Every morning, the architect and writer Michael Sorkin walks downtown from his Greenwich Village apartment through Washington Square to his Tribeca office. Sorkin isn't in a hurry, and he never ignores his surroundings. Instead, he pays careful, close attention. And in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, he explains what he sees, what he imagines, what he knows―giving us extraordinary access to the layers of history, the feats of engineering and artistry, and the intense social drama that take place along a simple twenty-minute walk.
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Michael Sorkin is an architect and urban planner, and the author and editor of many books, including All Over the Map, Against the Wall, Exquisite Corpse, and Variations on a Theme Park (Hill and Wang, 1992). He lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The walk from my apartment in Greenwich Village to my studio in Tribeca takes about twenty minutes, depending on the route and on whether I stop for a coffee and the Times. Invariably, though, it begins with a trip down the stairs. The building I live in is a so-called Old Law tenement and was built in 1892, a date inscribed on the metal cornice that also carries the building’s name: Annabel Lee. Like most such tenements, ours is five stories high (a few are six, even seven), and I live with my wife, Joan, on the top floor.
The walk down is untaxing, but the walk back up the four and a half flights (including the stoop)—a total of seventy-two steps—can be enervating, especially when returning from the laundry with thirty-five pounds of newly washed clothes. (The ordeal of the upward schlep creates resistance, which tends to delays and larger loads—a vicious cycle.) On some evenings, following especially exhausting days, it seems that an extra flight has been inserted between the fourth floor and the fifth. There is something hypnotic about stair climbing, however, and as often as I find myself thinking I ought to be at the fourth floor when I am only at the third, I think I’ve only gotten to three when I’m actually arriving at four.
Stair climbing is excellent exercise if you do enough of it. I probably average twenty or so flights—around three hundred steps—a day. At .1 calorie per step (going down about .05), I am able to burn off a single chocolate bar a week. Where possible, I try to climb stairs but am often prevented not only by the height of buildings but by the fact that, in most of those with elevators, the stairs are treated as residual, there simply for emergencies. These enclosed stairwells are unpleasant places, frequently alarmed to prevent nonemergency use. By comparison, consider the fabulous stairwells of classic nineteenth-century Paris or Vienna apartments, whose broad flights wind around spacious interior courts. Although they sometimes hold tiny elevators, these open contraptions do not seal riders away but continuously include them in the life of the stairway.
These stairs do not simply add grandeur to apartment houses but serve as important social spaces, broad enough to allow stopping and conversing in mid-flight. Shared of necessity, they form a useful and gracious element of the collective environment. The generous dimensions of the stairs and courtyards (not to mention the open grillwork of the little elevators) mean that when one is on the stairs, the entire population of vertical travelers is visible or audible, promoting a sense of community within the building and giving a feeling of safety. Mysterious footfalls and unexpected meetings are easily modulated by the early sight of the approaching party. To get a sense of the character of such places, think of Ripley’s attempt—in Patricia Highsmith’s Talented Mr. Ripley—to carry Freddie Miles’s carpet-wrapped body down the grand stair of a Roman apartment building (Matt Damon lugs Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie version of a few years ago).
There are very few New York City apartment houses with the kinds of inviting stairways one might find in the elegant buildings of the nineteenth-century European bourgeoisie. One reason for this is that although the poor and single men had long been housed collectively in tenements and rooming houses, respectable apartment buildings came relatively late to New York, where the proliferation of large blocks of “French flats” (inspired by a typical conjunction of economics and cachet) only took off after 1870. Whether because of the primacy of the elevator (not usefully invented until 1852), meanness of construction, spatial parsimony, or the reduction (and resulting enclosure) of staircases to emergency means of egress, our stairways do not register many entries in New York’s dictionary of urban glories. (“For two and a half months I did not see a stairway in America,” wrote Le Corbusier in 1937. “They are something that has been buried … hidden behind a door that you are not supposed to open.”) Most of the city’s great stairs—from the Metropolitan Museum to the New York Public Library to Federal Hall—are exterior, expressions of civic rather than domestic grandeur. In some buildings, the social celebration of the stair is displaced onto the elevator lobby: think of the Woolworth and the Chrysler Buildings and their rich ornamentation, something also found in many prewar apartment houses.
The stairs in Annabel Lee are a series of straight runs. That is, they go from floor to floor without doubling back every half flight. This is not necessarily the most compact layout for a staircase, as it often requires not just landings at each end but a corridor to walk back along to the beginning of the next flight. Efficiency depends on the number of entrances that are served on each floor: in Annabel Lee the layout is economical. To my eyes (and legs) the straight run is more elegant and enjoyable to ascend, especially when it is part of a single system of stair and corridor that brings people directly to their front doors. There’s also less twisting and turning—fewer discrete flights—and from the bottom of each flight there’s a clear view of the next objective.
