Success Looks Different Now: Overview

How can architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design contribute to cultural vitality in Lower Manhattan?

July 31, 2013

Lower Manhattan with One World Trade Center (formerly known as the Freedom Tower) under construction. | photo: Guven Demir. All Rights Reserved.

Success Looks Different Now: Design and Cultural Vitality in Lower Manhattan is the product of an inquiry by the Architectural League, instigated by an idea of the cultural journalist Paula Deitz for a new cultural center on New York’s waterfront. Below, a summary of the questions and definitions that shaped the inquiry, a brief description of observations from the research, and a table of contents.


This study began with the analysis of a proposal to build an architecturally iconic performing arts center on New York Harbor, initially prompted by the possibility of constructing such a facility on Pier A at the southern end of Battery Park City. While issues of site, capital investment, and audience are addressed, this is not a feasibility study. It is an inquiry: How can architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design contribute most meaningfully to cultural vitality in Lower Manhattan? Would a major performing arts center help to make Lower Manhattan the multidimensional business, residential, recreational, and cultural community that it aspires to be? Can design be deployed to both support cultural experiences and protect the area’s vulnerable waterfront environment from the hazards of climate change, an issue prioritized by Hurricane Irene in August 2011 and, more recently, by the far more damaging Sandy?

To answer those intertwined questions, the authors of this study interviewed New Yorkers who are instrumental in shaping the future of downtown and in setting the course for the arts and the public realm in the city. The interviews included roundtable sessions to test preliminary findings and post-Sandy sessions. The study also incorporates site visits; an essay on the making of several groundbreaking waterfront arts centers abroad; and a review of current and proposed arts and arts-related projects in Lower Manhattan and on the nearby Brooklyn waterfront and Governors Island. Furthermore, the study examines changes in the relationship between audience and venue, the efficacy of proposed and existing bricks-and-mortar arts centers, and the lively national discussion about—and investment in—creative placemaking, an approach based on the premise that cities flourish when the arts flourish. The report recognizes the importance of neighborhoods and locally generated culture, and it does so while recognizing that Lower Manhattan is effectively on a world stage, one that is visited by close to ten million tourists a year and inhabited by hundreds of thousands of workers every day.


One of the primary subjects of this report is how architecture and design can both embody and support arts and culture—two terms that are hard to pin down and often used interchangeably. This study uses a typical distinction: The arts generally refer to performing and visual arts, while culture extends to a wider range of practices not necessarily defined as fine arts. In their determination to be part of a wider definition of culture, many artists and the institutions that support them propose an identity beyond the traditional fine arts—one with a clearer relationship to the heritage and diversity of different groups and their definitions of the arts and culture. Recognition of the increasingly porous line between arts and culture is crucial to this study.

This study also recognizes the complexity of the term “downtown” when it is applied in New York to arts and culture. “Downtown” has long been employed to identify visual and performing arts produced south of midtown (the perceived dividing line can be 23rd, 14thor Houston Street) as being more innovative than works produced on Broadway or installed in uptown galleries. While the term is increasingly difficult to define on a spatial basis—“downtown” work now happens across the boroughs—its cultural meaning, identified with new work and new ideas, still has powerful resonance for many of the artists and arts organizations in Lower Manhattan.

Study area

The study area is Lower Manhattan with special attention paid to its waterfront. To circumscribe the area’s fluid borders, the authors initially chose to confine their inquiry within the boundaries of Manhattan’s Community Board 1, which encompasses Battery Park City, Civic Center, Financial District, Greenwich South, Seaport, TriBeCa, Governors Island, Ellis Island, and Liberty Island. However, in developing the report, it became clear that nearby waterfronts and adjacent neighborhoods were directly relevant to the main research area: the Two Bridges area of Manhattan’s East River waterfront, Brooklyn waterfronts that face Lower Manhattan, Chelsea, and Hudson River Park below West 23rdStreet. All of these areas have in common a legacy of industrial infrastructure, a generation of major new waterfront parks, substantial arts and culture programming, and ferry service connections. Sandy’s storm surge identified another connection: a shared vulnerability to flooding—the study area is close to being an overlay of the areas in Manhattan and on nearby Brooklyn waterfronts that were directly impacted by flooding.

Together, the study area’s constituent parts represent an extraordinarily dramatic intersection of natural and constructed environments, waterfronts and uplands alike. It is not only a beautiful setting but also a fragile one threatened by the rising waters of climate change. The area is ineluctably tied to the environmental conditions of its location on the harbor, and any plans for and investment in the water’s edge, cultural or otherwise, must contend with this reality.


This study’s research challenged the authors’ initial assumptions about how creative work is produced, presented, and experienced. It is clear that New York is in the midst of a generational shift in the definition, experience, and location of cultural vitality. The boundary between the experience of the arts—performing and visual—and the experience of leisure time, everything from carousels to food fairs, is increasingly blurred. On the waterfront and elsewhere, public space is central to this change. It is shifting from a place that needs to be activated by a new cultural or recreational edifice to a place that activates the city around it. More than new buildings, public space, and the wide range of formal and informal cultural experiences it supports, is arguably New York’s most iconic urban cultural form.

