3.23.2012

Washington Square Village and Silver Towers

(Updated) On this languid, dreamy day, more reminiscent of summer than spring, let me invite you to come down to Washington Square Village and Silver Towers in Greenwich Village to see what all the fuss is about. In an article available on The New York Times website (posted online March 22, 2012, appears in the March 25 print edition), architecture critic Michael Kimmelman weighs in on the much-heated controversy of the NYU 2031 plan, the university's much-discussed proposal to build on and reconfigure the "superblocks" on which these apartment buildings sit. Bless him, for those of us who live within these blocks will enjoy chatting about his article, especially as we stroll outside on this nice day.

Washington Square Village and Sasaki Garden, partial view


NYU's plans for Washington Square Village, the massive apartment complex built in the late 1950s and early 1960s, has understandably riled the residents. This has a long history. In order to pave the way for the Village complex and Silver Towers, the latter designed by a young I. M. Pei, the university leveled many older buildings, ones more typical of the Greenwich Village look. The size and scale of the massive complex interrupted the human dimensions of the street. Jane Jacobs's influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), compared and contrasted the ideal of the older Greenwich Village street, one like her own where people mingled on street corners in casual conversation, with these modern and misguided attempts at urban progress. Washington Square Village rose before her eyes, an eyesore. Between this type of building and America's deepening involvement in the Vietnam War, you can understand why Jacobs packed her bags for Canada.



One of the Silver Towers, with "Bust of Sylvette" in front.
View from north side near Bleecker Street


Kimmelman's article, "It Riles a Village," could be characterized as a balanced approach to NYU's plan. I would imagine neither the university developers nor the opponents will totally love it. The opponents of the plan will likely cheer for his judgment that NYU should abandon plans to build tall crescent-shaped buildings in the middle of Washington Square Village, thereby protecting the existing open space in the middle, Sasaki Garden. He argues that in exchange, NYU should be allowed to tear down the nearby Coles Sports & Recreation Center and construct its proposed multi-tower building on that site. He does propose a design modification, a scaling down of the project, "accompanied by a promise of public amenities along with the pedestrian thoroughfare that is now part of the proposal, which would roughly extend Greene Street north."

Huh. Let me stop with a question. NYU can do what it wants but it must promise something? Hmmm. Promises are tricky to enforce. Monied interests probably love when they hear the word "promise," because it usually means they're off the hook.

NYU's Coles Sports and Recreation Center, Bleecker Street side


Jumping ahead fifty years after the construction of these apartments, many residents find themselves protecting this turf. Not only is this area home to thousands of people who naturally have an attachment to their personal spaces, but the buildings have been reassessed as worthy. That's nice to hear, though the characterization might surprise even a few residents. Kimmelman praises Washington Square Village, describing the complex as "one of the city’s underrated architectural successes, immense without somehow seeming so big, its mass broken up by terraces and panels of glazed bricks in primary colors and white, and by the generous open space between the slabs."

View of Washington Square Village buildings 1 and 2


Some, if not many, residents of these buildings are understandably frustrated over NYU's mercurial and ever-changing plans, each one more distant from reality. When the university released its colorful renderings for the proposed towers in the middle of Washington Square Village, it was hard not to laugh. In place of the sleek modern look of our Sasaki Garden, we were treated with the prospect of a futuristic academic amusement park, an ambitious project likely to kick up construction dust and noise for years to come. See Curbed's fun-filled coverage, especially the pictures in this post from last March. As one friend of mine wisecracked upon seeing the plan, "Where's the monorail?"

Washington Square Village and garden


At any rate, the unseasonable spring has brought out the blossoms in and around Washington Square Village and Silver Towers. Have a look. Everyone cuts through these buildings to get from the Village to Soho, so don't be shy. Come on down. If you see a casually dressed woman out walking her dog - and hundreds probably match that description - please stop and say hello.


View Washington Square Village and Silver Towers in a larger map


Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from her morning dog walk. Friday, March 23, 2012.

For much more on the neighborhood, read the post 25 Radical Things To Do in Greenwich Village.

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