Search results for "Public Design Commission"

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.

For Buildings Commissioner, Demand the Real Thing

Yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn introduced more than a dozen pieces of legislation targeted at reforming the beleaguered Department of Buildings. Much of the legislation had been introduced last month, prior to last Friday’s crane accident, but among the new initiatives was one of great concern for the city’s designers and for its residents as a whole.

The administration has been trying for some months to alter the requirement that the Buildings Commissioner be a professional engineer or registered architect. The mayor contends that it provides necessary flexibility for running a bureaucracy of the city’s own making, and the mainstream press has begun to agree with him.

As architects and engineers well know, this is fallacious logic, writes Fredric Bell, executive director of AIA New York, in a Protest column in our forthcoming issue. AN presents his argument in full below.

There are 41,000 professional engineers (PEs) and registered architects (RAs) in New York State. One of them should be the next commissioner of the New York City Buildings Department, replacing Patricia Lancaster, an architect who resigned in April.

Some in New York’s City Hall are questioning whether a professional license is needed or even desirable to effectively run the largest and most complex buildings bureaucracy in the country. In answer, architects and engineers have sent mailbags full of letters and emails to the City Council chambers to explain why—with safety concerns on our sidewalks paramount—now is not the time to relax the professional qualifications needed for this difficult job.

Noting that the Surgeon General must be a doctor, and that the Architect of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., should be an architect (although that, too, is currently being questioned by a congressional oversight committee), registered architects and professional engineers were heard chanting “No PEs, no justice” on the steps of City Hall in late May. The commissioner of the Department of Buildings must have the knowledge and experience that comes from being a registered architect or professional engineer. The current city law, which requires this level of tested expertise, is both logical and necessary.

Members of the Council’s Governmental Operations Committee heard many of the reasons why the head of the agency that guarantees safety on construction sites must be trained and tested in how buildings come together, how they rise, and how they stand. The process by which an architect or engineer becomes licensed by the state of New York is arduous, arguably harder than passing the state bar exam. It tests comprehensive knowledge of codes, zoning, building practices, and environmental standards, to name but four of the many constituent issues that are important in neighborhoods from Co-op City to Gravesend, from Midwood to Central Harlem, from Ozone Park to East New York.

Professional architects and engineers have an unparalleled combination of education, on-the-job training, licensure, and professional experience that makes them uniquely qualified to ensure the safety and security of the public. Professional architects and engineers understand the integration of structural, technological, and life-safety elements into buildings to assure their usefulness. Through their training and practice, they are capable of balancing the requirements of building codes with the goals of historic preservation, energy efficiency, sustainability, and accessibility.

In addition to technical training, architects and engineers, by law, are personally responsible for their work and have a fiduciary responsibility to maintain the health, safety, and welfare of the public. As licensed professionals, architects and engineers bring to the task a special degree of commitment crucial to the position of buildings commissioner.

This year, after long deliberations, New York City brought a new and modern building code to fruition, replacing rules mired in 19th-century construction practices. At the same time, in many neighborhoods, people have questioned whether some of the taller buildings going up fit into the context of their communities, and whether development pressures and the city’s double-digit growth have led in some instances to deliberate misinterpretation of zoning regulations. We need an architect or engineer at the head of the department who will interpret and enforce the city’s zoning codes, guaranteeing that political pressures and expediency do not engender neighborhood-busting mistakes.

Mayor Bloomberg’s administration and his friends in the City Council have pushed for progressive reform of Buildings Department operations, enforcement, and communications, insisting that building practices be forcefully regulated and made more transparent. The former commissioner, Ms. Lancaster, to her credit, got Buildings Department records out of dusty boxes and posted on the city’s website for all to see. We need an architect or engineer at the head of the department who will provide our communities appropriate scale and comfort, someone who knows about the economic and material determinants of buildings, not just how to manage a large and complicated bureaucracy.

Most importantly, through a wide variety of environmental initiatives including PlaNYC, our elected officials have insisted that New York City attain a greener future and carbon-footprint reduction by, among other things, regulating building materials and construction processes. An architect or engineer at the head of the department will enforce these laws—not just spout greenwash rhetoric—and assure our children and our children’s children that future buildings will help, not hurt, the environment.

