by Fran Leadon AIA
The first edition of the AIA Guide to New York City was published on the occasion of the AIA’s annual convention, held in New York in 1967. That original version of the Guide, a slim 464 pages, was “feverishly prepared” by Norval White, FAIA, and Elliot Willensky, FAIA, and a team of contributors, including John Morris Dixon, FAIA, Ann Douglas, Mina Hamilton, Roger Feinstein, Henry Hope Reed, Jr., Sophia Duckworth, and Richard Dattner, FAIA. The Guide was all original field work: the team divided up the neighborhoods, hiked the streets, did the research, snapped the photos (thousands of them), and wrote the descriptions (“smart, vivid, funny, and opinionated,” according to the New York Times). It was true research and eyewitness reporting, covering all five boroughs, one church, school, row house, park, restaurant, and statue at a time.
For the second (1978) and third (1988) editions the collaboration continued between White and Willensky. White might write about Greenwich Village while Willensky wrote about Sheepshead Bay, and then they would swap for the following edition, revisiting each other’s territory and rewriting each other’s text. Willensky passed away in 1990, and the fourth edition (2000) was completed solo by White. My involvement in the Guide‘s upcoming fifth edition (Oxford University Press, 2010) offered a chance for White to re-establish a true collaborative writing process, but a new mechanism for that collaboration had to be discovered, since White now lives in France and I live in Brooklyn. Sending a 1,200 page Word document back and forth was out of the question. Then, last summer, we discovered Google Docs.
The beauty of Google Docs is that our text resides on the Internet, where both of us can access it simultaneously. If one of us finds an interesting building we hadn’t noticed before, we post an initial description and then wait for the other to rewrite it. Many of the descriptions in the new Guide have been written equally by both of us, and rewritten so many times I can no longer tell which parts I wrote. Here are some examples from the new Guide in progress:
40 Gansevoort Street, SE corner of Greenwich Street. 2006. Morris Adjmi.
Gansevoort Market boasts unique vernacular architecture: block buildings with loading docks, canopies pendant over the sidewalk: their steel joists and translucent vinyl panels cabled to the facade. Here Adjmi, a disciple of the late, great Italian architect Aldo Rossi, attempts new canopies, using the same vocabulary.
Bar 89 (restaurant), 89 Mercer Street, between Spring and Broome Sts. 1995. Ogawa/Depardon.
89’s two stories of crisp steel and glass reveal a double height dining space (a mezzanine in the far corner). The skylight overhead, a parabola, washes the space with natural light, the curve of the bar repeating the trigonometry above.
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 School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urban Design at the City College of New York. He lives in Brooklyn.