Monday, April 7, 2008

Boring buildings, courtesy of your neighborhood elitists

Have you ever wondered what ever happened to the creative, interesting architecture of yore? To my taste, so many modern buildings are glass and steel boxes -- works of engineering, without any aesthetic value to speak of. Well, this hardly constitutes a definitive study, but a New York magazine article on an unlikely sounding condo/hotel project in New York City's SoHo by Donald Trump, the comb-over king himself, and his partners offers a peek into the motivations behind dull construction.

There would be no architecturally forward design: It would be a simple, approval-friendly box, the way Trump likes it. “In New York,” he says, “I can build a box as-of-right [within existing regulations]. Or I can get a creative design, go through ten years of community boards, and still get refused 32 to zero. Given that choice, I’ll build a box.”

Huh ... So you can put up boring buildings without a hassle, but creativity requires special permission and delay? I think I see a problem here.

And just who are the local activists behind all this delay? Who are these civic-minded folks who the Donald Trumps of the world want to dodge through boxy designs that bypass review?

Once he grasped the scope of the project, no one was more outraged by the news than Sean Sweeney, the director of the Soho Alliance. Sweeney’s group arguably created Soho as we know it, by pushing for “artist zoning” in the seventies and coining the very name “Soho” at its inaugural meeting. A slight and excitable man in wire-frame glasses, Sweeney occupies a Greene Street penthouse crammed with custom contemporary furniture and leads a life seemingly devoted to squashing out-of-context construction. “In 1990,” he says, pointing out the window and across West Broadway, “they wanted to build a hotel there. I said, ‘Hey, you’ll ruin my view!’ We fought, and it stayed an empty lot for twelve years.” The building that finally did go up is a modest-size condo, with a politely recessed top story. Trump Soho stands a few blocks beyond, splitting the sky in two.

Sweeney rallied other downtown groups, got the zoning-committee chairman at Community Board 2 to pledge support to the cause, and launched an aggressive campaign against the invader. He likes to frame his opposition to Trump Soho in vintage class-warfare terms. “We didn’t fall off the pumpkin truck. He moved into the wrong neighborhood. We’re a phoenix, and Trump is a vulture,” he told me. Sometimes, though, his civic outrage crosses over into a more particular anti-Trump animus. Never mind that a number of other large-scale projects are already under way or being planned nearby. (The “manufacturing” designation, which allows hotels but not condos, has done precisely the opposite of what it was supposed to do. Within blocks, five hotels are being built right now, and six more are being talked about.) Sweeney seems more intensely alarmed by the brand, and the people it attracts, than anything else. “We don’t want airline hostesses here,” he says, “or people coming from Europe or Asia for a couple of weeks. Who was the first buyer in that building—a Croatian-Swedish soccer player? Trump represents everything we hate. Bad taste. Déclassé. He’s uptown, we’re downtown, and never the two shall meet.”

Wow. It takes a special kind of person to make Donald Trump seem like a sympathetic character. But Sweeney sounds like he's prick enough for the job.

Under the circumstances, I'd build a boring box too.


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