There are some, though, in City Hall who insist that the business of New York is business; that any agency, any department, can be run like a Fortune 500 company. They say that good management skills are more important than mere credentials, stale tradition, or a philosophy that knowledge matters. They are half right. This is not about tradition, or a return to the bow-tied past. This is not about credentials or elitism or silly glasses. This is all about professionalism, and the knowledge needed for the person heading the Buildings Department to make the tough decisions when there is nobody else to call, nobody else to consult.

You would not want your kids treated by doctors who learned their medical skills by watching Grey’s Anatomy on television, nor public defenders and district attorneys who learned their legal skills from reading John Grisham novels. You want the real thing for a Health Commissioner and for the public counsel. Just so, you would not want the person who oversees all aspects of zoning, site safety, and the quality of construction in our city to have borrowed his or her word choice from management case studies at Harvard Business School or Brooklyn College.

We need the real thing for our Buildings Commissioner. And New York needs a Buildings Commissioner who not only knows how the government operates, but how buildings stand up.

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The blue light used on the eggs and elsewhere in the complex contrasts with the city's predominantly amber and white light, instilling a sense of calm and cleanliness.
Carl Ambrose/Courtesy NYCDEP

Last night, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) lighted the new digester eggs at its Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The lighting scheme, designed by L’Observatoire International, subtly casts a halo of blue light around the 145-foot-high, stainless steel–clad eggs, which process as much as 1.5 million gallons of sludge every day.

The lighting of the eggs marked the latest milestone in a 20-year plan, initiated in 1998, to expand and update the Newtown Creek facility, which is New York City’s largest wastewater treatment plant, processing the flow of 1 million residents in a 25-square-mile area including parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Polshek Partnership, which is providing master planning for the project, also designed the cladding, arrangement, and parapet atop the eggs. In addition to expanding the capacity and efficiency of the complex, the DEP is attempting to make it a better neighbor by reducing the plant’s odor and opening up portions to the public.

Standing atop one of the eggs, which converts human excrement into fertilizer through a process of anaerobic digestion, DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd gestured to a stand of row houses immediately abutting the plant. “Any good town planner would locate a facility like this as far away from residential areas as possible,” said Lloyd, “but because this is New York City, these functions have to exist cheek-to-jowl.”

Last September, the DEP opened the George Trakas–designed Waterfront Nature Walk, which provided the first public access to the Newtown Creek waterfront. This fall it will open a visitors’ center at the site, designed by Vito Acconci, which will feature installations describing how the city’s effluent is treated.

L’Observatoire’s lighting scheme does its own part in making Newtown Creek a better neighbor. Backlit by four batteries of four 2,000-watt metal halide lamps, the eggs, which possess an elegant sculptural quality of their own, serve as a local landmark for travelers on the Long Island Expressway and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. (Four of the eight eggs went online on May 23, and the rest are expected to be in service by the end of this year.) The firm provided lighting design for the entire 52-acre facility as well, strategically placing white and amber lights for functional purposes while liberally sprinkling the plant with touches of blue. 

Speaking of that color’s role at the site, L’Observatoire founder Hervé Descottes said, “The color is a symbol for calm, cleanliness, and purity, but it also serves to contrast the light of the city, which is predominantly amber or bright white.”

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Venice Bound


The editor-in-chief of The Architect’s Newspaper, William Menking, has been named commissioner in charge of an exhibition to represent the United States at the 11th Architecture Biennale opening in Venice on September 14. The exhibit, called Into The Open: Positioning Practice, is organized by Menking in collaboration with architects Teddy Cruz and Deborah Gans and supported by Aaron Levy and Andrew Sturm.

The exhibition explores recent explosive migration and its impact on shifting socio-cultural populations and geo-political boundaries, as well as the subsequent repercussions these changes have had on how architecture is made.

By way of graphic demonstration, a project by Teddy Cruz vividly portrays the life and conditions around a 60-mile line running through San Diego County and across the Baja California border. In all, there will be 16 geographically, culturally, and ethnically distinct participants providing equally eye-opening projects, from Rural Studio’s work in Hale County, Alabama, to chef Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California.

In sync with the overall theme of the Biennale, Into the Open explores how architects are increasingly going beyond building when meeting the challenges posed by today’s urban and ex-urban conditions. Through drawings, video projections, photographs, but no building models, Menking and his team aim to explore the way that architecture is leading the way in generating new forms of sociability and activism across many different environments.

“The idea of the exhibition is to talk about practice in a new way where design evolves out of conflicts and relationships,” Menking said. “In a sense, the building is a marker of that, but we’re really more interested in the process. We’re saying it’s a new way of doing architecture.”

