Search results for "Public Design Commission"

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Unveiled: Utah Museum of Natural History
The museum's copper-clad facade echoes the geology of the Wasatch Range.
Red Square, inc. for Polshek and GSBS

To be located on a stunning site between Salt Lake City and the Wasatch foothills, the new, 160,000-square-foot Utah Museum of Natural History will house nearly double the exhibition and education space of the existing facility. Clad in rugged copper panels, the museum, which aims for a LEED Gold rating, will include partially planted roofs and the eventual use of photovoltaic arrays (the museum is currently seeking a sponsor for the solar panels), as well as water-saving and water-retention features, which are important in Utah’s dry climate. “Utah is all about the land and how the culture engages the land,” said Todd Schliemann, design partner at Polshek Partnership, the firm designing the museum along with GSBS Architects. “The building is at the edge of where the city ends and the landscape begins.”

Inside, visitors will enter a large atrium, which the architects call “the canyon,” then ascend to the top and wind downward through the exhibitions. The canyon will also double as a public gathering place and venue for private events.

To gain the commission, Polshek answered a two-stage interview and request-for-proposals process, prevailing over Moshe Safdie and Associates and Antoine Predock Architect, among others.

Architect: Polshek Partnership with GSBS Architects
Client: University of Utah
Location: Salt Lake City
Completion: 2010-2011

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So Long, Ray
Courtesy DCP

Today is Ray Gastil’s last day at work. On August 25th, Gastil, director of the New York City Department of City Planning’s Manhattan office, will travel across the country to take a job as Seattle’s Planning Director, marking a return to his hometown. The department has yet to name a replacement for the position.

During his tenure, which began in 2005 when he succeeded Vishaan Chakrabarti, Gastil shepherded through the land use process some of the largest projects in the city’s history. He presided over the rezoning of the Upper West Side, which provided contextual protections against out of character development and provided incentives for new and affordable housing along Broadway. He also worked on rezoning to preserve the character of the Far West Village that was done in concert with historic district designation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, as well as a major contextual overhaul of the Lower East Side, still in process.

But not all of his projects were targeted at preserving a neighborhood’s character. Gastil oversaw the controversial 125th Street rezoning, adopted in April, which, while it fosters economic and cultural development along the corridor, many in the community feared would only increase displacement and gentrification in greater Harlem.

Though the notoriously press-shy Gastil would not comment on his work at the department or his decision to accept the job in Seattle, his boss, City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, had some nice things to say.

"Ray’s wit, intellect and proficiency will be greatly missed, as will his dedication to urban planning, to New York City, and to engaging a generation of young planners,” Burden said in a statement. “Ray brought to city planning a vast expertise of what makes great urban places and ensured that projects large and small contributed to and enhanced the urban fabric and public realm. I personally have benefited from his wisdom, his encyclopedic knowledge of world cities and their heritage, and by his friendship.”

Before working for the city, Gastil was the founding director of the Van Alen Institute: Projects in Public Architecture. He participated on the Memorial Center Advisory Committee for the World Trade Center site, and served as juror and adviser to a number of major urban projects. He also directed the regional and transit-oriented design programs for the Regional Plan Association, and taught urban design seminars and studios at Pratt Institute and University of Pennsylvania.

Gastil received his master of architecture degree from Princeton University, and is the author of Beyond the Edge: New York's New Waterfront (Princeton Architectural Press 2002).

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Fighting for Neutra in the O.C.
courtesy John Linnert

Costa Mesa architect John Linnert has especially enjoyed taking his daughter to the orthodontist over the years because he’s admired the Mariners Medical Arts Center, designed by Richard Neutra in 1963. But at the beginning of July, Linnert took his daughter to an appointment and learned that the three-building Newport Beach complex, designed to allay patients' fears with calming courtyards, water elements, and landscaping visible from treatment rooms, was slated for demolition.

“I panicked,” said Linnert. He contacted his local AIA chapter and Neutra’s son Dion, and so began his foray into the precarious world of preserving southern Californian modernism.

Dion Neutra and architectural historian Barbara Lamprecht wrote impassioned letters to the city on why the building should be saved, while Linnert analyzed building permits, took meetings, and emailed city council and arts commission members, city planners, architects, and historians.

Plans for developer John Bral’s three-phase scheme, Westcliff Medical Plaza, had been in the works since 2004. Although the building was listed on the city’s historical inventory, it was not protected because it did not have historical landmark status. 

But Linnert also saw a letter from the planning department that stated no demolition could take place without a historical assessment of the property, which is required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). While the law does not grant authority to prevent demolition, it does require that environmental effects—including historical significance—be made public before land-use decisions are made.

The historical assessment, it turns out, had never been submitted, and the city had issued permits anyway. Bral, who is a managing member of Westcorp Investors, said he had never heard of Richard Neutra and never received the letter requesting the CEQA-required historic assessment. He also said that while he is willing to meet with the ad hoc group that has coalesced to come up with a compromise plan, “The buildings are in very bad shape; there is a severe termite problem, pipes break all the time. It’s an absolute economic drain [to maintain them].”

