An AIDS Memorial Design To Embrace

BY NATHAN RILEY  |  The shape of the AIDS Memorial Park advocates have been pressing for on a triangular parcel adjacent to the former St. Vincent’s Hospital is no longer a matter of conjecture. A jury chaired by Michael Arad, the New York architect who created the National Sept. 11 Memorial at Ground Zero, has announced a winning design that is at once pastoral and modern, an oasis that provides tranquility and an opportunity for reflection amidst the city’s noise.

The site of the proposed park — bounded by 12th Street, Greenwich Avenue, and Seventh Avenue South — is part of Rudin Management’s redevelopment of the shuttered hospital’s property into high-end residential uses. As the city moves toward final approval of the overall Rudin plan, decision-makers must deal constructively with a major new fact — the unveiling of this dramatic proposal for a world-class park in the West Village.

Both Community Board 2 and the City Planning Commission have approved the plans laid out by Rudin for the 17,000-square-foot parcel — but on each occasion, that approval came with an endorsement for including a memorial to the AIDS crisis, for which St. Vincent’s was a Ground Zero in its own way.

Neither C.B. 2 nor the NYC Planning Commission offered a prescription for how to incorporate an AIDS commemoration into the park. They offered no view on whether it should be a plaque or a sculpture and whether the theme should define the park or be relegated to the least-used edge of it. However, Amanda Burden, the Planning Commission chair, urged Rudin to “continue to work with the community,” and she specifically included “those interested in creating an AIDS memorial” as members of that community.

Now that a fully realized AIDS memorial design has emerged, Rudin Management and the City Council should avoid enshrining the developer’s earlier plans in stone and instead work to make the new plan a reality.

The winning design, “Infinite Forest,” submitted by Studio a+i, a Brooklyn firm, is simple in concept. Groves of birch trees and adjacent seating areas may attract tourists, but the overall effect is an environment closer to the quiet of a library than the noisy exuberance of a park full of young people such as Washington Square.

Studio a+i mixes modern and traditional. If the trees give the park a pastoral feel, mirrors on three sides add a distinctly modern touch and magnify the size of the site. Christopher Tepper, an urban planner who — with his friend and fellow design professional Paul Kelterborn — organized the design competition, predicted that the reflections created by the mirrored surfaces would attract and amuse children living in the neighborhood.

The ability of the park to simultaneously serve the recreational aspirations of the local community and honor the pivotal role St. Vincent’s and Greenwich Village played in responding to an unprecedented health emergency that staggered the gay community is a critical strength of the Studio a+i design. The sense of both the past and present in the firm’s proposal was undoubtedly a key factor that allowed it to beat out the 475 alternatives from 32 countries.

“Infinite Forest” offers crucial flexibility on one other point. Tepper, Kelterborn, and their allies hope to preserve a basement space below the triangular parcel for use as a museum and learning center about the epidemic. The Rudin plan, however, relies on gutting that space for use as a staging area in building the park. The Studio a+i design can proceed either way — by placing skylights on a roof enclosure for the basement or by developing the park without preserving the basement. The design put forward, Tepper explained, is for now merely a proposal, and “there will be a process of design refinement” as additional stakeholders, including C.B. 2, make suggestions.

In this way, the Studio a+i design offers ample room for a new consensus to emerge.

But that is possible only if there is leadership from Rudin and from Christine Quinn, the speaker of the City Council, which makes final decisions on land use matters. Those two players, in turn, will more likely do the right thing if C.B. 2 continues to play a positive role in promoting AIDS commemoration as central to the park’s mission.

Rudin owns the site and is required to build a park as part of the overall approval of its ambitious redevelopment project. By law, only Rudin is positioned to request a change to its existing application before the city. Whether any changes the developer agrees to are considered minor or major will be an important factor in determining how easily the Studio a+i design can be embraced. The question of preserving the basement may prove particularly tricky to navigate without going back to square one.

It is altogether fair of advocates, however, to expect that Burden was sincere in her admonition that Rudin continue to work cooperatively with the community.

Quinn plays the other major role here. The Council will vote within the next two months on whether to give Rudin authority to proceed with its project. As the Council member who represents the West Village, the AIDS Memorial Park proposal poses a critical test for her as she moves closer to a 2013 run for mayor. Quinn has won significant financial support from the real estate industry, but a leader understands that such relationships are two-way streets. She ought to have the credibility to say to Rudin, “Embrace the new and go with the best idea.”

New and best are adjectives “Infinite Forest” represents dramatically. As visitors stand amidst trees surrounded by mirrors that reflect each other, they will witness images repeated multiple times, offering them a sense of the infinite that for each will have its own associations of wonder and awe.

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