It's 1970. We are standing several stories above ground, taking in the panorama. Against the backdrop of a distant skyline, three giant towers enclose a precinct made up of pedestrian plazas and automotive roadways. Cylindrical piers of striated concrete support the buildings above ten stories of open parking garage. Skybridges connecting the towers to one another and to others beyond our field of vision support diagonally tiered terraces. A few stories below, an orangemonorail weaves through the complex, its curves counterpointing the otherwise boxy ensemble.
This is a view into Lower Manhattan as imagined between 1967 and 1972 by Paul Rudolph in drawings and models for the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a modernist megastructure projected toward the end of the Robert Moses era. For another week or so, you can see it printed at large scale in an exhibit at the Cooper Union organized by the Drawing Center in collaboration with the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture. The show combines reproductions of Rudolph's drawings with a reconstruction by Cooper students of the giant model that Rudolph's office built to represent the project.
On a recent visit, I marveled at Rudolph's distinctive forms and drawing methods--and also at the hubris of the Lomex proposition. The Moses plan, already long delayed and extensively challenged when Rudolph began his study, called for a large Y-shaped armature of expressways linking the Holland Tunnel to the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges. With the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation, Rudolph showed how the highway could feed a massive armature of towers containing mostly housing but also commercial and civic functions. At the central interchange, he projected a big city center with plinth, plaza, and a ring of towers such as those depicted in the panorama.
File Lomex with other instances of bullets dodged. In its massive scale, heavyhanded treatment of context, and simplistic reliance on formal solutions, the project seems to epitomize the worst of modernist planning. Some of the areas spared from "renewal," such as SoHo, became centers of cultural innovation and economic activity even as Rudolph was elaborating the expressway project.
But the exhibition is a welcome contribution to the emerging reassessment of urban renewal represented by the Robert Moses exhibition and book organized a few years ago by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth Jackson and reflected in the urban renewal sessions at the 2007 SAH annual convention in Pittsburgh.
Revisionist research into modernist planning and architecture is timely, and not only for the usual reasons that motivate cycles of historical research, such as the generational shift from protagonists to their successors. It also responds the pressures of the rapid urbanization occurring around the globe. Population growth, accelerated urbanization, and the enormous capital accumulations of the 1990s and early 2000s have created a wave of urban expansions ranging from favelas and shantytowns to Masdar,Waterfront City, and other instant cities real or projected. Whether you consider them "evil paradises" or models for future emulation, these and other big projects have intensified demand for historical research into modernist urbanism.
The new attention to urban renewal has already partially rehabilitated Moses for our post-Jane Jacobs era. Who knows? Given the contextualist sensibility that Tim Rohan has found in other Rudolph projects, it is possible that even Lomex will be redeemed by revisionist attention.