A famous rabbit warren of alpine office towers, corporate plazas and Colonial-era lanes mobbed during weekdays with tourists and traders, the financial district in Lower Manhattan has become home to more and more residents in recent years. On weekends and now, with most offices shut, the neighborhood becomes a backyard.
Claire Weisz moved from nearby Chinatown with her husband and partner, Mark Yoes, after Sept. 11. Co-founders of the firm WXY, they have designed the Manhattan Districts 1/2/5 Sanitation Garage and Salt Shed, Kowsky Plaza, the West Thames Street Pedestrian Bridge and the SeaGlass Carousel, all in Lower Manhattan.
We “met” on the plaza outside the Oculus, the $4 billion, bird-shaped shopping mall and New Jersey PATH Train station at the World Trade Center, commissioned after Sept. 11 by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
Michael Kimmelman You live where?
Claire Weisz A couple of blocks away. We often come to the plaza outside the Oculus. Landscape architects always talk about how you can only understand a site from the knees down. Architects think about how buildings look from the shoulders up. As locals, we experience the Oculus from the knees down, meaning in and around the plaza, where Calatrava’s bird wings shade people sitting on benches girdling the building. A farmers’ market takes over on Tuesdays. People bike and walk their dogs here because cars can’t get in. I don’t think this was designed to be a local hangout. But New Yorkers adapt the city in all sorts of ways to suit their needs.
What inspired you to move here?
We were working with the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy on 9/11. One of the first challenges after the towers fell was to get debris out of the area. Boats had to pull up at the Battery Park City Esplanade to tow it away. But the esplanade was badly damaged.
Battery Park City, meaning the residential neighborhood, built in the 1980s, just west of the World Trade Center along the Hudson River.
The offspring of the original Twin Towers. Constructing those two buildings required digging holes in the ground so immense that they produced enough landfill to expand Lower Manhattan into the river. Battery Park City was partly built on top. The neighborhood was modeled after the Upper West Side. The Twin Towers were supposed to be the city’s new Rockefeller Center.
I believe David Rockefeller was in fact the one who floated the idea of the World Trade Center to the Port Authority during the early ’60s, when this area was called Radio Row.
The neighborhood has been reinvented over and over. Of course the last time was after 9/11. We were hired to survey the damage to the esplanade. Our reports were delivered to FEMA. Every day Mark would walk to Battery Park from our loft on a route that passed an empty parking lot, which became the site of one of the first buildings built after the towers fell, an apartment house, across from what used to be called One Chase Manhattan Plaza. We were frustrated with where we lived. So when the building opened we moved in. Along with most of the World Trade Center development and a handful of other new buildings in the area like the Goldman Sachs Tower, it got financed through a World War I-era loan program called Liberty Bonds. The program was resuscitated for 9/11. Everything below Canal Street came to be known as the Liberty Zone. I find myself thinking about this a lot now — about what it will take to restart the city in the wake of the coronavirus.
Anyway, the Oculus was also part of the 9/11 renewal plan, and now we use the plaza all the time when we bike to the esplanade or shop at the greenmarket or walk through Zuccotti Park, around the corner, which I love, past the Mark di Suvero sculpture.
“Joie de Vivre,” it’s called, from 1988, at Broadway and Cedar — 70 feet high, shaped like some giant measuring instrument. People know Zuccotti Park because the Occupy movement camped out in it in 2011. As a privately owned public space, not a city park, it didn’t have a curfew. I spent a lot of time there during the occupation, watching how the occupiers turned the park into a mini village. Afterward, the owners changed all the rules, of course.
When you spend time in the park you begin to notice there’s maybe a 10- or 12-foot difference in grade between the World Trade Center end of Zuccotti, to the west, and the Broadway end, to the east. The difference is not something you’d find on a map but it’s something, as a resident, you perceive as part of the subtle topography of the neighborhood. The park rises up toward the ridge of Broadway, a high point of Lower Manhattan, and the buildings around the park have to adapt to the slope — like the Trinity and U.S. Realty Buildings.
Twin neo-Gothic landmarks from the turn of the last century, designed by Francis H. Kimball, taking up the whole south side of the park.
The slope creates a full floor difference in height from east to west. Then there’s also the shift in scale between the park and the buildings surrounding it, which are giant monoliths. People complain there’s never enough light and air here. Alex Cooper and Quennell Rothschild & Partners redesigned Zuccotti after 9/11 to deal with some of this. They added benches and honey locust trees, which are thin and transparent, and carved a diagonal path between Broadway and the World Trade Center through the heart of the park.
A desire line.
Exactly. The path starts at the di Suvero, whose height mediates between the immense scale of the buildings and the more human scale of the park — different from the Noguchi cube across the street, which sits, alone, on an empty, abstract plaza.
