Design Excellence in Newark Overshadows NYC

Event: Designs for Living: Public Architecture and Design Excellence
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.10.08
Speakers: David J. Burney, FAIA — Commissioner, NYC Department of Design and Construction; Charles McKinney, ASLA — Chief of Design, NYC Department of Parks and Recreation; Toni L. Griffin — Director of Planning, Newark, NJ
Moderator: Matthew Schuerman — Reporter, WNYC
Organizers: AIANY; New York New Visions
Sponsors: Champion: Studio Daniel Libeskind; Supporters: Gensler; HumanScale; James McCullar & Associates; Friends: Benjamin Moore & Co.; Costas Kondylis & Partners; Forest City Ratner Companies; Frank Williams & Associates; Hugo S. Subotovsky Architects; Ingram Yuzek Gainen Carroll & Bertolotti; Mancini Duffy; Magnusson Architecture and Planning; Rawlings Architects; Ricci Greene Associates; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Syska & Hennessy; Trespa North America; Universal Contracting

Newark, NJ.

Courtesy Google Earth

It turns out NYC might just have reason to envy Newark, NJ. “They’ve just got so much open space to work with,” gushed NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s Charles McKinney, reflecting on the sweeping plans for new housing and recreational projects presented by Newark Director of Planning Toni Griffin. With a much-depleted urban core and a newly energized city government under Mayor Cory Booker, Griffin is looking to draw on Newark’s present advantages — a thriving seaport and proximity to NYC — in remaking the face of the city. And she already has ambitious proposals coming from the likes of Richard Meier, FAIA, to help her do it.

Not to say that NYC isn’t making great strides of its own. David Burney, FAIA, of the NYC Department of Design and Construction (DDC) pointed to recent and upcoming projects that demonstrate the benefits already accruing from the city’s Design and Construction Excellence Initiative, established by Mayor Bloomberg in 2004. Queens’ Glen Oaks Library designed by Marble Fairbanks, Caples Jefferson Architects’ Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, and Bronx Rescue Company 3’s new headquarters by Polshek Partnership are just a few of the city’s new civic buildings adhering to higher design and environmental standards (all buildings approved by the DDC must now be LEED-Silver certified). Nevertheless, Burney was frank about the difficulties of balancing cost, quality, and schedule.

McKinney reviewed a number of already well-publicized schemes for the expansion and enhancement of city parks, including the Parks Department’s goal of planting one million trees citywide and the resurfacing of asphalt play areas with softer, more foot-friendly synthetics. He also described at length the crown jewels of the Parks Department’s current capital improvement plan: eight vast regional parks, at least one per borough, undergoing extensive rehabilitation. Two projects in the earliest phases of research and planning are the 160-acre Fort Washington Park in Upper Manhattan, and Soundview Park in the Bronx.

But Newark stole the show. With so much on the boards — a projected waterfront park on the Passaic River and new residential infill that breaks the boxy, car-centered mold of recent area housing — many in the audience wanted to know how architects could get involved. Griffin demurred, referring inquiries to the office of Newark’s Chief Architect, while insisting that her proposals were still in the early planning stages.

Museums Balance Unform, Form

Event: 2008 Arthur Rosenblatt Lecture: Todd Williams and Billie Tsien
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.22.08
Speakers: Tod Williams, FAIA; Billie Tsien, AIA — Partners, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
Organizer: AIANY Cultural Facilities Committee
Sponsors: Koutsomitis Architects; SPRINGBOARD Architecture

For Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien, AIA, projects exists between neutral and molded space, between the container and the contained. The installations and museums designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects represent this idea, what they call “unform” and “form.”

The alternative art space, “Art on the Beach” (1988), was designed in collaboration with artist Jackie Ferrara on a former industrial site in Hunters Point, Queens. Concrete blocks found in the vicinity were arranged into a series of roughly orthogonal demarcations, to be activated by various installations and performances taking place in and around them. The design is an example of “unform” — an architectural enclosure to be indefinitely expanded upon by the user. At Whitney Downtown, a spare refurbished basement originally designed by Philip Johnson, Tsien and Williams created a work called “Domestic Arrangements: A Lab Report” (1990). By building a pine-board table-bed in the center of the room with a theatrical balcony-and-stair entrance, the “unformed” space was activated by “form.”