With construction only days away, Linnert got a reprieve when Newport Beach Planning Director David Lepo suspended the building permits. Lepo, who said he never paid much attention to the building because “it doesn’t have much drive-by appeal,” added, “I decided we needed to go back and cross the T’s and dot the I’s. This process has been going on since 2004 and I don’t want any questions to arise that a proper environmental analysis was not done.”

Linnert recognizes that while the last-minute permit suspension gives those who protested the project a new opportunity to come up with a solution, they might have an uphill battle. Council member Don Webb, who represents the district of the building site, wasn’t familiar with Neutra’s work and described the building as “rather bland and blah.” He continued, “We’re a conservative community and pay a lot of attention to property rights here. If someone wants to preserve the site in its present form and bring it back to its original state, then I suggest they work toward purchasing it from the owner.”

That’s precisely what Linnert, a third-generation Orange County native, wants. “We’re looking for a proper steward for the building,” he said, acknowledging that he’s not even sure if Bral will sell. (Bral wasn’t willing to be interviewed after his permits were suspended.) “Right now the only thing Orange County is famous for is The O.C. Here is something that can give us some architectural notoriety, an ability to acknowledge this kind of architecture and retain some of the integrity in the arts and culture that have been created in our county in the last 50 years. It’s just worth saving.”

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Brave New World
Courtesy Lennar Corporation

A San Francisco ballot measure named Proposition G got the green light on June 3, authorizing the second phase of a $1 billion mixed-used development in Hunters Point and Candlestick Point, two of the city’s least affluent and most isolated districts. The proposal by Lennar-Urban, a division of the Florida-based Lennar Corporation, will transform two decommissioned naval yards into multi-family housing, commercial development, and over 400 acres of open space. Although infrastructure work began on the site as early as 2006, construction on the project, designed by Vancouver-based architects IBI Group, is scheduled to break ground in fall of 2009.

The 771-acre site in the southeast corner of the city is currently occupied by Monster Park (formerly Candlestick Park), which will house the San Francisco 49ers football team until 2012. The 13 parcels of land are slated to receive about 15,000 units of high-rise, mid-rise, and low-rise multifamily housing, divided into two primary clusters. Each cluster of residential development is to be anchored with a commercial retail district. The former shipyards are also zoned for a two-million-square-foot high-tech industrial park, or possibly a new football stadium should the 49ers stay. More than half the site will become public open space, including a formal recreation area that runs the entire length of the project’s shoreline.

Proposition G represents the latest in a series of initiatives proposed for the area. Beginning in 1997, the city proposed a redevelopment plan for the Hunters Point shipyards; that same year voters backed a plan for a new football stadium in adjacent Candlestick Point anchored by a mixed-use commercial project. The stadium deal eventually proved unfeasible and the city moved to combine the two sites. Lennar signed on to develop a new conceptual design that the city’s Board of Supervisors approved in 2007. Because Lennar would be receiving the land from the city for free, a ballot proposition was necessary, and in cooperation with Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration, both properties were combined under the single initiative. Lennar invested a reported $3.4 million to promote the June election initiative. A competing measure, Proposition F, would have required half the new homes to be affordable, a suggestion that Lennar claimed would economically hobble the project.

The development agreement also reflects San Francisco’s agenda for sustainable development, transit-first initiatives, diversity, and open space. Public transportation schemes are being developed, 30 percent of the housing units will still be below market rate, and building plans include accommodations for artists already living in shipyard structures. Developers are to perform environmental restoration along the bay where the site overlaps state park lands. If the 49ers opt to relocate to the city of Santa Clara, where they’re currently negotiating to build a new stadium, the master plan proposes what it calls a “Clean/Green” research and development campus.

IBI Group leads a design team that includes SMWM, who designed the area’s original master plan about ten years ago, with Miles Stevens and Associates, and landscape architect Walter Hood. The plan, which builds on SMWM’s earlier scheme, also includes residential concepts from Solomon E.T.C. and landscape architects CMG. Several high-density housing prototypes will be considered, from San Francisco-style townhouses to more standard three- and four-story structures. Some residential architecture is already moving forward in localized developments, designed by Daniel Solomon. On Candlestick Point, the Doublerock parcel is a 28-acre site for mixed-income townhouses, a portion of which will replace the decrepit 1950s Alice Griffith public housing that currently occupies most of the parcel. A new low-rise and mid-rise cluster of housing to be erected on a 30-acre waterfront site at Hunters Point is in the design approval stage.

CMG’s ambitious open space plans led by Kevin Conger include a “green fringe” of parks along the area’s shorelines, a “Hillpoint Park” located on a 90-foothigh promontory overlooking the shipyards, and a network of smaller parks. The use of pocket parks and courtyards recalls high-density neighborhoods like Russian Hill and North Beach. Even the proposed stadium parking areas are designed using an irrigated natural turf with a 95 percent compacted subsoil for “dual use” recreation space.

