What the neo-con progress-mavens out there don't seem to get about anti-overdevelopment kvetchers like me is I'm not against development in New York City per se; I'm against the kind of development that is taking place. What's wrong with it, you ask impatiently through clenched teeth? Aside from it being, on the whole, too big? (Actually, the neo-cons would ask that last part—I just added it on.)
I think I can nail the problem in one word: lintels. What's so hard about lintels? Decorative lintels, I mean. Attractive, contributing lintels. Are they so hard to make? Are they so god-awful expensive that they can't be crowbarred into your construction budget? Do you hate them because they're beautiful? What is it? Why won't developers feature them in their designs?
OK, first a little Architecture 101, just in case folks are scratching their heads, thinking I'm talking about beans or something. Lintels are those horizontal features that cap windows and doors. In classical times, they serves a practical, load-bearing function, but for many centuries since they've been put to mainly ornamental use. Along with cornices and stoops, they're what make well-preserved brownstones look so great and make people want to live in them. Just look out your window. You'll see lintels everywhere, carved and molded in just about any shape.
Modern developers and architects can't be bothered with lintels. They cut out an unadorned rectangle for each window, stick a pane of glass in there, and leave it at that. Sometimes they make the barest of efforts, placing a simple strip of white stone above the window. The lack of lintels, I am convinced, is the primary reason that most new condo complexes and apartment houses are such eyesores. They are composed of flat, featureless sheets of brick or cement. A lack of cornices, pilasters, grand entranceways and attractive window panes certainly hurt the cause, but lintels are mainly what you're missing when you gaze on a new structure and feel empty inside.
See the picture above, of two similarly sized buildings side by side? On the left, you have an old structure with old lintels. On the right, a new work with zero lintels. Where would you want to live? More importantly, which address would you rather look at as you pass down the street?
Everything looks better framed, and windows are no exception. Here's a building in Tribeca. Not bad. At least the builder is trying to mix up the brickface a bit.
But here's an older building across the street. Look at the lively, handsome detail of those arching lintels, and the unusual shape that the lintels insist the windows be. There's no contest.
One can find illustrations of the visual value imparted by lintels throughout the City. Here's one on the Upper West Side. On the left, graceful, garlanded austerity. On the right, slapdash angled crap avec vents.
And when you get lintelless building next to lintelless building, you start to enter Soviet Bloc territory. This wall of air-conditioned, four-square crapitecture in Brooklyn just about makes you want to take your own life.
That is, until you walk a few yards down and are saved by this vision. What an interesting and individual facade. Someone must have actually given a damn.
If I wanted to do today's developers a favor (and I don't, I really, really don't), I'd tell them to start incorporating lintels into their designs. They'd have so much the easier time with community boards.