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Architectural Niceties: Cocktails & Conversations with Craig Dykers, William Menking, and Toby Cecchini

How do you design a cocktail based on architecture? For cultureNOW and AIANY Architecture Dialogue Committee’s second session of Cocktails & Conversations, Toby Cecchini attempted just that, using the work of the Snøhetta as inspiration. Cecchini juxtaposed the architecture firm’s Norwegian origins with love of beer (its Lower Manhattan office has a permanent beer tap). The Norwegian element was also represented by a classic aquavit sour (the traditional Scandinavian spirit made by Portland-based House Spirits, along with lemon juice, Golden Harvest honey syrup, and fresh ginger juice). The addition of beer created a piquant, complex taste, rimmed with salt, spice, and orange zest.

While sipping this pleasant, if atypical, drink, Craig Dykers, AIA, principal at Snøhetta, presented an equally atypical topic of discussion: how architecture can and should comport itself politely. “Public discourse has become extremely coarse,” he said, “filled with vitriol.” But how does this relate to architecture? “The environment that humans create defines the medium for their role in it.” Dykers suggested that architects focus on giving – to their clients and to the city – before expecting anything in return, proposing that architecture should be as gracious as possible to public concerns.

Dykers’ concern with civic courtesy must have been awakened by the firm’s recent efforts to reinterpret one of the most iconic spaces in New York City. Its design for Times Square doesn’t compete with the ubiquitous LED screens or the chaos of onlookers and pedestrians. How to approach the busiest intersection in New York with mild manners? “Correct orientation gives you more security.” Therefore, place hints of directionality. Slope the ground to give visitors a view of their surroundings. Design benches for flexibility.

Architects, Dykers says, need to have empathy to design for public civility. Though an analogy between architecture and cattle facilities may come as surprise, he referenced the writing and work of Temple Grandin, an animal rights activists who stands for humane treatment of animals for slaughter, as a model: “We look at people as if they were domestic livestock.” It may not be possible to change people, but it is possible to ease their passage through life and physical space. “It’s important to make people feel secure.”

Towards the end of a Q&A with William Menking of The Architect’s Newspaper, Dykers recalled a visit to a church in which the pastor asked the congregation to say hello to the people around them. “And let’s do it. Let’s say hello to everybody. Go ahead. Shake the hand of the person sitting next to you.” The audience, with cocktails in hand, shook hands with the people in front, behind, and next to them, embodying the call to develop polite connections with strangers and neighbors alike.

Event: Cocktails & Conversations
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.12.2013
Speakers: Craig Dykers, AIA, Principal, Snøhetta; William Menking, Editor-in-Chief, The Architect’s Newspaper; Toby Cecchini, Bartender & Author
Organizer: AIANY Architecture Dialogue Committee and cultureNOW
Sponsors: MechoSystems Inc. and Porcelanosa Group

Greta Hansen is a New York-based architectural designer and writer.