Peter Vaucheret, SMWM’s director of urban design, said the master plan intends to reunite Hunters Point with the city by using a grid street layout that extends evenly over hillside locations, creating a residential density consistent with nearby established neighborhoods. SMWM’s master plan further enforces the open space initiative with housing types that enable porosity: mid-block breaks in the building masses allow alleyways and visual openings that link public and private spaces. Throughout the development, vantage points are also designed to give residents glimpses of downtown. Finally, it seems, residents in this once-isolated corner of San Francisco will be united with the greater city.

Editorial: Go Solar, Already!

Walking through the Dwell on Design expo at the Los Angeles convention center last month, I came across plenty of good ideas. But one struck me as particularly smart: the SolarLease program from a company called SolarCity. Under the plan, launched in April, homeowners pay a monthly fee (over a standard 15 years) to lease solar panels, therefore avoiding the upfront costs, paperwork, and maintenance of buying their own. The company installs the panels for free and guarantees that monthly charges will be less than what customers save in energy costs.

An idea like this makes particular sense in California, where it’s sunny much of the time. But according to the California Energy Commission, there have only been about 33,000 solar systems installed in the state. That’s out of over 35 million total households (according to the U.S. Census 2005American Community Survey) and countless businesses and government agencies.

That’s pitiful, especially now that going solar has become easier and more affordable. Besides programs like SolarLease, there are plenty of providers. A list of registered California retailers is available at, a site run by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Energy Commission (a national list is available at

According to the energy commission, prices for a typical photovoltaic (PV) solar system, with installation, average around $20,000. And to offset the upfront cost, there are government incentive programs like the California Solar Initiative, run by the CPUC and administered by local private utility companies. That program offers cash rebate incentives for photovoltaic systems starting at $2.50 per watt produced for existing home systems and $3.25 per watt for government and non-profit organizations (updated rates can be found at, which works out to about a $7,500 rebate for installing the average 2.5 kilowatt home PV system. New Solar Homes Partnership is a similar rebate program offered through the Energy Commission.

Meanwhile, local and federal government initiatives provide further incentives and tax credits for going solar. Homeowners using solar energy can get up to a $2,000 credit on their federal income taxes and business owners can get up to 30 percent of the price of an installation. Also, the CPUC gives incentives for other solar systems besides PV, like solar thermal and solar hot water.

Other states like New Jersey and Colorado have had problems administering their solar rebate programs and keeping up with residents’ demands. But because California has $3.3 billion over 10 years for its program (paid for by a senate bill, not by utility surcharges as in other states), and since California’s local utilities—as opposed to public administration—began overseeing programs in 2008, California’s program has gone fairly smoothly, pointed out Amy Morgan, a spokesperson for the California Energy Commission. Not to say that solar is completely painless. Installation can be pricey, and rebates and incentives only partially offset the cost; it can take years to recoup the rest through savings on your energy bills. Moreover, the federal solar credit expires at the end of this year and has yet to be renewed, so that incentive is still up in the air, raising more questions about solar’s future (since SolarLease’s most significant savings relate to the federal credits, for example, its plan could be greatly hindered if the credits are not extended).

So why emphasize solar when a greater goal of comprehensive green building is even more important, and will save much more energy? Because it’s a great first step. Transforming our building stock from top to bottom will take time. Consider solar a no-brainer for the smart set.

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Two Strikes for Lord Norman
Aby Rosen and Norman Foster have proposed quite a different design for the Park-Bernet Building, but neighbors remain unimpressed.
Courtesy RFR Holdings

It was a valiant effort, but the Upper East Side was still not satisfied with new plans for 980 Madison presented by developer Aby Rosen on June 17.  The new design by Lord Norman Foster is the architect’s second attempt at revamping the stout, 1949 gallery building by Walker & Poor.

The 22-story glass tower originally envisioned by Foster to rest atop the Parke-Bernet Galleries had been jettisoned over 17 months ago in favor of a five-story louvered copper box that mirrored the proportions of its base. Though the second proposal was lauded for its accommodation to public demand, it was still roundly criticized by a majority of residents and preservationists who came to testify before the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

“The design of the building proposed here—and it is a building, not an addition—is original and innovative,” Elizabeth Ashby, president of the Historic Neighborhood Enhancement Alliance, told the commission. “In a suitable location, it would undoubtedly be admired and respected. Perched on top of the Parke-Bernet Building is an absurd site for it. The proposed building clashes with its setting, and the Parke-Bernet Building clashes with it.”

Foster's rejected tower.

Brandon Haw, a senior partner at Foster + Partners, argued that the new project’s composition, including its near-identical proportions and complimentary materials, was a more suitable proposal than its predecessor, especially now that the sixth floor and roof garden had been restored to the plan. Additionally, due to these and other changes, Rosen would no longer seek a transfer of air rights and the commission would be his only regulatory stop.

Notable absences at the meeting included not only Lord Foster himself, but also the coterie of cultural stars, including Jeff Koons and Larry Gagosian, that Rosen paraded before the commission the last time he attempted to get his project approved. But one marquee name did show up, just as expected.

Channeling From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe said Foster’s building was not only out of place but out of fashion. “It’s another old-fashioned style,” said the writer, who appeared to be wearing his signature spats. “This style has been with us since at least 1919.” Wolfe concluded, “[Lord Foster] does not have to use just the straight edge of the protractor. This needs to be more in keeping with the Upper East Side.”

