News
02.01.2006
Meet Mister Streetscape
With the new Bronx Public Library Center, Richard Dattner, master of the background building, moves toward center stage, writes Thomas de Monchaux.


Dennis Finnin / Courtesty New York Public Library

With the new Bronx Public Library Center, Richard Dattner, master
of the background building, moves toward center stage, writes Thomas de Monchaux

Bronx Public Library Center

Architect: Dattner Architects; Richard Dattner, principal; Daniel Heuberger, project architect;
Robin Auchincloss, William Stein, George Cumell, Joon Chom, project team
Structural Engineer: Severud Associates Geotechnical/Civil Engineer: Langan Engineering Mechanical/Electrical Engineer: Robert Derector Associates Landscape Designer: MKW & Associates Lighting Consultant: Domingo Gonzalez Design Construction Manager: F. J. Sciame Construction


Courtesy Dattner Architects
Central Park Adventure Playground, 1967

You owe Richard Dattner. If you're an architect and urbanist, or just a client and connoisseur, and have ever tried to describe a particular kind of public space that starts at the sidewalk and goes as far as your imagination will take it; and if you have ever used the word, streetscapeeto describe it: you owe him. That's because Dattner, whose 40-year-old New York practice has been concerned largely with the public and civic, copyrighted the term in the 1970s. It was part of a patent he took out on a line of street furniture, which included a prefabricated fiberglass booth whose hemispherical lozenge geometry still adds a certain miniature modernist grandeur to the work of taxi-dispatchers, cops, and others throughout the city. Once you recognize this booth, you see it everywhere, from the Port Authority Bus Terminal to JFK Airport. But it is also so ubiquitous that it has become almost invisibleejust another part of, well, the streetscape. Dattner is philosophical about the fate of the word, concluding, Well, you can't really own something like that.. The term may belong to him, but Dattner will be the first to tell you that the landscape of the street belongs to everybody. Especially in New York.


Courtesy Dattner Architects
P.S. 380, Williamsburg, 1981

It is the fate of much of Dattner's New York work to integrate itself seamlessly into the streetscape and cityscape. His portfolio includes unconventional playgrounds on the West side of Central Park; vast infrastructural complexes like Brooklyn's 26th Ward Sludge Treatment Facility and Manhattan's East 16th Street Con Edison Service Building; the park atop Upper Manhattan's giant North River Pollution Treatment Plant; and public schools like TriBeCa's P.S. 234. A project now on the boards, a grass-roofed Queens Borough Library Branch in Long Island City, is designed to be literally unseen from adjacent residential towers, despite a strong presence at ground level. His is an indispensable body of work, but in the absence of a signature style, it is also an invisible one.


Courtesy Dattner Architects
Modular Ticket Booths, 1974

His approach did not develop this way through a lack of exposure: Dattner has enountered icon-making architects in his time, both as a student and as a teacher. After study at MIT, he had a stint as a student at London's Architectural Association in the late 1950s where he learned, how to do more with lesss from John Stirling and Alison and Peter Smithson. Some twenty years later, he conducted a second-year design studio at Cooper Union and had a very independent-minded and energeticc student called Daniel Libeskind. But in his own work, he has taken what he calls an existential approachh to questions of form, style, and material. Look at Renzo Piano,, Dattner says. Each project is crafted and sensitive to its circumstances. Polynesia is different from the New York Times. Within our office we aspire to that level of thought..


Courtesy Dattner Architects
P.S. 234, Tribeca, 1988

Critical assessment of the results has been varied, generally colored by the low expectations that, especially in New York, greet the public commissions that have made up the bulk of Dattner's work. For instance, Architectural Record found his 1983 Bronx Con Edison Customer Service Facility to be a sturdy,, response to the client's stated need for a simple, functional design avoiding any impression of wasteful expenditure.. That magazine pronounced his 1989 project, P.S. 234, a success, considering the city's web of bureaucracy and the limited means available. [I]n another city it might qualify as just one more well designed building, but in New York City [it] stands out.. Dattner's 1993 sports facilities at the North River Pollution plant were found to be handsome and colorful,, by Jane Holtz Kay, architecture critic for The Nation, but the overall effect was sparsee and perfunctoryy: Even with budget constraints,, asked Kay, why such lack of zest?? Former New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger was unimpressed by the 1972 Riverside Park Community Apartments in upper Manhattan, on which Dattner worked, in collaboration with the firms of Henri A. Legendre and Max Wechsler. The project looks dreadful from Riverside Drive,, Goldberger wrote in The City Observed, where the contrast between its huge size and that of everything around it issdisturbing.. He found the architecture itself, banal..


