Art, and Her Required Absence from Architect’s Blueprints

A toxic love story between art and gentrification.

By Emily Conklin, Staff Writer

Gentrification and ineffective public art are two of the most glaring problems affecting New York City’s neighborhoods today — Williamsburg has higher rents than many fashionable Manhattan addresses, and Times Square continues to throw gaudy plastic hearts in the viewfinders of Instagrams in the name of “culture.” And no one is talking about where these trends are going, or when they will stop.


In a panel discussion at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Tuesday night, architects and planners from ODA, Alloy and Public Art for Public Schools came together to discuss city living, and why art, building and community intersects here in NYC more than, arguably, anywhere else.


While all the groups and firms represented at the panel had noble goals as well as flaws, I will focus on ODA’s 123 Melrose project, a residential superblock that sits on the footprint of the historic Rheingold Brewery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. This project represents how genuinely good intent can miss its mark when combined with too much wealth, too few decision-makers, and misunderstandings of the value of art.


The once tight-knit and artistic community of Bushwick, once a rent haven and underground gallery stronghold, is now being inundated by the creative types and small businesses that are being priced out of neighboring Williamsburg. However, with the help of firms like ODA, the wealthy that wish to emulate the feeling of “grit” and “community” are pouring in, too, and alienating the existing population.


The Bushwick project started with noble cause, as most of these gentrification accelerators do: involve the community, offer public green space, elevate the standard of living from cramped and aging tenement housing to new, modern, monumental lifestyles.


There are many things to like about the project: ODA is harkening back to old New York, when properties were not restricted by the grid system and streetscapes were diverse and multisyllabic. The footprint of the project in Bushwick is not rectilinear: the block is bisected lengthwise, but footpaths carve in and out of the central thoroughfare, deemed a “public park” by the planners. This is an interesting idea and a trend that could really bring life to the city, cutting up monotony and giving people a more human scale city to roam.


However, the part of ODA’s plan that is the most misunderstood, by both the firm and many, many of their contemporaries, is the idea of public art. Also a keystone of the discussion, public art has been failing in New York and the world in recent years. ODA has already delineated certain spaces in their “public space” for art installations: they have actively selected artists and told them what they want, so they know what they’re going to get, and they call it “community engagement” by selecting Brooklyn-based artists and having children help with the mural painting process, or climb on the garden sculptures.


But public art, in its roots and at its most effective, is spontaneous. The idea of “engagement” is hilarious — the community will not like the luxury condos any more if five of the neighbors are able to slap some paint on one of the walls, where and when the architects tell them to.


Public art is supposed to be just that, for the public. These “engagement” schemes are social media stunts, ways of justifying the enormous expense of a project in an area where most residents do not care for the elevated lifestyle they represent. Pre-planned murals, carefully curated by the architects that have already exerted control over every aspect of the living process at this Bushwick address, are for Instagram stories and free publicity at the end of the day.


Effective public art does not mean that every member of a neighborhood has to be involved in its creation. Effective public art speaks to the masses on an emotional level, through true understanding of current issues and cultural iconography. The girl facing down Wall Street’s charging bull was not permanently commissioned because the people of the Financial District helped cast the bronze — it spoke to every person, rich and poor, who walked past it and saw a little of themselves, a little of their struggle, in that girl’s eyes.


Stop the Instagram-ready public art facades and overly constricting ideologies put forth by architecture firms looking to sell a lifestyle in addition to a building. We live in a democracy, not a kingdom, and New York City is at its best when the spontaneity of its citizenry and their own creations shine.


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