In addition to the building’s appearance, which was roundly panned, its scale was a major issue. Though many appreciated the restoration of the sixth floor and gardens, the addition of tens of thousands of square feet, which would abut the building’s existing street wall, was considered excessive.

Many speakers also insisted that the commission not be tricked into approving the new designs by comparing them to the old. “The fact that this addition is not as horrifying as its predecessor does not mean it is appropriate,” Robert Stein, a resident of East 77th Street, declared. Though the commission declined to discuss the project or take a vote, it expects to do so in the coming months.

Eavesdrop: Anne Guiney


Forget about the fist bump: Butt pats are the subject of the day (and yes, we have been watching way too much basketball on TV, but these are of a more intimate type). Or rather, for those who fear that the youth of today are unshockably jaded about matters amorous, you can relax. Two young editors at this fine publication arrived at work one recent morning in a state of great agitation and flabbergastery. What had caused their unblemished cheeks to blush so? The pair had been at the Phillips de Pury party for Atmospherics, a limited edition of furniture and objects by Asymptote’s Hani Rashid, and had a grand old time while wandering through a crowd including Rashid’s partner and wife Lise Anne Couture, brother and designer Karim Rashid, architect Thomas Leeser, fashion designer Carlos Miele, industrial designer Tucker Viemeister, and Museum of Modern Art chief Glenn Lowry. All was well until one of our rosy cherubim spotted Lowry pinching the bottom of the fair lady standing next to him. “Did you see that,” he spluttered; “Oh sweet Jesus he goosed her!” The two surreptitiously watched as it happened again, and then again, and yet again, until our squeamish spies were forced to refresh themselves at the bar, aghast and perhaps a little bit delighted. It was quickly determined the next morning at the office that the lady was none other than Susan Lowry, wife of our uxorious museum director. There was some giggling and hat tipping, and then all was forgotten.

Until! A week later, an Agnes Gund–sponsored party at MoMA for Adriaan Geuze of West 8, landscape urbanist extraordinaire and head of the superstar crew designing the public spaces at Governors Island. Fellow project members Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidio were there, as were commissioner Amanda Burden and Charlie Rose, urbanist Alex Garvin, and Governors Island chief Leslie Koch. Maybe it was the wine, or perhaps the glamorous company, but we were emboldened enough to make a tasteful and rather tentative joke about Fannygate to Mr. Lowry himself, who laughed, looking entirely unrepentant and frankly rather pleased with himself. He retorted, “Pretty good for thirty years of marriage, eh?” We’ll say!


We might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, sure, but we often find ourselves downright perplexed by the offerings of PR agencies touting the manifold virtues of one new development or another—Breakfast in bed! Yoga! Doggy spa! Hot doormen! (OK, we’ve never gotten a press release about that last one, but would definitely schedule a visit.) Rarely, though, does a company trumpet something that seems like an honest-to-goodness disincentive to plunk down a million or two for an apartment. But the management of the BellTel Lofts on Bridge Street in downtown Brooklyn recently announced that the soon-to-be complete project will host the 21st season of MTV’s Real World, arguably the first reality TV show, and thus morally responsible for a national disgrace like Living Lohan. The building looks great and we like the show, so we hate to break it to our well-intentioned friends on Planet PR, but sharing a building with a bunch of hard-partying narcissists and their attendant camera crews is not luxury living at its most urbane—it’s the seventh circle of hell.

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Remembering Jan Pokorny, 1914-2008


Architect, preservationist, and teacher Jan Pokorny, who died on May 20, straddled not only fields, but worlds. With a sensibility shaped by history—he came from Brno, Czechoslovakia, the birthplace of Sigmund Freud and site of Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House—Pokorny impressed all with his generous cosmopolitanism in a long career spanning Prague, Detroit, and New York. AN asked two who knew him as colleague and mentor to share their impressions.

Michael Devonshire
partner and director of conservation
Jan Hird Pokorny Associates:

Jan Hird Pokorny began his architectural practice in Prague in 1937 upon graduation from Prague Polytechnic University, emigrating to the United States via Sweden after the fall of Czechoslovakia to the Germans in 1939. He then completed his master’s degree in architecture in 1941 at Columbia University, where he would later teach.

During World War II, Jan worked in Detroit as an architect for the Leo Bauer firm, converting Ford automobile factories for production of battle tanks. After the war, he spent two years with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and then established his own architectural practice in New York City in 1947, quickly branching into industrial and academic architecture and establishing himself as a nuanced architect for public and institutional structures. His first major preservation project was the restoration of Schermerhorn Row at the South Street Seaport, completed in 1983.

I joined Jan’s firm in 1986. When he asked me if I would work for him, I said yes, but that I could not start immediately. I told him I had planned a four-week trip to India, and he scrunched up his face—at this time I thought he was about to rescind his offer—then he said, “No, no, four weeks will not do”—long pause—”you must spend at least six weeks in India!”

