New Welfare Island (1978)

From Delirious New York

Rem Koolhaas

OMA, Rem Koolhaas, Roosevelt Island, 1975. Acrylic and watercolour. DMC 3070.

In the appendix to Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas’s retroactive manifesto for the island of Manhattan, the tacit logic of ‘Manhattanism’ is set free from its origins in the form of five architectural projects: The City of the Captive Globe, Hotel Sphinx, New Welfare Island, the Welfare Palace Hotel and the Floating Pool. Four of these projects are depicted in drawings now in the Drawing Matter collection, all of which differ from the versions printed in the original publication.

Welfare (now Roosevelt) island is a long (about three kilometers), narrow (200 meters on average) island in the East River, more or less parallel to Manhattan. Originally the island was the site of hospitals and asylums – generally a storehouse for ‘undesirables’.

Since 1965, it has been undergoing a half hearted ‘urbanisation’. The question is: is it to be a true part of New York – with all the agonies that implies – or is it to be a civilised escape zone, a kind of resort that offers. From a safe distance, the spectacle of Manhattan burning?

The island’s planners have so far chosen the latter alternative – although no more than 150 meters from Manhattan, it is now connected to the mother island merely by a cable car (coloured in a cheerful ‘holiday’ purple) whose service could easily be suspended in case of urban emergencies.

For over a century, Welfare Island’s dominant architectural incident had been the crossing of the monumental Queensboro Bridge that connects Manhattan to Queens (without an exit to the smaller island) and casually cuts Welfare Island into two parts. The area north of the bridge has now been developed by the Urban Development Corporation, a New York State agency, with a series of blocks that terrace down with equal enthusiasm to both Manhattan and Queens (why?), and which are arranged on both sides of a picturesquely kinked Main Street. New Welfare Island, on the contrary, is a metropolitan settlement on the sector south of Queensboro Bridge, a stretch that coincides with the area between 50th and 59th streets in Manhattan.

The project is intended as a resuscitation of some of the features that made Manhattan’s architecture unique: its ability to fuse the popular with the metaphysical, the commercial with the sublime, the refined with the primitive – which together explain Manhattan’s former capacity to seduce a mass audience for itself. It also revives Manhattan’s tradition of ‘testing’ certain themes and intentions on smaller, experimental ‘laboratory’ islands (such as Coney Island at the beginning of the century).

For this demonstration, the Manhattan Grid is extended across the East River to create eight new blocks on the island. These sites will be used as a ‘parking lot’ for formally, programmatically and ideologically competing architectures – which would confront each other from their identical parking spaces.

All the blocks are connected by an elevated travelator (moving pavement) that runs from the bridge southward down the center of the island: al accelerated architectural promenade. At the tip of the island it becomes amphibious, leaving the land to turn into a trottoir on the river, connecting floating attractions too ephemeral to establish themselves on land. Those blocks that are not occupied are left vacant for future generations of builders.

From north to south, New Welfare Island so far accommodates the following structures:

1.Built around Queensboro Bridge without actually touching it is the Entrance Convention Center – a formal entrance porch to Manhattan that is, at the same time, a colossal ‘roadblock’ separating the southern half of the island from the northern. An auditorium for mass meetings is slotted underneath the bridge; two marble slabs contain cellular office accommodation. Between them, above the bridge, they support a suspended glass object – whose steps reflect the curve of the bridge – that contains a stacked sports and entertainment center for the Conventioneers.

2.Buildings that were once proposed for New York, but for whatever reason aborted, will be built ‘retroactively’ and parked on the blocks to complete the history of Manhattanism. One such building is a Suprematist Architecton stuck by Malevich on a postcard of the Manhattan skyline – sometime in the early twenties in Moscow – but never received. Due to an unspecified scientific process that would be able to suspend gravity, the involvement of Malevich’s Architectons with the surface of the earth was tenuous: they could assume, at any moment, the status of artificial planets visiting the earth only occasionally – if at all. The Architectons had no progra,: ‘Built without purpose, [they] may be used by man for his own purposes …’ They were supposed to be ‘conquered’ programmatically by a future civilisation that deserved them. Without function, Architectons simply exist, built from ‘opaque glass, concrete, tarred felt, heated by electricity, a planet without pipes… The planet is as simple as a tiny speck, everywhere accessible to the man living inside a who, in fine weather, may sit on its surface…’

3.In the middle of the New Welfare Island development is the harbor, carved out of the rock to receive floating structures such as boats – in this case Norman Bel Geddes’ ‘special streamlined yacht’ (1932)

4.South of the harbour is a park with a ‘Chinese’ – swimming pool in the form of a square, part of which is carved out of the island, while the complementary part is built out on the river. The original coastline has become three-dimensional – an aluminium Chinese bridge that follows in plan the line of the natural coastline. Two revolving doors at either and lead to locker rooms inside the two halves of the bridge (one for men, the other for women). Undressed, the sexes emerge from the middle of the bridge, from where they can swim to the recessed beach.

5.The tip of the island is occupied by Welfare Palace Hotel and a semicircular plaza.

6.The travelator continues on the water to a point just south of 42nd Street. Along its way, it passes a small island opposite the United Nations Building, to which the Counter-UN has been attached: a slab that repeats the silhouette of the original, with an attached auditorium. The open space of this small island serves the recreational needs of the office workers of this Counter-UN.

Excerpted from Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (1978)