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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

January 2007 Issue

 

Hello, Columbus
How did a traffic circle on the edge of the country’s most beloved urban park become an amenity, even a destination?

By Linda McIntyre

Hello, Columbus Bruce Katz

There’s a spiffy new place to hang out on New York’s West Side. Its minimalist but functional design attracts both locals and tourists, and the people watching is superb.

It’s a traffic circle.

Columbus Circle, on the southwest corner of Central Park, is in a spot envisaged by the park’s designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, as a major entryway into the park. From the circle the Merchant’s Gate into the park is clearly visible. The cool greenery of the park beckons pedestrians baking on the pavement on a hot day, and more than 60,000 cars whiz through the rotary every day.

But when Landscape Architecture spent a couple of warm hours in the circle in early September, it was full of people. And the people were not necessarily on their way to the park—they were eating and drinking, reading books, chatting with friends, walking their dogs, and playing with their children. That the circle was recently redesigned by the Olin Partnership, known for its designs’ sensitivity to context, does not make it less surprising that a traffic circle has siphoned off so much attention from a landmark of landscape architecture.

Before the traffic patterns at Columbus Circle were changed in the late 1990s as part of a redevelopment of the area, the intersection, one of the busiest in Manhattan, was a hazard for both drivers and pedestrians. Before this change, Columbus Circle wasn’t actually a circle; it was a set of concrete islands bisected by Broadway and 8th Avenue, housing a column, standing in a small fountain, topped with a statue of Christopher Columbus. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger famously described the circle in 1979 as “a chaotic jumble of streets that can be crossed in about 50 different ways—all of them wrong.” When Donald Trump bought the Gulf & Western Tower on the north side of the circle and reopened it in 1997 as the Trump International Hotel and Tower, his feng shui consultant put a shiny globe at the front of the building to deflect the bad energy from Columbus Circle.

Some of that bad energy probably emanated not from the circle itself, however unsatisfactory, but rather from the New York Coliseum, the windowless, rectangular, white-brick convention center that used to dominate the site. The building was never beloved; soon after it was completed in the mid-1950s, Art News complained of its “hybrid pseudomodern” style and “total lack of relation” to Columbus Circle.

The city rezoned the site in the early 1980s, but plans to replace the coliseum stalled in the face of community opposition. Later, in 1989, landscape architect Laurie Olin, FASLA, worked with the Central Park Conservancy on a study of Columbus Circle and the southwest entry into the park; the study led the Conservancy to commission a redesign of the Merchant’s Gate by another landscape architect, Patricia McCobb, ASLA, but the circle itself remained a mess. Finally, about a decade later, the administration of then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani shuttered the coliseum as part of a push to redevelop the area at a time of economic prosperity and soaring real estate values. Giuliani’s planning commissioner, Joe Rose, wanted Columbus Circle redone as well. The segments were cobbled together in a temporary fashion, the first step toward making Columbus Circle a circle again.

Imagining a Great Civic Space

While redevelopment plans for the neighborhood were taking shape, the Municipal Art Society (MAS), a nonprofit focused on urban design, planning, and preservation, held a design competition to capitalize on what it saw as a unique opportunity. The group, which had followed the machinations over the coliseum site closely, even filing a lawsuit to block an early redevelopment proposal, invited six prominent design teams to submit “visionary proposals” for a new Columbus Circle. “We felt it should have a special quality, given its historic character, its position in relation to Central Park, and its status as a transportation hub both aboveground and belowground,” says MAS Senior Vice President Frank Sanchis. “It had the potential to be a truly great public space for the city.”

The design teams, which were given $5,000 each and a little more than a month to develop their designs, rose to the occasion, producing a series of ambitious proposals.

  • The team of Machado Silvetti, a Boston architecture and urban design firm, and Philadelphia’s Olin Partnership proposed a European-style piazza crowned by a tensile circular canopy, composed of rings, cables, and struts, resting on a series of iconographic supports marking the subway station, the park gate, and the converging streets. The center of the circle would have been raised, making the subway concourse visible and providing the structure for two amphitheaters. Juror Albert Butzel, chairman of the Hudson River Park Alliance, called the design a “grand gesture,” and noted that its boldness could attract a developer. “The central space is well thought out; it could be a public place of some importance.”

  • The design submitted by Rafael Viñoly Architects featured a dome-shaped trellis holding a series of ramps and elevated walkways to offer pedestrians spectacular views into Central Park and entry into the new building on the coliseum site. The Columbus monument would sit on a pedestal in the center of a reflecting pool. Juror Henry Cobb, of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, expressed ambivalence about the flamboyance of the dome, saying it “unambiguously takes center stage.” Viñoly said the dome was a way of rationalizing a space that was “a mess. Instead, you look at the dome, all of a sudden you are up in space, and you don’t worry about these other considerations.”