When I began working on the Morris-Jumel mansion restoration, which had a tight schedule, I would stay late working on details, construction drawings, and specifications. In most offices, partners would typically make the rounds admonishing staff to “hurry up and get that out!” Jan came up behind me on a particular evening, and I could feel him looking over my shoulder. I braced myself for the “get it out” admonition. Instead, he very gently said, “Take as long as you wish to finish this, just make sure that it’s the best we can do.”

Until three years ago, our office was in Jan’s home and it was very similar to an atelier atmosphere, very unstructured and familial. It was the norm that at everyone’s birthday we would sit at his huge George Nakashima dining room table and have Slivovitz and cake. Often, if one arrived early, Jan would already be at his desk, but in his pajamas!

Richard M. Olcott
Polshek Partnership Architects:

Jan and I spent about 11 years together on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, starting together in September 1996. At 81, he was twice my age when he started and by far the oldest of the commissioners. Nonetheless, he was possibly the most progressive of us all, consistently advocating an enlightened position drawn from a lifetime of experience. That enlightenment came in large part from Jan’s Czech background, having grown up in the famously beautiful medieval and Baroque city of Prague in a country that also has a long and strong modernist history. Jan could move among many such overlapping languages with ease, and with a profound, unfettered understanding of history, coupled with an enthusiasm for the contemporary. You could scarcely find any individual who cared more deeply about architecture, art, music, and literature, and whose manner, bearing, and dress—elegant gray suits, always with a bowtie—bespoke a truly cultured person.

Countless applicants have been the unwitting beneficiaries of that civility, and Jan was always polite and deferential even when delivering the bad news about their designs. He had a low tolerance for stylistic excess and structural inefficiency, and would unfailingly point out such glaring deficiencies and their proper resolution at the first opportunity, the teacher in him coming to the fore. This quality earned Jan the nickname “the Professor” among the commissioners; some would hold back (“Let’s see what the Professor thinks”) until Jan had pronounced the application either promising or beyond redemption. He always provided succinct, elegantly simple summations of complicated problems, on the heels of another commissioner’s long-winded bloviation. We were all guilty of that, but never him.

But the heart of the matter is this: It’s easy to dislike the Landmarks Commission, even though everyone needs it. It’s a world of sniping, know-it-all critics, pontificating architects, scheming developers, and occasionally unhinged preservationists, all with their own agendas. It’s not easy to do as Jan did: to serenely reside above the fray and get to the issues and the truth, and then find the way forward. I will miss that, and New Yorkers will too, whether they know it or not.

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New Scenery for the World's Stage
The U.N. complex comprises three principal buildings: the Secretariat tower, the domed General Assembly Hall -- built in 1949 and 1950 -- and the Dag Hammarskjold Library.
Ben Murphy

The cool modernist ensemble of United Nations buildings that Wallace K. Harrison called a “workshop for peace” will soon be a workshop for long-overdue renovations. After breaking ground last month on the northern lawn of the U.N. complex for a 175,000-square-foot concrete and steel temporary building to house U.N. conferences and the office of the secretary-general until at least 2014, U.N. officials will relocate thousands of staffers from buildings completed in 1950.

Actual work on one of the world’s most recognizable architectural ensembles comes after ten contentious years of preparation and a series of different plans for overhauling the asbestos-filled structures, which have serious leak problems and antiquated mechanical infrastructure. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, security concerns gave greater urgency to planning for any potential attack on the 18-acre site.

In 1998, the U.N. General Assembly, which represents all the organization’s 192 member states, voted to completely overhaul the buildings, which had undergone ad hoc alterations over five decades. An initial plan envisioned renovating the complex section by section while staff remained on-site, to minimize the need to pay high rents in New York’s booming real estate market. An alternate scheme would have involved building a second 35-story U.N. tower on a playground immediately south of the current ensemble. In 2001, an expanded visitors’ center was proposed under the North Lawn. The current plan relies on placing the U.N. leadership and conferences in a temporary structure on U.N. property, which will be demolished after renovation is completed, and locating most of the personnel in leased office space.

The cost for the entire six-year project, called the capital master plan, is estimated at $1.9 billion. The U.N.’s three principal buildings, designed by a team that included Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, and Wallace K. Harrison, were built in 1949 and 1950 for $65 million on land bought for $8.5 million by the Rockefeller family and then donated to the international organization. A fourth building, the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, opened in 1961.

Steven Pressler of Skanska, the construction manager, characterized the ensemble as “old, in need of a facelift,” and called the project “a big demolition job with a lot of asbestos thrown in; then building it back is almost building it like new.” Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering is the lead architect for historic preservation, and R.A. Heintges is consulting on the restoration of the curtain wall. HLW International is developing interior design guidelines and is designing the North Lawn building.

The Woodrow Wilson Reading Room, designed by Harrison, Abramovitz and Harris, holds the records of the League of Nations and is located in the Dag Hammarskjöld Library building, dedicated in 1961. Though not open to the public, the reading room, with its distinctive white pine paneling, will be carefully preserved.

