Engineered Landscapes

by Don Friedman on August 22, 2017

This article, a long description of the creation of Jones Beach, got me thinking about how much of the landscape around us is artificial. Even though the beach at Jones Beach is natural, there’s a lot of buried infrastructure and roads that are it usable, in addition to the iconic structures (the water tower and the bath houses) that are visible evidence of design.

Jones Beach got me thinking about Coney Island, Floyd Bennet Field, and Orchard Beach, all places where the natural landscape was greatly altered by landfill. Obviously there were shores where southern Brooklyn faces the Atlantic and Jamaica Bay and where the east Bronx meets the Long Island Sound, but they looked nothing like they do now.

When the Manhattan street grid was built, hills were cut down and low points graded up to even out the island’s topography. The photo above shows how Fifth Avenue cut into Mount Morris in Harlem.

There’s a seemingly endless supply of these stories. Flushing Meadows Park was a swamp turned garbage dump before the 1939-40 World’s Fair converted it to a park. Central Park’s topography is largely artificial, constructed in the mid-nineteenth century. Foley Square was the Collect Pond.

The common factor in all of these changes is that they were designed. Landfill is only stable if it’s contained and compacted properly. Changing grades only makes sense if the new grade is accessible to the vehicles that will have to ride over it. A swamp turned park will only be successful if the springs and streams that made it wet are controlled so that it stays dry. These artificial landscapes are engineered as much as the big buildings in the city and have cumulatively just as much effect on the image of the city. But because the landscape just lies there being unobtrusively useful, the designs aren’t much noticed.


Composite Structure

August 21, 2017

That’s the side wall and an oblique view of the front of a small building on Nassau Street. The front appears to be early twentieth century, but the odds are good that this is an older building that has been modified multiple times. If nothing else, the storefront – visible as sheet metal at the […]

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Mapping The Center of the World

August 20, 2017

Two oddball maps that work great together… First, the Antipodes map, which shows you where in the world is exactly oppose your location. When I enter our office address, it tells me that 90 Broad Street is at 40° 42′ 13.7″ N, 74° 0′ 43.2″ W; the opposite point is of course 40° 42′ 13.7″ S, 105° […]

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The World’s Ugliest, Times Four

August 19, 2017

The AT&T Long Lines Building, from Lars Plougmann: I’m not sure I agree with this list of the world’s ugliest buildings. Some – particularly the brutalist buildings – are simply out of fashion. That said, New York has four buildings on the list, so my hometown pride is satisfied.

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Adaptive Reuse of a Specialized Structure

August 18, 2017

A lot of New York’s adaptive reuse comes directly from deindustrialization. The loft buildings of SoHo and TriBeCa, the big concrete buildings in Long Island City and the far west side, the railroad now known as the High Line, and a lot of our waterfront were all industrial. The other force driving reuse is changes […]

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Possibly Futile Clarification

August 17, 2017

These maps of subway stations have been getting a fair amount of exposure lately. I suspect that in part it’s because they are beautiful drawings. Considering them just as abstract art, they’re great to look at; the fact that they are reasonable accurate and detailed maps of subway stations makes them incredible. Subway stations are […]

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Interpreting Historical Photographs

August 16, 2017

That’s Broad Street at the beginning of the twentieth century. The building on the left side of the street with the pasted-on temple front is the New York Stock Exchange; the temple at the end of the street is Federal Hall. So far, another try down memory lane… This post came about after I read […]

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What Do We Do All Day? Revisited

August 15, 2017

Internet discussion can be many things, with good and bad. Once in a while, a reply is more interesting than what triggered it. This short essay by Yonatan Zunger was a response to a “manifesto” that I’m not going to link to, on the topic of diversity. It should come as no surprise to anyone who […]

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Sidewalk Vaults and True Obsolescence

August 14, 2017

For people unfamiliar with sidewalk vaults, the illustration above, from 1865, might seem plausible, but it’s actually Daniel Badger’s fantasy of how he could sell more iron. The left-hand side is reasonably accurate for mid-1800s vaults: the facade columns extend down past the plane of the sidewalk, marking the separation of the cellar proper from […]

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Peeking Through Unsubtly

August 13, 2017

Another example of a visible piece of ordinarily hidden infrastructure. This one is as easy to spot as the bags of garbage waiting for pick-up.

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