Con Ed Puts Wrench in Powerhouse Landmark Efforts

Event: Preserving the IRT Powerhouse
Location: Center for Architecture, 07.28.09
Speaker: Paul Kelterborn — Co-founder, Hudson River Powerhouse Group, Inc.
Moderator: Michael Samuelian — Co-chair, AIANY Planning & Urban Design Committee
Organizer: AIANY Planning & Urban Design Committee; AIANY Historic Buildings Committee


Hudson River Powerhouse Group continues efforts to make IRT Powerhouse a landmark.

Historic image courtesy Paul Kelterborn; interior photo by Paul Kelterborn

The High Line has given industrial architecture conservationists a fresh example of how a well-managed preservation project can produce an aesthetic and economic success. A preservation group is seeking to replicate the feat for the Hudson River Powerhouse, a 1904 McKim, Mead & White design that fills the block between 11th and 12th Avenues and 58th and 59th Streets. Hudson River Powerhouse Group Co-founder Paul Kelterborn presented his group’s efforts to have the building protected as a landmark.

When the powerhouse was built, the New York Times wrote of its Beaux Arts design: “But for its stacks, it might suggest an art museum or a library rather than a powerhouse.” “If this building were 800 feet tall rather than 800 feet long, it would be a landmark already,” said Michael Samuelian, co-chair of the Planning and Urban Design committee and moderator of the talk.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is currently considering the group’s application for landmark status. At a public hearing on 07.14.09, “there was a lot of really favorable testimony — in fact it was almost all favorable. The only negative testimony came from Con Ed,” Kelterborn stated. One contrarian voice, Joseph Bresnan, FAIA, suggested that Con Ed remain, if more efficiently, sharing the space with potential new uses.

Con Edison, which has owned the building since 1959, opposes the landmark effort. No representative of Con Edison was present at the lecture, but the utility has reportedly claimed that landmark status would create extra costs and put an onerous burden on the utility company if structural changes were needed. According to Kelterborn, they also charge that the involvement of McKim, Mead & White partner Stanford White in the building’s design has been overstated. Also, the company has made a number of structural changes since purchasing the building, including the removal of its cornice and all of the original smokestacks.

Although no longer generating electricity, the powerhouse is still in service as a steam plant, generating 10% of the steam in the city’s system. There are ideas on the table for how the powerhouse could be used if Con Edison were to move its steam operations out of the building, including “a publicly accessible cultural space — in an ideal world,” according to Kelterborn.

The LPC has considered landmark status for the powerhouse twice before, in 1979 and 1991, reaching no decision either time. Con Edison opposed both applications. Kelterborn hopes that the Center for Architecture event’s high attendance reflects a growing interest in the preservation effort following extensive local coverage.

Patient-Friendly Design Is Prescribed for Health Facilities

Event: Building Type Awards Symposium — Health Facilities Winners
Location: Center for Architecture, 06.10.09
Speakers: Joan L. Saba, AIA, FACHA, NCARB — Principal, NBBJ; Charles Siconolfi, AIA — Director, Health Care Practice, HOK; Joseph Tattoni, AIA — Principal, ikon.5
Organizers: AIA New York Chapter
Sponsors: Patrons: Cosentino North America; The Rudin Family; Syska Hennessy Group; Lead Sponsors: Arup; Dagher Engineering; The Durst Organization; HOK; Mancini Duffy; Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects; Sponsors: AKF Group; Building Contractors Association; FXFOWLE Architects; Hopkins Foodservice Specialists; Ingram Yuzek Gainen Carroll & Bertolotti; JFK&M Consulting Group; KI; Langan Engineering & Environmental Services; MechoShade Systems; New York University; Pei Cobb Freed & Partners; Rogers Marvel Architects; Steelcase; Studio Daniel Libeskind; Tishman Realty & Construction; VJ Associates; Weidlinger Associates; Zumtobel Lighting/International Lights

(L-R): CHOMP Expansion by HOK; Building for the Third Century by NBBJ; The center for Wellness by ikon.5.

Courtesy AIANY

Utilitarian and sterile, the modern hospital has typically favored function over form. But recently, medical professionals have started considering the evidence that good design contributes to patients’ wellness. The Health Facilities category of the AIANY and Boston Society of Architects Building Type Awards recognizes architecture firms that have brought excellent design to health care-related building projects. A symposium brought together representatives from the three winning firms: Joan L. Saba, AIA, FACHA, NCARB, of NBBJ, for the Building for the Third Century at Massachusetts General Hospital; Charles Siconolfi, AIA, of HOK, for the Community Hospital of Monterey Peninsula (CHOMP) Expansion; and Joseph Tattoni, AIA, of ikon.5, for The Center for Wellness at the College of New Rochelle.

The Building for the Third Century will provide much-needed patient rooms and procedure spaces for the busy Harvard-affiliated hospital. Saba described NBBJ’s design, which includes open atria and garden spaces organized around a “cracked square” — the floor plan features a diagonal line of public spaces that interrupts the broad areas of private patient rooms and nurses’ stations.

