zum Inhalt.
zur Hauptnavigation.


English filmscript

It's the beginning of a perfectly normal work-day in New York. Hundreds of thousands of commuters spill out of the subways. Rivers of humanity flow through the labyrinth of buildings around Wall Street.

Rush hour, everybody's in a hurry. In the streets there's a magical chaos, in fluid perpetual motion. The jazz musicians Edwin, Bradley and Sanhandon interpret the mood: like a musical loop, the day rolls on.

Here, in the world's most important financial market-place, everything revolves around money. It shapes the district, the activity on the streets, the people. The Woolworth Building on Broadway, headquarters of the chain of department stores, constitutes the northern boundary of the financial district. Tucked away in Wall Street's shadow we find the TriBeCa district.

Five minutes away from the hectic pace of business, the streets are almost tranquil, with little traffic and picturesque corners. But things were not always so quiet. The district has a long tradition as a trading centre for foodstuffs. The buildings behind these facades were used for business, not for living.

Horst Hamann comes from Mannheim. He lives with his family in TriBeCa.

Horst Hamann: "In Tribeca, you can feel a weekend, you're close to the Hudson River and it's a very remote area still, even though a lot of people are moving in, a lot of activities, restaurant business, but, on the other hand, it's a very good neighbourhood to be in New York because you can feel sort of ... yeah, it's almost like a little village, to live in."

Small corner stores are also part of that village. Bazzinis, a wholesaler of nuts of all kinds, has been in business since 1886. Until now, the nuts have been roasted and packed in the building and shipped from here. But now, production is being moved to the Bronx. The rooms on the old commercial premises are no longer suited to modern processing methods. They still sell nuts. Other products have been added to the selection. The store with its little cafe fits right into the "new" TriBeCa.

It was in the middle of the nineteenth century that the district was chosen to be a new trading area near the city centre.The new buildings were meant to be imposing and were given richly decorated facades of sandstone, marble or - like this one - cast iron.

In 1848, the architect James Bogardus used cast iron in a facade for the first time. Each window element is cast in iron, in one piece. They were then assambled and screwed into place on the premises. With the right paint job, you can hardly tell the difference between cast iron and stone. It's only when you get a chance to look behind the scenes, that the iron facade is unmasked.

The foundry was located right in TriBeCa. Ordering was done by catalogue: there were all styles to choose from - a little Romanesque or Gothic, columns, cornices - much of it combinable and cheaper than other building materials. It's easy to see that the facade is castiron, once the rust sets in.

Duane Park is the secret and cosy centre of TriBeCa. The daytime peace and quiet is only occasionally disturbed by trucks delivering goods to Harry Wils and Sons. It's the last large trading company that has its headquarters at Duane Park, which used to be the centre of the butter and egg trade. Of course, today the business includes many more products, for use in restaurants and large kitchens. Much to the consternation of the new neighbours, the main business activity takes place at night.

Steve Wils runs the company, in the third generation.

Steve Wils: "Duane Park was the centre, the hub of commerce in this area. And I think part of that was because the street was very wide. It was really a practical consideration. And you could back a lot more trucks into this neighbourhood. I recall, as a child, that it could take an hour for a truck to pass from here to here, because so many trucks were backing in and out of the loading bays. And my grandfather always had his business on this square, from 1921. So the family has been in this neighbourhood, this particular block, for 76 years at this point."

That grandfather had fled the pogroms in Poland. He began with a hand-cart, selling eggs door-to-door. It was a profitable business, as long as you didn't spend too much time talking - something he apparently loved doing.

Another major trading centre in TriBeCa: Washington Market, trading centre for vegetables and poultry, delivered by rail or via the Hudson River. Right up into the Sixties, this was a place where people bought and sold, haggled and cursed. Then, city planners took a fancy to the area. They had plans to expand the financial district. Washington Market was torn down, and the traders began their exodus.

Horst Hamann, on his way to a special appointment. He's finally received permission to take photos inside the Woolworth Building. Most of the prominent skyscrapers are already in his collection and he has just published a photo documentation of these icons.

The Woolworth Building, completed in 1913, fascinates not only the photographer, but also the architect Gail Fenske. She wrote her master's thesis and a book about it.

