Search results for "Imagination Playground"

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Urbanising Atlanta
Historic Fourth Ward Park, opened in 2011, is the sort of urban-scale public space that many may be surprised to find in Atlanta.
Courtesy Atlanta BeltLine

Georgia’s largest city is establishing a new pattern for urban success by building density in its core and opening new modes of transit. Darin Givens tells us about the city’s aspirations and struggles as it develops in the 21st century.

A national report from 2014, “The Young and Restless at the Nation’s Cities,” found that recent years have seen a significant rise in the percentage of young and educated adults living within a three-mile radius of the Downtown Atlanta central business district. This includes intown neighborhoods such as West End, Adair Park, Atlantic Station, Midtown, Old Fourth Ward, Grant Park, and Glenwood Park. The metro region as a whole, though, has taken a loss on this demographic.

Shunning the sprawling fringes, young people with college degrees are flocking to the places that are most urban in Atlanta; the ones with transit service, density, and mixed uses. In contrast to the way baby boomers of the latter half of the 20th century reshaped the region with car-centric, low-density development, this new generation is eager to take part in the powerful trends of urbanism that are improving the center-city’s core, making it a better place to live and work.

It isn’t hard to see a geographic correlation between the location of this trend and the outline of the Atlanta BeltLine. Looping the center of the city with a series of paths and parks, it will, when fully completed, pass through 45 close-in neighborhoods that are all within a two- to four-mile radius of downtown. Even in its partially completed early stages, the BeltLine has proven itself a powerful tool for changing the way people think about Atlanta’s development.


Atlanta BeltLine

This series of multi-use paths and green space is boosting the amount of parkland in the city by 40 percent. Nineteen percent of the city’s land mass falls inside the planning area for the project. The city touts $775 million in real estate development within a half mile of the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail alone. This puts a considerable number of residents in easy access of a popular public space that is now known for its weekend crowds, while also demonstrating the ability of the city’s growth to occur in new ways. It is happening not alongside wide, multi-lane roads; instead, this part of intown’s resurgence is taking shape around the BeltLine’s shared spaces and bike lanes (and, some day in the future, planned rail transit).

The Atlanta BeltLine is a series of paths and greenspace that is boosting the city’s parkland by 40 percent.

The sea change ushered in by the BeltLine can’t be understated. In one of the least “designed” large cities in the U.S., where market trends and interstate infrastructure have had an outsized role in shaping the urban fabric, people are now excited about re-thinking how the city is shaped. Residents who seldom considered the urban environment beyond their own block have become aware of the strength of conceptualizing whole neighborhoods and the links between them. And it is having an effect on architects as well.

Ryan Gravel is a senior urban designer for the Atlanta office of Perkins+Will. His master’s thesis in Architecture and City Planning from Georgia Tech in 1999 became the original vision for the BeltLine. He said that the project is “making obvious improvements to the form and life of the city, but the consumer market that it is generating is also pressuring developers and architects to make better buildings.

“You can see this right now with the unfolding of Ponce City Market, which is raising the bar three or four rungs for quality. But you can also see it on the drawing boards for projects like the Atlanta Dairies site on Memorial Drive, which are re-introducing Atlanta to a more interesting mix of uses, like markets, music, and the arts. They’re also taking advantage of both historic and nondescript old structures to deliver more inventive designs. Along with the general upgrades in Downtown and Midtown, an emerging bicycle culture, and a fantastic culinary scene, Atlanta’s central city is coming alive in a really interesting way.”

Ponce City Market is an adaptive-reuse project that is turning a 1925 Sears, Roebuck & Company distribution center into a mixed-use destination with commercial, retail, and residential space.
Courtesy Jamestown Properties

Ponce City Market

The adaptive reuse of a hulking, 1925 Sears, Roebuck & Company distribution center is an appropriately transformative project to take place alongside the BeltLine. One point one million square feet of the structure has undergone a mixed-use conversion as Ponce City Market (PCM). The finished product includes 517,000 square feet of offices, 300,000 square feet of retail, and 259 residential units. The project has proven successful in drawing in tenants, with most of the office space already leased to a variety of high-profile companies including Twitter, and an array of shops is set to open throughout 2015.

