The Canadian Centre for Architecture recently sponsored a much-ballyhooed urban design competition for a large development site on Manhattan's West Side, running between 30th and 34th Streets, and from the Hudson River to the McKim, Mead, and White-designed post office that eventually will become the new Pennsylvania Station. The winner—a foregone conclusion, since devotees, friends, and relatives packed the high-powered selection committee—is Peter Eisenman, the deconstructionist architect. He will receive a $100,000 check from the CCA and has already garnered lots of publicity. To let him loose on the West Side, though, would be a disaster.
Though extremely vague in its details, Eisenman's winning design appears to consist of an obtrusive structure that would extend over several large city blocks—exhibiting a hubris that went out of fashion after sixties-era urban-renewal disasters.
But it's easy to supply what's missing by considering the architect's past work. Eisenman believes that life is nasty, brutish, and short, and that architecture and urbanism should reflect this bleak reality. He seeks to alienate not only his clients but also everyone else unlucky enough to be near one of his architectural projects, too.
In practice, this has led him to design homes with pipe columns cutting through the middle of a dining table or a matrimonial bed and to hope contemptuously that the "good citizens" of Cincinnati would hate him for the vertigo—inducing Aronoff Center for Design and Art he designed for the University of Cincinnati.
Eisenman is blind to Gotham's lessons in urbanism, including the idea that the quality of the architecture framing the city's streets is crucial to their aesthetic appeal. If you don't think so, just compare an especially attractive city block, say, East 70th Street between Park Avenue and Lexington Avenue—framed by restrained and well-proportioned century-old homes—with the monotony of much of midtown.
But the biggest lesson of all is the one taught by Warren and Wetmore's magnificent Grand Central Station, where, ironically, Eisenman's drawings for the West Side project are on display this month. The CCA competition site poses incredibly complex transportation challenges; Grand Central is a Beaux-Arts triumph of mastering such complexity. Like the CCA site, though on a smaller scale, Grand Central has many levels of railroad tracks, subway lines both parallel and perpendicular to the train tracks, pedestrian walkways, and roads (Park Avenue runs over part of the terminal at the equivalent of the fifth or sixth floor). Yet even at peak capacity, all the parts work flawlessly.
Architecturally, Grand Central Station is the very antithesis of Eisenman's nihilistic world view. It expresses not alienation, but classical harmony, proportion, serenity, and meaning. We don't need Eisenman's scheme for a site that, because of its size, is the most important piece of undeveloped land in Manhattan. New York deserves better: just look at Grand Central and imagine what the West Side could become.