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01.19.2012
Review> Cityscape Census
Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture by John Hill.
Weiss/Manfredi's Diana Center at Barnard College (2010).
Paul Warchol

Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture
John Hill
W. W. Norton & Co., $29.95

It may come as a surprise that John Hill’s Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture is, in fact, the only guidebook devoted exclusively to recent design in the city. New York’s millennial building spree and its concurrent affinity for high-profile design could have yielded a guide filled with bold-faced architects making their mark on the skyline. While it’s within the rubric of construction from the past decade, Hill’s Guide instead reveals a cityscape altered by modest as well as mega projects.

In his more than two hundred entries across the five boroughs, Hill’s intent is to gather projects that enduringly and “prominently occupy the public realm.” Mostly absent are many of the ephemeral—even if influential and award-winning—retail, dining, and interiors projects. And while the Guide includes Cook + Fox Architects’ One Bryant Park and other significant commercial towers, for the most part, as the author avows, tall buildings—practically the visual trope for New York—play a minor role (even if the Austrian Cultural Forum graces the book’s cover).

   
Left to right: BKSK's Queens Botanical Garden pavilion; the connector The Academy of Arts & Letters by JVC Architect; a detail of Weiss/Manfredi's Diana Center.
Albert Vecerka/ESTO, Cody Upton, Paul Warchol

Instead, Hill is focused on assembling contemporary designs that engage us in interesting ways at street level throughout New York’s neighborhoods. The result is a nuanced perspective of the city’s recent architecture. The Shigeru Ban, Jean Nouvel, and Neil Denari condos in Chelsea get their due but so do notable designs for affordable housing. A section covering Manhattan’s West Side above 110th Street includes the award-winning Diana Center at Barnard College by Weiss/Manfredi along with a clever glazed passageway by James Vincent Czajka that connects a McKim, Mead & White building to a Cass Gilbert at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In Brooklyn, the guide leads the reader to a David Adjaye-designed artist studio with a skin of black polypropylene that rewards in-person inspection as well as to an elegant but tiny security kiosk at Pratt Institute by Hangar Design Group that might otherwise be overlooked. The reader may even be compelled to make a first-ever trip to the Queens Botanical Garden to see its Visitor & Administration Center by BSKS Architects—to date, the greenest building in New York.

David Adjaye's Vanderbilt Studio in Brooklyn (2006).
John Hill
 

If one doesn’t get out to see the architecture firsthand, the book’s meticulous design can’t be faulted. Broken down into 22 neighborhoods—each headed by a map designed by the author with just the detail needed—the guide is thoroughly cross-referenced. Periodic sidebars address categories such as firehouses and police stations, street furniture, and even retail and dining spaces by brand-name architects since presumably it couldn’t be avoided. A final section comprises forthcoming buildings through 2020 organized by building type.

Hill’s entries privilege context and facts over critique, but some spiky commentary can be gleaned, as with his Hearst Tower entry: “One word can be used to describe Foster’s design: diagrid.” That he seems equally frustrated by the failure of the renovated base building by Joseph Urban to connect with the public on the sidewalk seems fitting for this New York-based architect and writer with urban planning training. Hill is also the author of the popular blog A Daily Dose of Architecture—initiated in 2004 and currently receiving 32,000 hits a month—where he posts images and commentary on contemporary architecture around the world as well as book reviews. This may account for a guidebook that feels both inclusive and curated, inviting its users to investigate a range of new works making their mark on the cityscape.

Jan Lakin

Jan Lakin is a New York-based writer and editor. Her book on art in the NYC subway will be published by W. W. Norton in 2013.