Barry Bridge — by all accounts the dean of the modern school of real estate development; catalyst of that discipline’s current so-called “Golden Age” — lives alone in a glassy, open penthouse apartment, on the 150th floor of his masterpiece, The Armada, which springs up from the heart of what used to be Prospect Park.
Bridge works mainly at a low, flat, empty, circular table in the living room. He was interviewed at this very table on three impossibly cold January days. Bridge is a skilled talker — passionate, loud, occasionally funny — and only becomes more skilled, and more voluble, when he drinks, as he does every day, beginning promptly at 12:30 pm. In this way, and in others that made themselves apparent over the course of the interview, he is an artist-businessman in the classical sense, utterly incapable — and, in any case, totally unwilling — to separate sensual pleasure from the creative demands of his work, which he approaches with an almost religious seriousness.
Bridge, whose first developments began to dot the maps of New York’s boroughs in the years before the famous Changes in the city’s geographical life, was born in Manhattan, the son of an investment banker and a musicologist. Bridge is interested in all things concerning real estate development — none, perhaps, so ardently as its place as a high art unparalleled in the current day. On this topic he is sincere, evangelistic, and often convincing.
INTERVIEWER: When did you begin developing?
BARRY BRIDGE: Oh, from the very beginning. It’s impossible to say exactly, of course, but — here, let me tell you a story, one of my first memories. My brother and I are sitting on the floor of our apartment.
INTERVIEWER: This is—
BRIDGE: Cooper Square. Big loft my parents had in the old days. Anyway, it’s me and my brother down on this dark, smooth hardwood — beautiful stuff; my parents always did have taste — and my brother’s got his blocks piled up and spread out in a row, suggesting a city block. Now, I haven’t been involved in the manufacture of this model, OK? I’ve been elsewhere mentally, daydreaming, about what I couldn’t say. But when I lay eyes on the thing something happens. Synapses erupt, I dunno. Suddenly I’m aware of choice in the matter — that even our loft and the floor and whatever else I think of as home, as my space, you know?, is determined by choice. Someone, some person, had brought this all together. Just like my little brother’s sorry city block. So I knock the whole thing down and he cries. But I give him some pointers, some tips. Maybe over there in the other corner. Maybe make that one building taller. Maybe get Dad to finance some sturdier materials. He was happier in the long run, I think. That’s development. I’ve always, in some way, been developing.
INTERVIEWER: I don’t think I’ve ever heard you speak of a brother.
BRIDGE: Turned out to be an architect.
INTERVIEWER: A fellow artist, then.
BRIDGE: I wouldn’t quite say that.
INTERVIEWER: Is your brother not a good architect?
BRIDGE: No, it’s not that. He’s one of the best, in fact, competent as they come. It’s just that… well, aren’t we finally beyond this idea of the architect as artist at all? He’s a part of a whole. A member of an ensemble cast. The architect is as much of an artist as, say, a first violinist. Fine instrument, but still only an instrument in the end. The developer is an artist because the developer creates from scratch. Without the developer the architect is a sketch-scribbler. I mean, I love my brother.
INTERVIEWER: Extending your metaphor, is it safe to assume that, in music, you admire the composer above all?
BRIDGE: Sure, I admire the ones I’ve read about, as far as that goes — but again, you lack the proper scope. Who’s the person who finances the travel for the orchestra? Keeps the instruments polished, chooses venues, markets appearances, settles petty disputes between composer and conductor? Sets the prices? She’s the artist. Only she can claim to have truly created. To me there are only three kinds of artists: developers, studio heads, and the occasional creative titan of finance. Although in some ways — and I struggle with this — capital sits outside the realm of what I consider to be art. Probably above it, if I’m honest. You see, the developer uses money, relies on it, really, in the same way that the old novelists used (or thought they did; we’ll get to them) certain aspects of reality itself. We take money and force it through a long process of compression and sublimation; subject it to a kind of dream logic. And out comes this brilliant building, this life-changer, this womb. And the building begets more capital and the cycle begins again.
INTERVIEWER: Do you work by strict routine? When do you develop?
BRIDGE: I’m always developing. By definition it’s an everlasting process, without beginning or end. If development ever stops, it’s dead on its foundations.
INTERVIEWER: But is the same true for your personal involvement?
BRIDGE: The bifurcation you suggest, between myself and the building, simply doesn’t exist. Every activity connected to a development of mine is an extension of me, and is therefore an example of my concrete, personal involvement. I manifest myself wherever my logo is found. Right now, for example, as I talk to you, there is a young man in the Bronx — we’re working in the Bronx now, quite exciting — jackhammering away at god knows what, some concrete. Exploding whatever’s left of old piping. He’s wearing a neon vest, and he works — for now he works — for Bridge Corp. Today he is my effort. I’ve got an endless routine.
INTERVIEWER: Is there a part of the development process that’s especially important to you?
BRIDGE: I’ll name two. First is the scouting — the part of the process during which I’m most “active” in the narrow sense you were hinting at just now. There is no moment, in any of the arts, past or present, like encountering a plot that ought to be empty and available for one’s own purposes. It’s my brother and I down on the floor all over again: a moment of unlimited potential, vast promise, all creativity. How to demolish, what and when and how to build, which subsidies to garner. The mind does reel a bit. And then, of course, there’s that midway point, loud with drills and bright with sparks, when construction itself feels part of the landscape. I love the visual signals of that time: the orange netlike plastic wrapped around everything; the huge plastic bags standing in for walls, at altitude; and, of course, the scaffolds. Once a thing is done, I’m usually already bored.
INTERVIEWER: I want to return, for a bit, to your development as a developer. Who were your early models? Did you consciously model your career after anyone else’s?
BRIDGE: I grew up here in New York, so I’m sure there was some osmotic absorption of the Relateds, the Ratners, the Extells, the Vornados. But I can’t really call them influences.
INTERVIEWER: Why is that?
BRIDGE: Their tools were so much cruder. And all those false limits they gave themselves. The problem, of course, was that they imagined their work as partly — even primarily — social. Yes, all these sociological limits…
BRIDGE: Ecological, hydrological, preservationist… I mean, you know, zoning: Imagine! Quality-of-life, on and on. You can see how crippled their thinking was even in the kinds of terms they satisfied themselves with: skyline, of course, being the worst. That two-dimensional concept, right here in the spectacular city, stretched out in every direction — boy, if that wasn’t an unwitting metaphor for short-sightedness. It was all mixed up with politics and arbitrary rules and the passing comforts of laypeople. That’s no environment for real work. Those were more cave paintings than developments. The challenge for my generation was to get past all that.
INTERVIEWER: Did you?
BRIDGE: To some extent we did. I did. Sure. But development is the art of space, and space is inexhaustible in a way that, say, time never was. We’ll always have farther to go.
Ralph Ellison, The Art of Fiction No. 8
Susan Sontag, The Art of Fiction No. 147
Fran Lebovitz, A Humorist at Work