  • Landscape architect Dan Kiley proposed a greener solution, comprising concentric rings of clipped trees expanding out from the center of the circle. A canal fitted with water jets would run around the inner circle, providing a relatively quiet and contemplative space at the center. Cobb said the center of the circle was “the essence” of this design. “The fountain and the trees could make it attractive enough for people to want to go there,” he said. But fellow juror Stanford Anderson, chairman of the MIT Department of Architecture, was doubtful. “Turning the center into a quiet space, which at best can operate only during a small part of the year, may not be successful, or even appropriate.”

  • Kennedy & Violich Architecture proposed making the circle a transition zone between the park and the transit systems. Bosques of trees would shelter benches, bus shelters and kiosks would be built, and space and infrastructure for a market in the center of the circle would be provided. Glass block would allow for the exchange of light between the circle aboveground and the subway station below. The plaza at the park entry would be extended into the circle, and traffic would be reconfigured into a three-quarter roundabout. Cobb expressed some disappointment with this design. “Visually, it can’t be that significant at eye level for people who are inevitably going to be preoccupied,” he said. “Yet it is expensive and technically difficult.” “It’s modest, not heroic,” said designer Sheila Kennedy, “but it has characteristics that would contribute to a variety of activities.”

  • The design by Weiss/Manfredi Architects would have created an open pedestrian concourse, with a tourist information and ticketing center, café, gallery, and performance spaces below ground level at the center of the circle. Shade trees would line the sidewalks around the circle’s outer perimeter. Juror Brendan Sexton, an MAS trustee, liked the challenging nature of the design but expressed doubt about the feasibility of the engineering. But Michael Manfredi noted that “the city’s transportation department and Con Ed are continually opening up and excavating streets.... Overcoming the territorial and jurisdictional barriers between agencies,” he said, would be more difficult than the engineering.

  • The final design, by Michael Sorkin Studio, would have also opened the center of the circle, covering it with a 12-foot-high walkable oval glass dome. Ramps on the edge of the circle would lead down to the subway. The design proposed reopening 59th Street, west of the circle, through the coliseum site, leading to steps that enter an extended Riverside Park. Cobb said the design challenged the city to exhibit “one of the glories of New York, which is what happens underground.”

Summing up the results of the competition, Cobb said it showed that Columbus Circle had “the potential to be a great and emblematic space...not just an embarrassing leftover.” Anderson agreed, saying the competition convinced him that the circle could be fashioned into a discrete civic space independent of the buildings around it. And Sexton wondered what the city could achieve with “a real design budget and a real schedule,” given what the designers had done on a shoestring.

Full Circle

At about the same time the design competition was held, a new proposal to develop the coliseum site got some traction. Time Warner and the Related Companies paid about $345 million for the site, on which they built a large mixed-use complex including condominiums, a Mandarin Oriental hotel, a Whole Foods supermarket and other shops, and a clutch of expensive restaurants operated by star chefs such as Thomas Keller and Gray Kunz. The glass-fronted building, designed by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is curved at its base to echo the shape of Columbus Circle.

Unfortunately, says Sanchis, the developers took little interest in most of the ideas arising from the design competition. “We tried to interest the powers that be—Related Companies, the planning commission—in looking at the more ambitious ideas from the competition, but it didn’t work,” says Sanchis. “We were disappointed that the budget for the circle was so low, when so much was being spent on the building.” The budget for the circle was about $15 million; infrastructure upgrades added millions more to the total cost.

One of the designs, however, did strike a chord with city planners—the relatively simple and green design by Kiley. The city tried to develop a design with McCobb, but the ensuing tug-of-war among municipal agencies and neighborhood groups ended in a compromise with which nobody was happy.

With the construction under way at the Time Warner site and the clock ticking on the Giuliani era, Rose summoned Olin to New York in 2001 and asked him to produce a new design before Giuliani left office. Olin also met with Steve Ross of the Related Companies, who agreed to kick in a portion of the design and construction fees.

Olin’s history with the site allowed him to move quickly on a new design. “We already had some good ideas,” he says. “Everyone, including us, liked the Kiley design from the MAS competition. We wanted good pavement, good access. Everyone loves water! We had to get the statue out of that bathtub it had been standing in and use water in a better way. We wanted to do a skylight. But we had a fairly good idea of the limitations we were working under.”

The exact parameters of those limitations quickly became apparent, says Olin. While he was able to produce design documents before the Giuliani administration left office in January 2002, the process of approving the design and building the project took considerably longer. The Metropolitan Transport Authority put the kibosh on the skylight. The city Department of Transportation refused to allow unit pavers in the roadway. Disagreements about lighting and paving slowed work on the project, and the designers were not allowed to use as many trees as they had wanted to. Underneath the site, two subway tunnels and a maze of phone and electric wires and sewers complicated construction. But construction began in July 2003, and in autumn 2005, a new Columbus Circle made its public appearance.

The Columbus monument remains at the center of the circle, now framed in views looking west by the two towers of the Time Warner building. The small fountain on which it had sat was removed, allowing visitors to study it closely and read the inscriptions at its base. The steps around the base are a popular place to sit, even on a hot summer’s day.

