Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Machine for Living

New York is truly, to steal Le Corbusier's phrase, a machine for living.

It's not like London where some streets seemed to happen by accident, and the many inconveniences of living in a large, populous city are tolerated with a bit of stiff upper lip. Or like Los Angeles which is just a big impractical sprawl - but no-one minds because the weather is gorgeous and everyone's so jolly good looking.

New York is brilliantly designed to be dense, and efficient, and it works. The street grid systems is the most obvious example, and I love how easy to navigate that makes Manhattan. I've also come to appreciate the way you get a green man every alternative light change: in London you can watch a set of lights change 4 times before you get to cross. It's no-one's fault, it's just London was invented before anyone meant to live in cities, and one-way systems were the stuff of a mad man's dreams.

As for those cool puffs of steam that escape the pavement and look all uber New Yorky: it's true! They really are the output of a city-wide underground heating system. Installed in the 1880s, at a time when a city London gent would have his maid light the gas lamp so she could see well enough to put a proper polish on the grate.

The next block from our rabbit hutch is filled with a massive fortress-like building which we called The Castle, until I investigated further. It's actually London Terrace, a 1930s apartment building that was the biggest in the world when it was built, comprising 1665 apartments, an acre of gardens, a building-wide intercom system, a free page-boy service, a roofdeck furnished like the deck of a grand ocean liner, and doormen dressed like London Bobbies. I suspect Mandel, the guy behind all this, was of the 'if you're going to be a bear, be a grizzly' school of thought.

(Unfortunately London Terrace was completed to neatly coincide with the worst years of the Great Depression: Mandel went bankrupt and threw himself off the top of the building. Untimely death and financial ruin aside, it was an impressive achievement.)

It's not just the grand scale and the feats of engineering. It's the little things, like umbrella stands in doorways, and coat checks (non-existent in LA). Or the number of people - myself included - who use an old-lady shopping trolley, for practical reasons. The whole city is just imminently, unashamedly practical, it seems to me. It works.

That said, it's pouring with rain outside. I had planned to go on a nice long walk today. But they haven't yet installed the city-wide rain shield. One day...

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