Hugh Hardy: Architect Calls for Fresh Take on Public Life

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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."

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Hugh Hardy’s Bryant Park Restoration

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