Architects Maul Eerie River Ruin

smallpox Architects Maul Eerie River Ruin
The Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island.

On Friday night, 77 designers displayed their plans for the southern tip of Roosevelt Island.

The designers participated in an international idea contest hosted by the Emerging New York Architects Committee (yes, kids, that works out to ENYA) to create a Universal Arts Center in the shadow of the eerie, gothic Smallpox Hospital at the southern tip of the island (you may have seen it driving up the FDR), which was built in 1856 and designed by James Renwick, Jr., whose crowning achievement was St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

But the thing has been a massive, if beautiful, ruin for years now, and for a long time was fenced off from the rest of the island.

Now, the Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association with Coler-Goldwater Hospital asked designers to breathe new life into the site that was once dubbed Welfare Island.

The presentations that make up “Southpoint: from Ruin to Rejuvenation” featured work from young architects from around the world, but 28 of the entries came from New Yorkers.

The entrants not only had to come up with a multi-use arts facility on Roosevelt Island, but also come up with a plan that would be useful to the high number of disabled residents of adjacent Coler-Goldwater Hospital.

Passing by the scheme presented by New Yorker Eric Brodfuehrer (who won a special Historic Preservation Award for his entry, but did not make the top three), one architect buff pronounced: “I don’t see anyone else here coming close” to that scheme.

Mr. Brodfeuhrer was concerned with pragmatics, he told the audience in his presentation. He sought to anchor the structures for longtime stability while preserving the historic ruin in something close to its original context. It was certainly a more realistic proposal than the one, from a Russian team, that would have transformed the entire island into a mermaid sculpture with enormous breasts.

The overall winner of the contest, Nina Baniahmad of Paris, kept the needs of the Coler-Goldwater disabled patients in mind and actually traveled to New York to gain perspective. (Pity prize?)

She chose to enhance the eastern side of the site, so Coler-Goldwater residents would have sway on the west side, facing Manhattan (and the skyline view). Respectable, yet would anyone visit DUMBO, for example, except to view Manhattan’s vista from the park?

The third place prize was also taken by a New Yorker, a pair of them, Dominic Leong and Brian Price. They created a system of mobile barges to house different activities, and focused on connecting the planned art community to Manhattan.

Really, that’s the bigger issue, because Roosevelt Island is an island–isolated from both Queens and Manhattan. And it’s really the latter that would draw artists to live or work on the island. The foreign designers mostly focused on the centrality of the island for their project. The New York exhibitors were able to see how important connectivity to the rest of New York–taken for granted by some foreign contestants because of the island’s geographic centrality–was fundamental to the project.

“New Yorkers tend to think of Manhattan as central to the city,” Jessica Sheridan, an ENYA competition committee member said. “Whereas if you look at a map, Roosevelt Island is more central to the five boroughs.”

The architect buff who saw the historic preservation winner as the only feasible option seemed to notice the same physical versus cultural geographic rift of New York. He swept past the Frenchwoman’s display without so much as a sniff in its direction.

- Riva Froymovich