Designing to Outsmart Ebola: Time to Think about the Unthinkable

Ebola is the most recent form of one of civilization’s deepest fears. From Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, through recent films like Outbreak, 28 Days Later, and Contagion, uncontainable pestilence has consistently gripped people’s imagination, if not always their rationality. The most obvious downside of urban density was once infectious disease. Better public-health infrastructure (chiefly safe water, ventilation, and street and residential sanitation, plus better medical management of microorganisms) was a precondition for what Richard Florida and other urbanists call “the Great Reset”: America’s rediscovery of the many cultural, economic, environmental, and energy advantages of city life. Because urban conditions no longer include rampant tuberculosis, cholera, and the other scourges of the pre-antibiotic era, contemporary New Yorkers can enjoy the benefits of proximity and diversity. Nothing would spoil that particular party like a new and even deadlier plague. Continue reading “Designing to Outsmart Ebola: Time to Think about the Unthinkable”

To the Finland Website: To Get an Icon, Don’t Strive for One

The 1,715 submissions to the open, anonymous Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition went online on 10.22.14. The chance to design the next iteration of the most widely recognized modern art museum on Earth, the institution forever linked (however reductively) with contemporary urbanism’s Bilbao Effect, has unsurprisingly drawn a crowd. The jurors now face the formidable task of sifting out a six-proposal shortlist from that enormous mass of images and texts. A week before the avalanche went public, members of the jury and other prominent architects and academics met with an animated Archtober crowd to preview the project’s potentials and pitfalls. They considered what a new Guggenheim might accomplish in bringing Finland’s impressive design tradition to wider world attention, connecting the international art scene with the Finnish public, and carrying forward the complex cultural and economic endeavors that former director Thomas Krens set in motion by moving the Guggenheim brand beyond New York in 1997. Continue reading “To the Finland Website: To Get an Icon, Don’t Strive for One”

Naughty, Gaudy, Bawdy, Sporty, and Gone: Times Squares Old and New

Times Square is mutating steadily, and its relation to the rest of the city is changing as well. Despite its central location, it has never really been the heart of the city; if Manhattan is viewed as an organism, the Times Square of the 1970s and ’80s was its cloaca. Crime and porn defined the place, at least as much as the grit, the funk, the crowds, and the dodgy street food ever did. (At one point in this panel’s reminiscences and reflections, Alexander Cooper, FAIA, expressed astonishment that “we’ve gone an hour-and-a-half and the word ‘porn’ hasn’t come up.” After that observation, it came up quite a bit.)

Many New Yorkers recall aspects of the pre-renovation Times Square fondly, and perhaps even more lament its Disneyfication, but there are few who would seriously want the conditions that journalist Robert Lipsyte called “an oasis of celebration and a sewer of crime” to have endured. The area, Cooper observed, offered “a moment of opportunity” for the patient efforts of city planners and the visionary exercises of architects, established and young. This panel, an initiative of the AIANY 2014 presidential theme “Civic Spirit: Civic Vision,” recalled and analyzed that transformative work, leaving NYC Planning Commission Chairman Carl Weisbrod’s ultimate question, “Did we do it right?” unresolved, but also leaving little doubt that something dramatic had to be done. Continue reading “Naughty, Gaudy, Bawdy, Sporty, and Gone: Times Squares Old and New”

How Truly Public Are Our Public Spaces?

As a composer understands how to deploy rests, moments of silence, as a backdrop that makes each instrument’s contributions meaningful, urban designers and planners recognize that spaces between buildings are key determinants of behavior, indispensable in bringing life to the entire civic organism. Urban space is never entirely blank, neutral, or empty; it has forms and functions, intentions and unintended consequences, narrative arcs and evolutionary stages, just as buildings do. This gathering of practitioners, scholars, and citizens explored various existing and hypothetical expressions of this aspect of the 2014 Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, presidential theme “Civic Spirit: Civic Vision,” speculating about how conscious placemaking can align underlying principles with practical effects. Continue reading “How Truly Public Are Our Public Spaces?”

The Next Big Storm as Hegelian Tragedy: Resilience vs. Affordability

As New York’s built environment evolves, resilience against climate-related challenges is a critical priority. Affordable housing is another. With much of the city’s housing stock standing in need of costly retrofitting against climatic threats, these values could be headed for a collision. If one important definition of tragedy (G.W.F. Hegel’s) is a clash between two legitimate and urgent but incompatible values, older multifamily buildings (particularly those located in the city’s 100-year floodplains) could be the site of an impending tragedy assuming several foreseeable forms, including loss of affordable units, inadequate stormproofing – and perhaps, for some of the city’s most vulnerable populations, accelerated displacement or worse.

NYU’s Furman Center, an urban-policy think tank jointly operated by the university’s law school and Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, has published The Price of Resilience: Can Multifamily Housing Afford to Adapt? – a report that examines the regulatory, financial, and social aspects of these converging challenges. On the eve of releasing the report, as an initiative of the 2014 AIANY Presidential Theme “Civic Spirit: Civic Vision” and coordinated with the “Affording Resilience” exhibition on view at the Center for Architecture until 08.07.14, representatives of the Furman Center discussed the report’s findings with two architects and two planners. There is no simple answer to the question its subtitle poses, beyond an unsettling “possibly not,” The current regulatory framework is unprepared for the problem, and private owners are caught between disincentives to upgrade their buildings and the likelihood of soaring flood-insurance costs if they do not. Recognizing the impending problem is a necessary first step toward heading it off, even if financially and politically feasible solutions are not in sight. Continue reading “The Next Big Storm as Hegelian Tragedy: Resilience vs. Affordability”