For me, New York’s best stairs are those in five- and six-story industrial loft buildings from the latter half of the nineteenth century, where the runs are not simply straight but continuous. There’s a high concentration of these in SoHo, where many buildings have straight runs that rise, pausing only for landings, as far as they can before the depth of the building forces them to switch back. Although they answer to an original use logic—a broad, continuous stair is clearly an easier environment for carrying unwieldy objects—these wide stairways, ascending uninterrupted for four, even five stories, are among the most beautiful and dramatic architectural spaces the city has: an ambulatory signature. Along with cast-iron facades, skylit first-story extensions into rear yards, and metal sidewalks embedded with circular glass lenses to illuminate basements below, these stairs are part of a tectonic “loft” vocabulary that is both singular and crucial to New York’s architectural memory chest.
These elements can be retrieved for contemporary use. A particularly beautiful example of a long straight-run stair is at Baker House, a dormitory at MIT designed by the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in the late 1940s. Glazed on one side and narrowing slightly as it climbs, the stair provides a wonderful space of circulation and sociability. The narrowing is both functional and artistic, acknowledging that a stair is likely to be used by a smaller number of people as it rises and forcing the perspective narrowing of the long view upward. A variation of this continuous run is the ramp of the Guggenheim Museum, New York’s highest achievement in the interior rise, although some argue that the pleasures of circulation trump the logic of displaying works of art.
The possibility of including such stairways in buildings depends on their size. A standard formula for calculating the dimensions of interior stairs is riser plus tread equals seventeen or seventeen and a half inches. Assuming a tread of ten inches and a riser of seven and a half inches, sixteen stairs (exactly the number in my building) are required to ascend ten feet (a reasonable floor-to-floor dimension for an apartment), and the length of a flight is a little over thirteen feet (treads often extend slightly over risers), not including the landings at the top and the bottom, which bring the grand total to about twenty feet. A straight run of five stories would therefore need about ninety feet of building depth, longer for higher floor heights, like those found in most loft buildings.
Architecture is produced at the intersection of art and property, and this is one of the many reasons it so legibly records the history of communal life. The famous gridiron plan of Manhattan—laid out with sanguine optimism by city commissioners in 1811 and extended in 1835—divided the island from the then-existing settlement boundary in Greenwich Village all the way to its northern tip into blocks of two hundred by six to eight hundred feet. These blocks were in turn divided into lots of twenty-five by a hundred feet, which at a stroke became the basic increment of both ownership and construction, forcefully conducing the character of the city. The typical row house of the day occupied half its lot, yielding a building of twenty-five by fifty feet (typically with a side hall and stair and rooms facing either front or back) and a rear yard of more or less the same dimensions. This resulted in blocks with rows of twenty-four to twenty-eight houses.
The conceptual origins of the gridiron plan remain somewhat mysterious, although grids have a long history in urbanism, dating back to the Babylonians and Egyptians. Perhaps the first to identify the grid as an explicitly rational, socially organizing order was a Greek, Hippodamus of Miletus, a fifth-century B.C. planner, mathematician, and philosopher discussed by Aristotle. Hippodamus pioneered not simply geometrical urban organization but also ideas about neighborhood dimensions, zoning by use (sacred, public, private), the importance of central places (the agora), and the idea of a city’s ideal scale and population. Plans attributed to him include Miletus, Piraeus, and Rhodes.
According to Frederick Law Olmsted, the origins of the New York grid were somewhat less conceptually ambitious: “There seems to be good authority for the story that the system … was hit upon by the chance occurrence of a mason’s sieve near a map of the ground to be laid out. It was taken up and placed upon the map, and the question being asked ‘what do you want better than that?’ no one was able to answer.” Criticism of the grid and its difficulties was voiced from the start. Olmsted himself noted several problems that arose from the fixed dimensions of the city’s blocks: the impossibility of producing sites for very large buildings and campuses; issues of daylighting; the difficulty of creating systems of formal and symbolic hierarchy within the field of uniformity. This last reflects an earlier criticism by Pierre L’Enfant of a proposal by Thomas Jefferson (for whom the right angle was Enlightenment itself) for laying out the new city of Washington as a pure grid.
The 1811 plan for Manhattan created a number of problems that persist intractably to this day. For example, the lack of alleyways—like those found in Chicago or Los Angeles—has meant that waste collection and deliveries must all take place from the street. And the east-west orientation of the blocks, while logical for creating lower densities away from the more trafficked north-south avenues, means that direct sunlight can only come through the narrow southern side of each row house, although, since the grid is rotated 29 degrees to the northeast to align with the island’s own lie parallel to the Hudson River, early morning sun can enter on the north (east). Finally, the long and narrow dimensions of the twenty-five-foot lots—logical for row houses—are deeply problematic for apartment buildings, which, in order to accommodate several units to the floor, must be considerably longer than a single-family house.