“As with all institutions, the last place they wanted to put their scarce resources was in fixing up their own house, so the U.N. delayed the decision, because resources are scarce, and their mission is extremely broad, but after 9/11 it raised the priority of making this project happen,” said Michael Adlerstein, the architect who now heads the capital master plan. Adlerstein had previously been vice president of the New York Botanical Garden and was a student of George Dudley, author of the most comprehensive study of the design and construction of the U.N. Adlerstein’s predecessor, John Frederick Reuter IV, quit two years ago in frustration over the increasingly political nature of the process. “I am interested in building buildings, not ‘selling’ them,” Reuter said. “Perhaps the biggest challenge has been to convince member states, and particularly the host country, that the physical condition of the United Nations Headquarters is not a political matter." 

Selling the renovation has indeed been a challenge. The plan required the unanimous approval of the 192 U.N. member states in the General Assembly, and winning support in New York and Washington was yet another battle. In 2004, the organization held an architecture competition, restricted to Pritzker Prize winners, for a 35-story tower that would provide swing space for staff displaced during construction and eventually house U.N. offices that are now in rental buildings, at below-market rents, controlled by a public firm called the United Nations Development Corporation. Richard Meier, one of those considered, dropped out of the running, calling the cramped First Avenue site inappropriate for a building of that scale. (He subsequently designed four towers nearby on the East River waterfront for the developer Sheldon Solow; these are still in the approvals stage.) The commission was awarded to Fumihiko Maki of Japan, whose sleek grey column was chosen over entries by Foster + Partners and Herzog & de Meuron.


The site, however, was a concrete patch called the Robert Moses Playground, and construction required a vote by the New York State Senate to enable “alienation” of parkland, even though the plan provided for a riverbank esplanade of comparable size in exchange. The local New York City Council member, Dan Garodnick, points out that his district has the least parkland in the city.

Elected officials found that attacking the U.N. was even more effective than attacking the French. At the end of 2004, the State Senate delayed a vote, citing a history of unpaid parking tickets by U.N. personnel, alleged anti-semitism, and opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “I view Mr. [Kofi] Annan’s stonewalling on the release of oil-for-food documents to Congress as a potential cover-up for corruption and will use it as leverage to deny passage of state legislation,” vowed State Senator Martin Golden in a letter to the New York Times in January 2006. Golden carried the day. The matter never came to a vote, despite support from Mayor Bloomberg, then-governor George Pataki, and the Bush administration. “It was politics, pure politics,” said Edward Rubin, an architect who chairs the Land Use Committee of Community Board 6 in Manhattan.

In 2005, the ever-opinionated Donald Trump weighed in. After building his Trump World Tower on a site overlooking the complex, he was contacted by the Swedish delegation for some informal advice. He testified before the International Security Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate, and suggested that the U.N. sell its East River campus and use the profits to create a new building on the site of the former World Trade Center. Trump also offered to renovate the original East Side buildings himself for $300 million, warning that U.N. costs (which he said would rise to $3 billion) had been inflated by internal “corruption and incompetence.” Part of the problem, he added, was that the organization would be extorted for short-term office space by New York landlords—”There is no worse human being on Earth, okay?” Trump said. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan urged Trump to bid on the project, but he never filed a bid. “He would only do it if the U.N. were to have offered it to him, and under the rules of procurement, it would be literally impossible to source a project of this size to a single vendor,” said Adlerstein.

Some critics even wondered whether the iconic buildings were worth preserving. “I always found this futurist architectural experiment tacky,” said former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, who was frustrated in his effort to link U.S. support for the renovation to a general reform of the U.N.’s procurement process. “I found the General Assembly [building] to be vaguely fascist,” he added.

Even those who admire its architecture still call the complex a firetrap. In testimony before Congress in 2005, a U.N. official predicted that a serious explosion at the U.N. would spray asbestos throughout the neighborhood. And since it doesn’t even have a sprinkler system, the U.N. fails to meet New York City fire code.

Most of the renovation work, when completed, will be invisible to the visitor, said Adlerstein, although the sleek wood-paneled Security Council Chamber and the General Assembly will get interiors that are closer to their original bright colors than today’s muted seating. Since the manufacturers of some original materials are no longer in business, and certain woods used in conference rooms came from endangered species, approximations will be made, architects say.

The dramatic change will be in the east and west facades of the Secretariat tower. The leaking, corroded aluminum curtain wall will be removed to replace decaying surfaces and increase its energy efficiency. In the process, a layer of thermal film between the double-pane windows will also be stripped. “The original building was sans film, and had a cooler look. The film underneath the curtain wall had a bluish tint. After removing that film, the building will look more silvery and more transparent,” said Steven Pressler of Skanska.

Transparency—both literal and figurative—has always been an issue at the U.N. Surfing through U.N.-related chat on the web reveals the persistent view that the U.N. belongs to the “why pay less” school. Yet Adlerstein notes that by emptying each building before renovation, the project cut two years off of construction and saved $100 million, which will cover swing space rent in Manhattan and Queens. Additional savings come from the U.N.’s exemption from sales tax. Contrary to Mr. Trump’s belief, the project, he stressed, “was never a runaway train. It was a stalled train. The concern was that it wasn’t moving fast enough.”

But not so fast as to outrun auditors, Adlerstein explained, noting that value-engineering is still in progress. “We are being audited by several different groups at all times… Each member state is entitled to audit us and several do,” he said. “We have eternal audits.” With luck, though, diplomacy will carry the day.

