Urban Design in a Time of “Anti-Space”

In the mid-1990s, when I was an editor at Progressive Architecture, jurors for the magazine’s awards program gave an Urban Design Award to Peterson Littenberg Architects for a plan the small New York firm had devised for then-stagnant Lower Manhattan. 

At the time, the southern tip of Manhattan ranked as the third-largest downtown business district in the U.S. The tightly packed 1 square mile contained a bevy of venerable buildings, among them the New York Stock Exchange, the former headquarters of J.P. Morgan, and the fortress-like, neo-Renaissance Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Though the vast majority of Americans regarded the district as a powerful financial hub, people close to the scene saw it as a place with grim prospects. More than a quarter of its commercial space stood vacant. Companies were leaving Lower Manhattan for Midtown and more distant locales. Many of the office buildings were regarded as obsolete. 

What could be done? Conventional solutions included such things as better lighting and signage, more trees, additional parks, even a revival of commercial development. Peterson Littenberg, headed by the husband-and-wife team of Steven Peterson and Barbara Littenberg, argued for a more fundamental change: conversion of the aging 9-to-5 office district into a mixed-use precinct—a place for living as well as working. With the right interventions, Peterson and Littenberg believed, tens of thousands of residents would arrive, and as they did, a lively assortment of restaurants, grocery stores, and other amenities would emerge.

Their Lower Manhattan Urban Design Plan, released in 1994, called for 6,000 new apartments to be created by reusing outmoded office buildings. It projected an additional 10,000 housing units in new residential squares that would be carved out of existing urban fabric. It proposed a major expansion of transit connections, and advocated refinements to the street network, so that people could, probably for the first time, wend their way between the East River and the Hudson without getting lost. The layout the Dutch established in the 1600s would not be wiped out, but it would become clearer.

Various factors—including what Peterson and Littenberg describe as the absence of a “political or economic process capable of building those elements required to enhance the public realm, whether they are transportation infrastructure improvement or reinforcements to the urban fabric of public spaces”—prevented the plan from winning full, official adoption. Nonetheless, encouraging things occurred. 

Tax abatements during the Giuliani administration provided incentives for construction of housing and offices. The Bloomberg administration loosened height limits on residential buildings, further encouraging development and adding to the live-in population. Those and other changes resulted, between 1995 and 2014, in nearly 16 million square feet of office space being redeveloped into housing or hotels. The number of people living in Lower Manhattan more than quadrupled, to 60,000 from 14,000. Granted, there was a period of gloom after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, but in the succeeding years the area boomed with new housing. Street life thrived. It will doubtless do so again after the pandemic is squelched.

In a lavishly illustrated new book, Space & Anti-Space: The Fabric of Place, City, and Architecture (Oro Editions), Peterson and Littenberg present the revival of Lower Manhattan as a testament to the continuing appeal of traditional urbanism. It turns out that the structure laid down by Dutch traders in 17th-century New Amsterdam accommodates 21st-century New Yorkers remarkably well. 

When buildings line the sidewalks, forming coherent, bounded public spaces; when streets are not too broad; when there’s a convenient mix of uses and activities, people can and will take up residence in a dense urban setting. Lower Manhattan had the good fortune to possess buildings that consistently form street walls, giving the public realm the feeling of an “outdoor room.” A superb example is the public space in front of the New York Stock Exchange. This mode of city-building goes back centuries; the effect is at its most successful when the outdoor rooms are of varied size and character. Thus, Peterson Littenberg’s idea of adding several distinctive new residential squares would have made a good area even better. It’s unfortunate that none of the proposed squares were built.

As Peterson and Littenberg acknowledge, it seems a bit ironic to promote high-density Manhattan as a model for a country that has spent much of its history spreading ever outward. Density, especially density involving tall buildings, has provoked opposition, as it ferociously did in the late-1960s and early-1970s San Francisco. When, in 1969, the US Steel Corporation announced its intention to erect an office tower on San Francisco’s waterfront, people came out in droves to say no. They claimed the 55-story structure, and others of its ilk, would turn their beloved low-rise city into “the Manhattan of the West.” Five thousand people marched against the proposal—against what was denounced as “Manhattanization.” In 1971 the Board of Supervisors rejected the building.

Since that time, though, attitudes in the U.S. have changed considerably. The advantages of urban concentration have been recognized—in the energy and dynamism of dense, walkable neighborhoods, in the preferences of many workers and businesses for stimulating settings, and in the environmental logic of global urbanization. Concentrated urbanization is now viewed as a way to take pressure off agricultural land and other terrain that for ecological reasons should be protected from development. On a planet of 7.8 billion people, projected to grow to 9.9 billion by 2050, the dense format of Lower Manhattan, featuring human-scale development at ground level and many floors of apartments or offices above, is not to be scoffed at. 

“Today, walking is recognized as the most efficient form of transportation for short distances, followed by bicycles where protected bicycle paths can be created,” longtime planner and urban design professor Jonathan Barnett says in the book’s foreword. Barnett compiles a list of important goals—preservation of existing buildings and neighborhoods, conservation of resources and the natural environment, provision of public transit, and affordability—and then declares: “Modernist planning and urban design impede every one of these objectives.”

