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
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
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
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.