Similarly, HOK’s addition to CHOMP elaborates an existing diagonal that organizes the hospital’s floor plan. For this project, the intention is to respect the overall shape as well as the fine details of the original 1972 building by Edward Durell Stone. With floor-to-ceiling windows at corridor terminations and in patient rooms, HOK sought to improve patients’ experience by visually connecting them with the surrounding bucolic coastal landscape.

The design of ikon.5’s Center for Wellness aligns with the College of New Rochelle’s educational mission, according to Tattoni, by aiming “to educate about total wellness, a complete body/mind preparedness to approach the world.” It does so through spaces that guide students through the center’s several functions: gymnasium, classroom, meditation spaces, and natatorium. The center’s use of granite blocks inside and out, as well as its broad roof garden, integrates the building with the college campus aesthetics.

Although each project dealt with very different circumstances and clients — from a leafy college campus to a cramped urban teaching hospital — symposium moderator Richard Thomas challenged the award winners to describe the themes common to each project. “If we were here 10 years ago, I don’t think we would be seeing projects with this concern for the whole of the human experience,” said Siconolfi. Thomas agreed, citing health care clients’ increased attentiveness to the “principles of patient-friendly design,” backed by scientific studies that show the measurable effects of architecture on patient outcomes.

The Many Faces of Washington Square Park

Event: Washington Square Park: Designs Over Time
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.27.09
Speakers: Adrian Smith, ASLA — Senior Associate, EDAW; George Vellonakis — Landscape Architect, NYC Department of Parks & Recreation; Rebecca Ferguson — Washington Square Park Administrator, NYC Department of Parks & Recreation; Nancy Owens, ASLA — Principal, Nancy Owens Studio
Organizers: AIANY; New York Chapter, ASLA

Washington Square Park.

Jessica Sheridan

Bathers may have returned to the fountain in Washington Square Park, but the face of the park has changed profoundly since renovations began in December 2007, according to George Vellonakis, landscape architect at the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation. In his recent presentation, he discussed his design in the context of Washington Square Park’s designs over history. Vellonakis aimed to “respect the layers of design” woven into the park’s layout, while also introducing new innovations.

Vellonakis’s design provides the park its first face-lift since a 1967 redesign, under the direction of Robert Moses. By removing concrete retaining walls and benches from the 1967 plan, Vellonakis created what he called a “more gardenesque approach.” Returning the park’s fountain to the same elevation as the surrounding park eliminates the need for ramps that used to lead to the central plaza. The design also attempts to “recapture” the park’s lawns for “passive recreation.”

To start the evening, Adrian Smith, ASLA, senior associate at EDAW, provided a summary of Washington Square Park’s previous incarnations with a historical slideshow. Originally a marsh fed by Minetta stream, the area that would become Washington Square Park first served as a potter’s field, or public burial ground. In the 1820s, the Square became a military parade ground. A Tammany Hall-financed redesign in the 1870s enlisted landscape designer Ignaz Anton Pilat, who, influenced by Frederick Law Olmsted, introduced more curvaceous paths to soften the military-straight lines of the parade ground. The most prominent features that link the new design to the past are these diagonal paths crisscrossing the central plaza.

After presenting “before” and “after” photos of his redesign, Vellonakis took comments from the audience. Several audience members criticized Vellonakis for not having enough community input. Panelist Nancy Owens, ASLA, of Nancy Owens Studio, addressed the issue by asking rhetorically, “Do we want input from the community? Or are we marketing our own designs?” Whether the public had enough say or not, so far the masses have returned seemingly unaware of the politics leading to its fruition.

Joel Sanders Brings the Outside In

Event: 2009 Oberfield Memorial Lecture: Interface: Overlapping interior and Exterior, a lecture by Joel Sanders
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.01.09
Speaker: Joel Sanders, AIA — Principal, Joel Sanders Architect
Organizer: AIANY Interiors Committee
Sponsor: Gensler

Mix House.

Courtesy Joel Sanders Architect

Historically, landscape architecture has largely been viewed as a secondary discipline to architecture — decoration for the exterior of a building — while architecture has been traditionally taken more seriously, stated Joel Sanders, AIA, principal of Joel Sanders Architect. At this year’s Oberfield Memorial Lecture, he countered history and called for the integration of landscape and architectural design, and presented his firm’s attempts to blur the boundary between inside and outside. Sanders claimed that the current environmental crisis is forcing designers to readjust the dialectic between nature and culture. “The organic and synthetic operate as fields of varying intensities across the surface of the Earth,” not as discrete categories, he said.

Through a series of collaborations with landscape firm Balmori Associates, Sanders illustrated the ways integrated design principles can unify the two fields. Their proposal for the 2012 Olympic Equestrian Center in Staten Island incorporated a curvilinear skin that encircled the fields, making the structure continuous with the ground. Seongbukdong Residences, a stepped residential development in South Korea designed with Haeahn Architecture, provides views of mountains in the distance and the neighbors’ gardens in the foreground, while hiding neighboring buildings from one another. And a penthouse on Broadway in Manhattan eliminates distinctions between outdoor “public” and indoor “private” spaces by opening the interiors and enfolding planted gardens within the structure.

