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MILLENNIUM: Lower Manhattan in the 1990s

  • Dates: 18 Nov, 2017 – 01 Apr, 2018
  • Location: New York, New York, United States
  • Address: 39 Battery Place
  • Website: http://www.skyscraper.org
  • Phone: 2129456324, 2129456324

Today, the southern tip of Manhattan is one of the fastest growing urban districts in the country: a bustling mixed-use area that has combined its traditional role as America’s financial capital—and third-largest business district in the country—with a skyrocketing residential population, massive media companies and tech start-ups, nearly fifteen million tourists a year, and an impressive collection of cultural attractions, parks, and pedestrian enclaves. In many ways lower Manhattan has become a model of a 21s-century environment of living, work, and play – a dense urban fabric with rich history and innovative architecture, as well as expansive waterfront landscapes. 
 
This new diversity of Downtown's economy and populations is surprising, not just because it follows the catastrophe of 9/11, but because not long ago—just twenty years, in fact—lower Manhattan was a different and far more troubled place, one whose very future seemed in doubt, buffeted by profound economic change, and wrenched by complex, often contradictory forces that seemed at once to be accelerating the area’s long decline, even as they nurtured sprouts of renewal and growth.
 
new multimedia exhibition at The Skyscraper Museum, Millennium: Lower Manhattan in the 1990s, running through April 2018, vividly recaptures this strange and formative time in the history of New York’s historic commercial hub, through a striking combination of architectural drawings and models, archival and contemporary photographs, original posters, maps, sketches, renderings, and other documents of the era.  Together they offer a portrait of a time and place that, though recent in historic terms, seems oddly remote—due in large part, of course, to the tragic, world-changing event that brought the period to a sudden, unexpected close: the destruction of the World Trade Center, and loss of nearly three thousand lives, on September 11th, 2001. 


Focusing on the years just before that unimaginable moment, the exhibition tells a fascinating, sometimes poignant story of decline and rebirth.  It is a story framed by the area’s decades-long losing battle against the gleaming postwar power of midtown Manhattan, which, through the 1990s, continued to siphon away lower Manhattan’s major corporations and financial institutions, leaving its inventory of older buildings more than one-quarter empty, and many of its once-grand banking halls and storefronts hauntingly silent.
 
But Millennium also recounts another side to the story, presenting the variety of intriguing, often provocative projects—large and small, built and unbuilt—advanced by architects, planners, developers, and civic-minded activists. Aware that the century and millennium wound down and a new era beckoned, these projects began to rethink downtown Manhattan and plant the seeds for its resurgence in the decades to follow.  


These include a host of major efforts by government agencies and established practitioners—ranging from the build-out of Battery Park City’s 92 acres of new and reclaimed Hudson River waterfront and the East River development of South Street Seaport and the Fulton Fish Market, to sweeping city initiatives for the rezoning and landmarking of historic skyscrapers of the Financial District (today’s FiDi). A model and renderings show Skidmore Owing & Merrill’s startling unrealized proposal for a new New York Stock Exchange trading floor and tower. Beyer Blinder Belle’s work on a restored 19th century Stone Street, reclaimed from crack dealers, shows one of the areas most successful transformations to a pedestrian enclave. Plans for Frank Gehry’s post-Bilbao proposal for a vast new structure for the Guggenheim Museum above several East River piers illustrate exaggerated ambitions of the moment.

No less intriguing are the series of smaller projects—sometimes built, sometimes not—by then-emerging architectural and urbanist figures such as Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, Machado Silvetti, Studio Asymptote (Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture), Peterson Littenberg, and James Sanders, which sought to radically reimagine existing downtown spaces—from Battery Park City, to Liberty Plaza, to the trading floor of the Stock Exchange – or introduce new institutions to the area’s mix.


Two lower Manhattan cultural efforts, making their debut in these same years, round out the exhibition’s displays.  One is The Skyscraper Museum itself, which opened for business in 1997 with a series of pop-up exhibitions in the grand, but then-empty banking halls of Wall Street.  The other is an interpretive project that inspired the Museum’s entire Millennium project: Heritage Trails New York, a program of forty site markers and printed map, implemented in the late 1990s by the architect Richard D. Kaplan.  Heritage Trails New York was intended to encourage tourism in one of America’s most historic urban districts.  This important early public history project is represented not only through original materials on display, but through the Museum’s digital re-creation of the tours as they were in 1997, and as they would appear in 2017—thus allowing viewers to make a powerful and often moving comparison between downtown as it appeared in the last years before September 11th, and downtown today.  The Heritage Trails website and walking tour can be viewed at skyscraper.org/heritagetrails.
 
Millennium: Lower Manhattan in the 1990s will be on view at the Skyscraper Museum’s main gallery
 through April 2018. The companion website can be visited atwww.skyscraper.org/millennium.


 
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SAH thanks The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Fund at The Chicago Community Foundation for its operating support.
Society of Architectural Historians
1365 N. Astor Street
Chicago, Illinois 60610
312.573.1365
Copyright - (c) 2012