I was recently in the lobby of one of the new luxury developments in Williamsburg, staring out the floor-to-ceiling glass walls, a little decorative pot of wheatgrass sitting next to me. Upon inspecting the walls, my eyes fell upon one of those geometric filler paintings, a big red canvas with a cluster of white squares falling down the side of it: the Muzak of modern art.
Brilliant! I could just see the architects around a table in one of those imitation loft offices in midtown, scrambling to translate that terrible painting into a building. If that was their goal, they did a stunning job of it; the thing takes up half a city block and is entirely composed of rectangular windows broken only by rectangular red panels of some unidentifiable, plastic material.
If you’ve been to Brooklyn in the last ten years, you know exactly how jarring this kind of architecture is. The new buildings- the condos lining McCarran Park, the waterfront mini-mall/high-rises, the colonies of steel and glass on the streets in between- can’t help but look as surreal as the digital renderings that locked down their funding, so completely out of place are they against North Brooklyn’s landscape of dull brick and vinyl. It’s like one day they were all airlifted straight from Vice City and plopped down in all their boxy, synthetic glory.
“Sleek” and “modern” tend to be the promotional adjectives of choice for these buildings; apparently that’s code for right angles and reflective light. Of course, there are variations on the theme, but it looks like these places are built with square panes of glass until the money dries up, at which point the rest is filled in with blocks of colored concrete or polished steel.
Yet despite the fact that my neighborhood has begun to resemble a very fragile game of Tetris, I can still walk into a hip kitchen store and buy Brooklyn-themed dishtowels, mugs, and coasters with cute little drawings of brick buildings on them. If I’m still feeling blinded by all the reflective light, I can flee to the Brooklyneer, a new theme restaurant in Manhattan dedicated to the Southwestern burrough, where I’ll be safe under cover of dull wood and exposed brick. The branding of the burrough is still refreshingly in the pre-war details, as are most of the bars and cafes that have sprung up since Manhattan moved in.
She tried to take me to that building with all those weird red squares,” my friend told me on the phone during her apartment hunt. “No way. Can you imagine living in one of those places?”
>I can’t. Almost everyone I know in this part of Brooklyn makes a point not to. It’s not necessarily an issue of the price, or an overt aversion to new buildings: the brick-and-masonry Belvadere houses are doing just fine. It’s just that, well, moving into a glass box is so obvious. Over here in Williamsburg in the Late Age of Gentrification, it’s hard to imagine why someone would so overtly broadcast their status as an outsider, an intruder. The transformation of my neighborhood has played out so conspicuously on the architectural playing field, you kind of have to pick a team.
When I brought the question of brick and glass to Karrie Jacobs, who has been writing about American residential design since the early 90s, she essentially chalked it up to bad artists. To squeeze the most money out of the “zoning envelope,” she told me, means “building as big as possible and building something that telegraphs the idea of luxury. And glass, particularly in a brownstone neighborhood, or one of those Williamsburg/Greenpoint areas of little asbestos shingled houses, sends a strong signal.”
Quick recap, as far as this “zoning envelope” goes: in the mid-2000s, the historically factory-heavy district on Brooklyn’s northern banks was rezoned for residential use. By the end of the year more than 130 new buildings were in the works. By 2009, thanks to the decimation of the housing bubble, there were more abandoned and stalled construction sites in Williamsburg than in the entirety of the Bronx.
2009 was a good year for some; mandolin-wielding college boys in dirty white T-shirts across the neighborhood found themselves suddenly surrounded by brand new stainless steel appliances in cheap apartments that clearly weren’t meant for them. It was a notoriously good time to start a large-scale sculpture project, since the materials were practically up for the taking. But when the economy started rattling again, the jackhammers followed.
Now architects like Robert Scarano, whose firm has designed over thirty new complexes in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area, are now making a killing playing Sim City: Brooklyn. The guy actually loves his materials so much he plopped a three-story addition of glass and steel on top of the 100-year-old Dumbo loft building that serves as his office. The mini-condo, thanks to a bizarre network of metal rods, looks like a spider from space trying to eat the original building.
Which pretty much brings us to the present moment of places like The Edge and Northside Piers, waterfront luxury towers, whose architects are trying to collage Richard Meir’s boxy glass West Side high-rises onto the Brooklyn landscape. But where buyers in Perry West were wooed by signed and editioned models of their buildings and private studio tours, the Edge’s promotional tactic relies on ads that superimpose vintage pinup girls onto the building’s private terrace. There she is, that retro icon, rosy-cheeked and playing croquet by the pool. “It’s good for your health! Buy Edge!”
In fact, there’s something truly bizarre about that ad, in circulation around 2009 and optimistically titled “Stimulate The Economy!” An imitation of a super-8 film, faux-pockmarked and washed-out, it entices potential condo owners with swing music and, interestingly, pre-war imagery. The pinup girls are in heels and bikinis, illustrated skin gleaming, showering flowers with your grandmother’s watering can on the development’s private deck. “Good for the environment: Buy Edge!” It’s catchy, but impossible to swallow. In other contexts the throwback imagery might make more sense, but the aggressive gleaming modernism of the Edge towers cuts through even the most deft of nostalgic film editors.
The people who make this stuff- the videos, the ad copy for the buildings’ flashy websites- particularly enjoy likening Williamsburg to Soho: “A neighborhood that is light years ahead…the NEW in New York.” Perhaps there’s something to that: Soho became a pricey destination neighborhood after being similarly rezoned. It’s also the spiritual home of the post-starving artist, which must be attractive to people trying to hawk million dollar condos with billboards of bike messengers. But this analogy totally bypasses the previous derailing of a massive urban renewal project in Soho that would have leveled a good sample of its industrial cast-iron architecture, buildings that now contain some of the most expensive apartments in the city. New Yorkers treasure them to the point of fetish, and the neighborhood still got to blow up.
But here in North Brooklyn we get technologically-enhanced mutations of Le Corbousier’s infamous glass tower,a thoroughly recycled architectural trend despite the condo pusher’s battle cry of “NEW.” So far, in fact, that back in the eighties Tom Woolfe wrote a book-length essay railing against the tiredness of the once-modern International Style, the ubiquitous practice of designing glass boxes “so as to reflect the glass boxes next door.” So far that, as the writer notes, architecture students in the seventies were sending each other ironic cartoons of glass boxes searching for Captain Nemo and visiting Winnie the Pooh.
Yet the box-building machines keeps churning them out to this day, and towers will soon be rising off the eastern edge of Greenpoint, where a guy I know sells T-shirts and mugs with the neighborhood’s iconic vinyl siding on them. Maybe once team glass wins we’ll be trading them in for tote bags that look a lot like the red and white squares I puzzled at in a luxury building’s lobby.