What New York Needs: A Theater on the Waterfront
With New Yorkers and visitors flocking to the East River this summer to see the waterfalls by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, the time has come to consider using the waterfront more prominently for another branch of the arts: performance. After all, ground zero is not the only space south of Canal Street that can be considered for a new venue; city planners and developers would do well to entertain locations that take into account Manhattan’s spectacular views across the harbor. Manhattan is, lest we forget, an island.
The particular combination of Contemporary architecture, majestic waterfront views, and performance halls is a formula that has worked spectacularly well in other cities. The Sydney Opera House, designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, became an instant icon. Jean Nouvel’s Culture and Convention Centre on Lake Lucerne, Henning Larsen’s Copenhagen Opera House on an island, and Snøhetta’s Opera House on Oslo’s harbor have advanced the marriage of architecture with sparkling waterways. And when Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbe Philharmonic Hall is complete, Hamburg will have a striking crystalline structure on top of a former warehouse on the River Elbe. Geneva converted a power plant into a modern opera house on an island in the Rhone River, and London‘s National Theatre and Royal Festival Hall are on the Thames.
New York could have the same — with some imaginative thinking. Herewith is a humble proposal — one that retains an historic building and maintains the existing cultural fabric of the city while emphasizing mixed-use space and contemporary architecture. It is also a response to downtown’s increasingly residential community served by improved transportation facilities.
One of Lower Manhattan’s most picturesque but long-neglected buildings, currently on the threshold of renovation, is the old Victorian Pier A — an elegant, three-story maritime structure with dramatic rows of arched windows and a campanile-style clock tower, located at the northwest edge of the Battery, just off Battery Place. It juts far out into the water between Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park and the Battery’s planted waterside promenade. Constructed in 1886, Pier A will soon be under the aegis of the Battery Park City Authority, which is negotiating a lease from the Economic Development Corporation. Originally, the pier served as the headquarters of the city’s Department of Docks and Ferries. During the 20th century, it was often the landing site for celebrities arriving on private launches and as the kickoff point for ticker-tape parades. Later, the fire department put it to good use for its fireboats. But for more than 20 years, Pier A has lain vacant.
By ceding a small portion of the land adjoining the pier, the city and a developer could build a new performance hall with a stunning architectural presence that would be physically linked to the pier. The new structure would provide year-round performance space and could double as a civic auditorium for public ceremonies; Pier A, as integral to the complex, would be renovated to serve as an entrance foyer and lobby for intermissions when New Yorkers, for the first time, could wander out to the end of the pier during the intervals to take in the glittering lights across the watery expanse of New York Harbor — with the Statue of Liberty in direct sight. This concourse, lined with shops and restaurants, could also function as a daytime destination for tourists: The pier could become the new docking location for the boats to Liberty and Ellis islands. The upper stories could house offices for all these operations.
Prior to the era of sprawling performing arts centers, cities would build one major hall to serve both cultural and civic purposes. In the 20th century, cities built such civic auditoriums — part meetinghouse, part theater — as memorials to their war dead, most notably San Francisco’s War Memorial and Performing Arts Center and Trenton’s War Memorial Building. Even when private philanthropists put up buildings, other uses were envisioned: In 1891, Carnegie Hall was built on 57th Street not only for music, but also “to contribute to public life and discourse,” according to its executive and artistic director, Clive Gillinson.
With its proximity to ground zero, this proposed complex could be New York’s Memorial Hall, with an annual requiem performed there on September 11 to commemorate the city’s great loss. Performing arts groups from both here and abroad could rotate with such ceremonial occasions as mayoral inaugurations and university graduations, as well as programs to welcome international dignitaries.
Already surrounded by parkland along the waterfront, this new performance hall of architectural splendor adjacent to Pier A, renovated as a lobby and public concourse, could provide New York with that magical moment we applaud in other cities: the pause during an evening performance when the real show is on the water.
By PAULA DEITZ