In the hundred years following the 1811 plan, New York’s population (excluding Brooklyn, which did not become part of the city until 1898, when it was itself a city of a million) burgeoned by three million. Houses were transformed into tenements—multiple dwellings—which eventually came to occupy the entire depth of each lot, sometimes even backing directly onto adjoining buildings. The worst of these tenements were the so-called railroad type, in which rooms—as many as eighteen per floor—were simply strung together along a central stair. Because they were party-wall construction (row houses share a wall with their neighbors on either side), and because backyards were virtually eliminated, this meant that only two of the rooms—those facing the street—had direct access to light and air. Certain so-called improved tenements did feature tiny air shafts in the middle of the building, but their impact was negligible.
The effects of bad housing had been observed for some time by both private and public bodies: the state legislature produced a report decrying conditions as early as 1857, although with no immediate results. In 1865, the Citizens’ Association of New York published an enormous study that reported that close to 500,000 of the 700,000 residents of New York were jammed into fifteen thousand substandard tenement houses. A mid-century spate of fires, epidemics, and riots underlined the physical and social risks of poorly built, unsanitary, and overcrowded housing, and in 1866 the legislature passed a comprehensive construction code. This was followed, in 1867, by the Tenement House Act, which, for the first time, set standards for multiple dwellings. These included better protection against fire (including fire escapes) and minimal sanitation: one water closet for every twenty tenants.
The 1867 law was revised in 1879 to require that a tenement cover no more than 65 percent of its lot, that any “back buildings”—buildings constructed in rear yards, sometimes inches away from adjacent structures—receive light and air, and that more WCs be provided. Lax enforcement of the law (yet another chapter in the long history of collusion of public and private interests that has so shaped the city) resulted in the proliferation of a formal compromise, the “dumbbell” or “Old Law” tenement, of which our Annabel Lee is a fine example. The dumbbell moniker reflects the plan of the building, pinched in the middle to allow an air shaft on each side.
When dumbbells are lined up on a block, the pairing of neighboring shafts yields a larger, shared shaft that brings some light and air into the middle rooms of the building. Over sixty thousand such buildings were constructed between 1880 and 1900, a year in which approximately 65 percent of the city’s 3.4 million people lived in tenements, the vast majority in “Old Law” types.
The “Old Law” was itself supplanted by the state Tenement House Act of 1901, which remains the legal framework for low-rise housing construction in New York. Although it increased allowable lot coverage to 70 percent, the tenement act demanded strict enforcement to curb illegal excesses. Most important morphologically, it substantially enlarged the required dimensions of air shafts, transforming them into something closer to courtyards. The law also harmonized the height of buildings with both the width of the streets they faced and the dimensions of the courtyards they produced. It required every room to have a window and every apartment to have running water and a toilet, and it mandated construction and egress requirements to protect tenants from fire.
These provisions fixed the vocabulary for virtually all subsequent codes and zoning in the city, not simply by their focus on safety, hygiene, and “quality of life,” but by their clear insistence on the reciprocity of public and private realms. The “New Law” described the simultaneous duties of a building both to the production of the space of the public street and to the space of its own private interiors. The definition of these spatial obligations was mediated through the management of the city’s light and air, the conservation and deployment of the very matter out of which building was produced and which building, in turn, annihilated. As we shall see, this institutionalization of the idea of a trade-off negotiated between private and public benefit remains foundational for the way we plan. <...
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Descrizione libro North Point Press, United States, 2013. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Every morning, the architect and writer Michael Sorkin walks downtown from his Greenwich Village apartment through Washington Square to his Tribeca office. Sorkin isn t in a hurry, and he never ignores his surroundings. Instead, he pays careful, close attention. And in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, he explains what he sees, what he imagines, what he knows giving us extraordinary access to the layers of history, the feats of engineering and artistry, and the intense social drama that take place along a simple twenty-minute walk. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780865477575
Descrizione libro North Point Press, United States, 2013. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Every morning, the architect and writer Michael Sorkin walks downtown from his Greenwich Village apartment through Washington Square to his Tribeca office. Sorkin isn t in a hurry, and he never ignores his surroundings. Instead, he pays careful, close attention. And in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, he explains what he sees, what he imagines, what he knows--giving us extraordinary access to the layers of history, the feats of engineering and artistry, and the intense social drama that take place along a simple twenty-minute walk. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780865477575
Descrizione libro North Point Press, United States, 2013. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. Every morning, the architect and writer Michael Sorkin walks downtown from his Greenwich Village apartment through Washington Square to his Tribeca office. Sorkin isn t in a hurry, and he never ignores his surroundings. Instead, he pays careful, close attention. And in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, he explains what he sees, what he imagines, what he knows--giving us extraordinary access to the layers of history, the feats of engineering and artistry, and the intense social drama that take place along a simple twenty-minute walk. Codice libro della libreria BTE9780865477575
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