Picnic on the Spire  

Rather than competing to construct ever higher towers, New York has taken to multiplying the street instead of floor plates. The grid of the plan begins to grow upwards; individual buildings are being thinly sliced as the layers buildup. The iconic New York skyline is no longer legible from afar, subsumed by a light three-dimensional grid bustling with activity – as if the famed blueprint of the city has been flipped up for all to see – blurring the distinctions between building and environment – in essence, merging the city into a single “building”. She was standing next to the Empire State building, ninety-eight floors above the original ground. If she stretched out her hand she could touch the spire, for the path jutted in quite close at the southern façade and made for a rather cozy picnic spot. The ground beneath her feet was light, like a ribbon. It weaved in and around buildings, sometimes hugging the edge of old commercial towers, sometimes shooting out into open space, or squeezing in between thin crevices so narrow it was difficult to avoid brushing against the adjacent brick façade. Clearly, this web of grand boulevards and meandering streets had a life of its own, and yet, wholly relied on the surrounding buildings – their fenestration, materiality, details– to give it character. On the one hand, the multiplication of streets connected the buildings into a larger network. On the other hand, because any given floor now had the potential to connect to an elevated street, the concentration of disparate programs into a single building – the logic of the skyscraper – was now inverted. The building is consequently split into several buildings, once again revealing the unique programs within each floor previously hidden behind a unifying façade.

Her mother, of a generation that could only appreciate the tip of the Empire State as a point soaring above, found it strange to now see the crown so close up. She missed the sense of awe people held towards tall buildings, when one was confronted with the extreme differences in scale between oneself and the building, but her daughter enjoyed this new-found intimacy. The threshold, neither an authoritative line nor a defined buffered zone, was now the primary space of activity. Because of the change in materiality of the street, so did people’s perception of the interior and exterior. People felt like they were always occupying some intermediary space, outside of the building proper yet still within the softened and secure space associated with the interior realm. Doors were now equated with windows, as upper floors could also be ground floors. Her daily routine was so punctuated with interior to exterior transitions that it was no longer necessary to distinguish between the two. Precisely because the elevated streets were imbued with a newfound sense of security, she could walk out onto the “street” from her bedroom window.

The city was so packed there were no visible landmarks anymore. The race to produce landmarks had become moot, and so one could say that New York, as always, was ahead of the game. Tourists from all over used to flock to the observatory decks of the city, waiting in line for hours to get a glimpse of an aerial view of the city grid. Nowadays, however, all the streets functioned like observatories, so that the lobbies to these skyscrapers remained empty even on the best of days. There was no longer a single roofscape; the domineering elite of rooftop gardens and penthouses had disappeared with the elevation and multiplication of the streets. Instead, streets permeated the thicket of buildings, denser in some areas than others, so that on late summer afternoons, the sun created a stippling light effect cascading down the layers of streets. What we’ve essentially done is flip the grid of the city onto its side.” Her father used the term ‘we’ as if he too, was on the board of developers. He was a professor of chemistry in training, but an architectural enthusiast at heart. “Just imagine,” he said between mouthfuls of mashed potato, “reverting back to the days of only one ground floor, how limiting that would be. This is what they call killing two birds with one stone. You get,” and here, he was so excited that he put his fork down momentarily to count out the possibilities with his fingers, “lobbies, parks, swimming pools in the sky. Granted, situating a lobby in the sky is not a new idea. But having a lobby that also connects to a street in the sky? Sheer genius! We reached the limits of duplicating the floor plate, or maybe we just got bored, and now we’re onto duplicating the street. It’s surpassed what Rem Koolhaas called bigness, you know, the architect who designed the Prada store in Lower-lower Soho.” Both mother and daughter shot him a weird look, but a speech had had begun to blossom inside his head and he didn’t seem to notice; he took up his fork again and resumed eating.

“You’re completely missing the point,” her mother countered, shaking her head disapprovingly. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Or at least you shouldn’t.” “Why not? We’ve reached a stage of technological advancement that we can have streets upon streets, and thriving ones at that. The traditional perception of above and below doesn’t make sense anymore because the ground can be both at the same time, creating a new web of density. Mind you, this is fundamentally different from the old utopic visions of bridging between buildings, where the bridge remains the secondary element, a singular thing that one could spot from the ground. Now, there’s a slippery ambiguity between not only above and below, but also boundaries between ground and building. “I think we still need thresholds,” her mother replied, “not to mention how new neighborhoods like the “Upper-upper west” are rather ridiculous sounding.” “No thoughts?” They looked at her. Funny how two people who seemed to hold opposite views on everything could so suddenly join ranks. She shrugged, and reached over to grab the vegetables. She disliked getting in between her parents, and so kept her lips sealed on the matter. After all, who knew if this was the physical democratization of the city or simply power-hungry developers having hit the jackpot?

To meet the void of Central Park was like wandering in the midst of a forest, only to take a few more steps and be confronted with a waterfall. Whoever thought that pure void could be so arresting? In her mind, this cavity was more sublime than the picturesque garden below. Her mother, however, remained nostalgic for Central Park, the joggers, the crowd, the feeling of cool grass against one’s bare skin. Once every few months, mother and daughter would make a trek down through the streets to the park. Because the elevated street system offered so many different routes down to the original ground, they had made a pact to never take the same route twice, and so far, they’ve succeeded in keeping their pact. Every trip took on a different character, and had its own rhythm of elevational changes. Sometimes, they took paths that fed into the central void and then walked down along the edge, conscious of each level of their descent. Other paths turned and twisted so often it was easy to get lost, and when they finally did reach the level of the park it was in complete surprise. Still others were more direct routes down to the original ground level, where they would walk up one of the avenues to enter the park.


Location: New York, U.S.
Program: Masterplan
Year: 2012
Status: Competition
Team: Evelyn Ting, Steven Tsai, Paul Tse