Atlanta architect Kyle Kessler said that PCM, which sits directly beside the eastside BeltLine path, is “important as a project itself (adaptive reuse, on the BeltLine, etc.) but also because it appears to have captured the public’s imagination and is setting a new baseline for development in Atlanta.”


Indeed, even the high rental prices announced for the residential units have not soured the city on it. PCM has become a symbol of what Atlanta can accomplish in terms of reusing structures of the past, and re-aligning them with modes of transportation other than cars, and opening them to public space.

Immediately south of PCM lies Historic Fourth Ward Park. Opened in 2011, it offers 17 acres of green space, walkways, an amphitheater and event lawn, and numerous water features. A stormwater detention basin forms a two-acre lake, surrounded by a carefully landscaped park. Several recently constructed mid-rise apartment buildings overlook the park, which boasts a popular playground and splash pad that draw in families from surrounding neighborhoods. The sight of children playing in a carefully designed park, in the midst of human-scale residential development and a multi-use path, conveys a very European sensibility in its overall aesthetic; something many may be surprised to find in Atlanta.

Struggling to find connections

In a city that is sliced through its core several times with interstate highway infrastructure, as well as large arterial roads that serve highway entrances and exits, finding pedestrian-friendly connections from place to place can sometimes be a challenge. In many cases the urban fabric can be repaired, but sometimes the city seems content to develop islands of activity set apart from each other.

Atlantic Station is 138 acres of a former brownfield site that became a master-planned, mixed-use city within a city. Opened in 2005, it has an impressive six million square feet of office space that sits among a varied array of housing, including townhomes, apartments, condos, and detached houses. Its central retail area is an outdoor shopping mall outfitted with gridded streets that host popular shopping destinations, with levels of parking stacked directly underneath.

But despite being walkable in itself, there is a rough transition between Atlantic Station and surrounding nodes of activity, from which it is separated by a combination of interstate highways, car-centric corridors, and freight rail lines. Without a safe pedestrian connection to the rest of Midtown to the east and west, or to Buckhead to the north, it is largely a car destination.

KDC Real Estate is developing a 2.2 million-square-foot office building, designed by Cooper Carry & Associates, which will connect to MARTA’s Dunwoody Station.
Courtesy MARTA

Car destinations are also a big part of the landscape of Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead section, on the north end of the city. The commuter congestion on its central Peachtree Road corridor is known by locals as something to be avoided as much as possible. One attempt to link Buckhead’s destinations for human-powered transportation is PATH400 Greenway Trail. This north-south multi-use path will eventually link up with the BeltLine on its south end. Its first phase opened in January 2015, and the full 5.2 miles of trail will eventually connect a series of parks, schools, and neighborhoods to the urban center of Buckhead.

The fact that the Buckhead community business district has shown major support for the PATH400 project is telling; even in the most challenging places, Atlanta is focused on developing in a new way.

Perhaps the most challenging location of all is Underground Atlanta in the south end of Downtown. With lower-level storefronts that used to be at the main street level in the earliest days of Atlanta, before the viaducts were built over them (hence “underground”), this is the historic birthplace of the city that eventually morphed into a financially troubled mall.

Even the presence of a MARTA rail station next door has not been able to draw enough foot traffic to make the mall profitable. One probable culprit is geography: It is disconnected from the popular neighborhoods of the city by crisscrossing highways, a railroad gulch, and a series of enormous events facilities and their adjacent parking structures.

The city decided in 2014 to end its ownership of Underground Atlanta. Making the sole bid for purchase, developer WRS Inc. has submitted concepts that would transform it into 12 acres of mixed uses, including a grocery store, additional retail, and residential development. Instead of only trying to draw in visitors from other neighborhoods in the city, this new plan for the space could end up some day serving as the centerpiece for the South Downtown neighborhood.

