It is with great sadness that Docomomo US acknowledges the passing earlier this year of Ashok Bhavnani, architect and artist, and former partner of John M. Johansen. Co-designer of Island House and Rivercross on Roosevelt Island, Ashok graciously led a number of walking tours of Roosevelt Island for Docomomo US and other organizations over the years. As Docomomo US prepares for our upcoming symposia, Designing Better Affordable Housing taking place at the Museum of the City of New York on Tuesday, December 1st, we thought it would be appropriate to share this interview with Ashok revisiting his work on Roosevelt Island. The article was originally published in the September 13, 2014 issue of The Mainstreet Wire. Designing Better Affordable Housing is part of a series of programs related to the exhibition: Affordable New York: A Housing Legacy.
There is an old saying that doctors bury their mistakes but architects have to live with theirs. The reverse of that is that doctors frequently save lives, and architects occasionally produce a masterwork. That is certainly true of Roosevelt Island, which, by any measure, is an exemplar of urban planning and architectural distinction.
It’s not surprising that the co-designer of Island House and Rivercross would want to revisit his creations. Ashok Bhavnani recently conducted a walking tour of Roosevelt Island. Apparently, the Island is now considered historic, because the tour was sponsored by the Historic Districts Council, which describes itself as the advocate for New York City’s historic neighborhoods. Advanced age is the usual qualifier, but residential development of Roosevelt Island is less than 40 years old. What makes our Island historic is that it was planned as a “new town” that would embrace all races and all faiths, and incomes from low to moderately high. Such aspirations are well and good, but delivering on them is not easy. Brazilia, and a host of empty new cities in China, demonstrate the downside. What made Roosevelt Island different?
Bhavnani was asked about the past life of the Island – the period just before it began its march to what we have today, when it was a jumble of falling-down hospitals, an abandoned insane asylum, and other decaying structures. “The Island belongs to the City of New York, and in 1969 it was leased to the [New York State] Urban Development Corporation for a period of 99 years.
“Governor Nelson Rockefeller asked Ed Logue to lead the new State agency. Logue had headed up two large city projects in Boston, and was extremely capable and energetic. He was not a man to take no for an answer, and saw Welfare Island (soon renamed Franklin D. Roosevelt Island in honor of the late President) as a place to put his ideas into action. He hired Philip Johnson to draw up the overall plan of development.
“Phil was a renowned architect, who designed the Seagram Building in Manhattan and many other famous buildings. At that time, I was a partner in the architectural firm of John Johansen Associates. I was born in India, where my father was a film producer. I studied architecture for two years in college and then came to the United States, where I attended Princeton University to obtain my degree in architecture. I was hired by John Johansen in 1965 to join his firm in New Canaan, Connecticut. Three years later, I was made partner, and the firm moved to Manhattan. In 1972, the firm’s name was changed to Johansen & Bhavnani.”
The firm was one of four selected to design the first apartment buildings here. Their plans made Island House the first to open, in 1975. In 1976, the Tram was opened as a temporary means of moving Island residents to Manhattan. It was intended to be taken down when subway service came to the Island.
While Bhavani’s firm was working on the Island House design, the firm originally selected to design Rivercross dropped out, and they also took on that assignment.
The guiding principle in designing the four original buildings was to create a “European atmosphere.” As Bhavnani describes the mandate, “Ed Logue wanted something different, and insisted that the Island have a European look and feel. That is why Eastwood (now Roosevelt Landings) and Westview both have an arcade running the length of the building. In keeping with the effort to appear European, the Island was intended to be vehicle-free, with no cars on Main Street. This proved impractical, if for no other reason than that fire trucks need access to Main Street and retailers need deliveries. While the original plan for the Island specified that no new building should be more than 10 stories high, the developers showed how that was not financially feasible, and some of the European look was lost as the new buildings went up to 19 stories.”
Island House was designed with the retail spaces fronting on Main Street, artfully blended into the structure with the restaurant at the southeast corner. It was called the Green Kitchen until it was closed after a 1987 drug raid. It then became Andy’s Place, and finally Trellis under the present owner, Kaie Razaghi. It’s now undergoing a major renovation.
Bhavnani says, “While completing work on the Island House design, we began to plan the Rivercross project. One of the first problems was a smaller Lutheran church that stood between Good Shepherd Chapel and the Rivercross site. It had been abandoned for many years and was in deplorable shape. It was removed, and space was cleared for an extension of the plaza. We also had to contend with a considerable amount of medical waste uncovered during excavation of the site. Apparently, the hospital workers of the 1800s did not give much thought to its proper disposal, and just dumped it wherever they could.
“Another problem was a ravine where the east face of the building was to be. It was approximately 100 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 12 feet deep. It took many, many cubic yards of concrete to fill it in. We also had problems with water seeping into the foundation. The Island is made up of schist, a porous rock, and water infiltration was a constant problem.”
During the tour, Bhavnani was asked how it happened that Rivercross was designed with far more public space than was customary for a New York City apartment building. “We were given a 25% increase in the budget, and decided to use it for the common areas of the building. The two-story foyers outside almost all of the elevator entrances have windows 20 feet high, providing light and an open floor expanse that was intended as play areas for children. The developer questioned the inclusion of so much open space in the building, but Ed Logue cracked the whip and the complaints stopped.”
View of Rivercross on the right.
View of Island House on the right. Credit: John M. Johansen
Both Island House and Rivercross have an unusual exterior. Instead of brick or glass, they are covered with Corspan, a panel material made in Belgium. “The use of Corspan allowed Island House and Rivercross to be constructed without any scaffolding. The panels clip together and are erected from the inside of the structure, along with the windows that are fitted into the spaces provided. This resulted in a considerable cost savings that was used, in part, to fund the open spaces in Rivercross. As it was, the bids came in under budget and we were all proud of that.”
Meditation Steps and the Rivercross lawn were both part of Bhavnani and Johansen’s original plan. “We wanted to provide a place of quiet reflection, so instead of using the area south of Rivercross for another building, we decided to create a small park. We carefully preserved the trees that border the lawn. Ed Logue loved trees, and every time we had to take one down, he asked why. The steps face the river, and it is gratifying to see how many people use them every day. In the early days, I used to see children swimming in the river off the promenade that circles the Island.”
Bhavnani goes on to say, “We had a difficult decision to make in ventilating the basement at Rivercross. The basement contained two laundry rooms, and all the heating, electrical equipment, and air conditioning systems and the AVAC rooms. A great deal of heat was going to be produced that needed to be vented. We finally decided to vent the basement with large, curved ventilators and paint them bright colors, rather than trying to disguise them.”
After the Island House opening in 1975, the next year saw the opening of Rivercross, Westview, and Eastwood. The apartments were slow to fill up at first, and old-timers in Rivercross report that they were given three months’ free rent back in 1976 if they took an apartment. Also, their lease contained a provision that allowed them a five-year period to back out of the contract and get their money back. It wasn’t long, however, before the Island’s appeal began to take hold. Soon, there was a waiting list at each of the four original buildings.
It was difficult for Ashok Bhavnani to keep a smile from his face as he led the tour of his buildings. It had taken a rare combination of political foresight and determination, combined with exceptional architectural talent, to produce the truly livable “new town” we have today.
When the tour ended, participants were effusive in their praise of the work of John Johansen and Ashok Bhavnani, and expressed the thanks of all of us who enjoy the benefits of their vision for Island House, Rivercross, and our Island.