Space & Anti-Space is a summation of Peterson and Littenberg’s thinking and projects, going all the way back to Peterson’s association with the eminent urban design professor Colin Rowe at Cornell in the 1960s. I wanted another person’s perspective, so I phoned Boston architect Michael Dennis, a member of the P/A jury that gave Peterson Littenberg the award, and asked him what he saw in the firm’s work. 

“I was blown away by the inventiveness of it,” Dennis said of the Lower Manhattan plan. “There were empty office buildings; you put housing in them so it becomes a real town.” Dennis sees the Peterson Littenberg strategy as a reversal of a flaw in the Frederick Law Olmsted legacy. Olmsted plans often put the residential parts of a city away from the business center; this, said Dennis, was a departure from the European custom that “you lived in the place where you worked.” Geographic separation ended up harming American cities, Dennis suggested; Peterson and Littenberg looked for ways to heal the geographic/social/economic rift. 

Peterson and Littenberg have worked on sites in Paris—producing an acclaimed proposal in 1979 for redevelopment of the former Les Halles Market site—and in Rome and Montreal as well as New York. In the U.S., their best-known undertaking was a 2002 plan for how and where to rebuild on the site of the World Trade Center. A central theme of Space & Anti-Space is that we all pay a high price for modernism’s preoccupation with “flowing space,” “universal space,” “neutral space”—space that seems to go on forever, space that refuses to wrap itself comfortably around human beings. 

“The modern free plan in architecture rejected the construction of space in order to display the independence and complexity of the sculptural object,” they write. “Purity of object rather than clarity of place would rule. No closed, defined, volumetric space would be possible.” Modern outdoor space is inherently bland, the authors assert, and this “eliminates the possibility of urban place.” The space’s blandness also “demands ever new and exaggerated architectural compensations to compensate.” 

Architectural rendering of Hudson Yards. New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman likened it to “so many crowded perfume bottles vying for attention in a department store window display.”


You can see those exaggerated architectural compensations in Hudson Yards, the big, costly, unsatisfying new complex on the far West Side of Manhattan. “Each building exists to act like a logo for itself,” wrote New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman. “The assortment suggests so many crowded perfume bottles vying for attention in a department store window display.” Peterson and Littenberg’s verdict: Instead of urban fabric, Hudson Yards has a “background void” that is “too large, too empty, too open, and too undefined to make any distinct places.” Where the modern concept of space reigns, “It is no longer possible to make a stable public space, to design a street or square.” 

In 1979, Colin Rowe raised what he called “the pressing question: just how to make a city, if all buildings proclaim themselves as objects, and how many object-buildings can be aggregated before comprehension fails?” Space & Anti-Space takes a deep dive into how cities were successfully shaped in the past—from Europe to New York’s exemplary Rockefeller Center—and how a rich urbanity could be achieved today.

One of the most compelling sections of the book is “The Re-Urbanization of Ground Zero.” The World Trade Center had, from its beginnings, been an out-of-scale megaproject at odds with the district around it. After its destruction, there was an opportunity to restore much of the street grid that had been demolished for the Twin Towers’ construction. “Soon after the 9/11 attack, we were hired as urban design consultants by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation,” the authors write. 

The objective was to produce a guiding framework for 34 acres—the 16 acres of the Trade Center, plus adjacent land. Eighteen alternative designs were generated, visualizing street and block patterns, a major memorial space, public open spaces both large and small, and much else. Peterson Littenberg’s final plan called for a mile-long sequence of public spaces, including memorials, that would stretch from City Hall Park to a new Saint Paul’s Square, through the Public Garden to Battery Park. It was meant to embody civic qualities and be on a grand scale, worthy of a world city. 

“Lower Manhattan’s historic past would be woven into its street pattern as an experience laden with symbolic meaning,” Peterson and Littenberg write. Two-sided retail streets would run through the site, providing continuity from one side of the Manhattan waterfront to the other. There would be room for tall buildings and dramatic architectural expression, but within a context of regular city blocks and comfortable urban fabric—the stuff of which good cities are mostly made. 

It was not to be. Debate over the area’s future, disagreement about who was calling the shots, and demands from New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, always a proponent of edgier design, ultimately led instead to development that lacked a logical street network and gratifying urban fabric. The focus shifted to architectural objects as opposed to urban design, and the result was the abominable Freedom Tower, in Peterson and Littenberg’s estimation “a staid, bi-laterally symmetrical cenotaph with a 20-story windowless, bomb-resistant, concrete base clad in ornamental glass and surrounded at street level by security bollards and checkpoints.”

“Attesting to the fragile temporality of assigning commercial architecture a memorial role, the single symbolic ‘Freedom Tower’ has already been cast as ‘One WTC,’ the authors observe. “It looms inertly and mute over the memorial pools that constitute the world’s largest inaccessible man made ‘water feature.’”

Peterson Littenberg had a vision, a civilized one, rooted in an intimate knowledge of how cities work. That vision got swept aside by, among other things, the modernist preference for object-buildings and what the authors call “anti-space.” The outcome for the World Trade Center site has proved to be profoundly disappointing. The outcome at Hudson Yards looks to be even worse. 

Americans desperately need to learn to build better neighborhoods, districts, and cities. Space & Anti-Space can help guide that quest. It can give designers, planners, urban leaders, and others a more solid sense of what to do—and what to avoid.

Featured image: the proposed Peterson Littenberg masterplan for the World Trade Center and surrounding area, courtesy of Peterson Littenberg Architects.


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