Monday, April 04, 2011

The Utopia Over the Freeway

The Bridge Apartments in Washington Heights. Photo used by permission from photographer Mario Burger,
Burger International, Inc.

Last fall, the Cooper Union hosted a show dedicated to Paul Rudolph's Lower Manhattan Expressway (or LOMEX) proposal - a design study intended to enamor New York City's modernist architectural elites with Robert Moses's freeway-building ambitions.

Rudolph was a genius draftsman, and he produced stunning drawings that manage to generate a sense of futuristic optimism and excitement around the idea of living above thousands of exhaust pipes stuck in traffic:

One of Paul Rudolph's LOMEX studies.

From at least the 1930s, when Moses was in charge of the Parks Department, New York's "Master Builder" wanted to build a freeway through lower Manhattan, connecting New Jersey to Brooklyn by way of the Holland Tunnel and the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges. Interestingly, Paul Rudolph's proposal came only during the Lower Manhattan Expressway's dying days, and only at the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation.*

Jane Jacobs had published The Death and Life of Great American Cities seven years previously, in 1961; a year after Rudolph began his study of the Expressway, in 1968, Governor Rockefeller would freeze Moses out of the city's transportation agencies. By the time Rudolph stopped working on this proposal in 1972, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and grand building schemes like this one were relegated to the realm of fantasy. In a review on the Design Observer blogs, Mark Lamster wrote that Rudolph's was "an extraordinary vision, if not a practical one."

Rudolph's drawings are indeed amazing, especially the ones that compare the hugeness of his vision to existing landmarks (the red drawing above frames the towers of the Williamsburg Bridge, which is huge in its own right, in the center).

The show is powerful not just for its audacity, but for what we know now, forty years later, when the historic neighborhoods that Rudolph and Moses would have liked to have bulldozed are worth hundreds of billions of dollars. In hindsight, it's easy for us to say, "something like that could never actually happen."

Except for one thing: something like Rudolph's vision actually did happen. A few miles away, on the same island of Manhattan, urban renewalists and highway builders had actually finished a massive cross-island expressway, topped with apartment towers and a major transit hub, several years before Paul Rudolph started designing the LOMEX.

The new Trans-Manhattan Expressway seen from a tower of the George Washington Bridge. Photo from the LIFE Magazine archives.

This is the Trans-Manhattan Expressway, also known as I-95, the only Interstate highway that crosses Manhattan Island. It was opened in 1963, when a second deck was added to the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey. It crosses the island in Washington Heights, where the island is only one mile wide, but its construction still required the demolition and clearance of dozens of buildings on eight dense city blocks.
When the Expressway opened in 1963, Robert Moses, the freeway's champion, foreshadowed Paul Rudolph's work to come later in the decade:

"This is the first expressway to be built across Manhattan, and we hope that the Lower Manhattan and Mid-Manhattan expressways, both of which have been the victims of inordinate and inexcusable delays caused by intemperate opposition and consequent official hesitation, will follow. These crosstown facilities are indispensable to be effectiveness of the entire metropolitan arterial objective of removing traffic through congested city streets."

Of course, the scorn for opposition that Moses has on display in this quote was even then sowing the seeds of his downfall. And with the benefit of hindsight, it's easy for us to chuckle at the notion that building a fast and convenient route for cars and trucks to enter Manhattan would do anything to remove any traffic from New York's streets:

Photo by Zach K.

The Trans-Manhattan Expressway wasn't merely a freeway, though. It was a linear megastructure that stacked a complex of modernist transportation hubs and huge apartment blocks overhead. On the western end, Moses built a winged bus terminal that squatted over the freeway's entrance ramps:

Looking west towards New Jersey over the new Trans-Manhattan Expressway and the George Washington Bridge bus terminal. Photo courtesy of the Port Authority of NY-NJ.

George Washington Bridge bus terminal. Photo by

On the eastern end, the city sold development rights to private developers who built four enormous apartment towers, known today as the "Bridge Apartments." The New York Times did a story a few years ago called "Life on the Road," a chronicle of the apartments' history and what it's like to live there. "If the windows are open, the noise is most deafening on the middle floors, and people inside find that they need to raise their voices to hold a conversation or talk on the phone," writes reporter David Chen. "The winds carry vehicle exhaust upward, which is especially noticeable on the terraces. And on most floors, the vibrations of trucks can clearly be felt, along with those of any construction equipment."

Two of the four Bridge Apartment towers, which mark the path of the Trans-Manhattan Expressway beneath. Photo by Zach K.

The Bridge Apartments loom over Washington Heights like mother ships from a sci-fi movie. I remember catching sight of them from time to time when I worked as a park ranger in Inwood Hill Park, two miles away, and being startled by their incongruous appearance on the skyline. This in a city known for its tall buildings - but the four towers, lined up in a row and hulking over a major freeway, have an otherworldly quality to them (Mario Burger's photo at the top of this post is the best illustration of this feeling that I was able to find online).

In all the reviews I've seen of Rudolph's show, I'm surprised no one has mentioned the Trans-Manhattan Expressway. It was obviously a major precedent in Rudolph's mind and in his designs - when he began working on LOMEX, the Trans-Manhattan Expressway would have still felt new and futuristic, not yet dated and dingy with soot and exhaust as it is now.

And for those modernist romantics who wonder at the ambitions of people like Robert Moses and Paul Rudolph, and yearn for a future that might have been: the gritty reality is on plain view to all in Washington Heights.

*The Ford Foundation's involvement in promoting LOMEX was probably not a self-serving effort to get more New Yorkers into Fords, as I'd initially suspected. By the late 1960s, the Ford Foundation, most famous for sponsoring the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was separating itself from the Ford Motor Company through stock divestiture and new members of its Board of Directors (source). Instead, the Foundation seems to have hired Rudolph in a well-meaning - if misguided - effort to promote "urban renewal" in what were then some of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods.


Wayne Foote said...

This is really great information! Thank you for sharing - it is very much appreciated!

ajlounyinjurylaw said...

Interesting source of history. It was really great understanding the history of the infrastructure.