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Sweet & Lower
The new plan for Williamsburg's Domino Sugar plant is rougher around the edges, in keeping with the site's industrial history.
Courtesy CPC Resources

Beyer Blinder Belle’s initial proposal for Williamsburg’s redeveloped Domino sugar refinery boasted sleek lines and disappearing edges, meant to be all but invisible atop the recently landmarked icon. It was a typical move for projects before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, but given the industrial character of the Domino factory—technically three interconnected buildings—the commission wanted something bolder to match. And, though it was not in their purview, they wanted something else: the factory’s beloved Domino sign.

At today’s public meeting, the commission, expressing admiration for the updated scheme, got both on its way to a 7-1 vote in favor of the project. “I’m staggered at how fabulously this has turned out, being one of the cranky ones,” commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz said to laughter. “I’m very cranky, I admit, but thrilled because what they’ve really shown is that there are ways to improve things so that the problems that some of us have with these projects when they first come on are really solvable under the skilled hand of someone who really listens to what is being said.”


Beyer Blinder Belle’s original scheme (top) featured a five-story addition and large but polite apertures where “chutes” now extend to other structures. The existing bin building (above, at right) will be razed for a condo tower, but the iconic sign will be saved.

The architects made four major changes to their proposal, which initially involved a five-story glass box set back from the riverside facade. The addition was lowered to four stories on the northern two-thirds and three stories on the southern third, which now accommodates the familiar yellow neon Domino Sugar sign. The bulkheads were also dropped into the mass of the addition, changes that cost the project 20,000 square feet, the architect, Fred Bland, was quick to point out. “We really need every inch to fund affordable housing,” he said during his presentation. An impressive 30 percent of the project’s 2,200 units will be affordable.

Other changes included new storefronts and windows, which now have more mullions to mimic other parts of the building; the roughening of the addition, with metal rods aligned with brick pilasters below; and new "chutes,” or conveyer-like segments that run between different parts of the factory. Two chutes currently connect the refinery to a 1960s bin building—the tall concrete structure currently sporting the sign—which will be demolished to make way for a condo tower. The architects had proposed turning the breech of the chutes into two massive windows. The commission said previously it wanted something less polite, and the response was redolent of Eisenman—balconies that directly mimic the angle and aspect of the chutes, a decision that greatly pleased the commission. “It’s a perfect way to approach this,” commissioner Pablo Vengoechea said.

Bland also noted that, at $40 million, this was the most expensive adaptive reuse ever undertaken by Beyer Blinder Belle, though he also added that it was one of the firm’s best. And though the meeting was not technically open to public comment, commission chair Robert Tierney read two letters of support from the City Council, one from the chairs of the council’s Landmarks and Rules committees, Jessica Lappin and Diana Reyna, and another from the local representative, David Yassky.

The one dissenting vote was cast by commissioner Margery Perlmutter, who generally favors modern projects more than her colleagues. She said she would rather have seen the refinery left alone, with its density shifted to the surrounding towers designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects. “I don’t think this building should be used to cover gap financing,” she said.

Tierney could not have been happier. “Overall, this is a landmark project on a very important landmark building that will say a lot for this generation and future generations about the industrial waterfront in Brooklyn,” he said. “I applaud everyone on this. We’ve come a long way, and I believe it’s a very approvable project.”

Susan Pollock, the project manager for the developer, CPC Resources, said the team hopes to enter the ULURP process, the next step in the public review, by early fall. She also added that changes to the Viñoly towers were being made that involved the location, mix, and massing of the towers, but not their height.

Matt Chaban

The current (top) and previous proposals for the refinery, as seen from South 3rd Street. The changing floor heights and shifted bulkheads are clearly visible, as are both iterations of the "chutes."
A detail of the proposed balconies, which are designed to mimic the chutes they replace.
Western elevation
Southern elevation
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Shop-ing at the Seaport
Courtesy SHoP

Though it has one of the city’s iconic postcard views, the South Street Seaport falls into that category of attractions that many New Yorkers confess they rarely visit, much like the top of the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. Yet Lower Manhattan is undergoing enormous changes, from the growth of the residential district around Wall Street, the planned transit hub at Fulton Street, to, of course, the World Trade Center site, so the Seaport’s leaseholder, General Growth Properties (GGP), has just announced a proposal to transform the area. The plan involves rebuilding much of the 19th-century structure of Pier 17 and replacing the 1982 enclosed mall with a series of smaller retail, hotel, and event buildings arranged around several public open spaces and promenades.

According to Gregg Pasqarelli of SHoP, the firm hired to design the project, SHoP and GGP wanted to conceive of the new Seaport not as a distinct megaproject but as the extension of a neighborhood. “The festival marketplace was just right for its time, and was the cutting edge of preservationist thinking,” he explained. “Today, the city as a whole is a festival marketplace, and you don’t need to seal off parts anymore. If [original developer] Rouse were to approach the city today with the same project, I’m not sure they’d get approval.”

