April 1, 2009
A pavilion honoring the settlers of Lower Manhattan provides a fresh opportunity to Ben van Berkel.
As brokerage houses vanish and the Dow plummets, New Yorkers brace for the inevitable wave of dysfunctionality that rolls in when the money rolls out. At times like this, I like to distract myself with fantasies of how much better off this city would be if only the Dutch had managed to hang on to the place. My trips to the Netherlands have taught me that they possess an enviable combination of unfettered creativity and practical know-how. Who do you call when you want to figure out how to fix New Orleans’s broken levee system? Or when you want a chandelier that looks like a flock of migrating lightbulbs? The Dutch. That’s why I loved Russell Shorto’s book The Island at the Center of the World (Doubleday, 2004), which took as its premise the idea that 17th-century New Amsterdam, unlike the priggish cities established by the Puritans, was a “multiethnic, upwardly mobile society,” advanced for its time and a prototype for what we’ve become.
So I greeted as a rare bit of good news the announcement of a gift to New York City from the Dutch—a little something marking the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river that would eventually bear his name. (Hudson, an Englishman, sailed on behalf of the Dutch East India Company.) That something: a sweet 5,000-square-foot pavilion and matching plaza (plein in Dutch) to sit atop the revamped South Ferry subway station, in front of the recently rebuilt Staten Island Ferry terminal in the heart of the former Dutch city. Better still, the pavilion, a four-pronged pinwheel likely made of folded fiberglass, is designed by Ben van Berkel, of Amsterdam’s UN Studio, and will be the firm’s first U.S. building.
I remember being amazed years ago when a Dutch friend took me to see the firm’s effortlessly futuristic Erasmus Bridge, in Rotterdam, completed in 1996. And I was fascinated by the complex Möbius House when I saw it in 1999 at the Museum of Modern Art’s Un-Private House exhibition. But van Berkel, talented though he is, has had nothing but bad luck in this country. In 2000 he designed an addition to the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, Connecticut, but the museum had trouble raising the necessary funds, and in 2003 a new director came in and pulled the plug. In 2007 he completed ViLA NM, a private home in the Catskills that updated the Möbius House, but it was destroyed by fire the following year. The architect’s Five Franklin Place, a Tribeca condo distinguished by an undulating black facade, was announced last spring with great fanfare, but construction on the project has since ground to a halt. I hope the New Amsterdam pavilion breaks the curse. Warrie Price, president of the Battery Conservancy, a nonprofit that oversees the park, assures me that the pavilion will be completed in the fall, its fiberglass form conceivably poured into place in a day. “It’s an aggressive schedule,” she says.
The New Amsterdam Plein & Pavilion will take over Peter Minuit Plaza, a piece of real estate mapped as parkland and named for the director-general of the Dutch colony, the guy who supposedly bought Manhattan from the Indians for $24. It falls under the jurisdiction of the conservancy, which has been, since the end of the 1990s, remaking the 25 acres that Price refers to as “the Battery.” (If you say “Battery Park,” Price insists, it invites confusion with Battery Park City, the waterfront neighborhood immediately to the north.) Despite Price’s best efforts, the Battery remains one of those New York places that have been largely turned over to tourists. About once a week, I run a loop around Lower Manhattan. Following the waterfront, I jog the perimeter of the Battery, elbowing my way through the bottlenecks created by out-of-towners waiting to get through a security checkpoint and onto the boats bound for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Along with the tourists comes the usual swarm of vendors selling counterfeit designer goods, and a small army of mimes costumed as Lady Liberty.
But Price has succeeded in handing much of the property back to the Dutch—or, at least, to one particular Dutchman. The garden designer Piet Oudolf, born in the original Haarlem and known for his sublime use of perennials, was hired by the conservancy to make a horticultural plan for the park. As I run by, his soft compositions of flowers and grasses look like a dream of the island’s Arcadian past. Price’s ambitious plans for the park include more landscaping by Oudolf; SeaGlass, a carousel with iridescent fish created by the visionary theatrical designer George Tsypin, scheduled for completion in 2010; and, eventually, a landmark playground designed by Frank Gehry. Someday, the locals—especially the stroller-laden families who have lately populated Lower Manhattan—might discover the place and crowd the tourists out.
The Battery is also notable for its motley collection of monuments and memorials. On my run, I’ve noticed the conspicuous ones, like the creepily representational American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial, a miniature shipwreck dedicated to merchant mariners lost at sea; or the obelisk commemorating Korean War veterans, with a silhouette of a soldier cut out from its middle; or the imposing memorial to World War II casualties that involves a massive eagle and a series of stone slabs with names carved into them. I recently took a slow walk through the park and discovered a host of smaller, odder, more endearing memorials. One, donated in 1924 by the Belgian government, honors the Walloons, who came to New Amsterdam in 1624. (Minuit, by the way, was a Walloon, and his name is properly pronounced min-WEE.) And then there’s the tasteful Norwegian Maritime Monument, one boulder sitting atop another, that rests almost back-to-back with a stone slab honoring the poet Emma Lazarus. Nearby is a statue of John Ericsson, designer of the U.S.S. Monitor (and inventor of the marine screw propeller).
This brings me back to the Dutch. They, too, have a memorial. In 1926 the Netherlands presented New York with a sculpted flagpole base commemorating the establishment, in 1625, of Fort Amsterdam and ten adjoining farms, and the purchase of Manhattan the following year. “Thus was laid the foundation of the city of New-York,” it reads. It’s a genuinely lovely object to which no one today pays the slightest bit of attention. But people will notice the New Amsterdam Plein & Pavilion, and maybe they’ll even learn something from them. Alongside van Berkel’s pavilion, Shorto’s thesis about our innate Dutchness will literally be carved in stone. Here’s part of what it will say: “The English took over the Dutch colony in 1664… . But the Dutch roots still thrive. Peter Minuit and his compatriots set Manhattan on course as a melting pot and business hub. The settlers weren’t motivated by lofty ideals. There was a policy of tolerance, but also refusal to adhere to it. Their society didn’t have the neat outline that spawned the Puritan myth in New England.”
Granted, this origami-style building, with its sidewalk café, colorful LED display, and edifying pavement texts, won’t save us from the economic damage done by the rapers and pillagers of Wall Street. But it will be one of those unexpected urban treats, like Madison Square Park’s Shake Shack or Times Square’s new TKTS booth, a small token of civilization that represents this city’s virtues far better than any number of starchitect condos. More than that, it will be the rarest of monuments, one that commemorates something that didn’t happen, a memorial to the people we might have become had the Duke of York not come along and messed things up.