Isamu Noguchi’s “Red Cube,” from 1968, outside Gordon Bunshaft’s 140 Broadway. Not a cube, by the way, more a rhomboid, to be pedantic — poised like a ballerina on point.
With a hole through it, positioned so you can see the U.S. Realty Building reflected in the curtain wall of Bunshaft’s tower — a wonderful touch by Noguchi. You also see part of the Equitable Building next door.
From 1915. H-shaped, a Neoclassical behemoth, conceived as a speculative real estate development, so its architect, Ernest R. Graham, maximized the interior square footage by including no setbacks.
People at the time were outraged by that. The building helped bring about New York’s zoning regulations of 1916, which required setbacks on future skyscrapers proportional to the street width to make sure people got light and air.
Which produced the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, 30 Rock — but that’s another story. You were talking about Noguchi.
He also designed the Sunken Garden just up the block at One Chase Manhattan Plaza, now called 28 Liberty Street, opposite our apartment, which is again Bunshaft and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Mark and I have been spending loads of time there since Covid. Our daughter lives in Lower Manhattan but separately. So the plaza has become our meeting point. Bunshaft’s circular stone benches — almost Neolithic-looking — are 10 feet wide. We can all sit together, safely, and visit.
I’ve never thought of that plaza as an especially inviting place to hang out.
It doesn’t make much sense, humanistically. It’s very formalistic. The plaza acts as a kind of plinth for the office tower, separated by stairs from the street, with a big Dubuffet sculpture that always looks stranded to me. You peer down onto Noguchi’s Sunken Garden, but you can’t get into it. The plaza was built during the early ’60s, when there was no Americans With Disabilities Act, so there was clearly no thought about wheelchair access. I think the idea behind the plinth was to make the office tower look like it floats above the street.
The funny thing is that now it’s packed with families. Covid has turned the plaza into a magnet for locals. With nobody in the building, little kids ride tricycles round and round the Noguchi garden. Dads kick soccer balls. The kids feel safe and the parents feel, like, OK, we’ll notice if our kid bikes down the stairs, because there’ll be a lot of screaming, but meanwhile we’re good.
While we’re talking about Chase Plaza, I want to point out the Federal Reserve just around the corner.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York building by York & Sawyer, from the early 1920s. Yet another landmark, a fortress and neo-Florentine Renaissance palazzo.
The top looks like a castle. I love the big pillowy stones along the base. Mark and I can see the building from our window and look out for whether the lights are on late at night — or at least we used to look. It meant something was up.
It meant what was up?
Something bad. During the financial crisis in 2008, the lights were always on late at night. Now everyone is meeting digitally during Covid and nobody is in the building. So we have no idea what’s going on.
I think you need a better system.
Maybe. Louise Nevelson Plaza is just east of the bank. It’s the opposite of Chase or Zuccotti — a wedge in the middle of three streets, like a traffic island. Maybe that’s why it isn’t as popular with locals. But I love Nevelson’s sculptures. They resemble a canopy of trees and they also orient people, which really helps with all the cliff-like streets down here. The streets are narrow and winding and the buildings often face more than one street. For some people, that’s confusing and frustrating.
For me, it’s the opposite. Part of the joy of living around here is, in fact, getting lost on a street where suddenly you turn a corner and get some dramatic view — like going from Nevelson Plaza down William Street and seeing 20 Exchange Place.
The Art Deco tower by Cross and Cross — among the city’s tallest buildings for years. Also visible from your window?
I’m staring at the top of it now. I love the way it hits the sidewalk — the sort of coping along the bottom where the wall curves to meet the ground. That took such care, architecturally speaking. It’s what you experience of the building on the street, where you can’t see the top. In this neighborhood, with all the narrow streets, you often get a kind of child’s view of the things. Our youngest was still young when we moved here and I remember walking around with her and noticing how she saw things I would’ve never looked at.
Children get excited by airplane trails and bottle caps on the sidewalk when you take them to see some famous site. Same place, different epiphanies. Both wonderful.
That’s what I like about this walk — the view from the knees down is great.
Up the street from 20 Exchange Place you then get another surprise. Suddenly everything opens up, you see the harbor, and north, on Broadway, toward the Woolworth Building. You’re at the edge of The Battery, the park at the tip of Manhattan, which is not a secret hangout like Chase Plaza. It’s the neighborhood’s only real green space. Living in the financial district can feel like sneaking into an office building late at night. It’s the pleasure of being someplace with no one else around. For an architect, that’s catnip. A lot of residential buildings are repurposed office buildings, so you don’t even realize how many people live here.
But there are plenty of other people around, actually. And you see them in The Battery — parents pushing strollers and sunbathers. The place was packed over this past holiday weekend. I was shocked.
You were reminded you’re not alone.
As long as everybody wears masks and keeps their distance, it’s reassuring.
And it was nice to hear people laughing.