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Ferry Portals

by Carter B. Horsley

In its greatest act of one-up-manship since it became a borough, Richmond (a.k.a. Staten Island) has launched a spectacular design by Peter Eisenman, America's most intellectual, and occasionally abstruse, architect, for a new ferry terminal.

The abstract design, shown above, is a sweeping, lapping wave of inclined planes that is in stark contrast to the prosaic, uninspired rectilinear glass-wall, $81-million Whitehall Ferry Terminal planned for Manhattan by Anderson/Schwartz Architects with TAMS Consultants and Robert Evitts, the former director of the New York office of the Philadelphia-based firm of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

The Manhattan design, shown above, is the third major design in recent years and replaces two by Robert Venturi of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, which had won, with Anderson/Schwartz Architects, a competition for the terminal. Venturi's first scheme called for an enormous, non-digital clock to face the harbor and was an egregious exercise in bad "Pop" humor that was totally inappropriate for the most famous skyline vista in the world.


The controversy over it, shown above in a reproduction from his new book, "Iconography and Electronics Upon A Generic Architecture," simmered a bit when the city announced it did not have enough money for the plan and Venturi submitted a second, scaled-down design, without the large clock but with an electronic message board, that was also not inspired and did not quell opposition to the design. His firm then resigned from the commission last year leaving Anderson/Schwartz Architects, the original co-architects in winning competition design, to come up with its present plan, which was unveiled March 17, 1997.

How Venturi, the author of the highly influential and brilliant "Complexity and Contradiction in Modern Architecture" and "Learning from Las Vegas," and most recently, "Iconography and Electronics Upon a Generic Architecture" (see review), could have won the competition for the Manhattan terminal is beyond comprehension except that in a city that has been largely bypassed by modern architecture over the past few decades his was a name that should be added to the roster of Manhattan designers, but just not in so prominent a site.

The new Manhattan terminal is not scheduled for completion until 2002! It will not increase the number of ferry slips (3), but will provide improved links to mass transit connections.

The new design clashes totally with the elegant adjacent Governors Island ferry terminal and its square fenestration pattern correlates to nothing in the vicinity and is merely an abrupt intrusion and disruption of the Lower Manhattan approach.

Venturi and his associate, Denise Scott Brown, are brilliant theoreticians and major gods of the Pop movement who hopefully will find a warm welcome and buildable site in Manhattan. His buildings, however, are subtle jokes with unsubtle, just plain ugly aesthetics, unlike the work of the S.I.T.E. (Sculpture in the Environment) group, headed by James Wines, that have consistently been brash and provocative, but also full of bravura and pride, singularity of statement and strength of execution.

Eisenman, on the other hand, has never had a populist vision. His esoteric, often Escher-like designs were advanced calculus for the kindergarten public and usually bewildered most of his professional colleagues, one could hardly can them peers, as well. In recent years, however, Eisenman has vaulted from exotic single family country houses to major commissions in which he has calmed down geometrically, literally. His new work has a consistent, layered style and a running, not so puzzling rhythm. One suspects he may have been digesting some of Charles Jencks' "folding" architecture.

His design for the new, expanded $100 million Staten Island (side) Ferry Terminal, which will also incorporate a 170,000-sq. ft. museum for the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, is perhaps his third best design after his standup twisted horseshoe plan for the Max Reinhardt House in Berlin in 1992, shown below in a reproduction on page 43 of "Contemporary American Architects" by Philip Jodidio, published by Benedikt Taschen Gmbh, Köln, 1993, and the pastel jiggling form of the Greater Columbus Convention Center that was completed in 1993.

In his April 6, 1997 column in Arts & Leisure section of The Sunday New York Times, Herbert Muschamps described Eisenman's ferry project was "the most innovative civic project to go forward in New York in more than a generation," adding that it was also Eisenman's "most buoyant." The building's most spectacular feature, he continued, "is a large, translucent roof of faceted, whirling contour…[that] recalls the weatherman's pinwheel sign for a hurricane."

Well, the computer renderings of the project indicate that the Kevlar covered roof also resemble the scales of a coiled snake, but regardless of metaphor, it is a sweeping and bold design that puts the Manhattan endeavor to shame.

Borough President Guy Molinari of Staten Island has every right to be proud.

What about Manhattan?

The new Manhattan design has nothing whatsoever to do with what won the competition. It certainly is a better-looking structure than the temporary terminal that was quickly erected after the old terminal burnt down in 1991. But being better-looking is not being great and public monies should produce great things, at least in principle.

This is the southernmost and therefore most visible building in Manhattan. It is a special site. The city has offended the ego of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, which is not only not nice, but also a bad principle. Cities should not be fickle and public officials and entities should keep their word.

Perhaps the best solution here for the city would be to invite Peter Eisenman to redesign, perhaps along the lines of his Max Reinhardt Tower with an observatory/lighthouse/restaurant at the top, the Manhattan terminal with Anderson/Schwartz Architects as associate architects and invite Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown to enliven the insides of the major passenger hall along the lines of their original proposal, shown below.

It will cost more money, but it will challenge these architects, pay for the insults, and, most importantly, provide the city with a splendid new pair of landmarks. The observatory/lighthouse/restaurant revenues will help offset some of the monies.


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