For the American Folk Art Museum (2002) and Phoenix Art Museum (1997/2006) the team shaped architectural experience within neutral containers. In Phoenix, Tsien and Williams designed two contrasting additions, one spare and one more elaborate. The simple steel truss hangar is energized by an exposed staircase. Variegated surfaces impact the new section — unform confronts form. Stairs were used again at the Folk Art Museum. Simultaneous movement on different levels is expressed on the exterior, a rough-hewn bronze box with planar projections suggestive of a formed force pressing against the unformed envelope.

Amidst litigation surrounding the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Williams and Tsien were tight-lipped. Despite some of the requirements being placed upon them — including the preservation of the original curatorial arrangement of pieces — the most they would say is that “the art will have to act as the formed element, and we’ll have to build an unformed structure around it.”

Symbiosis: Poetry, Architecture

Event: Form and Function: The Intersection of Poetry and Architecture
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.27.08
Speakers: Latin American Confluenes: Poetry & Architecture at the Mid-Century: A.S. Bessa — Director of Programs, Bronx Museum of the Arts; Carlos Brillembourg, AIA — Principal, Carlos Brillemboug Architects; Rubén Gallo — Writer & Scholar; Mónica de la Torre — Poet & Conceptual Artist; Architexts: Louise Braverman, FAIA — Principal, Louise Braverman, Architect; Annie Finch — Poet; Jill Stoner — Poet & Author; A Conversation with Architect Lebbeus Woods & Poet Susan Stewart: Susan Stewart — Poet & Critic; Lebbeus Woods — Professor, The Cooper Union Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture; Between Forms: A Poetry Reading: A.S. Bessa; Gregg Biglieri — Poet; Brenda Coultas — Poet; Patricia Spears Jones — Poet; Frances Richard — Poet; Marjorie Welish — Poet, Artist, Art Critic
Moderator: Stephen Motika — Program Coordinator, Poets House
Organizers: Poets House; Center for Architecture
Sponsors: Center for Architecture; New York Council for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities; Graham Foundation

Poetry and architecture can be linked in many ways — design inspired by poetry; poetry inspired by design; through the lens of specific artists; and through the lens of history. A full-day symposium sought to highlight the contact between the two art forms.

The discussion, “Latin American Confluences: Poetry & Architecture at Mid-Century,” looked historically at Central and South America where 20th-century political turmoil was ancestor to both literature and design. Writer and editor A.S. Bessa presented Brazilian concrete poetry, a formal practice with a distinctly visual component as words themselves form pictures. Carlos Brillembourg, AIA, discussed poetry and the city, particularly the effect of the 1920s Parisian streetscape on Peruvian surrealists such as César Vallejo, whose poetry has a collage-like quality.

Rubén Gallo and Mónica de la Torre talked about engagé poets and architects emerging in the 1960s. Poets such as Octavio Paz were horrified by the violent suppression of student demonstrations in Mexico City in 1968; Gallo pointed out that the city’s New Brutalist architecture proved useful to the authorities in herding and controlling demonstrators. De la Torre spoke about radical poets following the riots, who took cue from Paz’s call for “reversible monuments” — suggesting both a literature of outsiders against society and a condition of impermanence in contrast to the stolid concrete architecture that was the backdrop for the riots.

Louise Braverman, FAIA, made distinct analogies between poetry and architecture when designing the Poets House headquarters in Battery Park City. Although she did not speak in detail about the project during the “Architexts” panel, she suggested that abstract problems of form, space, and movement are comparable in both disciplines.

During the “Conversation with Architect Lebbeus Woods & Poet Susan Stewart,” Lebbeus Woods, better known as a theorist than a builder, compared his own process-based design strategy to that of poet T.S. Eliot. Susan Stewart, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, was more reluctant to make a parallel between drawing and poetic composition. However, on the topic of historic influence, Stewart accepts the appropriation of poetic forms from any period in literature, while Woods objected to the direct borrowing from past architecture.

