Field Notes

Rooftop Catalogue by MVRDV

We have a huge professional crush on the Dutch architects MVRDV. We love their playful style, use of colors, and clear deployment of typologies. So when we saw that MVRDV was commissioned by the Municipality of Rotterdam to make a Rooftop Catalogue, a book of typological interventions on the rooftops in Rotterdam, we opened up our wallets instantly:

In modern cities, miles of unused flat rooftops await a new function. In Rotterdam alone we have over 18 square kilometers of unused flat roof. That must change, and the rooftops can provide the space to realize the housing challenge, energy transition, climate change and inclusiveness in cities. As a starting point for the realization of this, MVRDV was commissioned by the Municipality of Rotterdam to make the Rooftop Catalogue

You can buy the Rooftop Catalogue here, though if you live in the states the shipping might be more than the book itself. We can’t wait to get our hands on our copy. We are interested in how the presentation, data coding, and illustrations help make sense out of a complex set of opportunities and context.

Our love for 3d axonometric views is also well known, please visit these other examples of inspiration and interviews we have conducted.

San Francisco’s toilet and kiosk contract with JCDecaux under investigation

San Francisco JCDecaux Public Toilet

Street Furniture giant JCDecaux is in some trouble in San Francisco, linked to an ongoing public corruption scandal with Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru – with the most recent action being 2 Contractors Plead Guilty To Bribing Mohammed Nuru Over 7-Year Span. But for our part of the world, we are interested in how this interfaces with the world of street objects:

Multiple sources have confirmed to Mission Local that a long-running toilet and kiosk contract with JCDecaux — lamented by city officials as one of the nation’s worst — is under review by the City Attorney and controller in the wake of Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru’s arrest last month on fraud charges. 

The Public Works contract involves the ubiquitous army-green toilets located throughout the city. A pact with French transnational JCDecaux for self-cleaning toilets sporting ads was sealed all the way back in 1995 under Mayor Frank Jordan. Willie Brown decried it as a “giveaway” during his subsequent campaign vs. Jordan, but later sang its praises, expanded it and locked it in place for decades — after visiting JCDecaux officials in ’96 for a decadent French jaunt in which he was lavished with a helicopter ride.

via Mission Local

JCDecaux through the acquisition of CEMUSA NY in 2015 runs and operates a whole bunch of street furniture here in NYC, some of which is noted below:

  • NYC Transit Bus Stop Shelter
  • Street Newsstand (part of the Coordinated Street Furniture Franchise)
  • Automatic Public Toilet (APT)
  • Bike Parking Shelter

San Francisco JCDecaux Public Toilet Photo by Paul Sableman

Axonometric views of NYC as inspiration


We love axonometric views – a 3d orthographic view of the world – and they are one of our inspirations for communicating the taxonomy of specimens we find. The mixture of precision (orthographic projections can be measured) and art (how much detail to resolve is a choice) hits a sweet spot. You can spend hours on the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, or google, and explore many different views of NYC. We also find a great deal of inspiration by searching the following locations:

Below are a set of axonometric city views of NYC we have recently found, and have found inspirational.

New York Picture Map, 1963 by Bollmann et al

New York City Picture Map – a 3-D Map of Mid-town Manhattan – David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Anderson map, 1985

Tennant welcomes you to New York. Anderson Isometric Maps 1968 – David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Ishihara map, 2000

Map of Midtown Manhattan in Detailed Axonometric Projection. New revised ed. – David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Jane’s Walk NYC 2021 Notes

Janes Walk 2021 Notes

Notes for friends; thank you all who attended our Jane’s Walk NYC 2021 chat last week. While family and weather meant that it was mostly me talking and less walking, we had a great turnout. We are scheduling future walking events, to keep informed subscribe to the project or go to our Instagram page. We hope you can continue to follow along with this project, and attend future walks.

Here’s an unordered list of questions and resources from the discussion:

Roosevelt Island Air Tubes

Roosevelt Island Air Tube front - yellow - in color alt 2

Our favorite parts of Roosevelt Island are the exhaust/fresh air tubes which are at the WIRE buildings section of the island, which come in different pleasing 1970’s colors. At least we think they are exhaust/fresh air tubes since if you put your hand on them you can feel air movement, and there is a slight vibration. We are certain they are not part of the infamous pneumatic trash system which links all the buildings on the island by a 22″ trash tube, which you can read about here:

Excuse us a moment as we depart from our normal photography style guide of black and white photography to show some comparative images of the tubes in color versus black and white. We developed a specific photography style in order to bring some level of harmony to a chaotic mess we call this world. This is a stylistic choice, we always save photographs in their native raw format, and employ non-destructive developing processes so we can go back to the archive file. We standardize our photography collection in order to focus on what the specimen does, rather than the appearance, and to keep workflow consistent. But what the specimen looks like is undoubtably important, especially when it comes to color.

