Manufacturing Sickness in the Name of Progress

Once upon a time, I worked in a highly prosperous area of Manhattan (the most important of the islands/boroughs making up New York City) that originally had been one of the vital arteries funneling traffic and people from downtown

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Manhattan to the lower reaches of Central Park.

Most of you who are newcomers to the City (as we homegrown New Yorkers call it) know it as The Avenue of the Americas. Nice name, but not the one I called it because I know it as Sixth Avenue.

Yes, there are still avenues with numeral names in Manhattan but one of them, Fourth Avenue, is a bit difficult to find. It has a wonderful history of which many are unaware, too. Fourth Avenue was the hotbed of used bookstores where you could revel in the wonder of literature from here and abroad and all you had to pay was a quarter or a dollar. Gobble up as many books as your bag could hold and you were on your way to your very own library. What a life.

During my years of working in the area, I discovered that my office window provided an unobstructed view of naked men sunning on the roof of the local Turkish bath house, the working girls standing on the corners (one in her school girl outfit) and newspapers swirling around the granite curbstone. It was a time when people casually tossed papers, cigarettes or candy wrappers wherever they wished without a thought to pollution.

Not a great thing to say about any city, but this was The City. No one noticed because everyone did it. Leave it for the street sweepers to pick up and toss into the carts they pushed up the avenue. Ecology and environmental science hadn’t reached our vocabularies yet.

Also during that time, Sixth Avenue was slowly being bought in small bits, piece by piece as developers prepared to transform it into something grander. Old two, three and four-story buildings came down and were replaced by black-topped parking lots. Why parking lots? Taxes, my friend, taxes. Land without a building on it is taxed at a lower rate and when you’re not quite ready to build, you wait and lower your tax rate.

Once they had managed to acquire a square block or two, the money men pushed the throttle full tilt and we watched as slender skyscrapers began to line each side of Sixth. Of course, no one was going to invade the Diamond District and that remained, but the rest of Sixth was fair game. They looked like gray slabs full of windows and little else in the way of decoration. Yes, a bit of a plaza with a tiny pond in front met the requirements of planning boards and one or two had a

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fountain. Ground floor expensive, expense-account restaurants appeared and the character of the neighborhood changed. Neater, cleaner and with something else we hadn’t had before; the Marilyn Monroe Effect.

The Effect was named for the iconic scene Monroe shot for “The Seven Year Itch” film where she stands over a subway grate and her dress flies up. Applied to the architecture of Sixth Avenue, it means that the rows of skyscrapers created a tunnel for the wind which blew down it as never before. The designers had, in effect, created something they never intended.

Today, we don’t really think about the wind on The Avenue of the Americas as we do something else which designers unintentionally created; Sick Building Syndrome. Creating buildings that were models of a newer, modern era, designers put in windows that don’t open, chopped up open floors into small cubicles which were then tossed around as the managers wished with little regard to ventilation, air quality and illness potential. The splendid UN Building on the East River is a fine example of Sick Building Syndrome.

Architects can create buildings which utilize materials in impressive ways. Look

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at the work of Frank Gehry and his creation in Spain at Bilbao. What does he tell young architects? Hear for yourself.

But is it possible to remove the illnesses that buildings cause by re-imagining them in innovative ways? Absolutely and if you watch one exceptional architect’s TED Talks on it, you may gain a new appreciation for how these designers approach difficult tasks. Titled “Architecture that’s built to heal” by Michael Murphy it can truly be inspiring. How he came to his career and found his passion is also a truly interesting tale.

Is your office or home making you physically or psychologically sick? Give some thought to it and see how things might be changed for the better.

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