In order to extract more than the usual amount of tourist pleasure from my trip to New York, I found via Google an organisation which sets up architectural walking tours of Manhattan. As luck would have it, there was one being run (well, walked) on the Sunday of my visit and since its starting point was at Columbus Circle, just two blocks from my hotel, I decided to tag along.
The online instructions simply said to meet outside a shop selling shirts in the Time Warner building. When I got there, a small group of rather elderly locals had already arrived. Rather worryingly, the tour leader was nowhere to be seen and turned up 10 minutes late, having got off at the wrong Subway station. He introduced himself, excused not being an architect (so no questions about the buildings, then) and took our $15.
The theme of the tour was ’Keeping off Manhattan’s streets’ and was supposed to be an introduction to midtown (where most of the tall buildings are) Manhattan’s post-modern era city planning for public spaces in private buildings. These spaces at the sides or within city blocks have been treated in different ways over time. From the benevolent and graceful art deco public concourses of the Rockerfeller Center, through the perfunctory and bleak open alleys of the modernist buildings to the more thoughtful though often characterless public routes through and around the post-modern architecture, we were taken on a brisk exploration of through-routes. Rather too brisk for some of the older folk, who seemed to disappear one-by-one as we went round the route that the tour leader had chosen. In fact, it was a bit like a spooky horror movie where characters disappear when you’re not looking. The first victim was the poor old lady in an electric wheelchair, who didn’t make it down the steps to the Subway station outside the Time Warner building.
Actually, the topic is an interesting one and you could indeed see how different generations, for different reasons, have created or denied through-ways and amenities beyond the regular, zoned sidewalks. However, and sadly, the group’s interest had waned somewhat by the time we made a pit-stop for coffee in the concourse of the Rockefeller Center. It became increasingly clear that our host was not super-confident in his background knowledge (preferring often to defer to the architects in the group, of whom there were several, and personal anecdotes of New York in the 1960s), nor was he over chatty or seeking to engage his audience. This felt very much like the New York attitude, so no-one seemed to take offence (or even offense). But by the time we reached Times Square and had (briskly) walked through the Marriott hotel’s simply horrible mezzanine lobby, I too gave up and became another victim of the phantom person-snatcher who had by that point taken nearly half the original group.
I did learn something, but it rather felt like I was learning it on my own. Thankfully, as director of a programme where, sooner or later, everyone comes to the realisation that all learning emerges from the relationship between you and the thing you are encountering, this felt fine, too.