Roosevelt Island Air Tube - Orange - in BWRoosevelt Island Air Tube - Orange - in color
Roosevelt Island Air Tube front - yellow - in bwRoosevelt Island Air Tube front - yellow - in color

We plan on conducting more research on these specimens to understand their exact usage, then plan on publishing an entry to the taxonomy guide. While you wait, feel free to look at the Roosevelt Island Master Plan to see what the future looked like in 1969.

Specimens found on Roosevelt Island

Why studying street furniture is important

Street Dining on Lorimer and Bedford at Five Leaves

Street furniture is where public policy meets our bodies.

Topics like zoning and land use are fascinating, and I can speak or read books about these topics all day. But, it’s really really hard to understand zoning – and really difficult to hold zoning in our minds eye without scrambling a bit. We can kind of understand the difference between a R1 and an R10 district in terms of building scale, size, shape, orientation, and bulk. But the differences between a R4A and R4B district takes a minute to really understand and requires diagrams.

You might be able to touch a zoning map (once you print it out); but zoning maps can’t hug you back, or allow you to sit and hug someone.

Street Furniture shows who gets a share of our limited physical space.

We aren’t building new streets. The space between buildings (street walls) generally isn’t changing, and the spatial geometry is pretty much set. How we divide this already-set amount of public space, and for what purpose, is highly contested. Just see how many times people are stealing the North Brooklyn Slow Streets signs on Meeker.

What we put in our public thoroughfares are the physicalized form of urbanism. It’s the culmination of zoning texts, land use regulations at the state, county, and local level. And the decision of thousands of people, often people we never see or hear from.

Street Furniture is the canary in the coal mine or spectrograph of decisions past made. Often what gets put in our public way isn’t up to us – someone with control of the purchase order makes a decision. Or often, a small minority of people affect how we use the city because they show up at a community board meeting.

Street Furniture is the invisible made visible, that we all can touch and argue about.

That’s what makes it interesting.

Primary source in process: The Plan for Welfare Island

The Plan for Welfare Island

Primary sources are incredibly important to decipher the decision making process. Especially when it comes to procurement, and other government decision making. I found out there is a Municipal Library at City Hall (well, adjacent), part of the New York City Department of Records and Information Services. Searching their records, I found this handy primary document:

The plan for Welfare Island: technical report
Prepared for New York State Urban Development Corp.
By: Philip Johnson & John Burgee, Architects.
Contributor(s): New York State Urban Development Corp.
Publication Date: ​October 7, 1969
Call number: S Ur1.96 pfwi

I love finding original primary documents, the digitization of card catalogs has made finding a lot of these items easier; the hard part is gaining access the original or getting a digital copy of it sent. I no longer have an academic credential, and because of COVID many research libraries are still closed or appointment-only. Luckily, librarians are amazing. I mean, amazing. While I don’t have the full 196 pages scanned and in may possession, they have been great about scanning parts of the document so I can zero in on what parts of the technical report will be useful.

Johnson & Burgee Urban Plan from page 10 & 11 (original PDF) – Roosevelt Island Master Plan

About Roosevelt Island

Read more about Roosevelt Island here:

Specimens found on Roosevelt Island

Jane’s Walk NYC 2021 Starts

Janes Walk Title Square

Happy Monday, friends of tiny urban devices, and those who were waiting for Jane’s Walk NYC 2021!

A happy reminder that starting today thousands of New Yorkers and visitors alike will take to the streets and tune in online for Jane’s Walk, which lasts between May 3-9.

We are hosting our own Jane’s Walk 2021 – Street Furniture: Where Policy Meets our Bodies:

Street Furniture: Where Policy Meets our Bodies

Municipalities are full of small bits of urban fabric which we almost never foreground, but are the manifestations of our public policy: street furniture. These bits of urbanity are the unsung heroes of city life.

We will be exploring Roosevelt Island for our Jane’s Walk NYC, with the walk hosted on Zoom, while we invite attendees to also go on a self-guided in-person walk wherever they are, starting wherever, and encounter pieces of street furniture. We can share what we are all are seeing, listening, hearing, and smelling with the group.

Jane’s Walk 2021 – Street Furniture: Where Policy Meets our Bodies

Zoom info: Street Furniture: Where Policy Meets our Bodies
When: May 5, 2021 11:00 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Register in advance for this meeting:–hqDgtHtEEgjDfnLBIFW5SLXkK5pH_

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

Come and join us as we share our love of these tiny bits of urbanity. We’ll be on site, and this will certainly be a prototype adventure. Something will certainly go wrong, but isn’t that the fun part?

About Roosevelt Island

Read more about Roosevelt Island here:

Specimens found on Roosevelt Island

Other Roosevelt Island Jane’s Walk 2021 Talks

Roosevelt Island Motorgate

We know everyone will join us for our virtual stroll around Roosevelt Island: Jane’s Walk 2021 – Street Furniture: Where Policy Meets our Bodies (sign up!). We see by our visitor logs that the internet is excited about Roosevelt Island by all the visitors to our entry about the Roosevelt Island Urban Plan. That’s awesome.

