March 10, 1992
Red Square, New York
Open for occupancy since June of 1989, Red Square, luxury project in the East Village, concerns the creation of an image in architecture. The story revolves around Michael Rosen, an untypical developer, and Tibor Kalman, a seminal graphic designer. Michael Rosen of Park Square Associates, a former NYU professor of radical sociology, currently develops subsidized, low-income housing for battered women and people with AIDS. However, his first project in Manhattan was Red Square, a luxury building constructed on family owned land on the Lower East Side. He hired Tibor Kalman of M & Company to design the building's identity. The dilemma of Red Square lies not so much in the quality of the design, but rather in the underlying circumstances. At stake are the ethics of the designer and the developer and the broader implications of designing an image to alter the value of architecture.
Designed by Schuman Lichtenstein, Claman & Efron for Sundered Ground Development in 1988-89, Red Square is a luxury, twelve-story, orange brick structure with blue-green metal windows and balconies. Set on top of a nearly-block-long shopping strip, the apartment building covers only one third of the triangular site that was once a gas station. A private plaza for the residents makes up the rest of the space above the commercial strip. The building looks solid and well built, if banal, yet the apartment block looks strangely similar to the abundant public housing projects in the area. The designer details like M&CO's giant Askew clock and banner announcing "Waste Not A Moment", as well as the art furniture in the lobby and sculptural metalwork on the facade, quickly dispel any notion that this building is a project. Too much money has been invested in quality art for this building to be aimed at the anything but the educated and wealthy, especially when one realizes that a 380 square foot studio starts at $1000.
Located at 250 East Houston Street and making up most of the block between Avenue A and B, Red Square is built on what was then the boundary of gentrified East Village and the Lower East Side. The area absorbed the waves of immigrants from Europe and African Americans from the south starting in the late 19th century, followed by Hispanics and more recently Asians, creating one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in New York. The immediate area around Red Square, home to a traditionally poor Puerto Rican and black community, suffered tremendous devastation during the fiscal crisis of the 70's. As much as 70 percent of the housing was lost in the Lower East Side due to the abandonment by landlords who could no longer afford their taxes. In the 80s, tension amongst the original residents increased as the booming real estate market brought gentrification to the East Village. Although revitalization of the area was initially welcomed, especially where drug dealing and its related violence occurred, the outcome was the displacement of the resentful, original tenants who could no longer keep up with the rising rents. The general feeling in the community about the lack of control over one's space incited riots in Tompkins Square Park in 1988. The riots underlined the complicated and opposing interests of the community: those of the commercial establishments wanting more upscale customers, nearby residents complaining of crime and noise, the growing homeless population with nowhere to go, and various politically-inclined factions of squatters facing evictions from city-owned, abandoned buildings.
A mix of classes is necessary for revitalization of a decaying urban area, since it retains jobs in the city. Bringing the upper-middle class back to revitalize the East Village may cause gentrification, but it also increases tax revenues for the poor with higher needs for social services. The problem occurs when the upgrading of the area is controlled by private market forces rather than by public programs. A developer's version of ideal community development usually has its own best interest in mind and rarely fulfills the needs of the community. A developer's notion that the ideal neighborhood is one that caters to the tastes of the white middle class is as misguided as the notion that the poor want to stay in decaying tenements. However, the poor and the elderly are the first to be displaced in an area with rising land value and vanishing low cost housing.
Beginning in the 70s, the influential East Village art scene flourished, and soon political art, graffiti and Neo-Expressionism found receptive audiences, especially with collectors and the European art community. Artists such as Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, Rodney Allan Greenblat and Kenny Scharf got their start at galleries such as Gracie Mansion and Fun, and were quickly coopted by more respectable and profitable galleries, even if they were making statements on the commercialization of art. Tied into the East Village scene were alternative clubs-gallery-performance spaces such as the Mudd Club, ABC No Rio and Club 57, which fostered more controversial artists, like Kiki Smith, John Sex, Ann Magnuson and Karen Finley, during their sometimes brief life span. The East Village scene peaked in the mid 80's, when as many as sixty galleries coexisted. The rising rents and general attrition soon curtailed the scene, and the savviest artists and gallery owners moved to bigger venues in SoHo or perished. The movement left an adventurous and romantic aura to the East Village that persisted long after many of the principal players moved on to greener pastures. The collective mixture of art, ethnicity and radical politics together became the alluring trademark of the entire Lower East Side.
