NYU’s Richard Sennett on the failure of the Sexton Plan

From Richard Sennett:

The debate at NYU has focused more on the idea of a ‘superblock’ and less with the practical execution of the idea. In principle superblocks can work, provided they follow a couple of rules. They need, first, to be easily penetrated, which means lots of ways in and out of the over-all assemblage of buildings. Second, the ground plane of the solid structures needs to be porous, which usually means lots small offices and shops at street level, each with its own entrance. Penetration and porosity actually increase the security of superblocks, since there are lots of people, so more “eyes on the street.”

Washington Square Village was built at a time when isolation of the block from its urban fabric was the ideal, but today that old way of designing has proved deadening. Superblocks built the old way can be converted, though, following the two more modern guidelines; my team, for instance, worked on such a conversion in London at the Brunswick Centre. The key in conversion is puncturing the solid wall mass that existed before, and adding informal activities out in open space—the latter requires imagination more than a construction budget.

I wasn’t asked to work on the NYU project, so can only judge from its published drawings and plans. Some of the architects involved are good designers, but the urbanism looks like a throwback to an earlier era. If more discussion of this proposal takes place, I’d strongly suggest exploring the relation of the block to LaGuardia Place: here is a broad boulevard, it forms a nice “T” with Washington Square, it should be full of activity, but all the NYU buildings along it are dead at street level. I also worry — again just looking a published plans — about the handling of the edges on Mercer St. and Bleeker and West Houston. With small streets like Mercer set in a grid, the principle of good urban design is to intensify activity at the corners, but the proposed plan seems indifferent to this best-practice principle.

Richard Sennett
University Professor of the Humanities
Professor of Sociology
New York University

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