Green Speaks for Itself in Workplace Design

Event: Architecture: Designs for Living Public Lecture Series: New Directions in Design of the Workplace
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.08.08
Speakers: Martha Hirst — Commissioner, NYC Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS); Dina Frank, AIA, IIDA — President, Mancini-Duffy; Rick Focke — Senior Principal, HOK; Nathan Hoyt, FAIA — Principal, Davis Brody Bond Aedes; Guy Geier, FAIA, IIDA, LEED AP — Senior Partner, FXFOWLE Architects
Moderator: Rocco Giannetti, AIA, LEED AP — Chair, AIANY Interiors Committee
Organizer: AIANY Interiors Committee
Sponsors: Champion: Studio Daniel Libeskind; Supporters: Gensler; Humanscale; James McCullar & Associates; Friends: Costas Kondylis & Partners; Forest City Ratner Companies; Frank Williams & Associates; Hugo S. Subotovsky A.I.A. Architects; Mancini Duffy; Magnusson Architecture and Planning; Rawlings Architects; RicciGreene Associates; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Syska Hennessy Group; Trespa North America; Universal Contracting Group

National Audubon Society Home Office, NYC.

Photo by David Sundberg/Esto, courtesy FXFOWLE Architects

The NYC Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) received a mayoral mandate to reduce city government’s carbon footprint by 30% over the next 20 years in accordance with PlaNYC. DCAS Commissioner Martha Hirst explained that “doing more with less” is no easy task as the Office of Energy Conservation handles the accounts for about 4,000 municipal buildings. Some efforts — more efficient lighting at the Police Academy, and quick roll-up doors for the Department of Sanitation — have presented technical challenges.

Interior designers are doing their part to live up to PlaNYC’s sustainability goals as well. Presenting an office renovation at the Empire State Building for the NGO Human Rights in China, Nathan Hoyt, FAIA, principal of Davis Brody Bond Aedes, spoke of the need to “elasticate” modest space to accommodate a growing staff. Installing floor track movable furniture was one of the decisions made, as well as creating spaces that could serve double, or even triple, uses. At the National Audubon Society offices, FXFOWLE Architects incorporated found furniture and streamlined heating and cooling into the interior design.

“We don’t try to convert the client,” said Mancini-Duffy President Dina Frank, AIA, IIDA; instead, she recommended a “soft sell,” letting the health and economic advantages of environmentally sensitive, LEED-oriented design speak for themselves. Images of Mancini-Duffy’s new interior for AOL’s New York headquarters addressed this: sensor-activated lighting, bamboo paneling, and an open floor plan all made for a seductive, yet practical, interior design solution.

James & Hayes Slade: NY Architects Discover Inner Mongolia

Entry perspective of Slade Architecture’s villa in Ordos, Inner Mongolia.

Slade Architecture

In 2002, architect James Slade, AIA, and wife Hayes Slade, an MBA with a background in engineering, launched a joint practice, Slade Architecture. Their work includes commercial, residential, and cultural projects, and now they’ve been selected by Herzog & de Meuron and artist Ai Weiwei as one of 100 international firms building 100 villas in the new town of Ordos, Inner Mongolia. E-Oculus contributor Ian Volner sat down with Slade Architecture to talk about Ordos, Ai Weiwei, and designing in the desert.

e-OCULUS: How did you first get involved with the Ordos project?

Hayes Slade: Herzog & de Meuron contacted us first about a year ago. We didn’t really understand the full scope of the project at the time, but the CC: list on the e-mail went on and on. “Dear all, we’ve put your name on a list of 100 young architects from around the world…”

James Slade, AIA: Then we started getting more information several months later, in December. Suddenly, we were told that the project was going forward and we were asked to come to Inner Mongolia either in January or in April. We went for the “Phase II” visit in spring. We met up with Ai Weiwei in Beijing at his restaurant, and found ourselves in the company of a lot of architects we already knew and others, especially from abroad, we didn’t. The next day, we all flew to Ordos, which is about a two-and-a-half hour flight from Beijing. Once we got to Inner Mongolia, we were constantly under police escort — a busload of architects and reporters.

e-O: What was the brief, exactly?