Open to the public through November 23, Into the Open, the official United States representation at the 11th Architecture Biennale in Venice, has been organized by the PARC Foundation and Slought Foundation and is supported by a grant from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.

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St. Vincent's Hail Mary
An aerial view, with the hospital at left and the development at center right.
Courtesy St. Vincent's

“If O’Toole had to go, this is a much better option,” Gil Horowitz said. The former member of Community Board 2 and Greenwich Village resident of more than 50 years was referring to St. Vincent’s Hospital’s revised plans to build a new 21-story hospital tower at the western corner of 7th Avenue and 12th Street, demolishing the distinctive, saw-toothed landmark O’Toole Building in the process.

St. Vincent’s, along with its development partner the Rudin family, presented the new plans to a board committee last night, where many community members and preservationists seemed to agree with Horowitz. “They really listened to us and took our suggestions and criticisms, as well as those of Landmarks, to heart,” Horowitz said.

It was a stark turnaround from two weeks earlier, when the Landmarks Preservation Commission said that it could not support the plans as designed, and the development team insisted there were no alternatives.

In addition to the hospital, those plans involved the sale and demolition of eight buildings on the eastern side of the hospital campus, to be replaced by the Rudins with a condo tower and townhouses designed by FXFowle. The $310 million sale would pay debt service on the campus and help finance the $835 million hospital, which is designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.

The new plans call for restoring and adaptively reusing four of the easterly buildings for residential use. (The commission recommended retaining five of the eight buildings,  which, along with the O’Toole Building, lie within the Greenwich Village Historic District.) The condo tower will shrink in height by 30 feet and in width by 60 feet, and the number of townhouses will be reduced. “This really locks back into the architecture of the neighborhood,” FXFowle partner Dan Kaplan said.

The hospital will lose two stories, falling from 329 to 299 feet, as well as a 53-foot prow that was proposed for its southwestern corner. “This should really open up the sky on the west side,” Ian Bader, the project architect for Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, said. The bulk will remain the same, however, by raising the five-story podium base to six and expanding the elliptical tower by four feet on each side.

Some in the audience were vexed by the hospital’s quick trip back to the drawing board, though they were generally happy with the results. “You should be congratulated for coming up with a plan so quickly after you told us last time you couldn’t reuse any of the buildings,” said Carol Greitzer, a member of the board’s Omnibus St. Vincent’s Hospital Committee, which was expressly created to oversee the hospital’s expansion for the board. “But there is no doubt the result is a better contribution to the streetscape.”

While they shared the optimism of the community, preservationists remained cautious. “It’s amazing how much better it looks with the buildings still present,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “But there may still be some major concerns.”

“I’m not yet sure what to think,” added Nadezhda Williams, a preservation associate at the Historic Districts Council. “There’s a lot to digest.” Meanwhile, roughly a dozen hospital workers and unionists showed up, waving signs that declared, “Lives Not Buildings.”

The plans now return to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for a new round of public review on June 3. Though the appropriateness of the designs will be vetted as usual, the focus will likely be St. Vincent’s hardship application.

Last invoked in 1993, this provision of the city’s landmarks law allows landlords hamstrung by the commission’s findings—in this case, the determination of historical importance for the O’Toole Building, one of Albert Ledner’s four 1960s buildings for the Maritime Union in the city—to argue that they cannot maintain the landmark and either turn a profit or, in the case of a nonprofit like Saint Vincent’s, serve its charitable purpose.

“At the end of the day, the O’Toole building is the only site St. Vincent’s can move into,” Shelly Friedman, counsel to the hospital, said. In the end, that will likely be the case: Only three of 15 hardship applications have been denied.

Matt Chaban

The O'Toole Building will be torn down to make way for a new hospital tower, assuming the Landmarks Preservation Commission allows it.
Matt Chaban
The height of the hospital has been reduced by 30 feet and a 53-foot prow has been removed. The previous building envelope is outlined in red.
All images courtesy St. vincent's
As the renderings, which look north up seventh Avenue, show, the changes greatly open the building's western side to the sky.
The current hospital will be replaced by a condo tower while the historic buildings that line 12th Street will be repurposed as residences.
north Elevation of the current and previous plans and the existing condition.
West eleveation of the current and previous plans and the existing condition.
South elevation of the current and previous plans and the existing condition.