Most dramatically, Sanders described a conceptual house his firm designed with Karen Van Lengen/KVL and Ben Rubin/EAR Studio that brings sights and sounds from the exterior environment into the house through a series of parabolic windows and microphones. Called “Mix House,” the design allows residents to set volume levels for various inputs — such as the sound of kids playing in the backyard, or of jets passing overhead.

In all projects, Sanders insists that the design incorporates environmentally sustainable materials and draws elements of the exterior environment into the interior. In this way, he suggested, his firm is attempting to erase distinctions between inside and outside, between natural and synthetic, and between landscape design and architecture.

Change Marks History of Preservation

Event: What Is Preservation and What Is the Landmarks Commission
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.30.09
Speakers: Mark Silberman — General Counsel, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC); Anthony C. Wood — Chair, New York Preservation Archive Project; Frances Halsband, FAIA — Partner, Kliment Halsband Architects & Former LPC Commissioner
Moderator: Sherida Paulsen, FAIA — Partner, PKSB Architects, 2009 AIANY President, & Former LPC Chair
Organizers: AIANY Historic Buildings Committee

The New York Botanical Garden library, Fountain of Life, and Tulip Tree Allée, designed by Robert W. Gibson, were recently awarded NYC landmark status.

Courtesy NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

The definition and history of landmarks and their designations in NYC is often unclear as it is ever evolving. In a recent panel discussion, the general counsel and several former members of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) spoke about its history and philosophy, highlighting changing ideas about preservation.

Anthony Wood, chair of the New York Preservation Archive Project, presented a capsule history of the Landmarks law. As the author of Preserving New York (Routledge, 2007), he debunked the myth that the fight to save Pennsylvania Station gave birth to the preservation movement, claiming the myth “robs us of 50 years of New York City history.” Wood emphasized the role of Albert Bard, an early advocate of preservation, who argued as early as 1913 that the city ought to make regulations based on aesthetics. It took decades of protests and legal action, however, before NY passed the Landmarks Preservation Law, which established the LPC. “The law was radical, but it was more radical in its concept than in application,” Wood said, citing the relative conservatism and gradualism with which the Commission has exercised its authority.

With this history as context, Frances Halsband, FAIA, a former LPC commissioner, examined the definition of preservation — a concept that, despite its apparent simplicity, can be difficult to apply in practice. Because individuals and communities may differ on what is worth preserving, Halsband cautioned that preservation is “an art and not a science.” It is an evolving process that reflects changing attitudes and values in the community. Unlike restoration, “preservation is primarily concerned with change,” Halsband said. “We are now preserving buildings that were last generation’s ‘threats,'” to historic areas.

Acts of preservation have as much to say about the present as the past, according to Halsband. “The best we can do is to be true to our own time.”

Two visions of 21st-Century Cities

Event: Forum for Urban Design Fall Conference Presentation
Location: Century Association, 11.03.08
Speakers: Richard Burdett — Centennial Professor in Architecture and Urbanism, London School of Economics & Director, Urban Age; Robert Bruegmann — Professor, University of Illinois
Organizers: Forum for Urban Design

Courtesy Forum for Urban Design

In back-to-back presentations, two urban planning researchers gave conflicting accounts of the future of cities, differing on the use of statistics and the desires of city dwellers. Richard Burdett, director of the Urban Age project, outlined the results of an eight-city study, recently published in the book The Endless City (Phaidon, 2008). Noting that 2007 marked the first time in history that half the world’s population lived in cities, Burdett used photos and diagrams from the book to summarize the prospects for urban design in the 21st century.

In one aerial image from São Paulo, a freeway separated orderly apartment blocks from a chaotic shantytown, or favela. Pointing to the image, Burdett said architects “mostly build ugly buildings, and only to the end of the property line, with little concern for what happens outside.” A series of maps showed the locations of the world’s fastest-growing cities in Africa and Southeast Asia. According to Burdett, São Paulo’s favela is representative of the explosive growth of the slums and shantytowns in these cities. “As urbanists, this is the problem we have to deal with… and I don’t think we have the tools to do it.”

Against this vision of endless sprawl, Burdett held up examples of highly functional urban design, including London, Berlin, and New York. Through their combination of inclusive governance structure, public transit, and high density, Burdett argued that these cities could serve as models for the developing world.

Professor Robert Bruegmann of the University of Illinois responded to Burdett’s presentation, taking issue with several of Urban Age’s statistics and methods. Bruegmann charged that Burdett and Urban Age had neglected the middle class’s desire for lower density and detached housing. The book, Bruegmann said, is concerned with not what people want but “what people should want.”

Referring to the high-density cities, Bruegmann observed, “It’s quite possible that these old European and American cities were an aberration.” He forecasted that future cities would look less like Berlin and more like Los Angeles, with sprawling suburbs and exurbs connected to a medium-density core by freeways.