Two recent RISD graduates earned first place in the eVolo Skyscraper Competition and sparked unusually active critical response to their fictional proposal. Like any project involving a beloved landmark, the proposal, New York Horizon, inspired a flurry of discourse around the reinterpretation of Central Park and the relationship between architecture and landscape.
1. Take me through your process. When did you decide to enter the competition and how did you start? What first inspired the “inverted” skyscraper?
Actually we started pretty late. We found out about the competition in late November 2015, which was nearly four months after the competition was firstly announced. The submission deadline was January 26th so we only have less than two months working on it from scratch. Both Heather and I were working full time in different firms back then, so the schedule was really tight.
We spent a lot of time (evenings, weekends) in December exchanging thoughts in order to form a common concept. An underground “inverted” skyscraper was not our intention at first, but the result of us trying to find a new way to fit a large scale structure into Manhattan’s dense street grid without building up a slim tower. After two weeks of discussion we eventually narrowed down to the sunken Central Park idea and started our drawing.
There were once a debate between us about whether to make this concept more realistic or not, some of our early sketches even included the detailed infrastructure, floor plans, and practicality studies. But we eventually ditched those distracting details and focused on the “big idea” instead (at some point you have to forget about the trees so that you don’t miss the forest.)
2. You and Heather (Yitan) are both RISD graduates, but how much was this a “RISD” project? What influence did your experience here have on you design, process, or entry?
RISD certainly has a huge influence on the project, both directly and indirectly. Heather’s thesis project was a study on urban forests (instructor: Yasmin Vobis), and I did an underground weather museum in one of the advanced studios (instructor: Rachely Rotem); both of us gained incredible support and valuable advice from the professors while working on those projects. You can see how some of those ideas are further implemented in our skyscraper proposal.
But more importantly, we believe it’s RISD’s diversity and inclusiveness that enabled us to do bold designs like this. Professors at RISD value individual voices and students are offered the freedom to explore what they believe in. Without our RISD experience, we would never had such a clear vision of what to do from the beginning till the end, nor would we have had the confidence to pull it off.
3. How do you feel about the response and attention the design is getting? Now that the world has “weighed in”, has it changed how you look at your project?
We’ve been fascinated to read how people around the world react to our work. We would say that there’s equal amount of love and hate in there, and we are glad to see that this project started a global discussion and debate. It is surely something we didn’t expect, but we take it as generally positive because it means people (not just architects) are invested in the environment they occupy and care about what the future of it should be like. We learned as much from the critique as from the praise. Though it didn’t change how we look at our project or what we believe in, that feedback will influence our future work.
4. What is the major idea you want people to take away from your project?
As mentioned in our project intro, this is a fantasy project, but sometimes the most abstract concepts may potentially contain the seed of a visionary idea that might otherwise never be discovered, and that’s what we were trying to do before we might become too experienced and fearful to do so. We believe there is value in dreaming about the impossible; we hope we can influence the way people see the role of the architect as a visionary.
Their vision has elicited much debate, especially between landscape designers and architects, prompting responses on multiple design sites. In an opinion piece on Dezeen.com, Charles Birnbaum criticizes the project’s disregard for the cultural significance of Fredrick Law Olmstead’s Central Park as a recurring pattern of disrespect by architects. However, Sun and Wu cite Olmstead’s work as their main influence. His “theory of providing equally accessible common green space to all citizens” inspired the re-distribution of privileged views. Many acknowledge that competitions like eVolo are meant to envision and inspire, to tackle the challenges of the present and the future outside the constraints of convention. On both ends of the spectrum, New York Horizon has people talking.
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