Elevating urban infrastructure

2 August 2018 (Last Updated August 1st, 2018 16:44)

Public space design is often dominated by sweeping spaces and wide terrains that give a sense of openness to crowded urban spaces. However, the winners of a new design competition for New York’s Park Avenue have created a series of elevated structures that transform the boulevard’s famous medians. Patrick Kingsland finds out about the benefits of elevated urban infrastructure.

Elevating urban infrastructure
Many of the projects – from elevated walkways to a mountain-shaped structure with a waterfall – lie off the ground. Credit: MAISON

Of all the places in New York you might expect to find regeneration, Park Avenue is likely to appear somewhere low down the list. The 140ft-wide boulevard in Manhattan is one of the most iconic commercial avenues in the city – perhaps even the world.

Unlike other parts of New York, where narrow streets and alleys often impact the amount and quality of sunlight and air, Park Avenue is, says designer Anthony Stahl, a place where, “city design, the built environment and how people live, have been really thought about.”

When Stahl and his colleagues from the design practice MAISON entered a competition to transform Park Avenue’s central reservation last year, that architectural and historical significance was at the forefront of their minds.

“For us to come in and do a smart intervention in Park Avenue it was important to be mindful of this legacy of city planning, parks, public space and culture all coming together in a single boulevard,” says Stahl, whose practice went on to win the competition.

Elevated infrastructure: evolving beyond the ground floor

Other Beyond the Centreline entries were thinking along similar lines. One of the most striking features of the competition – organised by the New York real-estate company Fisher Brothers – is the verticality of the shortlisted projects.

Whereas public space is often dominated by sweeping, wide terrains designed to open-up crowded urban areas, many of the projects here – from elevated walkways to a mountain-shaped structure with a waterfall – lie off the ground.

The key reason for this, says MAISON designer Alexia Beghi, was the nature of the competition.

“We had to be mindful that we didn’t take away from the existing space.”

“The idea was to elevate the area from a cultural standpoint without interfering with pedestrian access,” she says. “We had to be mindful that we didn’t take away from the existing space: I think that is maybe why there is so much verticality in the submissions.”

As cities become increasingly dense and vertical, it is only “natural”, adds Stahl, for public space to evolve beyond the ground floor.

“Whether that manifests in bridges between buildings or concepts like the New York Highline or what we are showing on Park Avenue – I do think it is natural for that to happen and helpful for a city to grow in that way. It is better than the city sprawling on the ground and eating up a bunch of natural infrastructure.”

Breathing new life into Park Avenue

While MAISON was keen to not disrupt Park Avenue’s pedestrian access, the designers also understood the area needed fundamental change. They say it has recently experienced an “exodus”, with residents and commercial tenants vacating the neighbourhood for other parts of town, such as  Hudson Yards and Midtown South, which have undergone major redevelopment over the past decade.

“One thing that is happening in New York that didn’t really exist when Park Avenue was first built is the level of competition between neighbourhoods,” says Stahl. “There are more people here than ever before and the city has really gotten smart about how it plans it places. Neighbourhoods have become competitive in terms of bringing people to them, and being live/work/play epicentres. Part of our Beyond the Centreline project was to infuse the area with this programme that exists elsewhere in the city.”

The famous medians that run-down Park Avenue are particularly in need of fresh ideas, adds Beghi. While Christmas trees can be found during winter and a few sculptures pop up from time to time, the medians have remained largely the same since appearing in the early 20th century.

“They just change out the flowers and the trees every season,” Beghi says. “It isn’t really meant to be what we think of as a park. There are no children running around playing in it. There is no draw to it, it’s more just an element of beauty as opposed to an element of interaction and activity.”

“Currently the area is really quiet,” adds Stahl. “It is a business centre. People don’t go there for entertainment or leisure.”

New York New York

MAISON’s plan to breathe new life into the area involved turning the medians of Park Avenue into “a series of highly specific cultural interventions”, or what the designers simply call “magnets”.

They include an elevated platform to be used as a performance space; a rotating gallery of glass cubes where art can be shared with the public; a twisted Guggenheim-inspired “stack”, that reshapes the traditional pedestrian pathway and provides a new view of the boulevard; and a raised basketball court for people to come and play.

“At a high level the idea was that each of the magnets would act as catalysts,” says Stahl. “Instead of people just walking across the medium, in our scenario you can go there, stay on the median, and experience different things as you move up the boulevard. People can then share on social media what they are doing and seeing.”

The designers were also thinking about what makes New York the unique place it is.

“Every single intervention is very New York-centric.”

“Every single intervention is very New York-centric,” says Beghi. “From the stage to the gallery to the basketball court: all of these are very reminiscent of other parts of New York. It was about bringing them together onto one avenue.”

As things stand, Beyond the Centerline remains a purely ideas-based competition, designed to get architects thinking about Park Avenue and how it can be changed for the better.

While MAISON’s vertical magnets might look challenging to plan and build, the designers say their ideas are achievable, pointing to the now-famous New York High Line as an example of what might come in the future.

“The High Line was also a competition way back when,” says Stahl. “But then it turned into something real.”