In a class on Mesoamerican art I remember a lecture in which the ancient city of Teotihuacan was described as “a city without a face” a city that refused to ever show itself fully. It was described in this way because of the refusal of its figurative artists to depict human faces in their work, opting rather to cover the faces of their creations with masks. Since then, I have always felt that this is a good way of describing New York as well. Due to the massive amount of construction and restoration projects going on in the city at any given time, it seems that, at least architecturally speaking, New York never completely reveals itself to us, preferring to use scaffolding as its mask of choice. As soon as one project finishes somewhere another one will surely begin nearby, sometimes so nearby that you will find blocks going years before being seen with the complete absence of construction crews.
This situation begs the question, what’s the point? Surely there is a functional one. In any city, especially one as old the nation’s largest, projects like this are necessary to prevent the city from falling into disrepair and eventual inhabitability. Yet is there any true purpose beyond this? I’m sure those responsible for the restoration or maintenance of many of the city’s old buildings would say that there are aesthetic reasons, and at the level of the individual building this makes sense. However, the seeming lack of a coordinated system of maintenance and restoration has resulted in a city that as a whole is at best stuck in a stable aesthetic state. And for those whose main preoccupation is function, the process of construction can many times be temporarily counterproductive (and sometimes permanently so depending on issues with funding, poor-planning, etc.). This provides us a good example of the possible disconnect between intentions and reality.
Don't get me wrong, I think that the subway is a technological miracle even if it does sometimes force me to take a bit more time moving from A to B, and I'm really happy that the building I live in isn't falling apart, at least completely. However, I think that its good to think about the completely unintended realities produced by certain intentional acts that can appear to run counter to a final objective even if only temporary, because from an archaeological perspective, depending on where we catch an action (or the physical product of it) frozen in time, we may be seeing just this, an unintended temporary reality.