September 15, 2009
by Fran Leadon AIA

(Left): Fran Leadon, AIA, last winter in Midtown, with student Adrian Hayes and New York Times writer Constance Rosenblum. (Right): AIA Guide Research Assistants, December 2008. (L-R): Adrian Hayes, Amanda Chen, Christopher Drobny, Katja Dubinsky, Calista Ho, Marina Ovtchinnikova.

Douglas Moreno(left); Fran Leadon

This week we completed the photography for the upcoming fifth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City (Oxford University Press, 2010), with help from 22 student assistants from the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at City College. Our combined efforts over the past year have yielded well over 40,000 new photos of more than 6,000 buildings and parks from the northern tip of the Bronx to the southern end of Staten Island.

We began with a group of four undergraduate architecture students (Calista Ho, Katja Dubinsky, Amanda Chen, and Marina Ovtchinnikova) and three Master of Landscape Architecture students (Jon Fouskaris, Christopher Drobny, and Adrian Hayes), and tackled Midtown, the Upper West and Upper East Sides during the fall 2008 semester. The photos students began to bring back to class were extraordinary. Years of design studios had trained their eyes to analyze and question. They didn’t simply drive by and shoot the buildings; they really studied them. Beautiful details emerged: courtyards, faded signs, lanterns, cornices, pediments, friezes. Their work was extremely time-consuming and dependent on good light and weather.

Jon, Amanda, and Christopher continued their work into the spring semester, joined by two undergraduates, Glenn DeRoche and Douglas Moreno, and two Master of Architecture students, Bradley Kaye and Jason Prunty. Together we photographed the remainder of Manhattan (the Villages, the Lower East Side, Harlem, Upper Manhattan). Shooting photos in the winter months proved to be arduous. There were fewer good hours of light, and last winter’s temperatures were brutal (I almost got frostbite trying to shoot Yorkville one frigid week in January). As Manhattan neared completion, I redeployed three students (Bradley, Amanda, and Jon) to Brooklyn, and wonderful shots of Park Slope, Gerritsen Beach, Coney Island, and Sunset Park were added to our photo database.

By May we had finished all of Manhattan, and an enthusiastic group of undergraduate architecture students (Andrea Barley, Cinthia Cedeno, Mary Doumas, William Eng, Jaimee Gee, Tiffany Liu, Adrian Lopez, Ross Pechenyy, and Billy Schaefer) joined Jon for a summer ramble through the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, cameras in hand. Their work was painstaking. The students would make multiple visits to sites to get exactly the right shot, waiting for the light and shadows to cooperate. Frequently they were told to stop photographing by a homeowner or security guard (a constant, vexing problem).

As research assistants, the students weren’t acting only as photographers. We asked them to take notes on each place they visited, as we rewrote, updated, and added to the new edition’s text. It would not have been possible for us to complete the new edition in just one year without the help of our students. To commemorate their work over the last year, we will simultaneously snap one last “ceremonial” photo on September 23 at 11:00 AM. The building I have chosen was not included in the last edition of the Guide, but is a humble landmark and deserving of our undivided attention: Jane Jacobs’ house at 555 Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. I hope that AIA members and e-Oculus readers will come out to witness our “last photo.”

Norval White, FAIA, is an architect, architectural historian and professor. He has designed buildings throughout the U.S., and in addition to the AIA Guide to New York City, is the author of The Architecture Book and New York: A Physical History. He currently resides with his wife Camilla in Roques, France.

Elliot Willensky, FAIA, (1934-1990) was an architect and architectural historian. He served as vice chairman of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, and was the official Borough Historian of Brooklyn. He also wrote a popular history, When Brooklyn Was the World, 1920-1957.

Fran Leadon, AIA, is an architect and professor at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York. He lives in Brooklyn.


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