Janes Walk Title Square

We wanted to highlight other Jane’s Walk 2021 talks focusing on Roosevelt Island:

Roosevelt Island: A Vibrant Sustainable Community

Led by Theodore Liebman, Architect at Perkins Eastman and Judith Berdy President of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.

We will review the history of the island and its change from the infamous Welfare Island to today’s vibrant Roosevelt Island community and the 1969 Johnson Plan and its execution. We will review all the architecture, the restoration of landmarks, and sustainability features on the island, the tram and subway, the new Cornell Tech University and Four Freedoms Park created as a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and designed by Louis I. Kahn.

Criminalizing Queerness: A Glimpse into Roosevelt Island’s Disturbing Past

Led by Emma Dorfman, Life Jacket Theatre Company.

Roosevelt Island is known today for its high-rise buildings and ample green spaces, but it once housed hundreds of men unjustly imprisoned in the Welfare Island Penitentiary for “lewd and offensive acts which offend the public decency” (NY Penal Law 722, Section 690). This Zoom tour will show you how these queer pioneers- gay men, trans women, and cross-dressers- lived and loved 100 years ago, despite the relentless persecution they met every day.

Roosevelt Island Master Plan

Roosevelt Island Main Street

I spent the weekend playing around Roosevelt Island, the tiny island in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. It’s an amazing place, which feels like another world. Accessible by the F train, Tram, ferry, and car you can get to it, but it isn’t easy.

At the southern end is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park designed by Louis Kahn in 1974, but only brought to life in 2012.

But what’s always special is the urban design of Roosevelt Island. It’s decidedly 1970’s in many ways (both good and bad): there are giant colored tubes, lots of concrete, and a failed idea to keep vehicles off Main Street. The master plan (PDF) is by Philip Johnson and John Burgee and it’s grown on me.

First, let’s take a moment and acknowledge how problematic Johnson is. He was an outright supporter of Nazis, an apparently unreformed fascist, and surrounded himself with the most unseemly of characters. So let’s acknowledge his horribleness while we look at the spaces and urbanism he helped bring to life.


We hosted a Jane’s Walk on May 5th to discuss Roosevelt Island street furniture.

Johnson & Burgee Urban Plan from page 10 & 11

The urban plan is basically a single mainstreet down the spine of the island with apartment buildings branching off, with pedestrian space on the riversides. This creates a narrow canyon of compression in the middle, with release by either going under, through, or besides buildings to the riverside. I can’t make up my mind if Main Street is too narrow or just right.

Urban plan: existing conditions, proposed bulk zoning.


The best part is that the plan envisions a personal vehicle-free Main Street, by having all the personal vehicles park at the Motorgate:

After having crossed the bridge from Queens, you arrive at the Motor- gate at the north end of town. Here you leave your car and transfer to the minitransit system—which may be electric, air-cushioned, horizontal elevator, or a combination of these.

Urban Plan Details

From the urban plan, here is how they describe the future small town:

Main Street, the spine of the Island Town, is where the action is. Here are shops, kiosks, minitransit stops-and 12-story apart- ment buildings angled to lend curiosity to the streetscape. In addition to the 5,000 residential units we plan to build on the island, there will be:

  • public school facilities for about 2,000 pupils; (Roosevelt Island PS/IS 217)
  • indoor neighborhood facilities (including day care centers, playrooms, arts & crafts shops, etc.);
  • two indoor pools;
  • a neighborhood family care center;
  • 100,000 square feet of shopping facilities;
  • at least 200,000 square feet of office space;
  • a 300-room hotel;
  • a fire station, a police station, utility plants and all other facilities that a community needs to function properly.

How the urban plan came to life

Here’s how some of the urban plan has come to life.

Motorgate Parking

Public school facilities – Roosevelt Island PS/IS 217

ArchitectMichael Fieldman Architect

Northtown Housing

WIRE Aerial Plan 1996 label

The first phase of Roosevelt Island’s development called “Northtown.”

ArchitectSert, Jackson & Associates
Address510 – 580 Main Street, Roosevelt Island

1,003 units, Eastwood is the largest residential complex on the island made up of ten connected buildings

Westview - Roosevelt Island
ArchitectSert, Jackson & Associates
Address510 – 580 Main Street, Roosevelt Island

1,003 units, Eastwood is the largest residential complex on the island made up of ten connected buildings

ArchitectJohn M. Johansen
Address531 Main Street

Rivercross is a Mitchell-Lama co-op development multi-story 364-unit cooperative residential apartment building.

Island House
Island House Roosevelt Island
ArchitectJohn M. Johansen
Address555 Main Street


Specimens Found on Roosevelt Island

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