An Architectural Merry-Go-Round

New York’s circular politics inspire an edgy structure on the Hudson River.

When CR Studio won an AIA New York Project Merit Award this year for the design of a carousel shed, it provided a happy ending to a long, sometimes frustrating process. In 2003 landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh engaged the firm to develop the shed as part of his master plan for Segment Five of Manhattan’s Hudson River Park. The carousel was slated for Pier 62, which forms the lower boundary of a new bowl-shaped expanse of lawn. Along with a skateboard park, explains CR Studio partner Jon Dreyfous, the carousel “would filter the lawn from the highly active Chelsea Piers complex to the south.” Simple enough—except that an unexpected opportunity, followed by its equally unexpected withdrawal, ultimately influenced the outcome as much as the design program did.

Dreyfous and principals Lea Cloud and Victoria Rospond first envisioned a semi-enclosed concrete pavilion. “But the Hudson River Park Trust said they’d rather do it in steel because they were more familiar with the material,” Dreyfous recalls. “That’s when we heard they were tearing down Pier 64”—the lawn’s northern ­border—“and selling it for scrap.”

This news galvanized the architects. “There was a building there that was one of the last original pier structures,” Dreyfous says. “Absolutely beautiful inside—the 90-foot-span trusses, made by Bethlehem Steel, were installed around 1903 and had a sinuous, almost sculptural quality. So Victoria just threw out an idea: ‘Why don’t we try to reuse them?’”

The resulting scheme incorporated five of the trusses into a striking roof structure that roughly mirrored the lawn’s contours and, appropriately, was covered in turf. “We all felt it was better,” Dreyfous says. “There was a connection to the history of the pier in a not too literal way.” And Van Valkenburgh project manager Peter Arato adds, “We were a bit concerned that a concrete structure would appear heavy. This was more in keeping with a wide open park.”

CR Studio’s delight, however, turned to despair when the Trust embraced the concept but declined to salvage the trusses—irreplaceable architectural artifacts—citing cost-related factors. The demoralized architects then found themselves, according to Dreyfous, having to “Disnify” the historic element of the design, evolving a version that uses five trusses of different sizes. “It’s more rational because it saves on steel and conforms to the necessity of enclosure,” Dreyfous says. “But it’s less rational because the trusses aren’t identical.”

Both Van Valkenburgh’s office and a Trust spokesperson (who declined to be quoted) expressed satisfaction with the innovative design. “A truss structure in an unsupported space is a great idea, and quite different from the clustered columns of the concrete version,” Arato says. Indeed, CR Studio’s strongly architectural approach has replaced the usual merry sentimentality with an unabashed edginess. “It’s become almost like a primitive hut,” Dreyfous says approvingly. “We’re also working with a company that’s allowing us to strip the carousel to its exposed structure.” Upon completion in 2008, it will be, he quips, “the Catcher in the Rye of carousels.”

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