August 23rd, 2010

Two Cities’ Scale Models

Virtual World: The future of China’s largest city is on bombastic display at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre

Set in the seclusion of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, well inside the largest of New York’s outer boroughs, the Queens Museum of Art doesn’t attract the same blockbuster number of international visitors as the megamuseums and power galleries of Manhattan. That hardly means it fails to draw from cosmopolitan sources — in a borough as diverse as Queens, appealing to the local population means displaying art that speaks to many points of origin. But the museum is best known for a work of very local significance: the Panorama of the City of New York, a vast scale model of the five boroughs built on Robert Moses’ orders for the 1964 World’s Fair.

Despite an occasional lack of updates — including one twenty-some year gap — the Panorama has been kept fairly timely. Though the last comprehensive upgrade took place in 1992, sponsors can now adopt buildings and ensure the accuracy of a given plot on the map. There are some exceptions where updates are off limits; the museum preferred the World Trade Center towers remain standing rather than represent Ground Zero (they will be replaced when the new site’s new towers are completed). But by and large, the model is a decent representation of the city — precise enough to use for mapping geodata.

Last year, urban planner and artist Damon Rich did just that, taking advantage of the Panorama to detail the extent of home foreclosures in New York. Reasoning that, for many New Yorkers, the foreclosure crisis appeared to be something taking place in far-flung Sunbelt suburbs, his aim was to bring the extent of the national real estate debacle home to a city that didn’t yet seem to realize the problem had reached its front stoop.

Panorama of the City of New York, looking over Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Photo by Joe Shlabotnik.

While mapping foreclosure data could and had already been achieved much more quickly (and much less laboriously) via Google Maps, the immersive effect of the Panorama — at nearly 900 square meters, it’s simply huge — meant that the data could fully fill a visitor’s field of vision. To put it another way: as opposed to squinting at dots on a minuscule screen, viewing geodata on the Panorama is like attending a 3D IMAX film.

The ensuing message of the exhibit, “Red Lines”, was poignantly felt at the Queens Museum, since the data revealed that the New York stoop the foreclosure crisis had literally landed on was nearly its own. When the museum marked foreclosed properties on the Panorama (to make them conspicuous, its staff used pizza box dividers spraypainted pink), the result was a pink sea spreading across the poorer neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens.

As often as it’s updated, though, the Panorama still manages to evoke the boldness of the Moses era — and contemplating “Red Lines” against that backdrop evinces an even deeper understanding of the exhibit’s meaning. Between the 1939 World’s Fair (when the building that houses the Queens Museum was built) and 1964, when the Panorama was the most popular attraction at New York’s last such global exhibition, the city had reached the zenith of its influence; it was both a financial and industrial powerhouse and an almost unrivaled cultural center that attracted the best talents from the United States and abroad.

Only a few years later, though, New York had already begun its steep descent. And mapped on the Panorama, the geographic scope of the city’s foreclosures made it clear that the city’s subsequent recovery was much more tentative on its vulnerable (and increasingly vacant) periphery. “Red Lines” didn’t just address the foreclosure crisis. It used the Panorama’s comprehensive representation of the five boroughs to put the source of crisis’ supposed invisibility — the spatial dynamics of New York’s vast wealth disparity — on conspicuous display. This was a form of destitution that existed in New York, “Red Lines” made clear, but it was a type that was increasingly removed from the sight and concern of Manhattanites.

While the Panorama tackles the economic realities of foreclosure, the nostalgia that keeps the towers in place seems like an equally potent testament to American decline. By contrast, the scale model that forms the focal point of Shanghai’s Urban Planning Exhibition Centre dazzles with its vista of recently-completed and planned highrises.

Details from the model of Shanghai at the city’s Urban Planning Exhibition Centre

Shanghai and New York share quite a bit in common. Both are their countries’ largest cities; both are major ports and financial centers. Both have origins in multiple colonial masters, and subsequent histories of ethnolinguistic and religious diversity. Each has a predeliction for tall buildings. Some Shanghai streets, built when the city was under partial American administration, even strongly resemble New York’s. This year, Shanghai hosted its own World’s Fair, Expo 2010, which attracted more attention than nearly any such exhibition since New York’s last turn at the fair, when the Panorama was built.

With the onset of the United States’ economic woes, and the proverbial “rise of China”, it would be tempting to view Shanghai as New York’s natural successor in the firmament of world cities. The former’s model testifies to its rapid progress: well before the Expo’s dazzling pavilions were complete, miniature representations had been planted firmly into the scale cityscape. A rainbow of colored buildings indicate Shanghai’s future skyline. Visitors don’t just come here to gawk at the artistic achievement of representing the entire city in miniature (unlike the New York model, Shanghai’s barely represents a fraction of the city’s formal territory), they flock to see the shape of things to come.

And that’s as much true of the center that holds the model as the miniature city itself. A showcase of improbable projects that seem as if they were intended to overshadow the feats of world-be competitors, the Urban Planning Exhibition Centre pulsates with video screens and voice-over narrations breathlessly recording the city’s epic achievements, including its effort to transform an archipelago several dozen kilometers off the coast into the city’s new harbor, complete with a record-breaking bridge linking it to the mainland. Projects like these even merit their own, separate (and smaller) models. Not even New York’s much larger Panorama could hope to accommodate such brobdingnagian infrastructure to the rest of the city’s scale.

Amid the eager bombast and didactic propaganda of the Urban Planning Exhibition Centre, the somber lessons of an installation like Rich’s “Red Lines” seem as unlikely as the realization of many of the plans on display. But for all its ostensible success, and the ascendancy of the city that was supposedly marked by Expo, China, many believe, is in deep denial over the coming of its own potential real estate crisis. When the crash comes, it may not so much resemble New York’s as, worse, Dubai’s. Denial — along with earlier promises of perpetual prosperity — will make the pain that much more acute.

Of course, illusions may still persist in the United States; with financial market reform was recently passed by Congress, but the new laws alone may not prevent every symptom of a repeating economic cycle. The national conversation has turned to the consequences, rather than the causes, of the persistent recession. Memory is fickle. The pink pizza box dividers that marked off foreclosures on the Panorama were removed when “Red Lines” closed last September, nearly a year ago. Caution over runaway speculation may remain, like an exhibit at a museum, temporary.


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