Water still provides visual respite, white noise, and relief from the heat (technically nobody is allowed in the fountains, but small children and dogs broke the rule with impunity during Landscape Architecture’s visit). Three new dark granite basins fitted with fountain jets surround the paved area around the monument. “We had wanted to do something similar in Bryant Park, but the Parks Department didn’t allow it,” says Olin. “We liked the idea of crossing planes of flat water and being in the center of a place. It makes people feel special; they can look around at other people or look at the water and feel more alone.” Curved wooden benches, designed with enough depth to comfortably allow back-to-back seating, follow the fountain’s edge. In colder months, when the fountains are turned off, the steps into the basins are accessible to visitors and can be used as bleacher seating.

The berms formed by the fountains and the planting beds are bisected by broad pedestrian walkways at 8th Avenue, Broadway, and 59th Street/Central Park South that provide safe, easy, and clearly marked access to the circle from the surrounding busy streets. “It’s not a pure rotary; it has lights,” says Olin. “But it works very well.” Olin credits Philip Habib, a traffic engineer formerly with the city government and now in private practice, for his thoughtful reworking of roads around the circle.

The landscape architects, working with a platoon of city agencies and engineers, also streamlined the cluttered collection of lights and signs that had long confused people walking and driving through the area. There are no streetlights inside the circle; instead, the lighting showcases the monument, the trees, and the fountain jets, and lights underneath the benches and along the planting beds emphasize the strong, simple lines of the design.

Even prior to its official opening in September 2005, people were flocking in before trees were planted and benches were installed.

The new Columbus Circle, taken out of its context, is an extremely simple, some might say dull, place. Would Columbus Circle be a better place if one of the more visionary designs, by Olin or others, had been built?

“It would not be better; it would be different,” says Olin. “It would have been nice to be able to add a little more to the design. But the simplicity is attractive.” A higher concept design, he says, might not be as inviting.

The MAS’s Sanchis is more wistful. “It’s a pleasant place to be on a nice day,” he says, but he regrets that the city’s and developer’s investment in redesigning the circle was not more on a par with that in the Time Warner building. “It was not designed to be a major public space in the city. The subway is still disconnected from street-level activity.” He says that while a design emphasizing the connection between the above- and below-grade levels at the site could not be easily done, the challenge was certainly surmountable with the necessary commitment of time, money, and will.

But this design, at a busy and potentially dangerous intersection in the heart of a great city, links the historic and pastoral Central Park with the shiny new Time Warner Center, with its posh restaurants and mundane but convenient shops. It’s a way to move seamlessly from one version of New York to another, or to move quickly and easily between midtown and uptown, or between the east and west sides of the city. It’s a place to pause and reflect, or to meet a friend before lunch or a stroll through the park. Such a place might not be a great work of art, but it’s a gift to people who walk through that intersection every day, or wander through during a rare visit to New York. “It’s the sort of urban space that people don’t need an owner’s manual to use,” says Olin. For most of us, who vote on such things with our feet, that qualifies as great urban design.

Project Credits Landscape architecture: Olin Partnership, Philadelphia (Laurie Olin, FASLA, principal in charge; E. Allan Spulecki, ASLA, associate, project manager; Matt Chu, Richard Roark, Xiaodi Zheng, landscape architects; Pi-Chu Li, landscape designer). Client: New York City Departments of Design and Construction, City Planning, and Parks and Recreation; Central Park Conservancy. Fountain design: WET Design, Sun Valley, California. Lighting designers and consultants: L’Observatoire International, New York. Irrigation consultants: Lynch & Associates, Beltsville, Maryland. Civil, structural, transportation engineer of record: Vollmer Associates LLP, New York. Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineer: Cosentini Associates, New York.

Sidebar:

Opinions about the new Columbus Circle reflect a full spectrum of views, not only about the circle itself, but about the character of any great public space.

“A surprisingly generous sanctuary at the heart of a busy traffic rotary, cocooned inside a wraparound fountain with 99 jets whose arcs suggest the circle itself and whose changing sound masks the surrounding hubbub.”

The New York Times, August 2005

“A pathetic little disc of greenery and granite floating in a soup of car exhaust. Awkward to approach across four lanes of traffic, inhospitably exposed and shadeless for decades to come—until its scrawny young yellow buckeye trees mature—it begs to be ignored by lunching office workers and neglected by the city’s maintenance staff.”

Newsday, August 2005

“Finally, a traffic island worth the effort! This project makes a real difference; it animates the urban design of that area.”

—ASLA jury, 2006

“It’s a vast improvement over what was there; it just doesn’t live up to the potential of the space.”

—Frank Sanchis, Municipal Art Society, to Landscape Architecture

“It’s jammed with people. That’s a real plus for the city. It’s a mecca.”

New York Construction jury, 2005 (the Columbus Circle reconstruction won that magazine’s 2005 award for Project of the Year)

“Not an insensitive design, but there’s not much to do there.”

—Fred Kent, Project for Public Spaces, to Landscape Architecture

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