Hugh Hardy: Architect Calls for Fresh Take on Public Life

Hugh Hardy’s Greenwich Street South Study

"The greatest achievement of New York is the streets," says architect Hugh Hardy. And he says we can achieve richer public places — if New York’s citizens can persuade officials to make those places serve people rather than cars.

Hardy, who designed 42nd Street’s New Victory Theater and the Atlantic Terminal in downtown Brooklyn, has made a career of designing urbane buildings near generic schlock. As you might expect, he loves the contradiction that defines New York’s streets.

The Village Alliance, a business improvement district promoting pedestrian safety and retail mix between Astor Place and the 6th Avenue subway hub, invited Hardy to speak last month on changing forms of public space. Hardy reprised this talk for his staff and StreetsBlog on July 12. His premise: outdoor activity defines New Yorkers’ lives and should expand beyond traditional sidewalks and plazas. "You can’t live here and not walk around," he said. But you can walk around on new kinds of public space.

In the talk, Hardy noted that "the world is changing" how New York imagines citizens’ capacity to share places: extended sidewalks and green patches under highways can be part of our urban vocabulary if the government will invest in them.

He saw heartening signs that many city officials share his view.

Even Queensboro Plaza, which became a car cluster, is due for new landscaping and increased bike use. This change, Hardy says, argues that "we’re learning that you can succeed in making new places for people." Ditto for the profusion of sidewalk cafes from Washington Heights to Bay Ridge. Restaurateurs, planners and even transportation officials seem to be learning "to create public places that people can respond to," Hardy said.

hugh_hardy.jpgBut he warned that economic pressures can thwart this progress, especially on retail corridors. "How you can cultivate the diversity of street flow in new buildings is troublesome," he said. "The cost of construction is so enormous that a developer has to build something enormous. People who rent it have to be wealthy. That means they live in their hot tubs or they are a chain retailer." The profusion of national brands along Rockefeller Center and other shopping streets, he said, has made the "scale of the city bigger and more empty."

He warned against over programming public parks with too much entertainment and sought to contain the Las Vegas-style importation of mass culture that now defines 42nd Street. As an alternative, he said, space now allotted to cars should become lawn or sidewalk. Planners obsessed with making visual corridors tidy should preserve quirks like the Washington Square Park fountain. And places like 55 Water Street, which converted its roof to a rustic meadow with a shimmering sculpture, should dot every office-tower cluster. Where we now see hubs for shuttling goods and shuffling money, he stressed, we should encourage people to meet and move freely. 

Already, Hardy said, sidewalk cafes and community-based activism are pushing this change in Lower Manhattan and elsewhere. "It’s happening all over town," Hardy said of the new push for public life. "It’s such fun to see that on the weekend, [when the cars are gone], you can see a different attitude than you see during the business day."


Hugh Hardy’s Bryant Park Restoration

  • While I agree with his comments, I’m perplexed, because H3’s Atlantic Terminal is the antithesis of everything he is saying. Maybe the programmatics Ratner spec’d were beyond bending, but I just have to point to what someones built, not what someone says.

  • moxieb

    While I’m no fan of the Atlantic Terminal, it is different — and much more in line with Hardy’s beliefs — than the Atlantic Center. The two, both Ratner properties (I believe), both merge into each other. However, the Terminal (with the Target, above the train station), at least has stores that face the street and subway access. The Atlantic Center (with the Pathmark and Old Navy) has blank walls that force pedestrians to walk around a pretty isolated space to get in.

  • Good point, I’m just so aghast that at the intersection of 3 of Brooklyn’s largest arteries, its biggest train station, and its tallest building are two aesthetically deficient malls anchored with chain stores and parking ramps. Its a damned insult to the boro.

  • moxieb

    Well said!

  • Yeah, Alec, are you sure we can call the Atlantic Terminal “urbane?”

  • When I interviewed Hardy a couple years ago, he fretted about how the Hanson Place site offered skimpy sidewalk, making it hard to create awnings or plant sidewalk poppies. He did his best, he said, by lengthening the windows and cladding them in vertical trusses. So I see the Terminal as an attempt to engage pedestrian spirit in a cramped context. And it surely softens the suburban blob of Atlantic Center. What designs would create urban verve so close to the mall and the LIRR? Let’s open the atelier.

  • Ben

    Atlantic Terminal may be a step up from Atlantic Center, but it still has more in common with a suburban mall than an “urbane” space. If I recall correctly, people can’t get into the building through individual storefronts — they have to go in through a few major entry points. The result is that circulation happens inside. In a real urban space, like, say, the Fulton Street Mall, the street retains its function as meeting ground, point of access, and pedestrian thoroughfare. At Atlantic Terminal that is mostly relegated to the regimented, privately owned interior, in much the same way that the Time Warner Center or the Manhattan Mall on 34th Street shun public space.

    That said, I think the failures of Atlantic Terminal are more a reflection of Ratner’s anti-urban instincts than hypocrisy on Hardy’s part.

  • Ben

    Also, as others have pointed out, the site is so constrained because Atlantic and Flatbush are horrible for pedestrians. Even the most well-intentioned architect can’t create a good urban space when walking around the building is an awful experience.

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