Had a great field trip today with the class of Intro. to Architectural History…I’m the TA for Dr. Brian Brace Taylor. We went down to South Street Seaport to discuss the Urban Fragment. What’s the significance of something like South Street Seaport?
Since this is the first history class for these students, there’s an introduction to theory and relevance in architecture and planning. While something like South Street might be historically significant, this significance is lost in the nostalgia and longing the public practically requires from a place associated with a long, lost past. Couple this with the urban context of the site (the harrowing financial district, the elevated highway of the FDR, and the East River - replete with the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges), and you have a space this is really out of place. Or is it?
This field trip is coupled with a reading from Christine Boyer, entitled “Cities for Sale: Merchandising History at South Street Seaport.” (from Variations on a Theme Park). The essay focuses in part on the tableaux in the city, the city within a city, as mere representation and simulation. What is the significance and meaning of a space like this? Ask most New York residents, and they display the same disdain they would for most any NYC tourist attraction (say, Times Square). But something like Times Square is also commented on in the reading, where zoning laws take over in an effort to re-present a feeling (not necessarily change the lives of inhabitants). Much the same goes for South Street.
But I question whether or not South Street Seaport is out of place…pre-Modernist architecture (well, ANY architecture) was/is replete with representational forms and ideas from the past. And, these borrowings were/are just as explicit.
The assignment for the students is to detail observations of the South Street Seaport area, down to the urban context while relating it to the myriad ideas proposed in the reading. The sentiments above are just some of the things we spoke about while touring the area before I asked them to go out and observe the area on their own in an effort to complete the assignment.
I would have liked to walk them under the FDR overpass all the way to some of the housing projects and tenements of my neighborhood (LES) to extend the urban context (and further reinforce their housing lecture in this class), but a group of 30 or so gets a bit spread out after a while – so I’ll send them a map instead, now that the (mostly) freshmen know how to get down there.