Courtesy Dattner Architects
Coney Island Comfort Station and Public Restroom, 2004

Dattner suggests that the different circumstances of different projects suggest different details and designs, even commonplace ones: You make the rules out of the specific site and out of the specific problem; some projects call for a background building.. But his latest project, The New York Public Library's Bronx Public Library Center, which opened on January 17th, moves his work from background to foreground. This project has to be seen,, Dattner says, almost conceding the point. It's at the heart of a community, it's on one of the highest points in the borough.. Capped by a dramatic butterfly roof over a penthouse research room, the $50 million, 78,000-square-foot building features stacks and high-tech reading rooms on five floors, along with a 150-seat auditorium, classrooms and meeting areas in a basement level. These, along with a 20,000-volume Latino Cultural Collection and programs for literacy and job training, will serve as a community center for the predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood. The below-grade facilities are accessed through a slot of space daylit by a street-level strip of windows, and further illuminated by artist IIigo Manglano-Ovalle's installation depicting a DNA sequence. That slot of space is positioned below a set of generous cantilevers that project the library's reading rooms out past the primary structural elements of the building, back into the streetscape itself.


Dennis Finnin / Courtesty NYPL
The glass-enclosed atrium stair

The library's upper levels are accessed by a rear staircase whose central atrium is enclosed in channel glass. The effect is poetic and pragmatic. According to Dattner, As you step up into knowledge, you step into light.. The glass enclosure also stops a kid from throwing a book downstairs. Or,, he adds drily, a companion.. Elsewhere, a circular half-wall produces a children's reading area in which children feel enclosed but are visible to adultssa gesture that recalls the landforms Dattner designed for Adventure Playgrounds in the 1960s.


Dennis Finnin / Courtesty NYPL
The main reading room is located on the top floor

Unusually for a library, the building features outdoor terraces where Dattner, who, though Polish-born, spent his early childhood in Cuba, imagines, readings, moon-viewing, and piiata parties.. Dattner collaborator and project architect Daniel Heuberger describes the building, with its clear front faaade and crisp details as, instantly readable and transparent, with no complicated wayfinding.. A rear interior wall, pale blue on every level, metaphorically mirrors the glass faaade and subtly distinguishes between private and public spaces. Dattner contrasts this glassy openness with the first library he designed in New York City, the Parkchester Branch Library, also in the Bronx, in 1982: At the time they had this list of things you couldn't do, like no windows along the street wall without bars or screens.. The visual openess of the Bronx Library, Dattner says, is a testament to increased civility in New York City..


Dennis Finnin / Courtesty NYPL
On the ground level, an Installation by IIigo Manglano-ovalle despicts
a DNA sequence
.

Civility is a touchstone of how Dattner describes his work, which includes not only public commissions but what he describes as the unseen public cityy of urban infrastructure. He suggested the term Civil Architecture in his 1995 book of that title, writing, Civic Architecture [was close] to my intended theme but missed meanings resonating around civil''civility, civilization, civil engineering..

The Bronx Public Library Center is the latest in a long series of public commissions that began with Brooklyn's P.S. 380 in South Williamsburg, a Stirlingesque 1969 school featuring an innovative play area that recalls Dattner's contemporary 67th Street Adventure Playground in Central Park. The playground, which was commissioned when the city was newly ambitious about design during the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, was donated by Estte and Joseph Lauder. The Lauders were also the clients for Dattner's first substantial project: in 1964, along with Samuel Brody, he designed Estte Lauder's 350,000 square-foot laboratory complex in Melville, New York. Dattner and Brody developed a low-cost faaade system of curved and flat porcelain-coated steel panels set into neoprene gasket frames. At the time, Dattner was teaching at Cooper Union alongside Richard Meier. One day,, says Dattner, we got a call from Richard, saying, How did you do that with those panels?' Well, you know the rest of that story.. But he is magnanimous about what became a signature motif of his contemporary: Meier is a great architect..


Norman Mcgrath / Courtesy Dattner Architects
Richard Dattner and Samuel Brody collaborated on the Estte Lauder Laboratory Complex in Melville, New York, which was completed in 1964.

Dattner goes on to recall his time in London suring the 1950s : It was just a few years after the war. There were still a lot of rubble.. The way that London kids reclaimed ruined sites as places for play, games, and sports inspired Britain's Adventure Playground Movement, which advocated lively but rough-edged and even perilous landscapes that required imagination and ambition from their inhabitants. Dattner remembers consulting with movement founder Lady Allen of Hurtwood, who told him, Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.. That postwar urban streetscape also engendered the playfully no-nonsense work of the Smithsons, whom Dattner remembers as, tough, tough, tough, but so hospitable.. That's a combination of qualities perhaps familiar to the New Yorker in Dattner, who has designed many of the civic bones of the city and remains a keen observer of its spirit. Asked about his 1987 Louis Armstrong Cultural Center in Queens, a Smithsonesque utilitarian container for sports and community activities, the first thing he says isn't about the architecture: Well,, he begins, it's where they play the best basketball in the city..

Thomas de Monchaux is a writer and architect in New York City.

Thomas de Monchaux