By Konrad Putzier
New York’s iconic skyline has long served as an inspiration for developers and urban planners in East Asia. Now, this creative flow is showing signs of reversing – and Manhattan is becoming increasingly similar to cities like Hong Kong.
New-York based architects have built skyscrapers, airports and public parks in East Asia’s rapidly growing cities. The lessons learnt in places like Singapore and Tokyo are finding their way back into new projects in Manhattan.
Jonathan Solomon, assistant dean of the Syracuse School of Architecture and former Professor at Hong Kong University, sees a particularly strong influence of past projects in Asia on the World Trade Center, Hudson Yards and Atlantic Yards.
“The mixed-use high- rise complex is very much a solution influenced by prior work in Asia,” he said. “Lower Manhattan has become much more dense and mixed-use. It is uncommon to find a single-use business district in Asian cities.”
Solomon is the curator of “Practical Utopias,” a new exhibition in the Center for Architecture showcasing several significant building projects in Asian cities by international architecture firms in photos, maps and miniature models.
The exhibition – running through January 18 at 536 LaGuardia Place – not only offers a glimpse of the “urbanism of the future,” it also stresses the influence projects in Asia have had on construction in New York.
Indeed, the similarities are often hard to overlook. The Hudson Yards Project, designed by architects with extensive experience in Asia, will be connected to public infrastructure — a trait typical of most large-scale projects in Asia.
This flow of innovation is in part a result of the increasingly global reach of architects. “We are in a period of rapid globalization in the architectural discipline,” said Solomon. “These are global firms with global offices who rely on consultants all over the world.”
The exhibition’s initiator, Jill Lerner, is a principal of Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), the international architecture firm behind the Hudson Yards’ first two soaring commercial towers.
She said that, bringing the public into large mixed-use projects through shops and open spaces was something KPF first experimented with in Asia, adding that the continent has been a good testing ground for her firm.
“They are grappling with a lot of the same issues, such as how to use limited space effectively,” said Lerner, who initiated the exhibition in her role as current president of the American Institute of Architects’ New York chapter.
“China had the benefits of an expanding economy. While we were busy with more small-scale buildings, they were expanding in the 90s. This gave KPF the opportunity to work on ambitious projects there.”
Lerner said that these expanding economies allowed for innovative and creative solutions, for example at Roppongi Hills, a 28-acre mixed-use project in Tokyo, and the International Commercial Centre in Hong Kong.
“East Asian cities are good testing ground because people are much more open for experimentation and innovation in many ways,” said architect Mustafa Abadan, a design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
“In New York, most of the development world is basing projects on pre-formulated assumptions that have a high rigidity. Innovation comes in smaller increments.”
He added that New York has become more open for innovation under Mayor Bloomberg, but “still isn’t quite there yet.”
“A lot of our experience and advances in high-rise design comes from Asia, that’s where most high-rise design happens,” said Abadan, who has worked on projects in both Asia and New York.
A particularly strong East Asian influence in New York, according to Abadan, is the tradition of safety design.
“Because of typhoons and earthquakes, Asians used to design the cores (of skyscrapers) in concrete,ˮ Abadan explained. “After the tragedy of 9/11, that kind of technology was brought back to New York and has now become part of the good design equation,” he said.
One World Trade Center was built with such a concrete core, and Abadan said its fire escape system was also based on designs common in East Asian cities.
“Asian cities are testing grounds for the future of urbanism globally — how to increase connectivity, handle density, and how to be more sustainable,” said Solomon, of Syracuse University.
In many ways, cities like Hong Kong and Singapore are well ahead of New York. Jill Lerner of KPF lamented the bad connection of New York’s airports to public transportation, which stands in stark contrast to many East Asian cities.
“It’s important to keep cities regenerating themselves, and to stay competitive,” said Lerner. “As more New Yorkers travel abroad, they come back and say: Wow, we need something like that here.”