Spatial programming at Hudson Yards. A few shoutouts and commentary on Andy Merrifield’s Beyond Plague Urbanism

Andy Merrifield Beyond Plague Urbanism. Month Review Press 2023.

Highline, NYC Nov 2023 BY CCNC 4 Rob Shields
Highline, NYC Nov 2023 (Rob Shields)

Plague Urbanism

The CoVid-19 pandemic was such an all-encompassing experience, one almost has an aversion to attending to it. I couldn’t put this book down once I started, but every time I did have to leave it I found myself reluctant to pick it up. CoVid is such a lingering negative. Yet this accessible book has much to recommend it, down to the its publisher, Monthly Review Press — the New York publisher that the great 20th century Polish-American translator of so many progressive works, Norbert Guterman published with. Andy Merrifield comments on Guterman’s correspondence with Henri Lefebvre, on their studies of populist propaganda and the allure of consumerism which they theorized as ‘mystification’ and the ‘mystified consciousness.’ Merrifield’s previous books include Metromarxism which clarified the importance of such Marxist social and economic critique for understanding contemporary cities.

This book begins with a CoVid tale of an unread book on his bookshelf, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon’s book is about a post-World War II traumatized Europe, marked by paranoia and an anomic suspension of normal life. Merrifield traces the ways in which the normative life, encounters and public spaces of contemporary societies became toxic and feared during the pandemic. Drawing on Jane Jacobs, Henri Lefebvre and Jean Jacques Rousseau, Merrifield asks what a post-pandemic public sphere might look like? He revisits previous projects and analyses, visits and ‘encounters in New York, Seoul and Nice; Main Streets, parks and neighbourhoods. The text weaves together a critique of commercialized shopping districts and urban redevelopments such as New York City’s Hudson Yards where there is little to do other than spend money (usually in luxury branded stores or in restaurants). These succeed for a time due to their positioning astride key public transportation connections such as subway stations. However, they over-police and attempt to commodify social interaction, the pleasures of cities and crowds and the importance of sociality to individual identity.

Flow and Flâneurie: Highline

For example, Hudson Yards is a multi-billion dollar redevelopment of train switching yards with high-rise office, condo and hotel towers. The Shed, a not-for-profit performing arts and exhibition space, on its 3rd name in as many years, is a relatively small six-story building which features works and genres such as virtual reality, installations by pop music performers, and New York Fashion Week has aligned with the values of corporate sponsors. Crucially, it is the northern terminus of the brilliant, non-profit Highline boardwalk and gardens on an old elevated train-track. With the walkway, already too narrow for the flâneurs it has inspired to stroll its length, are gardens and borders of ornamental trees, grasses and shrubs planted on the zigzagging lattice work that held up the track.

Highline, NYC Nov 2023 BY CCNC 4 Rob Shields
Highline, NYC Nov 2023 (Rob Shields)

The experience of these places and spaces made me try to think of the alternatives and many thesis projects that bear on these urban projects. While it is hardly the community urban agriculture analysed by Michael Granzow, it supplies the delightful surprise of natural space in the most unexpected place. The south end of the Highline ends at another redevelopment : multi-story brick Nabisco warehouse in the Meat Packing District repurposed as Chelsea Market focused on snack foods, and boutiques catering to tourists and locals interested in window shopping and a diversion. It mobilizes dense crowds and lively, bustling atmospheres. As Tonya Davidson would note, the market brings the historical culture of feeding the city alive in an environment that features sculptures and antique equipment related to the historical role of the Market. Hudson Yards contrasts the crowded corridors of the Market with its multi-storey atria fronting luxury-brand jewellery stores for the 1% and large-scale outdoor attractions such as Vessel, by Thomas Heatherwick. This ziggurat-like stairway up to viewing platform that resembles a bent and coiled spring and engages the public to climb it. My recent visit confirms what Merrifield angrily points out : the sole use of the giant piece of ‘public art’, other than a bit of climbing, has been to afford a height for dramatic suicides. Unlike true sacred sites with ascents, it will take a long time for Vessel to acquire deeper meaning.