After having obtained his Ph D. from Wharton School of Business, Michael Rosen taught radical sociology at New York University in the course "Power and Politics". Having founded Sundered Ground Developments in the mid-80s, his first construction was actually a ski lodge in Vermont, soon followed by Red Square. Currently, he heads Park Square Associates which evolved from the dissolution of Sundered Ground and is now focusing solely subsidized housing for the poor and PWA's, as well as construction of half-way houses and shelters for battered women. His early ventures are then seen as an anomaly to his social convictions. Rosen's Park Square is in reality the developer and landlord of Red Square, though the Sundered Ground is still the only firm named in the building's literature. Sundered Ground dissolved over two years ago, so perhaps this is meant to disassociate the two firms and dissuade potential protest. Perhaps, the evolution of Sundered Ground to Park Square is meant to be symbolical. By disuniting the ground in almost any manner, a park will spring up, or stated more simply, good springs from harshness. The good deeds in the form of housing for the poor come from more lucrative developments such as Red Square.
Being highly educated and liberal, Rosen's taste in design is more informed than those of your typical developer, though this is not obvious from the architecture. To his credit, he hired M&CO, a highly respected firm in the design community, to do the identity program. He also selected Post Modern art and furniture for the lobby and facade, where most developers would simply leave it empty, fill the lobby with bland furniture or cover the building with classical ornaments meant to exude luxury. Johnny Swing, a local artist from the Garage on 2nd Street and Avenue B, created the benign, colorful sculptures on the facade. The French artist Michel created an innocuous graffiti painting on the elevator tower, around the corner from M&CO's clock. Another artist, James Cullinae, painted on the sidewalk. He hired Bureau, another design firm that specializes in political causes, to create banners pro bono for a cause of their choice, to replace the banners that previously advertized rentals.
Rosen is emphatic that no one was displaced in order to construct Red Square and that many of the older residents see the building,"as a godsend...we've gone out of our way to show we're part of this neighborhood." Such gestures include locally-flavored art work on the facade but do not go as far as supplying a portion of the building as subsidized low-income housing, as Ann Johnson of Community Board 3 recommended. As for buildings such as Red Square driving out the older tenants, he claims that the East Village art scene caused rents to rise. He feels it is the government's job to provide for low-income housing, which in fact, it is doing by recently enacting cross-subsidy programs that have spurred extensive rehabilitation of buildings just behind Red Square and in the general area. It would be wonderful for others to be able to have such a nice place to live, not just those that can afford those kinds of rents, namely "young, artistically-inclined professionals". Rosen may make more money with this building than with the subsidized ventures, though this is not necessarily the case as the tax incentives for low-income developments are substantial and the commercial space at the base of the building still remains half vacant.
Rosen brought in M & Company to design the building's identity after Red Square's construction had begun. Tibor Kalman, a Hungarian immigrant with no formal design training, heads the firm, seen by many design colleagues as producing some of the best work in graphic design. Instead of having a set style, M&CO's work uses humor to underline concepts that can be biting at times, like their 1990 Christmas gift box that included a packaged meal from a shelter, twenty dollars, a stamped, addressed envelope and a request for sending the money, with an additional donation, to the Coalition for the Homeless. Not all the work is so scrupulous; most of it is heavily influence by vernacular or "nondesigned" graphics and is simply witty and offbeat. The Askew clock and the "Waste Not A Moment" banner are standard work, bizarre and funny like a 50s billboard, though not especially thought provoking. Tibor Kalman is quite outspoken on the responsibilities of the designer to do more than just "peddling facile glossy images to an overly receptive public," as Patricia Leigh Brown states, and to resist bowing down before corporate culture. M&CO acknowledges they take on "money" clients to take on the "poor" clients, a noble aspiration, and one surmises Red Square was a "money" client from the description of the project in M&CO's own corporate brochure: "...Red Square is essentially a luxury housing development...in a tenement neighborhood. As such, it was designed to appeal to a narrow audience of people with resources who wanted to live in a hip, extreme and even dangerous neighborhood."