Gail Fenske: "With the construction of the Woolworth Building, the skyline of Lower Manhattan changed quite dramatically. Of course, this was the intention of Woolworth. In the 1880s, tall buildings were, on the average, maybe ten, at the most fifteen stories. It was the Eiffel Tower of 1889 that convinced American builders that they could really build tall and the Park Row Building of 1899 showed this interest in building technology. Woolworth, from the outset, had in mind that it was something magnificent, grand, flamboyant and spectacular - because this was his personality. Gilbert, the architect, as well, I would say - just like Woolworth - was ambitious to build a grand, monumental, in this case a kind of Gothic, picturesque building. He was always an architect who was fascinated by the picturesque."

The dome above the crossed naves and the depictions of work - in a style reminiscent of religious paintings - send a clear message: the Woolworth Building is the cathedral of commerce.

No entry without Security's blessing. The builder and the architect keep an eye on visitors as well. Woolworth with the money in his hand, Gilbert with the model.

28 elevators ensure quick transportation to each of the 55 floors. The mechanically assisted conveyance of people was a prerequisite for the construction of high-rise buildings. Lifting platforms with rope pullies were used only for the transportion of goods. The risk of accident was still very high.

It wasn't until 1854 that an invention by Elisha Otis brought a turning-point. Should the rope tear and the platform be in danger of crashing, tensed springs release a brake mechanism. The elevator remains hanging in its tracks. This gentleman is probably still riding illegally. But the breakthrough had been achieved. New sources of power were developed, such as this hydraulic system. From 1889 on, electric motors were also used. Elevator speed became an important factor in the commercial success of a high-rise building. In the Flatiron Building, built in 1903, you could get up to the 20th floor in 25 seconds.

Not only did the Woolworth Building set standards as the highest building in the world - it is also stylistically unusual.

Gail Fenske: "There's a kind of energy as one looks across the elevations of the building, a kind of rhythmic pattern, where you'll have, you know, an A-B-C-B-A sort of rhythm across that main elevation. It's not an even rhythm, which is what you would see in many skyscrapers. The ornamental vocabulary was very important for emphasizing certain parts of the design. And this is a kind of ornament that was used later in the Gothic period. Some of it comes from secular sources, meaning non-religious sources. Other sources for the ornament are cathedral; one source would be Mont St. Michel."

Horst Hamann: "My fascination with skyscrapers is purely emotional. I mean, we are lucky enough to live near the Woolworth Building and through our skylight you can see the building every night, every day, in the evening, at twilight. It's a fascinating building, for example. It's a castle in the sky. A million times I can look at it and it still fascinates me. It's purely emotional."

Gail Fenske: "Gilbert, in a sense, made the Gothic into a kind of commercial Gothic, for commercial use. What happened, ultimately, was that the Gothic became very light, it became very gay, it was very optimistic. I think the whiteness is something that has a kind of moralizing aspect to it, that has very little to do, ultimately, with the mysticism of the Gothic, the kind of darker Medievalism that we tend to associate with the cathedrals. And so it truly is another kind of Gothic, a wholly secular Gothic. We could call it a skyscraper Gothic. But it's distinctly American."

45 minutes by subway from Manhattan, through Brooklyn and out to the Atlantic - here we find Coney Island, the destination for New Yorkers on their weekend excursions. The amusement park experienced its heyday around 1900. Every new technical achievement was immediately snapped up and converted into an attraction.

Luna Park, a fairy tale fantasy land, lit up by 1,300,000 light bulbs - a tribute to electricity. In constructing the park's 1200 towers, architects could let their fantasy run wild. A short time later, towers of similar form were added to already existing buildings in Manhattan. According to a theory held by architect Rem Kolhaas, Coney Island at that time was something like a laboratory for Manhattan: it was an opportunity to experiment with the fantastic.

The Beacon Tower, a 410-foot lighthouse, was in Dreamland - the Singer Building, in Manhattan. Whether in Coney Island or Manhattan, money was the deciding factor. Carol Willis deals with the economic efficiency of skyscrapers.

C. Willis: "The skyscraper becomes tall after the elevator is invented and after steel-cage construction allows buildings to rise to a great height above twenty or so stories. But these factors - the elevator and the steel frame - are the necessary pre-conditions for tall buildings. But the height of buildings is really established by other very important economic conditions."

For instance, the size and shape of the site. In the case of the Flatiron, this iron shape was the only one possible. There also had to be a reasonable relationship between utility space and office areas.