Eddy : Hudson Yards

Vessel, Hudson Yards, NYC Nov. 2023 BY CCNC 4.0 Rob Shields
Vessel, Thomas Heatherwicke, Hudson Yards, NYC Nov. 2023 (Rob Shields)

Give the lavish costs, however, this is not merely a question of successful and unsuccessful art. From the cool smooth colours and finishes of the buildings to the broad interior and exterior spaces to the planned diversions and heavy private police presence, Hudson Yards deploys every possible spatial strategy enumerated by DeCerteau in the name of controlling visitors. The public may make merely tactic forays into the space, it is not for them, not for me. As Juan Guevara notes, the materiality of the project extends the strictly limited inclusion of the public by preventing any informality, any spontaneity. As analysed by Jeongwon Gim, although they are high above human sightlines, the redevelopment has its own facade brand, which copyrights and produces the curtain wall for the buildings which can be seen from afar and online. This expertise is marketed to other developments, making Hudson Yards a pitch for its own clones. Yet it too is a reprise of private redevelopments such as Canary Wharf, 30 years on. It reiterate the design and atmospheres of the spaces of the urban one-percent which are as evacuated of the entrancing bustle of social life as a biosecure laboratory. Hudson Yards takes little advantage of its riverside location. It is a sort of parasite on the urban culture of the city. Inverse to its ziggurat-staircase, the development might be understood as what Nicholas Hardy calls an eddy in the flow of pedestrians off of the Highline. who are not so much elevated as they are literally sucked in — and down.

Hudson Yards, NYC Nov. 2023 (Rob Shields)

Like Canary Wharf, this genre of architecture and planning is like a strictly tailored suit : it structures and smooths out the body, in this case the social body. While behaviour at the individual level cannot be directly controlled, hypothetically the flow, tempo and attention of crowds can be guided by architecture as effectively as posting a sign with an arrow indicating an entrance, creating an instagram spot for selfies. By all appearances, Toronto’s Waterfront had a lucky escape from some of the same figures who created such as cravenly corporate, and culturally parasitic space. “How do we get beyond this urban plague?” is what Merrifield is asking.

Hudson Yards NYC Nov 2023 BY CCNC 4 Rob Shields
Hudson Yards NYC Nov 2023 (Rob Shields)

Environmental Causality and Plague Urbanism

While critiques of spatial fetishism have disproven faith in the directly controlling abilities of architecture, it is time to revisit the impact of environmental programming in built environments. In the forthcoming Derive journal issue, Alp Cervinne, Justine Kolbach []___, Emily Quecke, Danielle Soneff and Genan Hamad develop these analyses in a range of sites and scales. Recalling the work of Matt Tiessen, Ondine Park and Petra Hroch, there has now been several decades of Gibsonian environmental psychology of the latent ‘affordances’ of objects and the material environment – from the obvious to the improbable functions – both actually-possible and also ideally-real virtualities — that can be evoked in interactions. A range of sources challenged the emphasis on human agency in Marxism, including Foucault’s discussions of prisons and urban quarantine districts. Latour has provided a rich discussion of quasi-actants, objects that play a structuring rôle in social life. Brilliantly developed by analysts such as John Law and Anne-Marie Mols, the rôle of these socially-essential objects has been further deconstructed to show the moments of affiliation and care, maintenance and moulding that goes into the companion materiality of everyday life. And thus, to Lefebvre and Guterman’s mystified consciousness spatialised this can be seen in full sail in the drifting, hopeful, but ultimately disenchanted visitors to the banality of corporate spaces such as Hudson’s Yards, where the Highline comes down to earth.

Nonetheless, Merrifield’s book is a hopeful manifesto for change. He catalogues how the plague urbanism of meaningless and pointless constructions to house more and more elements of financial capitalism and modern-furnished apartments. He draws from Georges Perec and New York tenant rights actitivists the importance of remember the lived history of places, sites and cities rather than the spectacles of developers that make us forget who we were and where we came from. He cites from Beckett the importance of carrying on with small practical steps for improvement while learning from Joyce’s Ulysses that history is carried out in the trivial actions of people in the street, not grandiose gestures of developers. As Lefebvre said, the everyday is the necessary beginning point of realizing the possible.

-Rob Shields (Univ. of Alberta)