As Kalman put it, "We thought a dangerous neighborhood deserved a dangerous name." Naming the building Red Square is a telling statement. The naming of buildings, a traditional marketing technique, attempts to create a brand-name identity with the consumer, especially a notion of prestige and quality. A brand-name identity is particularly helpful in a competitive market like the current state of luxury residential housing. So what does Red Square signify? The most direct interpretation is that of Red Square in Moscow, the home base of Communism. Kalman essentially alludes to events of world-wide magnitude, as this was the late 80's when Gorbachev was expanding Glasnost and Perestroika. The Soviet Union, still united, appeared prominently on the news and in fashion magazines. The USSR was being seen as a place of progressive revolutionary change. No place is more tied to revolution than Red Square, be it the contemporary revolution or Communist Revolution of 1917. What the Red Square building is suppose to signify is a progressive social ideal. This is the East Village, where progressive socialism in any form is eagerly embraced; however, a luxury building for the upper-middle class does not qualify in the minds of many as a progressive social ideal, especially a one linked to communism. The significant Ukrainian and Jewish community existing nearby probably does not see much humor in it either.
At the same time as Red Square was being planned, the Deconstructivist show at the MoMA appeared. The signs for Red Square are constructivist in influence; the yellow circle, blue rectangle and black lattice structure serve as a backdrop for the text. Kalman's use of constructivism is also significant, as the movement closely involved art and politics. The artist played a major role in shaping the early days of the Communist Revolution, where art was interwoven with political reformation. The recent developments in Russia unintentionally add another level of meaning. As the free-market has basically triumphed over communism, it illustrates people's desire for a market economy, for nicely packaged gadgets, not for a drab worker state. Red Square is allegorical of the triumph of the market economy, not of social reformation.
The triumph of the laissez-faire economy came to a head in the late 80s, when Reagan and Bush had pretty much disassembled public housing programs. Many people were glad to see the abandonment of these programs, as they were viewed simply as overly-idealistic, expensive disasters, as exemplified in the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in Saint Louis. Unlike the social housing projects in Europe, the American projects were more concerned with supporting private developers and the building industry. In any case, the expectations of private developers picking up the government's obligation have not brought about any noticeable improvement in either the quality of the projects or meeting the demands for housing. The loss of leadership at federal level caused the burden to be picked up by municipalities, frequently necessitating a choice between housing and social services. In New York City, the public's stake over development is now in the hands of community boards, zoning ordinances and the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Red Square illustrates not just the public's lack of control over development, but the missed opportunity of supplying decent housing to a segment other than the upper-middle class, whose housing market has become quite soft thanks to overdevelopment of luxury projects.
Herein lies the misconception of Red Square; local residents are not the ones that can afford to move to Red Square. The truth lies closer to Kalman's description of people with means who want to live in an hip and dangerous neighborhood, than of Rosen's locals looking for comfort. Though a sizable Japanese constituency exists, the tenants are mostly white and either single or in couples with two incomes and no children. Many are professionals, while others are students with affluent parents. The factors that draw them to the East Village vary from the nightlife, to the remaining art community, to the location, but the dangerous, hip, urban image of the area, not always based on reality, is also a major draw. Many see this as an adventure, being a rebel.
Kalman makes no secret his distaste for today's values; "Being Greedy used to be unhip. Greed is now not only acceptable at the government level but it's interpersonally acceptable. It has to do with Reagan's stupid counterrevolution." So how does he justify doing Red Square? Looking at the brochure M&CO produced for the building, it is difficult to see those liberal ideas. Actually, the humor comes off as an Upper East Side resident parodying the East Village. Granted, instead of doing a slick brochure like so many buildings now have, they are marketing the coarseness of the area as the primary selling point.
"This is New york: The restaurants don't know they're ethnic and the shops don't care if they're interesting. Try browsing on Orchard Street and you'll be addressed in the authentic city dialect: Rude... Whatever the word is for an impossibly dense overlay of experiences and generations and languages....it isn't charming."
Selling it as a place that is more lively and interesting than the Upper East Side, not a difficult task, is a innovative marketing concept. The hip tenant can live with the self-assured notion that he/she is not living in a stagnant, amiable neighborhood, reinforcing the fantasy of being on the edge. The problem is that the brochure strongly states all the security features of the place. Basically, the tenant can have it all: a doorman/concierge, steel clad apartment entry doors and a Mirtone video intercom system to screen callers, if the doorman is insufficient. None of the apartments require burglar bars as the apartments are not accessible from the neighboring building and are not on the ground floor. The tenant can go out in this dangerous neighborhood and return to their safe, clean, private haven. Advertised are the large, double glazed windows for thermal and sound insulation--the better to block out the frequent police, fire and ambulance sirens--which gives the tenant a superb view of skyscrapers in a sea of crumbling tenements. The population in the area is then there to serve as a source entertainment.
