October 14, 2009
by Bill Millard

Event: Wake Up the Cities: Recent Work by Christian de Portzamparc
Speakers: Christian de Portzamparc, Hon. FAIA — Principal, Atelier Christian de Portzemparc; Tony Schirripa, AIA, IIDA — AIANY President-elect; Rick Bell, FAIA — Executive Director, AIANY (introductions)
Organizers: AIA-NY Cultural Facilities Committee; La Maison Française; NYU
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.29.09

Event: Riverside Center: Presentation and Panel
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.29.09
Speakers: Christian de Portzamparc, Hon. FAIA; Signe Nielsen, Hon. AIANY, FASLA — Principal, Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects; Gale Brewer — New York City Council; Paul Elston — Riverside South Planning Corporation; Paul Willen, FAIA — Architect; Craig Whitaker — Coalition for a Livable West Side
Moderator: Rick Bell, FAIA — Executive Director, AIANY
Organizers: AIANY Planning & Urban Design Committee


Hergé Museum in Louvain, Belgium.

© Nicolas Borel

In a rapid and thorough presentation of projects and ideas from throughout his career, architect/urbanist Christian de Portzamparc, Hon. FAIA, demonstrated the qualities that have earned him a Pritzker Prize and worldwide renown, including a coherent vision of cities’ evolution and a confident sense of form. The following morning, after presenting his plan for Extell Development’s new piece of the Upper West Side’s Riverside South waterfront puzzle, he got a firsthand look at the processes and perspectives that complicate major projects in New York. If Riverside Center defies the pattern of other recent major developments and reaches the point of realization (projected around 2017), that success will have a great deal to do with de Portzamparc’s vision of postmodern urbanity.

De Portzamparc is one of 10 architects selected by president Nicholas Sarkozy for the “Grand Paris” exercise in sustainable master planning, loosely analogous to our city’s PlaNYC. His proposal’s new high-speed elevated rail line would connect the troubled Parisian suburbs to the central city in an integrated archipelago, overcoming the disjointedness produced by the city’s ring road. Transportation and communication systems, he said, are the critical elements in a city’s evolution beyond the excessive abstractions and separations that modern cities inherited from Corbusier.

In Rue de la Loi in Brussels, the Massena neighborhood in Paris, his contribution to OMA’s master plan for Almere, the Netherlands (a mixed-use complex on an artificial meadow atop a plate concealing automotive infrastructure), and many other projects, he offers variations on a set of strategies that maximize urban variety: the open or porous block, the juxtaposition of volumes with different heights, and the welcoming the randomness of the street. In his cultural infrastructure projects — particularly the Cidade da Música in Rio de Janeiro, with a sweeping 10-meter-high terrace offering visitors a memorable vantage point amid the surrounding mountains, and the Hergé Museum in Louvain, Belgium, a shrine to the creator of Tintin, with playful colors, sweeping walkways, and comic-frame fenestration — his designs show a sensitivity to the human body. From early in his career, he acknowledged, “I was conscious that the space between buildings” had “the same importance as the building itself.”

“The city must permit the game of urbanism, which is a permanent fight between private energy and the cleverness of public organizations,” he stated; “every urban decision is the result of this fight.” In the current Riverside Center scheme, de Portzamparc’s mixed-use, varied-height towers and Signe Nielsen’s practical workarounds for landscaping a difficult site (complicated by sharp grade changes as well as proximity to rail lines, the West Side Highway, and a Sanitation Department station) add up to an improvement over the row of recent towers to the north. Community representatives, however, question: will de Portzamparc’s intent to create genuine public park space, not a private enclave, be honored by the developers in the long run? Is the view to Con Ed’s historic IRT Powerhouse to the south a valuable enough feature to override Extell’s interest in profitable square footage? Are the measurements of green-space proportions meaningful or misleading?

Paul Elston, current chair of the Riverside South Planning Corporation, offered an alternate plan premised on relocation of the highway (approved at federal and state levels, but in search of funding). Paul Willen, FAIA, one of the original architects of Riverside South, proposed removing one tower from the Extell plan to improve sunlight and public access. Craig Whitaker, cautioning that certain developers have been known to retain impressive architects only as long as administratively necessary, would prefer a square-one rethink beginning with park space and amplified street frontage, not with a “beauty pageant” of towers. The Uniform Land Use Review Procedure begins soon and should be lively.

De Portzamparc, who cited a relevant quotation from Lao Tzu as a personal influence (“My house is not the wall; it is not the ground; it is not the roof; it is the emptiness between these things, because that is where I am dwelling”), will once again need to negotiate the balance between volumes and voids to help bring Riverside Center to fruition. In this next fight, which promises to be a long and rigorous one, he will be on the kind of formal, intellectual, and political territory where his comprehension and experience place him right at home.

To listen to excerpts of their conversation after the two events, click here: Interview: Christian de Portzamparc, Hon. FAIA.

Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in OCULUS, Icon, Content, The Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.


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