The Future of Governors Island

Five architectural teams take on the challenge to create a New York destination.

The islands around Manhattan have historically been treated as places for sequestering the ill or socially disenfranchised. Throughout the 19th century, Roosevelt Island was the site of various hospitals, asylums, and correctional facilities. Through the mid-20th century, Ellis Island was the port of call for incoming, non-naturalized immigrants. Today, however, Manhattan’s islands are increasingly being rezoned and redeveloped for recreational, residential, and public use – that is, they are being treated as destinations rather than transition points or buffer zones.

Governors Island is presently the subject of an exhibition and development competition that offers New Yorkers the opportunity to reflect upon the future function and significance of the islands that dot the New York harbor. Titled The Park at the Center of the World: Five Visions for Governors Island , the show, sponsored by the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC), features the work of five finalists that explore a range of possible uses for the site. Entries were chosen on the basis of the promise they showed as schematic designs, as concepts or ideas, and are still subject to revision.

The teams included in the exhibition include Field Operations, which worked with Wilkinson/Eyre Architects; Hargreaves Associates, which partnered with Michael Maltzan Architecture; REX, which teamed up with MDP; West 8, which submitted its proposal with Rogers Marvel, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Quennell Rothschild, and SMWM; and WRT, which collaborated with Urban Strategies. In accordance with the competition brief, all entries were to offer plans for approximately 150 acres of Governors Island’s 172 acre site. Participants were asked to address the island’s historical and physical fabric, as well as its relationship to Brooklyn and Manhattan (the former is just 200 meters away, while the latter, twice that). All teams were also asked to make provisions for a “Great Promenade” that wraps the perimeter of the site and also incorporate a “Summer Park” to the south—and the submissions vary enormously in terms of their range and approach (See the slideshow for images and information on each entry. )

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Seen as a whole, the strength of the designs is that they provide convincing arguments for how Governors Island could function as a destination for New Yorkers—and not just for tourists. Mollusk is intriguing for how it uses Governors Island’s location in the center of New York harbor as an opportunity to promote clean water, and sustainable urban design more generally. The Living Matrix is also impressive in terms of how it offers a rereading of “The Great Promenade,” blurring circulation spaces with cultural programs. This proposal also concentrates activity along the entire perimeter of the island—and not just along a central axis—which is sensible for two reasons. It represents an intelligent way of managing density (helps prevent bottlenecking) and leaves the core of the island open for more private uses (picnicing or gardening, perhaps). While the idea of imposing a grid on Governors Island is not entirely plausible (won’t the site feel small enough already?), the flexibility that the design by REX/MDP allows still makes sense given the open-ended character of the development as a whole.

The main problem with the competition entries is that they do little to address the historical fabric of Governors Island. The fact that none of the proposals offer a specific strategy for engaging Castle Williams and Fort Jay—two buildings erected by the US Army when the island served as a military outpost—is probably due to a lack of coordination between the National Park Service, which administers the island’s historical monuments, and GIPEC, which is overseeing development of most of the rest of the site. But it also represents a missed opportunity inasmuch as it would have allowed the teams the chance to consider more fully what makes Governors Island distinct. The views and vistas on the island are great—and projects like The Necklace go to great lengths to highlight them—but there is also an indigenous cultural and political terrain that still needs to be looked at. Second, many of the projects could have been more aggressive in terms of offering a clearer vision of what they see as Governors Island’s role in the context of New York’s overall growth and development. If Governors Island is indeed to represent a new “center of the world”—as the competition organizers hope—what will this center look like, and how will it affect the rest of the city? In what way will places like Governors Island redefine the recently rezoned waterfront areas of Brooklyn, for example, or the role that the waterways play in the city’s infrastructure development?

The fact that Governors Island is finally being made more accessible to the public is a fantastic development, for the move will help diversify the range and character of open spaces already available. But such questions need to be coupled with broader investigations into the islands around New York, and a vision for how the city sees itself evolving in the future. The relationship between the center and the margins of the city is indeed shifting—and the fact that the city and state are concentrating on rehabilitating neglected sites like Governors Island only attests to this—yet such large-scale investigations are largely missing from the competition entries, which seems unfortunate given the exceptional talent and imagination of the parties involved.

For a more in-depth look into the five submissions, go to The Park at the Center of the World: Five Visions for Governors Island . More information on each plan, including more images and information on envisioned transportation, materials, and identity, are available on their site or in-person at the exhibition that runs until September 02, 2007 on Governors Island. The site also encourages feedback from the public.

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