By WILLIAM GRIMES
Manhattan has one of the most recognizable faces in the world. Yet it can be strangely elusive, even Garboesque. The buildings are too tall and too close together to see in their entirety from the ground, so New Yorkers who want to get a good look at the skyline have to go to the movies, visit a prime viewing spot like the Brooklyn Heights Promenade or look out an airplane window.
The New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects came up with a high-minded solution to the problem a couple of years ago: a round-the-island architectural cruise with running commentary provided by experts.
On most cruises young docents provide the oral annotation, but every few weeks a guest expert takes the mike. For this Sunday’s Around Manhattan cruise, the organization has booked John Hill, the author of “Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture” and the Daily Dose of Architecture blog.
The cruises set sail from Chelsea Piers; 2 hours and 45 minutes later, after a 32-mile journey past 156 sites indicated by tiny photographs on a handy brochure, the Classic Harbor Line yacht returns and disgorges its information-stuffed passengers.
It’s an eye-opening experience. I have lived in New York for more than 30 years. I have crossed the harbor on the Staten Island Ferry more than once and crossed the big-name bridges hundreds of times. But great swaths of the city remain as unknown to me as Patagonia. The architecture cruise helped fix that.
The tour got off to a fast start with a parade of flashy new buildings on the lower west side, led by Jean Nouvel’s condominium at 100 11th Avenue, at 19th Street in Chelsea, with its puzzlelike facade, and the clustered, wavy towers of Frank Gehry’s IAC headquarters at 18th Street and 11th Avenue. A few blocks south, the Standard hotel, which looks for all the world like an open book, completed a dazzling sequence of up-to-the minute buildings.
There were plenty of architectural supernovas to come, but my two docents, Julie Ann Engh and Scott Cook, working as a tag team, took a broader view of their mission. Moving fluidly from present to past and back again, they worked up plenty of excitement about the Holland Tunnel ventilator shafts; the Erie Lackawanna Railroad and Ferry Terminal in Hoboken, N.J.; and the gorgeously restored exterior of the Battery Maritime Building, departure point for the Governors Island ferry. Cass Gilbert was identified as the architect not only of the Woolworth Building but also of the former Austin, Nichols Warehouse on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Snazzy skyscrapers, in other words, were not the main point.
The city’s perpetual transformation can be confusing to follow on land, but out on the river it comes into focus, especially the evolving system of parks and green spaces along the banks, a monumental change in the urban environment that sometimes seems to proceed by stealth.
Governors Island, derelict until just a few years ago, pulses with life. Enough cyclists for the Tour de France whiz around its landscaped paths, and the grounds bristle with large-scale metal sculptures by Mark di Suvero.
The tour takes in Pier 15, a new pedestrian walkway just south of the South Street Seaport; the even newer WNYC Transmitter Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which opened at the end of August and takes its name from the WNYC transmitter that once stood there; and the newest project of all, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, which is scheduled to open at the end of October. Four Freedoms ranks high on the list of the city’s most delayed projects. When Louis Kahn died of a heart attack while walking through Pennsylvania Station in 1974, the final plans for the park were found in his briefcase. Now, a mere four decades later, the triangular four-and-a-half-acre park is almost ready for its first visitors. Michael Kimmelman reviewed the project in The New York Times on Thursday.
So, yes, it is exciting to see Mr. Gehry’s sinuous silver residential tower on Spruce Street, or Tsao & McKown’s William Beaver House, otherwise known as the Post-it building for the scattering of bright yellow panels on its facade, or Enrique Norten’s Mercedes House, with its dizzying staircase exterior. But the cruise is a fisheye lens that takes in just about everything.
That includes the old Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. Ms. Engh, a big fan of adaptive reuse, zeroed in on a potential whopper, a sprawling refinery that has attracted ambitious plans to transform it into a residential complex.
There are bridges. Many bridges. The ship passes underneath the famous ones, but I was seeing, for the first time, gems like the High Bridge in Harlem, the oldest in the city. It is now being transformed into a pedestrian walkway.
Upriver at Inwood, the University Heights Bridge flashes its best, least visible feature, a filigree railing along the sidewalk on the south side, and at the westernmost point of Harlem Creek the improbable Spuyten Duyvil Bridge astounds. One of several swing bridges that rotate 90 degrees on a turntable to let ships pass, it stands a mere five feet above the surface of the water. On the day of my cruise, an old man slowly approached the bridge in what must have been the last canoe left at the used-canoe dealership. Caressing the river’s surface with a kayak paddle, he looked as if the top of his head might just clear the bridge.
The cruise embarrassed me mile after mile. Like the greenest outlander, I gaped, surprised by sights that should have been long familiar. Grant’s Tomb appeared off the port side, new to me. I knew the thing existed, honest, but only as the subject of the old joke, not as an architectural fact. Now here it was. Ditto for the weird, cantilevered Pumpkin House in Washington Heights, so called because the pattern of its windows suggests a jack-o’-lantern face, and the pseudomedieval walls below the Castle Village apartment towers.
The cruise ends when the ship eases back into dock at Pier 62. But in a way, it doesn’t. I kept ticking off points of interest that demanded further exploration and set forth on solid ground to see what I could see. First was Swindler Cove Park in Inwood, a former dumping ground that the singer Bette Midler attacked like a neatnik scrubbing a stubborn stain in the sink. Fed up with the sight of trash in Fort Tryon and Fort Washington Parks, and the discarded tires and debris along the riverbank, Ms. Midler organized the New York Restoration Project, which has cleaned up the mess and created a seductive waterfront green space with wandering paths, a teaching garden with boxed beds of flowers and vegetables, and a steel observation bridge that spans Swindler Cove, a tiny patch of wetland.
At high tide kayakers can take a soft left off the Harlem River and enter the park at Sherman Creek. Just a few hundred feet downriver, the green and yellow Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse, designed by Robert A. M. Stern, runs a busy program of sculling and sweep rowing. Row New York, which leases the boathouse, recruits students from local high schools, trains them and sends them forth to compete with other teams all over the Northeast.
Pier 15 sneaked into town this summer unobserved by me. It turned out to be yet another big plus sign along the waterfront, a little like a section of the High Line airlifted to the East River. There are walkways on two levels, the upper level divided by a wide grass median strip and landscaped areas. Double-wide loungers, Adirondack-style, make the far end of the pier a pocket paradise for jangled city dwellers.
After nearly three hours of close observation, fatigue does set in. But the organizers saved the best for last. In the final moments, 200 11th Avenue, at 24th Street, came into view, with its curvaceous stainless-steel facade and “sky garages.” The concept could have come straight out of a Bruce McCall fantasy cover for The New Yorker. Fourteen of the residential units come with their own attached parking spaces, like a spare bedroom for the BMW. After a late dinner, you can press the elevator button, take your car upstairs and tuck it in for the night.
New York truly is a world of wonders.