by Matt Shoor AIA LEED AP
Event: Bronx River Right-of-Way: Presentation by SLO Architecture
Location: Axor NYC, 09.27.12
Speakers: Amanda Schachter, AIA, and Alexander Levi, AIA, SLO Architecture
Organizers: New Practices Committee, AIA New York Chapter
Underwriters: Axor Hansgrohe; NRI
Patrons: Sure Iron Works; Thornton Tomasetti
Supporter: Samson Rope
Media Sponsor: The Architect’s Newspaper
New York is emerging from the cocoon of its industrial past. Its citizens have begun to realize the true value of abundant and varied natural resources, and they are taking action. No longer will waterways be used exclusively as transportation networks for goods, or the dumping grounds for pollutants. Instead, New Yorkers have embraced the notion that these features actively contribute to their quality of life.
Such is undoubtedly the case with the Bronx River. This underappreciated waterway wends through some of the more historic and attractive parts of the borough. It suffered from decades of neglect, however, as it became trash-littered and inaccessible from many surrounding neighborhoods. Fortunately, the river has experienced a recent renaissance engendered by curious kayakers, concerned residents, and dedicated urbanists.
Amanda Schachter, AIA, and Alexander Levi, AIA, principals of SLO Architecture, certainly fall into the latter category. Through a series of advocacy projects focused on the Bronx River, these architects have sought to draw attention to the waterway and the historic structures that surround it. Their most recent initiative involves the Cass Gilbert-designed Westchester Avenue rail depot for the now-defunct New York, New Haven, and Hartford Line.
Commissioned by no less a Gilded Age titan than J.P. Morgan, this structure has sat derelict above tracks – now owned by Amtrak – since the bankruptcy of the train line in the the late 1930s. As a variety of different infrastructural networks exploded immediately adjacent to the station, the beautiful steel, masonry, and polychromed terracotta structure became utterly isolated from the surrounding community. Ironically, Schachter and Levi first noticed the building not while wandering around the neighborhood on foot, but while kayaking on the Bronx River.
Independent of SLO Architecture’s projects, local community groups began lobbying for the development of a new green space along the river’s banks. This effort resulted in the creation of Concrete Plant Park in 2006, immediately adjacent to the Westchester Avenue station. Access to the park, however, is difficult, and it lacks such basic facilities as public bathrooms. Seizing the opportunity to refresh a historic structure, while simultaneously providing amenities to the growing Bronx River waterfront greenbelt, SLO proposes to use the station as a new access point and activity space for Concrete Plant Park.
Perhaps surprisingly, SLO does not intend to restore the edifice in the conventional manner. Instead, the architects want to shift the functional focus of the building by bifurcating its component parts and relocating one of them to the riverfront. The existing grand foyer will remain in situ, where it will act as a triumphal entry to the park. It will also contain restrooms and other service facilities. The former waiting room will be lifted off of its concrete pad above the Amtrak rails and reconstituted on a series of delicate columns planted in the river. Hovering over the water, this structure will serve as an accessory space for education and other park functions. The two parts of the station will be connected by a walkway with a bulbous and diaphanous safety cage.
Levi and Schachter admitted that many of the architectural questions raised by such a substantial adaptive reuse scheme remain unanswered. As they explained it, they are seeking public support for the project before they commit to a final design. As a result, SLO’s proposal for the Westchester Avenue Station seems to function best as a playful and thoughtful act of committed urbanism. As the Bronx recovers its waterfront patrimony, one hopes to see similarly unorthodox and idealistic designs blossoming along the river’s edge.
Matt Shoor, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, is an architect, writer, and educator currently employed by Macrae-Gibson Architects. He is a frequent contributor to e-Oculus, and recently received his architectural license. Matt can be reached at email@example.com.