Steel cage construction paved the way for a new sky-scraping frenzy. Construction times were dramatically shortened. The Empire State Building was built in only 18 months.

C. Willis: "Buildings could rise as towers over these small sites. They could use the centre of their space for elevator cores and for circulation. And they could have the ring of offices around the outside, so that all the offices were very well-lit. Until the invention of fluorescent light-bulbs, which burn very cool, offices were dependent on daylight to illuminate the workplace. And therefore, there was no space any deeper than 28 feet from the window to the interior corridor."

The result of such economic considerations are buildings like the Equitable, rectangular blocks with optimal space utilization. A negative side effect: light no longer reaches the street.

C. Willis: "New York was really unique in being the sort of "Pioneer City" of the spirit of building. The frontier was the sky, instead of the West, for New York. And until 1916, there was no limit to the height of buildings, other than the economic factors of height. After 1916, there was a new law that prescribed a sort of set-back or wedding-cake form."

The sky's the limit and the buildings stretch upwards to it.

Horst Hamann: "In my case as a photographer, it's the place to be, probably, in the 20th century, because this is the centre of the world right now. It used to be Athens or Rome in earlier days, it's New York for the creative community, I would say. The inspiration's for free, of course, everyday, you go in the subway, you go in the street corner, you see new angles, new perspectives all the time, little situations in the bus, and basically, it's a fun city."

We're back in TriBeCa, the "Triangle below Canal Street". For many years, the district was in a kind of deep sleep. Now, pubs and restaurants have opened up. The affluent from the neighbouring district are moving in and driving away those who had originally discovered the area for themselves: musicians and artists, looking for cheap living space.

Steve Wils: "I've loved the architecture always, even when I was a kid. Because the buildings are beautiful. And for me it was sort of like being in the city but also being in the country, in a certain way, because there wasn't a lot of population down here. There wasn't a lot of activity apart from the mercantile activity and it was really quite restful at night. And I told my father that if the building ever came up for sale, that if he bought it, I would stay and work in the family business for a few years, provided that I could build a house, a residence, upstairs. And he thought and shook his head, I remember, and said, "OK". And about three months later, the building just came up for sale. And after a considerable struggle, I convinced him that he should buy it and he agreed. And that's how my life in TriBeCa really started."

The generous space of the warehouses, or lofts, offers the new owners endless creative possibilities. Designers, architects, lawyers, photographers and more and more business people from the nearby financial district live in the converted lofts. From all over, you can get a good view of the Woolworth Building. In the row of houses right in front of it, an architect has built his apartment and his office.

The roaring chaos of the traders and trucks is a thing of the past. A new kind of traffic has moved in and brings inquisitive and hungry customers to the trendy restaurants. By now, the TriBeCa Grill has become an institution in Manhattan, a TriBeCa fixture. Drew Nieporent is president of a group of restaurants, which also runs various other businesses in TriBeCa.

Drew Nieporent: "The Grill Room cost almost two million dollars to build. The thing about TriBeCa, of course, is when you have a partner like Robert de Niro and twenty-four other investors ... This was a building that used to house Martinson Coffee. They used to roast the beans, pack the beans, ship the beans from here. So, when we saw the space, we realized that it was a great warehouse space with a lot of integrity. We didn't want to mess around with that. The restaurants, to a certain degree, have put TriBeCa on the map. We feel we're part of the community. We tend to build restaurants maybe at a faster pace than some of our other people, other competitors. The neighbourhood gets a little bit jealous at times because it's a quiet neighbourhood and they want to keep it quiet."

Steve Wils: "The last two years has been a definite madhouse of a rush in terms of property values. You could find ungutted buildings, buildings that still had their original debris in them, as it were, up until about a year and a half ago. Now, I don't think - there probably isn't one in the whole area that's in its original condition."

The great demand for old properties does, however, insure their survival. In this way, buildings more than a hundred years old are maintained and safeguarded.

Steve Wils: "I would say that there's this creative spirit that's still in the neighbourhood that attracted people a hundred years ago, that attracts people today. What they're creating is different. In those days, they came with nothing and they had to create a business. And today people come here and they're creating something else that's usually involved in some other form of commerce, whether it be art or enterprise or finance."

The Wall Street financial district has already cast its shadow over TriBeCa. Nonetheless, the village within the city has survived. Certainly also, because for creative people and people with money, it offered a niche.