Thursday, March 29

new links

This week I finally got around to reorganizing my links. I also added a bunch of new ones.

Album cover by Tavet Gillson for Enjoy New York, an upcoming compilation by Premier Cru Music.

Of the new links, here are some of my favorites:

Fogonazos is a bilingual blog with a unique perspective on the built and natural environment. I really like the post on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Princeton Architectural Press publishes well-written and visually stunning books. For folks fascinated by materials, like me, Liquid Stone is a must-read.

Fab Prefab is a resource for modern prefabricated design. Container Bay, one section of the site, is an incredible index of designs for habitable shipping containers.

fire in the slope

IMG_7048.JPGMarch 25, 2007.

March 28, 2007. Photo by E-Liz.

Tuesday, March 27

going up

One of my favorite comedians, Mitch Hedberg, had a bit about escalators:

"An escalator can never break, it can only become stairs. There would never be an 'Escalator temporarily out of order' sign, only an 'Escalator temporarily stairs. Sorry for the convenience.'"

Escalator (permanent marker on escalator, 2003) by Ulrich Vogl. Via Bird to the North.

Escalators are, in fact, incredible machines. They give their users a status somewhere between pedestrian and passenger, providing a remarkably public mode of personal transportation. Ubiquitous in the world's subway stations and department stores, new escalators continue to shape both transit and retail.

Jesse Reno's 1891 design for the moving stairwell at Coney Island. Ladies were expected to ride 'sidesaddle.' Via The Elevator Museum.

Escalators as we know them today were introduced at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris, an event better remembered for the introduction of 'Talking Films'. Built by the Otis elevator company, this escalator improved on several earlier versions of inclined people-movers, including one at Coney Island that used seats like a bicycle's.

The Otis moving stairway at the Exposition Universelle, 1900.

Though materials, safety, and efficiency have improved throughout the history of the escalator, the fundamental method of operation remains the same. Rather, the innovation in escalators has emerged in their application.

Hong Kong is home to the world's longest and most innovative escalator system, the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator. Linking Des Voeux Road in Central Hong Kong with Conduit Road in the Mid-Levels, the escalator winds 800 meters above crowded streets, dramatically bridging the two neighborhoods. Opened in 1994, the introduction of the escalator has spurred economic development on cross streets where people can disembark, revitalizing commercial districts.

It's also lots of fun to ride. You can see the platform I took this picture from here.

In New York City, innovative escalators are playing a central role in the introduction of big box retail, until now a distinctly suburban phenomena. At stores like the 23rd Street Home Depot and the Atlantic Terminal Target, special escalators allow shopping carts to move between floors. The urbanization of big box retailers represents a new direction in commercial development. Indeed, the phenomena is a challenge to both existing urban retailers and the sprawling superstores of the suburbs -- a challenge manifest in escalators.

IMG_6407.JPGTarget. Brooklyn, 2007.

When escalators break, they 'become stairs.' When they work, they can change how people live.

Wednesday, March 21

Fireladders of SoHo

I just learned about a great collection of drawings of fire escapes in SoHo (via Gothamist). They are a good follow-up to the Fireproof post of several weeks ago. Hope you like them as much as I do.

82 Greene. From Greg Martin's Fireladders of SoHo.

Wednesday, March 14

323 prospect place

Last fall, I was walking through Prospect Heights when a residence caught my eye. The building was a fairly standard one -- a classic 3-story Brooklyn brownstone built, in this case, from brick. Rather, what caught my eye was its position: it was rotated about 60 degrees from the rest of the street grid.

IMG_6852.JPG323 Prospect Place

Buildings don't build themselves, and whoever built this one located it the way they did for a reason. Especially in brownstone Brooklyn, where rowhouses are the dominant architectural feature, buildings usually face the street. In this case, either someone decided to build it differently or the street it once faced no longer existed.

IMG_6859.JPGCorner of Prospect Place and Underhill Avenue

Stepping back, I noticed that the building next door, which appeared to have been built more recently, was angled like its neighbor despite a corner that fit the existing street layout. Moreover, a new building under construction was also similarly rotated -- clearly the plots of land in this area were oriented towards some feature of the urban landscape that's no longer there.

prospect and underhill_red323 Prospect Place in the red box. Viewed from above, it seems that a whole block has been dropped from a different street grid into that of Prospect Heights. Why?

