Diller Builds a Monument to Indifference

PS 41 graduate, and architectural critic for The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, thinks that One World Trade Center looks as hostile and forbidding as General MacArthur in dark glasses, (NYT 11/30/14) and that the solution to affordable housing is pre-fabricated apartments, the size of a parking space, piled up one on top of each other. (NYT 9/15/14)

Now you may not agree with Michael but he is a New York Times critic and as such he joins the media elite of taste makers, who may for example, convince us of the value of Kim Kardashian’s fashion choices or Snookie’s acting abilities. Fortunately Kardashian fashion choices are as ethereal as the last tweeter. Unfortunately bad architecture stays with us for years and years.

So when Architectural Digest in 1997 gushed over Frank Gehry’s folded dinner napkin, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a “starchitect” was born and young architects stirred and sought to “Gehry-wobble” a local bank design. Now billionaires stand in line for the “starchitect” to design their corporate headquarters. Barry Diller’s 19th Street global headquarters, for example, is an arbitrarily bent Gehry design.

This argument came to light in a New York Times December 15th op-ed by two architects, Steven Bingler and Martin Pederson. Bingler took his 88 year old mother to see an affordable apartment student project of stacked boxes sheathed in corrugated steel sheets, and she felt it looked like what “they could find in a junk-yard”.

With this the authors signal the separation between the average “It looks nice” taste and the architect seeking design immortality.

Okay, there was a time when there were no architects and when man built shelters out of what was lying around as simply and as quickly as he could. When civilizations developed with servants, serfs and slaves, architects emerged and built pyramids and columned temples for the Pharaoh who had all the money. Thus the Barry Diller-type patron of architecture was born.

On Christmas Day, between orgies of food, we took a walk around the block in East Williston and discovered the first popular suburban development style, half-timbered Tudor. Then came Colonial and then a pastiche of changing styles. Like New Orleans grille work, it was a historic catalog of changing suburban taste, none of it very good nor yet too bad. You have to have real money to make something really large and monstrous like “Diller Island” off 14th Street.

We come back to Bingler and Pedersen’s New York Times op-ed. “Architecture with a capital “A” is exceptionally capable of creating signature pieces, glorious oneoffs…sublime (or bombastic) structures for a global elite…We seem increasingly incapable however of creating artful, harmonious work that resonates…” with the people who have to use it.

Now our New York Times architect authors might have added another influence on architecture – the kind of building we really need to build. I mean do we really need a 2.7 acre floppy concrete island on 30’ to 70’ stilts or do we need a hospital emergency room?

Appallingly “Diller Island” is a done deal – it does not have to go through the long two-year city review process. Sure they will give people 60 days to discuss it but the contracts are signed – it is over.

According to The Wall Street Journal New York City is giving $17 million to construct the causeway to “Diller Island,” New York State is giving $18 million to build up the very narrow embankment off 14th Street and Diller himself is giving $100 million to build the island, so that is a total of $135 million. If we had had that $135 million two years ago we could have saved the 161 year-old St. Vincent’s Hospital.

But Mike Novogratz, the chairman of Friends of Hudson River Park and coowner of St. John’s Terminal has remained deaf to the suggestion that he build a world-class medical research center, starting perhaps with the gift of the $100 million he secretly offered to buy the Pier 40 air rights. Mike’s $100 million could join Barry’s $100 million and the $35 million from the city and state would then approach the $290 million that Home Depot’s philanthropist Kenneth Langone has given to NYU hospital.

As more and more money goes into fewer and fewer hands it is the whimsical choices of the few that will get built. Money talks and money builds – not perhaps what the public needs but what amuses the moneymen. “Diller Island” will be a monument, for a century or more, to Diller’s bad taste, to public indifference and to the utter lack of vision, transparency or leadership by our local politicians.

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