The transformation happens like this: a squall blows up from the river and shakes the young, yellow-green oak leaves on the single tree I can see from my window. Cherry blossoms are scattered in clusters, about to become brown gutter sweepings. I watch all this from a rented room, looking out on what used to be a view of the Williamsburg Bridge and a little slice of the East River beyond. Over the past year the view has been blocked off by one of those new dull-colored stacks of prefab frames and glass. The building is almost ready now. It stands shrouded in black mesh debris netting. Behind the squall, a golden evening light streams, filtered through clouds. The wind blows stronger and the building begins to ripple, folding and snapping in taut waves. The black drapery turns a shade of golden brown. What was inert now animates, like a swaying field of young wheat. For some reason, I recall the words of the old Shaker hymn, “When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.” The building has joined with the river that it wanted to assert possession over, has become a piece of the river turned vertical. What was once a block has become a flow.
The “effect,” to demystify the phenomenon, comes from the force of the wind exerted on the mesh shroud. Because the curtain is not solid—and because the squall pushes through so quickly that the western light behind it catches on the newly installed windows, causing the droplets of rain suspended in the fabric to glimmer like dew in a massive spider’s web—it doesn’t only undulate, but shimmers and sparks, like water. Or, as a friend in construction points out, the mesh glistens like what it is: a frozen oil slick, woven polyethylene coated in coal tar. Few might remember, but all these buildings sit on one of the largest oil spills in American history, decades of seepage from storage tanks along Newtown Creek that have contaminated not just the East River but all the surrounding soil.
The new building will never look as beautiful or as historical as it does in this moment of pure accident. The building in fact was never meant to be seen or even thought about like this. The site is part of a series—a program in all senses—being carried out upon this once almost-neighborhood of shipping and freight warehouses, old brick factories, and three-story wood-frame residences, now shaking under the onslaught of deep foundations being dug. Relentless as a computer simulation’s algorithm and increasingly resembling one, this assembly line of waterfront property developments is being minted and stamped out along the entire East River waterline, from Long Island City down. No account is taken of anyone’s feelings, nor of place, texture, or history—just white or beige or slate-colored frames for tiered rows of glass boxes, like so many cruise ships and cargo ships beached, and going nowhere.
The process is so monotonous that even to recount it risks tedium. This is simply what the contemporary international style of urban building looks like, even, or especially, in New York. We now take the enclosure of certain civic commons for granted. Light and air, cooling windflow and neighborhood water access are bartered for some affordable housing unit set-asides and public-facing retail, along with bad art (the “shawarma” at Hudson Yards or the KAWS statue in my neighborhood) placed in stunted pocket pseudo-parks.
The computer programmers, developers, and contractors (there are no architects here, none worth the name) never imagined me at the angle of my rented window, the squall, the provisional curtain. And, yet, for the first and perhaps only time in its life, the building exists as a piece of architecture: “Standing there, the building holds its ground against the storm raging above it and so first makes the storm itself manifest in its violence. The luster of the stone, though itself apparently glowing only by grace of the sun, first brings to radiance the light of day, the breadth of sky, the darkness of the night. The temple’s firm towering makes visible the invisible space of the air.” Thus Heidegger, in The Origin of The Work of Art. To this litany, we may add that the debris netting makes visible the petrochemical, hydrocarbon lattice of the Anthropocene. The purpose of Heidegger’s temple is that of negative space: Through structure we become aware of nature and our place within it, a device for observing and feeling all that is not human, that’s around us. “In the field I am the absence of the field,” as Mark Strand writes.
But what does it mean when a building comes into existence as architecture only by accident—through contingency—under the erotic and transgressive conditions of an observer who was not supposed to be there seeing what was never supposed to be seen? There’s no usable lesson about “design” here, or urbanism, that the developer and his paid draughtsfolk might take away. No change to public policy or city codes. The experience of what we might think of as “the architectural,” in this instance, runs counter to every single intention behind the creation of this generic reflecting structure. It’s an experience born of incompleteness, of transience, like the spring itself.
I think sometimes that I live in the city in order to be able to experience nature more fully, in just these ways, at the moment when it takes fleeting vengeance against the buildings that have betrayed her. I no longer love the city for itself, as I once did, and all these stacked boxes meant to contain and mirror and project wealth, power, and property recall those sections of cemeteries where cremated remains are stored in stacked white drawers.