The Turbulent Possibilities of Public Space

Nearly everything important in a living democracy takes place in public space: expression that’s politically or artistically consequential, transactions that drive the productive parts of the economy, the movements of people (individually or massed) for the sake of necessity or curiosity or joy. There may be no better barometer of a society’s well-being or a city’s residential desirability than the quality of its public spaces. Yet they have recurrently been treated as amenities and managerial afterthoughts, an early target for budgetary cutbacks. The very idea of a municipal office dedicated to them, a Director of Public Space, is something that AIANY President Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, recalled suggesting a few years ago with tongue in cheek, “a Monty Python title” no more likely to be institutionalized within City Hall than the Ministry of Silly Walks. Discovering that Zurich actually has such a position, ably filled (and eloquently explicated here) by Christine Bräm, was a watershed moment, Brown noted. Perhaps city governments occasionally can conceive of this universal and essential aspect of cities as their legitimate concern. Continue reading “The Turbulent Possibilities of Public Space”

Foster Introduces Undersung Pioneers to the Public

Energized by a love of “anonymous architecture” – and unfazed by the New York Public Library’s recent decision to return his firm’s redesign of the 42nd Street main library to the drawing board – Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA (also known, since his elevation to the peerage in 1999, as Lord Foster of Thames Bank), gave an overflow audience a persuasive manifesto in the guise of a set of personal recollections. His discussion combined an homage to the structural-tile wizards Rafael Guastavino Sr. and Jr. – treasured among architects, particularly those familiar with the scholarship of MIT’s self-described “Guastafarian” John Ochsendorf, but largely unknown outside this community – with a broader salute to some of his design heroes. These often-under-recognized figures in architecture, engineering, and product design have inspired Foster’s work, from his working-class boyhood in Manchester, before he was even aware the profession of architecture existed, to his current position among its globally recognized leaders. Together with Foster + Partners engineer Roger Ridsdill Smith, who elaborated on the remarkably energy- and materially-efficient properties of shells and related double-curved forms, Foster made a convincing case for the combined functionality and beauty of geometries that “do more with less.” Continue reading “Foster Introduces Undersung Pioneers to the Public”

Lead Us Not Into Penn Station…

There may be only one proposition that every sentient being in the tri-state region would agree on: Penn Station, as we know, it has to go. As Margaret Newman, FAIA, noted at the “Transportation as Cultural Identifier: Penn 2023” on 04.19.14, the station was built under the twin erroneous assumptions that New York City and rail travel were both in conditions of irreversible decline. Penn Station is slightly smaller than Bryant Park – about 8½ acres, or 368,000 vs. 418,000 square feet – yet the number of people passing through it daily, reported Newman, is roughly equivalent to the population of Denver, some half a million. And pass through it is all most of them do: it is no place to linger, the opposite of a welcoming space, disliked as widely as its lamented predecessor was admired. As Chris Sharples, AIA, hardly needed to remind this audience, it is a place where “we use the word ‘flee’; Vincent Scully probably would use the word ‘scurry.’” “If you think it’s bad now,” added Thomas Wright of the Regional Plan Association (RPA), “you ain’t seen nothing yet,” considering the rising numbers of users at this confluence of multiple transit systems. (Some 80% of Manhattan’s entering commuters now come from west of the Hudson, feeding New Jersey Transit’s growth over the past two decades, with the Long Island Rail Road holding steady, and true high-speed rail for the Northeast Corridor a possibility.) Endure it though we all do, the situation is critical. Continue reading “Lead Us Not Into Penn Station…”

Shake, Rattle, Roll; Drop, Cover, and Hold On

The average New Yorker probably doesn’t know there’s such a thing as the 125th Street Fault – or that in an earthquake, running out of one’s building is the wrong thing to do. (Staying inside is wiser, preferably close to something load-bearing and away from anything loose.) Yet neither earthquakes nor the technologies for dealing with them are unknown to New York, noted Giovanni Gioia, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, of Dattner Architects, in introducing the speakers on this panel, the latest in the series accompanying the “Considering the Quake” exhibition. The chief challenge, he continued, is applying what’s known before a quake occurs, not after, as with Superstorm Sandy. A contrasting tone appeared in remarks by curator Dr. Effie Bouras, inspired by Carl Sagan’s thoughts on scientific skepticism: “We haven’t found the truth with this exhibit. Our only humble expectancy is to raise questions.” The principles of rational inquiry (gradual, partial, aware of how marginal our knowledge inevitably is) and practical applications of that knowledge (inevitably a matter of urgency) created a useful dialectic as seismic and design specialists explored strategies for preparation and mitigation. Continue reading “Shake, Rattle, Roll; Drop, Cover, and Hold On”

Imagining, and Measuring, the Unimaginable

Humans have been studying earthquakes scientifically for about 2,000 years, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory geophysicist Dr. Klaus Jacob says, ever since Han Dynasty-era polymath Zhang Heng invented the first seismometer so that the Emperor would know about distant earthquakes before the news reached him by messengers on horseback. Now we have multiple networks, like the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, the U.S. Geological Survey, and overseas equivalents, linked and sharing information. Knowing a quake is likely doesn’t equate to predicting its timing, but the state of knowledge about locations, depths, and magnitudes helps the design and construction professions prepare for these probabilistic events and mitigate damage. Continue reading “Imagining, and Measuring, the Unimaginable”