New York's greatest pieces of architecture are not buildings.
ON a recent American visit, intrigued by American billionaire Donald Trump's interest in architecture, I decided to investigate the skyscraper he built on New York City's fashionable 5th Avenue. Next to Bonwit Teller is the Trump Tower - modestly named after the man who owns it. A shimmering summer view of the sun against glinting steel, it is hard to imagine that close up, the building could be as ugly as it is, uglier even than a house in Greater Kailash. Step back on the sidewalk and watch the tower's black glass and brass entrance rise to some 50 storeys, each spilling trees and plants into the floor below. The awkward organic addition of plants looks so absurd, as if its builder, knowing the soaring manmade tower to be a thing of ugliness, wanted to hide it behind canopies of green. But trees refuse to grow at such great heights, and 50-storey buildings refuse to hide behind shrubbery. And the whole composition is as silly as an apartment block in Mumbai made to resemble a Greek villa.
Inside, the monumental ugliness stretches to encompass a brass and chrome lobby, with walls of blotchy red marble that looks like the veins on an exceptionally anaemic person. The whole effect was so hideous it looked like something out of a Las Vegas casino of the 1950s. But ugliness doesn't seem to deter Trump, who continues to build expensive real estate all over the city; and as a mark of good taste, give each an unusual name - Trump Tower II, Trump Plaza, Trump Citadel. Is it a wonder that his wives keep leaving him?After the Trump Tower, I understood why people believe that New York City's greatest pieces of architecture - Central Park and Brooklyn Bridge - are not buildings. This is not to say that New York doesn't have great buildings. Sure, there are enough period pieces and skyscrapers to fill several city blocks. There are fine neighbourhoods like Brooklyn Heights and Sutton Place, and elegant cast-iron buildings, and individual landmarks like the Flatiron and the Crysler, and architect Philip Johnson's AT and T building. And enough old ladies in tennis shoes running around getting signatures to "Save Riverside Park" and "Keep Builders Out". But in comparison to the scale of other, perhaps less architectural achievements, they are of little consequence.In many ways, New York makes the impossible possible. Coming from a city where even the possible is impossible, this strikes you as doubly remarkable. In the midst of the densest possible collection of skyscrapers near Wall Street, with sunlight barely touching the ground for a couple of hours, you will find a park and a stone church straight out of medieval France, and old people lolling about, absorbing the suns rays, having coffee, reading, entirely oblivious to the financial deals being enacted around them. A scale of such compressed intimacy, squeezed between 60 storied structures is testament to the value placed on the existence of this small park. I stood there mesmerised, unable to figure how a city with such killingly high land values would allow such a place to exist. For me there was no clearer statement that the people who lived in the neighbourhood mattered - mattered much more than the suited, loose-tie brokers who slid in and out between nine and five. It was an attitude of caring that went beyond zoning regulations, and expressed in an urban act as heroic as the Brooklyn Bridge.
Attitude to urbanism
I got to witness something of this attitude to urbanism in a chance encounter with a former classmate, who heads the Architectural Committee on Building Variances. Every Thursday in an open public forum, a group of city officials and selected citizens make decisions on the fate of new buildings whose owners wished to build in violation of city bye laws. I had heard about violations of bye laws, but never had I seen it get official sanction. This I had to see.At the meeting the following day, a builder whose project required a variance, proposed a 60-storied structure in an area designated for only 50. Using drawings and statistics he argued that the additional floors would allow him to release a three-storey space on the ground as a public plaza, given that there was no other open space in the neighbourhood. The cost of this he would recover from selling the additional floors. The decision to grant him this permission came after a 20-minute deliberation on the merits of the scheme. Four people - a city official, an architect, a poet and a professor - sat around a table, argued, and arrived at a decision. With in half an hour, an order was issued in favour of the builder. Everyone was satisfied: the builder with his additional floor space, representatives of the neighbourhood who got their plaza, and the committee that worked without a sack full of dollars being delivered to them at night. Next please.