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Horizontal and Vertical Disorder: West Chelsea and Dumbo. Two Contemporary Cases.

The “horizontal and vertical disorder” described by Levi-Strauss (1) is indeed one of the undeniable qualities of New York City. Two districts where this disorder is apparent are West Chelsea and Dumbo, both among the rare surviving examples of New York City’s rapidly disappearing industrial neighbourhoods. The city’s unrelenting exponential growth has, in most cases, covered the traces of a rich and uncommon past, but in West Chelsea and Dumbo these traces are fully exposed and offer concepts and ideas for sustainable city growth.

In the early nineteenth century, their strategic location outside New York’s original settlement area and their direct connection with ground and water transportation allowed the two areas to become key actors in the city’s growth. Two centuries later, these districts have been absorbed by the city fabric and are now prime locations in New York’s real-estate market. But their central location and the use of pre-existing infrastructure are not the only reasons for their increase in value; their industrial heritage offers an effective, pragmatic use of the built environment to stimulate inspiring life.

At this point, it is important to note that the discrepancy that usually exists between architecture and real estate is absent here. On the one hand, architecture envisages constructions and infrastructure that could be available and functional for a long lifespan and, on the other, real estate manages, operates and develops for the short term. West Chelsea and Dumbo could serve as models to combat the present-day tendency of short-lifespan architecture, both economically and environmentally.

West Chelsea

West Chelsea, located on the Hudson River waterfront in Manhattan, between West 25th and 30th Streets, is comprised mostly of landfill from the mid- and late-nineteenth century. Initially developed in the 1840s and 1850s, when Manhattan was becoming the country’s largest manufacturing centre, West Chelsea’s growth was made possible by the availability of inexpensive, unencumbered land reclaimed from the Hudson.

While West Chelsea was developed as an industrial district in the late 1840s, it was not until 1891 that the first large-scale, purpose-built warehouse was constructed. The industrial architecture and infrastructure developed at the turn of the century contain are marked by many of the features of the American Round-arch style (Rundbogenstil): a simple brick facade, arched openings, rhythmically placed windows recessed between vertical brick piers, horizontal banding, and a corbelled brick cornice. This said, the pragmatic design of these early industrial buildings was mainly the result of practical issues rather than any given architectural style.

Today, some of the warehouses in this district provide a fundamental record of the architectural and infrastructural evolution of industrial building design in America. Examples like the Starrett-Lehigh Building (1930-1931), today a New York City Landmark occupied mostly by high-tech and creative offices, represents the successful life of a building with a much longer lifespan than the most optimistic expectations.


Dumbo, an acronym for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass” coined in the late 1970s by artists living in the district and hoping that an incongruous name would discourage development, is today one of the most desirable pieces of land in Brooklyn. Close to Manhattan and to the remarkable East River waterfront, Dumbo is one of the corners of the Brooklyn Tech Triangle.

Steam ferries operated from this shore of Brooklyn to Manhattan between 1814 and 1924. Before the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, Dumbo was Brooklyn’s central business district. By the 1850s, what had started as one of the first residential areas in this borough had become a mainly industrial area. Nowadays, the old train tracks and the uneven Belgian block streets give its character to one of the most successful areas in New York City.

The pioneering reinforced-concrete structure of the factory buildings allowed larger spans and wider façade openings that flooded the work spaces with natural light. The flexibility of these spaces today is the key to the success of the life of these buildings. Whether retail, work space or residential, the new uses successfully coexist with heritage.

Whereas some areas of the city have been completely reshaped by contemporary architecture, West Chelsea and Dumbo have remained faithful to their industrial roots in a way that provides huge potential for urban redevelopment. While the unique specific conditions of these two districts resist replication, both definitely cast light on sustainable city growth at a time when tradition and history are constantly being questioned.


Claude Lévi-Strauss, “New York in 1941”, in  A view from Afar (New York: Basic books, 1985), 258.

15.Jun.2017 1932 views
Jaime Daroca Jaime Daroca

Jaime Daroca (Sevilla, 1986) is a Spain-based architect, founding partner of PRÁCTICA and currently teaching at the Academy of Art University. He holds a Masters in Architecture II from Harvard Graduate School of Design (2015) and a degree in Architecture from the Technical School of Sevilla University (2010). Jaime previously worked at e2a architekten in Zurich (2010-13), and at Daroca Arquitectos in Sevilla (2004-10). He has held several research and teaching positions at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (2013-15) and at GSAPP Columbia University (2015-16). His work has been exhibited at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and at the University of Sevilla.

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