concept: I Condo New York

Jana Leo & Simon Lund
An inquiry on Love, Architecture and Ownership by Jana Leo

A Document of the Dramatic Transformation of the City of New York
by Simon Lund

Published by Espacio Ciudad Ayuntamiento de Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain 2010.

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…The condo, sold as a style of living, is a place for withdrawal. The image of the home in the United States as the suburban single family house is now complemented by the condominium-apartment, condo and how the idea of freedom has changed from “unity” to “retreat.” The emphasis is no longer on a group of people, a family under a unique roof, but on a couple set apart from and yet close to the world. The house requires a commute and takes time and effort to maintain. The single-family house, once a life-growing cell, full of activities, now seems a burden. This may explain why new residential developments, such as condominiums, “condos” advertise themselves with an image of a couple, in leisure time, in inactive poses, such as laying on bed, or reclining in a chaise.

Condos, although they are a form of property capable of being imposed within a neighborhood, in fact, get developed massively along the borders. Specifically in New York, condos were developed due to zoning changes in 2005 that allowed industrial areas such as Green Point and Williamsburg in Brooklyn and Long Island City and Astoria in Queens to be developed for residential living. One could say that that is what construction always does, and that it is always a form of gentrification. However…the developments of condos along the borders of Brooklyn and Queens have been so massive and so fast, that in only four years neighborhoods are unrecognizable and entire avenues have nothing but condos: a dramatic transformation of New York City.

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In New York, during the real estate boom in the late 1990’s, many people lost their leases as former suburbanites moved back into the city. This process is repeating itself in the late 2000’s. In the seventies, freedom was manifested by engaging with everything: love, sex, being part of the other, the maximum expression of freedom and civilization. Now, freedom is manifested through disengagement. Love is still there but talked about in economical terms: want, adoration; love is a commodity that some use to measure their level of success.

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The transformation of “I love New York” into “I condo New York” reflects a cynical form of disbelief. For some people to love something is to conquer it. New York is dominated by developers who build icons rather than homes. For a house to be home, it must be easy to leave and easy to return to. If the house were to empower a person, providing both freedom and roots and not just as a convenient image of freedom and roots, then the regulations for constructing and trading real estate would strongly prioritize values such as attachment and mobility over profit. On a practical level, if the house were considered a real vehicle for a dream it wouldn’t be treated as just another product exchangeable by the laws of the market. The house is in fact a priority product in the economy, for developers, for contractors and for real estate agents.
…The home, an emblem of the American dream, isn’t anything but an image. Home is only “home” for those who, instead of questioning the customs, morals and culture where they live, accept the dream of home. The house is the physical manifestation of this dream-image. But as any idea that takes on form, it cannot be materialized without losing something in the translation; as any dream, it will vanish, losing reality with consciousness. Still, the idea of the house is kept as a frozen image from a dream. In reality, the house becomes either a gilded cage for those who acquire wealth, or a jail for those who don’t. In either case the house became a trap.

The Condominium or “condo” is the icon of the couple. Love in a couple. The young and successful, financially and romantically, live in a condo. The “condom” used as a primitive birth control method and since the AIDS crisis, is used also for protection against sexual diseases. The “condo” is the equivalent to the “condom” scaled up to the size of your life.  The condom keeps the sexual fluids under control, the condo houses the couple.

The condo is sold as a leisure spot for the couple, but in reality the amenities assist the containment. The condo offers the means for a couple to be contained in the same building; the amenities – gym, pool, yoga classes, lounge – in reality are trying to keep the residents from going out. The condo is convenient and safe; the beloved other is available there without the hassle of looking for sex outside or being exposed to risky affairs. Any intense relationship with somebody outside the couple, might act as disequilibrium of the economical, emotional and sexual behavior of the couple. The current adoration of the couple is a response to the trauma of AIDS. The condo acts as an assistant in the couple’s life, discouraging the natural impulse for people to meet others and to create strong attachments with them.