This shift is occurring in concert with the growth of an audience that has a more participatory interest in and informal attitude toward the arts. And in public space, unlike in iconic museums or performance halls, where the price of admission can be prohibitive, there is an opportunity for participation in the arts across a broad socioeconomic spectrum for diverse age groups and cultures. The culture of the arts is evolving, and its evolution is changing the form of the city. New types of public places are both consummate works of art in themselves and sites for a vibrant range of creative endeavors within and beyond their borders.

Changing the discussion

This inquiry suggests that design will continue to play a significant role in generating and sustaining vibrant cultural activity in Lower Manhattan, but a major investment in new arts centers, on the harbor or elsewhere, is only one option, and it is not necessarily the most effective one. There are other ways to support cultural production and experience through design that are responsive to the changing culture of the arts, as well as to the special opportunities and vulnerabilities of waterfront sites. From a hip-hop festival in Brooklyn Bridge Park to a dance performance on the East River Esplanade, design’s role has been demonstrated, and it will continue to evolve after Sandy.

New York’s waterfront is already a lively place of cultural presentation and experience. Strategic design, informed by and contributing to inspired programming, has had an irrefutably critical role in activating the public realm at the water’s edge. No longer simply a container for culture, the built environment is now an armature for the arts. The recommendations that conclude this report are intended to reinvigorate and expand the scope of a dialogue initiated a decade ago in Lower Manhattan, from a conversation about the role of architecture and urban design in rebuilding to one about design’s role in supporting and stimulating cultural vitality.


Contents of the report

by Rosalie Genevro
League Executive Director Rosalie Genevro describes the catalyst for Success Looks Different Now and explains the evolution and scope of the study. Read the complete preface here.

What New York Needs: A Theater on the Waterfront
by Paula Deitz
A reprint of a proposal from 2008 by Paula Deitz, which originally appeared in The New York Sun, calling for New York to build an iconic, waterfront performing arts center, examples of which have become resonant features of European cities in the 21st century. This idea initiated the open-ended investigation that resulted in the Success Looks Different Now report.

The complete text of the overview is reprinted above.

I. Lower Manhattan and Cultural Revitalization

  • The Proposal in Context
  • Lower Manhattan’s Public Realm and Its Revitalization by Design
  • The Role of the Arts: The “Effect” without the “Bilbao”

What is meant by “cultural vitality?” and how can we evaluate its impact, economic and otherwise, on cities? This section addresses these essential questions and outlines the role the arts have played in revitalizing Lower Manhattan–and its closely connected waterfront public spaces, including Governors Island, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the East River Esplanade–after 9/11.

II. The Changing Culture of the Arts

  • The Arts, Audiences, and the Life of the City
  • Learning from New York’s New Meeting Grounds
  • The Arts in Place: Cultural Districts and New York
  • Economics, Audiences, Capital Investment, and the Arts

An analysis of the shifting trends in how culture is being produced and consumed–from informal, outdoor, participatory performances to new mixed-use cultural meeting places such as the High Line, Governors Island, and others. This chapter concludes with a look at contemporary economic data on audience behavior and capital investment in the arts.

III. The New Culture of the Waterfront

  • The Reinvention of the Public Realm at the Water’s Edge
  • The Activated Waterfront
  • Culture and Climate Change
  • Brooklyn Bridge Park

An examination of more than 20 years of waterfront planning and rehabilitation reveals that access, rather than edifices, will complete the job of activating New York City’s waterfront. However, the new realities of climate change present a fundamental challenge to these new plans for the boundary between land and sea. This chapter presents Brooklyn Bridge Park as a model for a responsible transformation of New York’s waterfront into an armature for public life that incorporates recreation, culture, and ecological performance.

IV. New Directions for the Arts on the Edge

  • New Directions for Arts Centers
  • Whitney Museum of American Art
  • Culture Shed
  • Pier 57 and Pier 40
  • The Battery
  • South Street Seaport
  • Pier 35 and Pier 42
  • Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center

A review of several downtown sites and projects poised for redevelopment on or around the water’s edge and the opportunities these projects hold for promoting the cultural vitality of Lower Manhattan and its adjacent neighborhoods.

V. Success Looks Different Now

  • Observations and Analysis
  • Recommendations
  • Conclusion

The report finds that the model of iconic building as catalyst for revitalization must be reinvented in order to respond to evolving conditions of the arts, community, and climate change. Read the complete text of the Success Looks Different Now recommendations and conclusions here.

Supplemental report
Lessons from Abroad: Waterfront Performing Arts Centers
by Paula Deitz

Success Looks Different Now: Design and Cultural Vitality in Lower Manhattan is a publication of The Architectural League of New York. All Rights Reserved. The report was made possible with public funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support was provided by the J. Clawson Mills Fund of the Architectural League of New York. To inquire about obtaining a copy of the complete report, email