JS: All 100 houses in the development are 10,000 square feet with a lot of amenities: we had to provide for a pool, a wine cellar, study, and media room. The suggested footprint for each unit is set back into the lot and surrounded by paths, making the whole development a gallery for architecture. We were told that the construction of the house would have to be relatively low-cost concrete and brick. But other than that, there were so few limitations placed on the project that we had to grab on to the few restrictions there were. And, of course, there’s nothing there at the moment except desert, so we had to extrapolate on the master plan to find the context.

HS: There was no reason to jettison what little information we had about the site, and the lack of context became a kind of compelling context in and of itself. I mean, how often do you have a client giving you such vague instructions?

JS: So we took that gallery aspect as a given, as an objective of the master plan. We tried to make the house a sculptural object that would reward the viewer walking around it, but also allow for privacy inside. The private spaces have interior views, and the public spaces are put on display. We had three typologies in mind: Johnson’s glass house, an enclosed living space that’s an extension of the ground plane; a Chinese courtyard house, a traditional regional typology; and a freestanding, sculptural volume.

e-O: How did your design process differ from that of previous projects you’d worked on?

JS: We worked from the outside in on this one. It seemed like the sculptural possibilities of the house were very important, so we started by looking for a massing that we liked, since the building was going to be seen as a freestanding form on the site. Then we found an interior arrangement based on our foam core massing models, in coordination with Rhino.

HS: We also thought, working in China and with brick, that we had a unique opportunity because the labor there is so cheap. We realized we could do something unusual and inventive with the brick surfacing that we wouldn’t have been able to do in the States. The geometry of the bricks runs throughout the façade — the bricks rotate on their own axes as they wrap around the building, creating a ripple effect.

e-O: What’s it been like working with Ai Weiwei?

JS: I think one of Weiwei’s objectives with this project is to create a cross-cultural exchange. Part of the whole experience has been the social scene with the other architects, the mixing of practices.

HS: Weiwei put us up in a Holiday Inn in a town near Ordos. At the hotel, it was a little bit like waiting for an airplane that never arrived — there was a lot of lounging around, talking to other architects. It was a completely nondescript, ubiquitous tourist hotel in a nondescript tourist part of town, and the environment seemed to fit perfectly with Weiwei’s goal. The whole project is like a big social/art experiment, with us — the architects, as the subjects.

Plazas Will Serve Low-Income Neighborhoods… But at Whose Cost?

Event: New York City Plaza Program Information Session
Location: Department of Transportation, 07.16.08
Speaker: Andy Wiley-Schwartz — Assistant Commissioner, Office of Planning and Sustainability, NYC Department of Transportation
Organizer: NYC Department of Transportation

Before and after image of the Plaza Program’s potential.

Courtesy NYC Department of Transportation

With the NYC Plaza Program, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is looking to create “vest pocket parks” — small, modestly landscaped plazas on existing marginal sites such as traffic islands and underused turning lanes. At a recent information session, Andy Wiley-Schwartz, assistant commissioner of the Office of Planning and Sustainability, presented how the department could use its authority over the public right-of-way to displace or divert streets and parking to create easily accessible plazas, complete with benches and plantings.

To be designed by the city and managed in cooperation with neighborhood nonprofit groups who will apply to DOT to enter the Plaza Program, the criteria for acceptance will favor community organizations in low-income areas with inadequate public space but with the means to maintain the proposed plazas. But there’s the catch. Local groups are expected not only to provide upkeep and programming, but also to assume liability for the new public spaces, according to the program’s proposal guidelines. The cost of insurance alone could make the plazas prohibitively costly for the very neighborhoods where they’re most needed.

However, with construction still two years away and a relatively modest $14 million on hand expected to fund about four plazas a year to start, the NYC Plaza Program is only one small piece of a much larger urban puzzle — a signal, along with the midtown Broadway Esplanade from 42nd to 34th Street opening mid-August, of a shift in the Bloomberg administration away from automobile traffic towards a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape for New York.