The appearance of togetherness in the couple is by default. Each member of the couple is isolated from the others. The fact that both are in the same situation, makes them complicit; they both keep silent about their loneliness.

…New York, once a city of singles, is suddenly full of couples living together in a new kind of building: the condo. This can be only explained by the suburbanization of the city.  The values of the suburbs and the architecture style of the suburbs are translated to the city. In some cases the translation is literally a vertical suburbia. Not a real suburban life but an idealized one: teen-agers reading magazines on the lawn, barbeques, and happy couples. A party-like appearance is imposed on the condo, just as it is over suburban homes, as a need to convince the tenants to think they are in a party place when in fact they live in isolation. The image of the fifties American house wife, perfectly made up, waiting in her apron on for her husband to come home, surrounded by the latest time-saving appliances and stainless steel cookware and filling the shaker with ice in preparation for the evenings cocktails, goes hand in hand with the agoraphobia and depression of the suburbs. The couple who lives in the condo is not only in love but living in an eternal honeymoon. It is not only a celebration of love but also a triumph of the couple as an icon of happiness.

These couples can drink champagne and make love with a view of Manhattan. But in order for these couples to have their view, the building has been erected as a screen blocking the views of neighbors and visitors. Unlike single-family houses that have a symbolic barrier, or other forms of gated communities that have a fence, the condo building is in itself a fence.  The residents live in icons, thinking of themselves as work-hard-play-hard types, Wall-Street insiders, aggressive and young, who willing inhabit a wall. …Along with the doorman, the surveillance cameras and the patrol guards, condo residents are protecting a frontier by inhabiting it. …They inhabited the wall and turn their back on any involvement with the history of a neighborhood and a community.

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….The elegance of the co-op apartment is meant to be passed without being perceived.  In contrast, the Condo (an urban complement to that icon of home, the suburban single family house) tries to give a visual image to the dream of an apartment. In a condo, a lot of architectural effort goes into representation. The façade, or fake skin, of the condo is equivalent in importance to the lawn of a suburban house: in the same way a gardener is hired to maintain the lawn, a brand name architect is employed to keep up the exterior appearance of the condo. Condos in Manhattan have known architects, they have pedigrees; In Brooklyn, where the architect is the developer, condos are like bastard children who remain unnamed. The windows that frame family life with the intention of transparently showing moral cleanness are also translated to condos, but they frame a couple’s life. (see the Herzog and De Meuron building in Bond St.). Condo buildings differ from the co-ops in recent developments because they offer no surprise, they are suburban. If one cut a section through an apartment building in New York, one could find variety: floor 15, the residence and office of a psychologist; floor 7, an association for human rights; floor 5 (see Koolhaas, Delirious New York) But condos have a cookie cutter monochromy. Similar to suburban houses even when they appear flamboyant or ”interesting,” they are homogenous in form and in use. In addition, the new condo buildings differ significantly from co-ops in that most are not innovative in their construction techniques. As in a factory assembly line, unskilled workers put them together in a short time.

Unnoticed. The architecture of the co-op apartment, at least the façade, is like a man in a grey suit: the goal is to disappear, become invisible. <<”Today’s clothing is the same for all the classes of society: its singular characteristic is that it defines in every respect the middle´class ideal […] Even the king appears today, when not in uniform, as a simple burgher; there truly is no other form off clothing available to him—he is obligued to dress the same as his chancery clerk”. Muthesius, H: Style-Architecture and Building-Art, p. 79-80>> This quotation comes from a text by Angel Borrego Cubero: Arquitectura Espía. Tesis Doctoral Escuela Politecnica de Madrid 2007, and it is resumed in Angel owns words here: “The bourgeois dress has become the only way to go unnoticed, a democratizing and leveling dress, a dress which sometimes serves the perfect camouflage for its lack of detail through classes, a dress that points to social stability. A dress that, allowing some degree of invention, does not distinguish classes or allows extravagance, nor unsanitary details or difficult to repeat cuts.”>. The description of this middle chancery clerk clothing goes well with the functions of stability and exclusivity that a co-op has as a result of its legal form and it is the opposite of the flamboyant eccentricity of the condo.