When I finished my thirty-second iPhone video of the rippling structure, I sent it to a friend with the caption “Like a scene from L’Eclisse.” More specifically, although only semi-consciously, I was reminded of a section in the film’s final sequence, after Monica Vitti appears to affirm her flight from brief independence into a bourgeois marriage with a young stockbroker, played by an irresistible Alain Delon. The consequence of this choice—if it was ever really a choice—isn’t revealed through the actors but through an eerie montage of a new Roman middle-class neighborhood under construction. Antonioni at first lets the camera linger on an incomplete building, scaffolded and wrapped in canvas sacking. Previously the structure had figured as a kind of random intrusion into the landscape. We’d seen Vitti pass in front of it, wait for her lover there, catch a bus, but we hadn’t really understood its purpose, either in the film or the world the film represents. The construction site is pregnant with latency—water drips from a leaking pipe into a bucket, the trees planted along the fence catch the wind, a sprinkler soaks their leaves. What will it become? Will it be different, new?
Then Antonioni gradually sutures together the whole neighborhood, including the rows of identical completed buildings this one will soon join, just as Delon and Vitti (however beautiful they appear to each other and to the viewer when they face the camera) will join the ranks of unidentifiable couples, seen from the back, descending from the bus at workday’s end, walking home, arm in arm, like zombies. The structure, the morphology, invariably comes to permanently “block out” or eclipse our attempts to make some meaning from it other than what it is: it looks like romance but is only capitalism, the marriage plot revealed as real estate consolidation. At the same time, the mystery, the promise of some unknown happiness, beauty, or freedom (and these may all be the same) remains ever-present so long as the structure cannot be completed, can be seen as something other, given back to nature.
The friend to whom I sent the video is an architecture professor. He turns out to be something of a connoisseur of buildings at just such moments of latency. In return, he sends me a raft of recently collected images of swathed or hollowed-out structures, glowing eerily at sunset, or throwing strange shadows from the utility lighting. A red plastic chute for funneling debris transforms one facade into a playground. The finished building would be much more fun if the chute remained there as a slide, a quick way to exit from a high floor. Increasingly, as he has despaired of the possibility that anything built in New York could come to any good, my friend has started to see a building’s completion as its moment of death, its construction a long process of decomposition. The moment the debris netting comes down is like the unveiling of a tombstone, and every lifted veil is both an apocalypse and a revelation: the world of the site’s potential has ended, it is seen now for what it is, the property of the money people, the world of assets and real estate.
At an earlier moment, and by a similar coincidence of sympathies, we’d both separately become fascinated with what we called “ephemeral views,” the opening one gets when a building has been demolished, usually preparatory to the erection of something larger and more looming. These rents in the grid exposed wonders: the back gardens and solaria of brownstone residences ordinarily shielded from street view, the rear buttresses and stained-glass nave of a midtown cathedral, old advertisements painted onto brick walls, a pyramidal shadow cast on a windowless blank wall, a sudden deepening of perspective. Not only nature claims some fleeting revenge through such openings, but something like the nature of the urban itself comes through too—the archaeological layers of New York’s development, the possibility of surprise. It’s like when an old friend shows you a side of their character you’d never seen before, some passion or mania, and you realize it’s been there all along. Soon, or already, these viewsheds will become more giant glass mirrors and surfaces reflecting other glass mirrors and surfaces, a triumph of emptiness.
A year ago, at the height of the Covid outbreak in New York, it was perversely possible to imagine that nothing now would be the same. Looking at all the construction sites held in Ozymandian suspension, half complete and yet looking like ruins, contrasting them with the welter of birds and bushes in community gardens, one could imagine a city defined on a different set of terms, of renewal and remediation. The wealthy had fled the city; perhaps their capital would follow. There were all those abandoned office buildings, still abandoned now. An era of squats and so-called adaptive reuse was sure to follow. The city was swathed in stillness, but human life endured and invested these open, abandoned spaces: the pier at the end of my street, now cordoned off for the next big box complex, became again as it might once have been, a place for teenage trysts, graffiti artists, drug deals, illegal Reggaeton parties accompanied by equally illegal fireworks, drag racing. Now that business has resumed, “as usual,” that moment seems just another break in the grid, a caesura, a light winking in the distance that gleams and is gone.