From the windows of my beautiful hotel room in Amsterdam, I can look out on the Prinzngracht Canal and the wonderfully diverse set of townhouses across the water. Most of them are high and narrow (apparently because in the old days you were taxed on the number of windows you had facing the canal) and many have settled slightly so they are askew, leaning forward or backward or towards one of their neighbors. Because the city is built on Swedish timber laid over marshland, there are no tall buildings. The infrastructure could not support the weight.
I have been giving a lot of thought since I arrived here about the factors which cause cities to grow the way they do. For Amsterdam, physical and political factors have dictated that it remain both small and prosperous. It is not ringed with ugly concrete apartment towers, like London or every city in China. It has both architectural continuity and a distinct character emerging from the fact that the majority of the houses were built at a similar time (the 17th century) in a similar way. The same is true of Paris, which was completely redesigned by Baron Haussmann (that city’s Robert Moses) in the mid-19th century, or Chicago, redesigned after the great fire in a burst of late 19th and early 20th century architectural exuberance. All were created, or recreated, in times at which wealth and a certain vision of civic pride came together. And what about New York?
New York displays neither architectural continuity nor sustained architectural excellence. What it has, has always had, is energy. The architecture is often remarkable less for itself than for its juxtaposition. While the city has more than its share of iconic structures, including the Empire State, the Chrysler, and Mies Van Der Rohe’s Seagram Buildings, to name just a few, what makes us unique is our varied skylines and vistas. The view of Central Park West from Fifth Avenue, with its soaring towers and massed Belle Époque and Italianate apartment blocks, is one of the great urban vistas in the world, stylistically varied but somehow cohesive. Likewise the brownstone blocks with houses, each in a different style, are flanked at each end by a soaring mid-century or modern apartment house. Many of the particular structures are undistinguished, or dissonant, but the whole, those vistas from an arriving flight or a vehicle crossing the TriBoro or the 59th Street or the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, are the most exciting in the world. Old and new, high and low, appear in a constant dynamic tension, brought about by a combination of constant expansion, limited space, and cultural diversity. This tension keeps New York humming with vibrant, surprising life.