a long shopping arcade to the waiting room and platforms. What was once public space is now the private lobby of the commercial offices aboveground. On the right hand side, in the shadows of the private lobby, stands a statue of Samuel Rea, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. A century ago, Rea stood at the entrance and welcomed passengers and the public; he now stands and watches the corporate clients and office workers. In old Penn Station, an inscription beneath announced his name and title. In the current location, Rea is out of place and has no relationship with his surroundings; the once prominent inscription is almost invisible on the new tablet behind him.

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Statue of Samuel Rea is in the left hand niche.
Almost stone for stone, the location of the current waiting room escalator mirrors the location of the original.

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Main entrance to waiting room: The left hand niche contains the statue of Alexander Cassatt, Pennsylvania Railroad president during construction.

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The waiting room, once the largest indoor public space in New York City, is now a parking lot.

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From the street-level arcade, passengers descended into the cavernous waiting room, sunken a few feet belowground. While the room itself is gone, the contours of this room survive in the general footprint of the sunken parking lot that now occupies the site. What was once public space is now private and patrolled by Madison Square Garden security guards who forbade me from standing at this location with my camera.

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Perhaps, beneath this asphalt parking lot, fragments of the original waiting room floor remain.

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Train Concourse

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Train concourse, past and present.
White cutouts on the drop ceiling mirror the former locations of the demolished skylights.

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This part of the train concourse is now the VIP entrance for spectators at Madison Square Garden.

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The design problems with the current Penn Station are similar to those of old Penn Station: too few tracks, too many passengers, confusing circulation, and outdated infrastructure. After all, it is not the engineering and infrastructure that set these two buildings apart, as brick-for-brick and beam-for-beam, the 1960s rebuilding did not generally alter the areas belowground. This early-twentieth-century infrastructure was, after all, designed to handle no more than 200,000 passengers-per-day, and yet now struggles under the burden of 650,000-per-day. Instead, it is the envelope around this infrastructure that was rebuilt in the 1960s, and whose loss the public and historians now mourn.

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At track-level, the railroad ties, location of the third rail, and support columns are original to 1910. The columns in the foreground were added in the 1960s to support the weight of Madison Square Garden. The columns in the distance are original to 1910. The 1960s modernist buildings above conceal below what is, in essence, early-twentieth-century infrastructure.

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View from Track Six

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Generations of New Yorkers hoped Penn Station would one day be restored with an architectural monument befitting New York City and the Western hemisphere’s busiest train station. In addition to rebuilding the General Post Office next door, other proposals over the years have called for rebuilding Penn Station exactly as it appeared before, or imagining a futuristic Penn Station emerging from the structural shell of the current Madison Square Garden, entitled “Penn Station Palimpsest.” Precedent exists for both proposals. Some post World War II cities rebuilt their monuments and bombed out city centers as they appeared before (such as Dresden and Warsaw), while others incorporated the rubble of the lost buildings into a modern building (such as Coventry Cathedral in England and Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin). What we miss about old Penn Station was not the infrastructure, operations, or even the building itself, but rather the way this architecture made us feel dignified, and which we feel no longer.

The Vanishing City of Newark

Vanishing City is a visual documentary about architecture and redevelopment in Newark.
I am witness to the poetic decay of my city’s cultural heritage. An abandoned barge sinks in murky waters.  A former factory tumbles before the wrecking ball.  A sea of weeds lays siege to a vacant home. An empty lot is a gaping hole, a missing tooth, in the urban body. As a wall crumbles to the ground, a tree, anchored to the wall, reaches for the sky. While my city’s industrial past succumbs to demolition, new buildings grow from old lots.
Behind this slow decay, there is a hidden beauty in the transient. It is the realization that what was built to last forever will not last. It is the expectation that the destruction of the past could contain the seeds of a better city. The ruin forces the viewer to imagine and reconstruct what was there in ways the restored building does not.
Will the monuments we erect to culture and capitalism endure? The ruins of the Athenian Acropolis became a symbol for democracy. Could the same fate await our society’s equivalent forums, the strip mall, grocery store, and drive-thru? Will we be good ancestors?
My transient urban environment compels me to examine and re-examine my sense of place before it vanishes from memory.