My initial hypothesis involved Brooklyn's longest and oldest street: Flatbush Avenue. The road that is now Flatbush Avenue was originally the southernmost section of an ancient Native American path. Broadway, in Manhattan, also follows part of this path, which reached as far north as Albany.

I thought that before Brooklyn evolved into its present layout, maybe Flatbush Avenue had been further north -- perhaps this block was oriented to face the old right-of-way. Yet as I examined old maps like the one below, I found that the road had changed remarkably little over time.

BK1766_redBrooklyn, 1766, 'Road to Flatbush' in red. This map is from the outstanding collection assembled by the Brooklyn Genealogy Information Page. Note the intersection of the 'Road to Flatbush' and 'Road to Jamaica' in the southeastern quadrant of this map -- the intersection basically survives today where Atlantic Avenue meets Flatbush Avenue.

My next theory was influenced by the High Line, an abandoned freight line on Manhattan's West Side. At the turn of the century, the Vanderbilt railyard (now better known as the Atlantic Yards) was ringed by Brooklyn's meatpacking industry. To facilitate the movement and loading of freight, the Armour Packing company built an elevated freight line to cross Atlantic Avenue.

Atlantic Avenue looking west towards 5th Avenue, circa 1908. (You can just see the since-demolished 5th Avenue elevated line.) From Arrt's Arrchives.

Unfortunately, I could not find any information on where the freight line went after it crossed Atlantic Avenue. Perhaps, I imagined, the freight line cut through what is now the residential neighborhood of Prospect Heights. Perhaps there was a turning loop at the corner of Prospect and Underhill -- this would explain both the park at the corner and 323 Prospect Place! Sadly, there is no evidence of this whatsoever -- my best guess now is that the elevated line ended not far from where it started: near the yards.

For several months, I gave up on explaining the unusual placement of the 323 Prospect Place. Then several weeks ago, a reader wrote me asking about the original shoreline of Manhattan. (I love reader e-mails, by the way.) I e-mailed her the link for the Brooklyn Genealogy Information Page, which also has maps of the other boroughs. I found myself poking around old maps again, but this time I saw something I hadn't noticed before.

prospect heights oldnew_2Left: 1866 Johnson's Map. Right: 2007 Google Map.

On an 1866 map, there was a street that doesn't exist today. Most likely, the street didn't exist yet in 1866 either, but the fact that it was mapped gave me an idea. I realized that the area was probably redesigned by Olmstead and Vaux as they planned Prospect Park and Grand Army Plaza -- perhaps this would explain 323 Prospect Place.

Unfortunately, the 'mini-plaza' mapped to the north of Grand Army Plaza is still a block from where the rotated building sits. Indeed, even if the buildings were built according to the abandoned Olmstead and Vaux plan, there's no explanation as to why they'd be at such an angle.

Maps from before the planning of Prospect Park show a grid of streets continuing east -- later maps show the same. Yet in the 1860s and 1870s, the plan for the area underwent several changes. An early plan for Prospect Park by Egbert Viele, chief engineer of Central Park, called for the park to extend as far north as Warren Street. (Prospect Street today.) According to this plan, 323 Prospect could have had faced Prospect Park. (Yet it wasn't built that way...)

Egbert Viele's plan for Prospect Park, 1861. From

After the Civil War, Olmstead and Vaux were commissioned to redesign the park -- it is their initial design on the 1866 Johnson Map. Yet theirs was not the final plan. The reservoir was replaced by the Brooklyn Museum and Eastern Parkway was cut through though area.

I have yet to find a concrete explanation of why 323 Prospect Place is oriented the way it is. Part of me, I think, hopes I never figure it out. Just the same, I'll keep trying.

NOTE: An newer version of this post (with new revelations) can be found at Lost Magazine.

Friday, March 2

powers of 10

I just learned that the Eames' Powers of Ten film is on YouTube. This short film provides a great sense of perspective.

Rediscovered via Cool Hunting

Apparently the original Powers of Ten film has been removed. Instead, check out the official Powers of Ten website or the Simpsons' parody of the video, itself a rather clever piece of work.

UPDATE: You can watch Powers of 10 at Google Video!