GGP approached SHoP after seeing its work on the surrounding city-commissioned East River Waterfront plan, which was initially released in February of last year. One feature of that plan is the construction of retail and community buildings underneath the FDR drive, currently not much more than a dark parking lot for buses. These are in turn incorporated into the thinking and design for the GGP Seaport project, in order to create a more coherent and integrated approach to the waterfront.

SHoP's proposal for the South Street Seaport includes a 42-story, 495-foot tower and a public plaza approximately the size of Bryant Park.

The scope of SHoP’s design is significant, and includes both new—and very contemporary—construction, as well as the restoration and move of the Tin Building, the last remaining structure with historical interest on the site of the Fulton Fish Market. Though it has been mostly gutted and incorporated into the 1983 shopping mall, the structure would be restored to the extent possible on the exterior, then moved into the historic district on Pier 17. A 286-room hotel and 78-unit residential building would go up on its site. While the tower’s floor-area-ratio of 17 is as-of-right, it rises 495 feet instead of the permissible 350. Pasquarelli explained that they decided to build taller to maximize surrounding open space and to reduce bulk and maintain views. There is also likely to be some affordable housing in the mix: Project manager Thorsten Kiefer said that one possibility would be to create a mix of affordable and market-rate housing in the restored buildings on Schermerhorn Row, though that plan is still in the germinal phase.

The tower’s design is striking. Three stacked glass volumes are enclosed in an open, lattice-like exoskeletal mesh. (Note to would-be climbers: Each diamond-shaped opening in the structure spans several floors, so it won’t be easy to clamber up.) Pasquarelli described the exoskeleton as loosely inspired by the patterns of the old fishing nets once so prevalent there, but more than that, as a contemporary reinterpretation of the waterfront technologies of pier, cable, and mast.

Like any major project, the GGP/SHoP proposal will face a series of regulatory hurdles, including the Uniform Land Use Review Process, or ULURP, approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the New York City Arts Commission, Community Board 1, and the Department of City Planning. David Vermillion, a spokesperson for GGP, explained that the company is well aware of the enormous efforts of various city agencies to improve the quality of and access to the waterfront, and decided that the time was right to reimagine their stake in it, approaching SHoP specifically in order to coordinate efforts.

Vermillion and GGP may be on to something, because for the last several years, now-former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff staunchly advocated the development of a harbor district, which would include Ellis Island, Governors Island, the revitalized East River Waterfront, Battery Park City, and Brooklyn Bridge Park, and be connected via ferry service. That vision of the waterfront as an integrated and accessible whole is a compelling one, but will need the support and participation from the private sector as well. Pasquarelli, for one, is cautiously hopeful: “It is really extraordinary to see a situation like this, where the city is putting energy and money into reconnecting people to the waterfront, and a private company has decided to join in.” 

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Door Has Closed on Aalto Rooms

The fate of Alvar Aalto’s Edgar J. Kaufmann Conference Center on the 12th floor in 809 United Nations Plaza remains in limbo nearly seven years after it was proposed as an interior landmark before the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). Designed in 1964 for the Institute of International Education (IIE), the 4,500- square-foot modern space is one of only two interiors designed by the great Finnish architect in the United States, the other being the Woodberry Poetry Room of Harvard’s Lamont Library. “This is one of the city’s great rooms and not enough people know,” said Alex Herrera, director of technical services at the New York Landmarks Conservancy, who worked with the IIE to research and supervise the restoration of the space in 2003. With its undulating plaster ceiling, ash-paneled walls, blue porcelain tiles, and bentwood wall sculpture, the space is typical of Aalto’s work. The original Aalto-designed lighting fixtures and furniture, including black leather and birch chairs and a rolling bar, are still intact.

Until a month ago the conference center, comprising meeting rooms, a lecture hall, and elevator lobby, was available to the public as rental space for functions and events. Faced with a shortage of space, the IIE has closed its doors and will use the meeting rooms as “temporary office space,” said Derrick Wilson, the IIE’s telecommunications manager. There is no foreseeable date for when the space will be available for rent again, said Wilson.

The issue of public accessibility has been the crux of arguments both for and against designating the conference rooms as a New York City interior landmark. According to the city’s Landmarks Law, only building interiors that are “customarily open or accessible to the public” can be designated interior landmarks.

In a New York Times article published after an LPC designation hearing in September 2002, the IIE said that access to rooms was restricted because of security concerns at the building, which is located across the street from the United Nations and is also home to the UN’s missions of the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Preservationists, however, have said that the rooms have been accessible to the public since their opening. The rooms have had a special connection to the United Nations, and have been the site of countless Fulbright Scholar programs, which the IIE administers. “Clearly it was Edgar J. Kaufmann’s intention to make the work of Aalto better appreciated in this country by having the rooms always open to the public. It’s unfortunate that an institution whose goal is education is removing the rooms from the public access,” said Theo Prudon, president of DOCOMOMO US.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council (HDC), agrees and sees the closing of the space as a pushback against landmark designation. “By fighting landmarks designation, it makes one very concerned about the space,” said Bankoff. In response to these concerns, HDC has reestablished communication with the LPC and has circulated a petition that calls for the designation of the space as an interior landmark.