Luck of the Draw

How optimistic urban design may bring a happy ending
to a victim of public-space politics.

Fresh prospects for the Drawing Center in New York City show how perceptive planning can triumph over rough luck. For decades the small museum had exhibited works on paper in a SoHo space and kept a relatively low profile. That changed drastically in June 2004 when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation chose it as a surprise member of the World Trade Center site’s cultural lineup. Soon afterward the LMDC proposed housing both the Center and the International Freedom Center in a building designed by Norwegian firm Snohetta that would overlook the memorial. When some 9-11 families objected to the potential “anti-American” content of the cultural centers (and later to the size of the building), Governor Pataki responded to political pressure and booted the Freedom Center from the site. Rather than get dragged into an endless, draining battle, the Drawing Center quietly withdrew from Ground Zero in August 2005. The Center received $10 million in relocation aid from the LMDC and set out to find a new home—preferably one where setting, neighbors, and access could play up art rather than spin.

Enter Claire Weisz, whose firm, Weisz+ Yoes Architecture, studied possible sites for the center’s board. She recommended a parcel behind the South Street Seaport, a chintzy shopping mall set along the East River and between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. The Seaport’s an unloved maritime pastiche, and the former Fulton Fish Market Weisz selected hardly counters it. But Weisz’s proposal shows how topography can trump recent use when planning an urban space.

If you tune out the mall, South Street captivates. Air remains briny and views show the fertile Brooklyn shores that thrilled Dutch and English settlers. Weisz says her plan gelled when she realized that no matter how banal the shopping , shoppers wander the waterside on pretty days. And that meant vital visibility for this quirky collection. “Museums are best in a mixed environment,” she explains.

So Weisz decided on a five-sided aluminum building inland from the shore-side mall that once housed the fishmongers’ stalls. The building offers high ceilings, wide floor plates, and an ample amount of light reflected from the nearby East River. “You get a certain quality of light off water,” reasons Weisz. “To play with that effect was a big-ticket item.” To Weisz, what excites developers can inspire artists. The atmospherics are even fueling nearby residential development, with starchitects like Santiago Calatrava designing nearby high-rises.

The prospect of more visitors to the area emboldened Weisz to imagine more programming. She hopes the Drawing Center will house resident artists and simpatico organizations. City officials will decide this year whether a new structure or a rehab of the current building suits the overall East River plan. In either case, Weisz envisions ground-floor galleries with offices and studios upstairs. Open floor plans that encourage staff, artists, and passersby to mix could temper the contrast between the museum and the mall. “The city is full of places where something is incongruous,” she says.

Riverside museums in older cities inspire the idea that waterfront grace can induce tourists to make an unplanned visit to a gallery. Weisz harkens back to the Merseyside dock where a warehouse’s facade was preserved and simple interior galleries were created for Tate Liverpool’s contemporary holdings. So can a spark that enlivened an old industrial town enrich the financial capital of the world? Weisz thinks so. “It may be that small alternative space makes the first step where culture hits the waterfront,” says Weisz.

VENTURING OUT: General Growth Properties, which took over the Seaport in 2004, emphasizes retail rather than nostalgia. The firm just opened a New York office and claims to be open to joining debate on Lower Manhattan’s future. A group of residents and businesses have joined design watchdogs to form Seaport Speaks, an effort to guide the historic district’s future.

SPEAKING OUT: Have “festival marketplaces” stretching from Boston’s Faneuiel Hall to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor become hackneyed? Can waterfronts spark more inventive outdoor design? Metropolis contributors Andrew Blum and Karrie Jacobs have chronicled the spread of pseudo-history at malls. Maybe the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica stokes more spontaneity in riverside shopping than anything Northeastern cities have embraced. If you know a graceful or gruesome fusion of art and commerce by the river in your town, tell us about it.

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