What Have Architects Learned in 10 Years?

Ten years ago the Yankees and Red Sox were battling for first place in the American League East, and Philadelphia and Atlanta were doing likewise in the National League. New York architects were designing buildings for cities in China and the Middle East, and issues of taxation and spending loomed large on the national stage. The summer was hot, and the first Harry Potter film was about to be released. Then the airplanes hit New York, D.C., and Pennsylvania, and the world changed.

Photographs of people in the streets of Lower Manhattan show a combination of dust, anxiety, confusion, terror, and resilience. For those of us there, then, it seemed as if time stood still. And then the buildings fell. Inexplicably. Quickly. Impossibly. Rescue workers rushed to the site. Many others, as well, labored to save lives.

In the days and weeks following September 11, architects, engineers, landscape architects, urban designers, graphic artists — the entire NYC design community –came together to offer help, ideas, and expertise. New York New Visions, a group of 20 professional societies, including AIANY, produced a document with fundamental concepts for rebuilding. In the intervening years, three trends have taken root, changing the way buildings in NYC are built. While this had been initiated in the last years of the 20th century, it took the events of 9/11 to create a sense of urgency about their importance.

The first principle is safety. The NYC Building Code initially came about, just over a century ago, in response to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where young seamstresses died because of locked and inadequate building exits. Insufficient exit capacity after the attack on the Twin Towers caused a major change in the city’s construction codes. First by Local Law, then by the acceptance of the International Building Code, exit standards were brought on par with other major cities around the world.

The second idea is sustainable design. Following the 9/11 attacks, Americans called into question our reliance on overseas sources of energy. Today, buildings across the country are increasingly energy efficient as we look more closely at ways of reducing the carbon emissions caused by the construction and use of our structures. In NYC, the Mayor’s Office for Long Term Planning & Sustainability has spelled out clear carbon reduction plans, and the Bloomberg Administration, in partnership with the City Council, is pushing for energy upgrades in existing buildings. Building owners and tenants now demand energy efficiency. Architects are responding by designing buildings that are much more energy efficient, trying to realize goals for 2030 that would have been unimaginable at the dawn of the millennium.

The third change is that we are now an integral part of a global design community. Increased global consciousness since 9/11 has changed the way buildings are designed and constructed. The world has gotten smaller through changes in technology. Architectural firms in NY, large and small, have found projects overseas in both good times and bad. NY architects have transformed the skylines of cites including Dubai, Shanghai, and Singapore. Just as important are the smaller-scale changes made by NY-based firms in cities throughout the world, from Helsinki to Seoul. New Yorkers also responded with designs for housing and social service facilities after the natural disasters in New Orleans, Thailand, and Haiti. And, in turn, NY has benefited, since 2001, from an influx of overseas design talent, with new world-class buildings, such as the Hearst Tower by London-based Foster + Partners, and The New York Times Building by Genoa-based Renzo Piano Building Workshop with FXFOWLE.

Heightened attention to building safety, sustainable design, and to the global marketplace shows that architectural practice has changed since 9/11. As creators and stewards of the built environment, architects have enlivened NYC, delivering buildings that were not feasible or constructible a decade ago. NY is a different place than it was then. When the Yankees play again, this year, in the World Series, they will win the last game.