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Downtown Newark

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Newark Broad Street Station

Exhibition Design for the Old Essex County Jail

Developed in collaboration with Newark Landmarks
and the master’s program in historic preservation at Columbia University

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Since 1971, the old Essex County Jail has sat abandoned and decaying in Newark’s University Heights neighborhood. Expanded in stages since 1837, this jail is among the oldest government structures in Newark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The building needs investment and a vision for transforming decay into a symbol of urban regeneration. As a youth in Newark, I explored and painted this jail, and therefore feel a personal investment in the history of this place. Few structures in this city reflect the history of racial segregation, immigration, and demographic change as well as this jail.
In spring 2018, a graduate studio at Columbia University’s master’s in historic preservation program documented this structure. Eleven students and two architects recorded the jail’s condition, context, and history. Each student developed a reuse proposal for a museum, public park, housing, or prisoner re-entry and education center. By proposing eleven alternatives, the project transformed a narrative of confinement into a story of regeneration.
Inspired by this academic project and seeking to share it with a larger audience, I and Zemin Zhang proposed to transform the results of this studio into a larger dialogue about the purpose of incarceration. With $15,000 funding from Newark Landmarks, I translated Columbia’s work into an exhibition. I am grateful to Anne Englot and Liz Del Tufo for their help securing space and funding. Over spring 2019, I collaborated with Ellen Quinn and a team at New Jersey City University to design the exhibit panels and to create the corresponding texts and graphics. The opening was held in May 2019, and is recorded here.

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My curator work required translating an academic project into an exhibit with language, graphics, and content accessible to the public. Columbia examined the jail’s architecture and produced numerous measured drawings of the site, but they did not examine social history. As the curator, I shifted the exhibit’s focus from architecture to the jail’s social history – to use the jail as a tool through which to examine Newark’s history of incarceration. As a result, much of my work required supplementing Columbia’s content with additional primary sources – newspaper clippings, prison records, and an oral history project – that tell the human story behind these bars. I worked with local journalist Guy Sterling to interview former jail guards and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka about his father’s experience incarcerated here during the 1967 civil unrest. The exhibit allowed viewers to hear first-hand accounts of prison life and to view what the Essex County Jail looked like in its heyday from the 1920s to 1960s. Rutgers-Newark organized seminars connected to the jail exhibit on the topic of incarceration in America, and what practical steps can be taken to change the effects of the growth of incarceration.
The finished exhibit was on display from May 15 through September 27, 2019. The exhibit makes the case for preserving the buildings and integrating them into the redevelopment of the surrounding area. The hope is that, by presenting this jail’s history in a public space where several thousand people viewed it per week, historians can build support for the jail’s reuse. Over the next year, an architecture studio at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture and Design is conducting further site studies. Before any work begins, the next immediate step is to remove all debris, trim destructive foliage, and secure the site from trespassers. These actions will buy time while the city government and the other stakeholders determine the logistics of a full-scale redevelopment effort.
My interest in prisons drew me to this project. This jail’s architect was John Haviland, who was a disciple of prison reformers John Howard and Jeremy Bentham. In my MPhil thesis research about Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, I developed my exhibit research by looking at the social and historical context of John Haviland and early prisons. As I describe, Eastern State began as a semi-utopian project in the 1830s but devolved by the 1960s into a tool of control social and a symbol of urban unrest.

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Launch Virtual Exhibit Website

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Related content

  1. Read my January 2021 article in The Newarker magazine.
  2. Read this July 2020 article from Jersey Digs
    about my exhibit and the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s proposal to reuse this jail site.
  3. Hear my September 2019 interview about this jail and exhibit from Pod & Market.
  4. Explore this jail as an interactive exhibit online.
  5. View this artwork as part of my short film from 2016 called Pictures of Newark.