Renderings. The architecture of the condos is object-based and very evident. Condos are advertised by renderings not drawings.
<<”And if [through computers] draughtmanship thus becomes unnecessary even for the making of drawings, then to persist in the act of drawing and in setting store by that act, becomes either an act of cultural defiance or a conscious submission to the unspoken codes of a secret society” Banham, R: A Black Box. En: Banham, R: A Critic Writes, p. 29. >>

A rendering, besides being easier to understand than a drawing, is also more gentle, more naïve than a drawing. It gives the sense of being animated: a means to give life to something that is obviously dead.

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Street-less city. In a street-less city every activity has its place, there is no confusion, things are in order. The attraction of the isolated high-rise goes hand in hand with the fear of the streets. Street-less follows to the extreme the logic that buildings in New York are fascinating but streets are simply dirty. One can define a city by dividing it into two parts: the order and the dirt, or the buildings and the streets. Streets are dirty, chaotic and are therefore scary and dangerous; they are a threat to one’s integrity.  Buildings are under control and therefore in order. The condo is a way to celebrate this separation turning it into a monstrosity. By removing the street, condo areas remove the life of a city.  Downtowns are constructed as an amenity for restaurants and entertainment. They have only commercial exchange, not public life or congregation of community: no political force, no street life, just street appearance.

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What is behind current developments? I Love NY. The “I (love) NY” logo was designed by graphic artist Milton Glaser in 1976 and first used in 1977. The logo was developed to promote tourism in New York State. The logo is a registered trademark, with all rights owned by the Empire State Development (ESD) agency. ESD is an organization that helps businesses start, expand, and relocate within New York State: the highest level of assistance and service to businesses in order to encourage economic investment and prosperity in New York State.

The logo was rapidly imprinted on T-shirts. The T-shirt is automatically associated with the I Love New York logo. The use of the T-shirt is not random, the physicality of the T-shirt reinforces the concept of the logo. The heart in I Love New York falls more or less over the heart of the person wearing the shirt, strengthening the painted heart with a real beating heart. The skin in contact with the fabric of the shirt wants to give a sense of engaging with the City of New York, as skin engages with the fabric of the t-shirt. The Seventies were the time of the sexual revolution; something worn over the body is a reference of physical love. To simply wear a shirt with a logo is a participatory act that refers to, contributes to, and is a part of, something great: a universal love. A city is the sum of many beats. This is the time when the city is seen as a heritage of humanity and not just of those who live there. New York establishes itself as a city with open arms to all who wear its t-shirt. To wear an I Love New York T-shirt is to wear the city.

All these readings of the I Love New York logo have something in common: the heart is the icon of love, however, the inclusion of a heart in the I Love New York logo wasn’t an engagement in cultural, intellectual or peace-seeking activities, as one might think, but  an effort to promote an economical revitalization.  At the time the logo was commissioned, New York City was thought of as a undesirable city because of crime. In the 1990’s the city was cleaned up and made desirable for tourists; but the city was hit by a terrorist attack in 2001, and the logo was revived. In the early 2000’s New York city became desirable to tourists, not only for its attractions but also for an economy marked by the decline of the dollar. Crime, the main enemy of the city for visitors, also appears to be in decline. However, in 2008 hotels and prisons were overbooked.

“I Love New York” – I Condo NY.  The myth of New York as a city at the forefront of progress, a center for artists and intellectuals goes hand with hand with its other reality: a city of social divide and racial discrimination. New York City buildings are iconic symbols of the lack of value given to the life of the individual in favor of building an empire of money. Now with a wave of new construction that covers every centimeter of public space, empty lot or warehouse available in the city, the notion of “I Love New York” is passé. Now is not the time to love New York, but to purchase it as an investment. The real love for New York behind the “heart” is apparent; to be accurate, the logo “I Love New York” should be changed to “I condo NY.”

Nueva York 2007-Madrid 2009