The quotes shift to the trademark aspects of the Lower East Side, politics, art and ethnicity. Perhaps, Kalman wanted to be provocative, but the Disneyfication of the area and its population, written like a movie script, is obnoxious.
"A seamstress and a presser, shy as villagers falling in love over the accompaniment of whirring sewing machines and sweet tea...
[fade to...] The lint of sweat shops swept out by raucous Spanish accents...
[fade to...] Long haired poets silk-screening posters for the revolution...
Today it's an after hours club. Or is the apartment where the incredible Dutch model with one name lives with Mr. Wallstreet?"
Considering that Mr. Wallstreet is most likely one of the prospective tenants of Red Square, the last quote reads like bad subliminal seduction. Never mind that the account executives may well be forcing out the pressers, seamstresses and long haired poets. The sepia-toned cover features a kissing, tangoing white couple swinging a piece of cloth in a standard tenement apartment, with its open shelves and small windows. He wears a large, stylish suit; she wears a plain, loose dress. He has short brown hair in a standard businessman haircut; she has long, peroxide-blond hair. The standard clock is on midnight. Wires dangle down from strangely placed sockets. The picture appears ordinary, yet it is incredibly strange that it would be chosen for the cover. These people are probably celebrating the fact that they will be able to trade in the five story climb for an elevator and crumbling walls for new construction. In other words, they are trading reminiscence for amenities.
In 1990, Rosen hired Bureau to design pro bono a series of banners to replace M&CO's rental banners, creating the only controversial artwork associated with the building. Along the lines of political design group Gran Fury, Bureau chose to create a viewer-aggressive series for women's rights, set to coincide with a major pro-choice march in Washington in the fall of 1990; however, the banners did not get made until February of 1991. Messages like "Keep them barefoot and pregnant", "Whose body? Whose choice?", "Your body isn't yours", "Where is RU-486?" and "No more nice girls" were not warmly received by the traditionally catholic hispanic community. They were supposedly removed due to bad flap construction, but the promise of returning the banners after they were fixed has yet to be realized. Bureau's matchbooks with words like "Bush" and "Burning", available in the lobby of the building, is yet another attempt to make Red Square seem politically correct, which it can never be.
Red Square's affects on the community has not been as generous as Michael Rosen thinks. Besides being an endless source of entertainment to the tenants, the community interacts with the building only as clients to the commercial space. The businesses reflect the clients of the neighborhood, not the tenants: a billiard hall, a chinese take-out, a dingy Indian restaurant, a drugstore and a Western Union. The charitable sculptures and paintings seem anemic compared to the graffiti and sculptural garden found around the corner on Avenue B, and the choice of a French graffiti artist when there are so many qualified local artists is absurd. The fortress-like building and its large plaza for tenants only illustrate the current developments in luxury urban housing, making the efforts to integrate the building with the neighborhood seem merely like lip-service. Perhaps, if the building supplied the community with something more philanthropic than art on the facade--possibly with great architecture, needed public amenities or even some subsidized units--it would not be as jarring as it is. Red Square is not by any means the only luxury development in the East Village, and no one was displace for its construction. However, the East Village has undergone tremendous changes recently, and the community would be better served by reasonable housing that is sorely lacking to begin with.
Michael Rosen used designers and artists to alter the way we judge Red Square. The problem is not simply that Red Square is luxury housing in a tenement neighborhood, it tries to appear as something that it isn't. Knowing that the underlying circumstances of the building are not benevolent, Rosen's choice of ethically conscientious artists and designers attempts to make Red Square seem like a generous, highly ethical contribution to the urban fabric of the community. The dishonesty of Red Square's liberal politics are disparaging. As for the designers and artists that went along with Rosen, they need to examine more closely the meaning and impact that their work could have. One can always come up with justifications for one's actions; "no one was displaced" is not enough. If their social convictions are so strong, they always have the option of just saying no; otherwise, they risk losing their credibility as critics of contemporary values. Victoria Geibel states, "...marketing is never innocent, words do carry meaning, and buildings do have power to change the character of the neighborhood."
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