New York deserves better than Andrew Cuomo’s towering folly

Rowan Moore
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York state, is currently resisting calls to resign over allegations of sexual harassment. So what better way to prove that he is definitely not a phallocratic bully than to “ram through”, as one outlet puts it, a super-tall tower called Penn 15, and a vast development around it?

It’s not just that its name reads like the personalised licence plate of an inadequate and not-literate male. It is also that this lumpy object will compete on the New York city skyline with the nearby Empire State Building – Penn 15 would be bulkier than its famous neighbour and almost as tall. It is part of the Penn District, a proposed “campus” that will rip up several city blocks and replace them with what, on the available evidence, looks like further big lumps swathed in bland and generic design.

The plan’s attraction is that it would help pay to rebuild the loathed and labyrinthine Penn Station, which is at its centre. It’s a common enough idea, to cross-subsidise public benefits with commercial profits, but one in which the former can become a hostage to the latter. “If you stop this tower,” tends to be the message, “something terrible might happen to the public transport/affordable housing/public space that you want so much.” But opponents of the scheme should hold their nerve. Their city deserves better than this.

Morph the wharf

Canary Wharf, according to Wired magazine, is in trouble. The financial district’s great big office blocks will, it suggests, struggle to adapt to the new world of hybrid working. Which (if true) would not be an entirely terrible thing, except for the site’s owners and shareholders. Cities progress through failure and sometimes bankruptcy. The rich history of Notting Hill and of adjoining districts of west London, for example, came about as a result of overreach by the Victorian speculators who built them, which left abundant and cheap space where immigrant communities could take root and where art and music could flourish.

Now that this richness has become literal riches, Notting Hill being one of the most expensive residential areas in the world, a deserted Canary Wharf could find a new role as the social and cultural incubator of a future London.

Protect and serve

In the southern Brazilian city of Encantado, builders have recently added a head and arms to the armature of a 43-metre-high statue of Christ the Protector, which is five metres more than the famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. The statue, due for completion later this year, was the idea of the local politician Adroaldo Conzatti, who died last month from Covid-19. The ambition behind it looks impressive, even if it’s not quite clear why you would want to express your faith in this way. But it’s hard not to reflect that Brazil would be better off if its leaders showed a comparable determination to address the pandemic.

Old Father Thames

As 13 months of lockdown hopefully ease, I’d like to express my gratitude to the Thames. It’s a mile from my home – the broad, un-bridged lower part where you begin to get a sniff of the sea. Its tides are marvels, barrelling upriver in their twice-daily flirtation with catastrophe – it seems impossible that all that water won’t overflow. It has beaches. You can even sunbathe on them. When the rest of the city disappears into winter morning mists, the river feels like the last place left on Earth. It is a precious aid to sanity. If it feels as if I’m living near a wonder of the world, it’s because I am.

  • Rowan Moore is the Observer’s architecture correspondent