Vishaansanity

Of course, once a book is finished, sent off to Hong Kong or Iceland or wherever to be printed, once the words are fixed, you’re going to miss some things, new developments, as life moves on. About a year ago, Out of Practice, the first monograph on the work and methods of SHoP Architects, went to press with the introduction I’d written for it. In that year, of course, SHoP toiled away, opening the first stretch of the reimagined East River Park, bringing its Botswana Innovation Hub closer to completion, finding work in China, expanding the firm’s post-Gehry takeover of the troubled Atlantic Yards project to include a precinct of housing towers—modular, no less, said to be the tallest in the world—behind the raw-steel-wrapped basketball stadium that has been making its own high-profile progress at a major inter-section in booming Brooklyn.

To be expected; life goes on. But then, in total disregard of temporal convenience, of future historians’ fastidiousness, of my hope of having captured something essential in words, only a month after the publication of its book, SHoP made an announcement that really did call for stopped presses and errata slips: Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University, former executive vice president at the Related Companies (involved in Moynihan Station, Hudson Yards), director of the Manhattan office of the New York City Department of City Planning during a tumultuous, post–September 11 stretch of years, and one-time associate partner at SOM—a charismatic man more than a few imagine will one day be New York’s first Indian-American mayor—was joining the firm as SHoP’s seventh partner. His renown was already great, growing—his LoLo plan for extending Lower Manhattan made waves last year; this magazine recently named him a 2012 Game Changer—now it exploded. SHoP is hot, one of the most successful and progressive architecture firms of its generation; Vishaan (always a one-name wonder) is a figure of cult adoration. The architecture world gasped a collective “OMG!?!”

And “WTF?!?” In the hours after the March 5 announcement, as Vishaan enjoyed his spike in Twitter mentions and fielded reporters’ calls with candor and confidence (“SHoP reinvented the practice of architecture,” he told Matt Chaban at the New York Observer, “we’re going to reinvent urbanism”), the consensus was that he was joining the firm primarily as a rainmaker. A natural assumption. Had he not played with the big boys (Related, City Planning) on the other side of the development fence? Not to mention his run with SOM, the big boys on the architects’ side, in many ways a model (and in many others, decidedly not) for the full-service holism SHoP aspires to perfect in its practice. A very natural assumption: through its own experiments in development, SHoP long ago got a reputation, per partner Gregg Pasquarelli, as “the academics who understand financial models.”

So let it rain. Why not? No clients, no projects. No buildings, no cities. No change, no hope for a better world. But that mercantile analysis misses the big picture. SHoP already makes its own rain. In torrents. Its Porter House tower in the Meatpacking District was a precocious entry into Manhattan’s aughts-era condo boom. The firm got a project—a pedestrian bridge over West Street—secured and built at Ground Zero while everyone else trying to help out down there was stuck in the political mud. SHoP has been commissioned at different times to design cities in places we can’t pronounce and corporate facilities and headquarters in places they’re not at liberty to reveal. Rainy places. Not to mention dashing in to save Atlantic Yards; the Barclays Center Arena there is going up fast, looking good, and is expected to open this year as the home of the Brooklyn Nets. Jay-Z is happy. I mean, c’mon: while I was interviewing two of the partners for this column, they were interrupted by a call from a big new client—“Yes, let’s do it.”—that will make big news, and likely put big holes in the ground, down the road.
And Vishaan hadn’t unpacked his boxes or figured out the key codes for the restrooms yet. SHoP’s not starving. And they’re not greedy. Why bring in a light as bright as Vishaan just to wrangle jobs?

The man himself is coy. “To quote David Byrne, ‘I’m just an animal looking for a home,’ ” he told me. “In both SHoP’s work, and, more importantly, in its people, I’ve finally found that home.” I think that’s an easier answer, and more humble, than saying, “The firm hired me to sit here and be smart.” My theory is that, in addition to helping with design (he is an architect, after all, as well as an MIT-trained urban planner), Vishaan will act as a sort of public-intellectual-in-residence. He is already used as a first-rate go-to for reporters on urban matters, and appreciated, locally for sure, as an original thinker. His project for Lower Manhattan, the one that came to be called LoLo, developed with his students at Columbia, proposed filling the harbor off the Battery and stretching Manhattan’s towers out across the land bridge to the perennial question mark of Governors Island. As a resident of the banks of Buttermilk Channel, I have concerns about the plausibility of trying to flume the waters of the mighty East River through that much-narrower mouth. LoLo was just on the not-off-the-wall side of off-the-wall. It’s not really about the real. But the point it makes is the real point: New York is going to need more New York. Vishaan’s drum is density and he beats it day and night. And managing density, promoting it, is the environmental and built-environmental issue of our day and tomorrow.

As I write, it is being reported that newly number-crunched data from the last census reveals a shocker: 80 percent of Americans now live in urban areas, and, perhaps even more shocking, New York, with its environs, is now only the fifth most dense in the country—behind Los Angeles–Anaheim–Long Beach, Oakland–San Francisco, San Jose, and Delano, California, in that order. Barring a zombie apocalypse, Mayan end-dates, and rogue solar flares, there’s no reason to expect these trends to reverse. Because they make sense—people, Americans, want to live in cities, and also, Vishaan will tell you and tell you again, we need to live in cities. The advantages in economy, resiliency, and ecology are so legion that they could only be suppressed as the natural order of things by fiscal tampering. Our exurban lifestyle can only exist at all, he argues, when propped up by government subsidies in the form of cheap gas (cheaper, anyway), the circuities of highway funding, and various real estate fillips and curlicues that reward the despoiling of new terrain over the creative maximization of the old. In a group discussion on the topic of density that I moderated last fall for a forthcoming Syracuse University study on American housing, Vishaan laid it out: “I think the name of the game in the future is going to be how you charge people for the negative externalities of their behavior. If you want to drive your obese children to school in a light truck, instead of walking them or taking them in a fuel-efficient vehicle, you need to pay the piper. If you want to live in a 6,000-square-foot McMansion in the exurbs, it shouldn’t be illegal, it should just be really, really expensive.”

There will, no doubt, be more of the same incendiary reasoning in his forthcoming book, A Country of Cities, to be published next year. I haven’t seen the manuscript—he’s at work on it in the wee hours of the morning—but when Vishaan’s manifesto comes out, I expect it will take him to a new level of public-intellectual prominence: national television and radio, the big papers and magazines, the attention of the Matthew Yglesiases and Andrew Sullivans, intellectual tastemakers of the online world. And in every interview or well-timed op-ed, in every post, there SHoP will be too, standing with its new hire, winning hearts and minds, winning respect, winning attention. Just plain winning.

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  • Courtesy SHoP
  • Courtesy SHoP
  • Courtesy SHoP
  • Magda Biernat
Courtesy SHoP Courtesy SHoP Courtesy SHoP Magda Biernat
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