Atlanta Daily World Building: big gains from small packages

This is a modest building, physically, by any standard. Comprising 4,756 square feet of space on 0.11 acres of land, this simple two-story structure built in 1930 is not visually striking. But true to its placement on Auburn Avenue, which served as the epicenter of African American commercial and cultural life for several decades in the early-to-mid 20th century, it has a prominent place in the city’s history.

It served as the headquarters for its namesake publication for many years, which was the nation’s first successful black-owned daily newspaper. Threatened with demolition after being damaged by a 2008 tornado that hit Downtown Atlanta, it was spared thanks to the voices of local preservationists. A real estate professional purchased it and has carefully renovated the building for apartments on top and two retail spaces below.

Small projects like this tend to slide under the radar, missing out on the coverage afforded to mega developments. But these are the ones that make neighborhoods feel authentic. According to Kessler, this project is important because “it’s on the opposite end of the scale as Ponce City Market. Much of what has stifled development in Atlanta’s urban core is that developers can’t get the property assemblages together to make a project big enough for the pro forma to work. This building was a goner, but the project proves that a small developer can make the numbers work. Hopefully this is a model that can be repeated throughout downtown and the rest of the city.”

Challenges for furthering Atlanta’s good urbanism

Urbanists have much to celebrate in the strides Atlanta has taken toward building places that are more walkable and that echo some of the best practice of good urban form. Though the city government has supported efforts at reshaping the city for the better, it has not always taken the reigns when it comes to leading those efforts and fostering a cohesive vision. Matthew Garbett, a community leader who is currently working with the city on a tactical urbanism project, said, “I think urbanists share a vision for the city, but I don’t think we’re effectively sharing that vision in a way that is shaping the city. We lack an advocate at the city-wide level who really has the people and the press’s attention, someone willing to speak about the bad and the real, sometimes difficult measures that need to be taken to improve.”

And even with the addition of planned public spaces such as the BeltLine, the market economy still has the biggest say in what gets developed. As Kessler noted: “Yes, architects are taking part in the vision, but I wouldn’t say we’re leading the vision. As has been proven with the new Falcons stadium, Civic Center, Turner Field, Underground Atlanta, etc., the vision has been put forward by a developer who’s worked with a particular architect, but architects serving as design advocates have not been out in front of the process.

“There have been calls in the media and from new organizations such as the Architecture & Design Center to raise the level of discourse regarding architecture, but I think Atlanta needs more architects advocating for better design and not just allowing developers, bankers, and other participants that don’t have an obligation to serve the public to dictate what gets built.”

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Layers Upon Layers
Courtesy NYM Fix Press

Future Times Square; Compression vs. Distribution  
Rajan V. Ritoe

The lack of a personal encounter with Times Square prior to reading Future Times Square; Compression vs. Distribution, edited by Rajan V. Ritoe, has only been a fortune to this review. This, because when dealing with an interventional design proposition of such a celebrated space, the pre-conceived perception—diverse in everybody’s mind and well set for any New Yorker—could become dangerously critical and biased, fluctuating the understanding of the author’s well thought-out and methodological narrations.

Consequently, any perceptive impressions were built through this reading in a multivalent, sweeping, and comprehensive fashion, experiencing the place’s historical layers, its evolutionary procedures and presently vibrant, monumental, and problematic state—all while ingesting a promising, functional, and exciting vision for future economic and iconic valorization engaging the wider urban tissue.

Sounding like a substantially immense vision, condensed within just 72 pages of clean and linearly sketchy diagrams, the authors succeed in the extensive brainstorming and meticulous investigation of organized and studied ideas, leaving plenty of room for imagination—exactly what Times Square does itself, with the digital deliberation of billboard images.

Reading through, the anxiety for a personal confrontation with the commercial intersection flourished. As a doctoral “expert” of public open urban space investigations and designs of post WWII periods, the impression of the lionized place prior to the real-time encounter was described as a public open urban space category of its own; a chaotic nucleus that plays the role of a burning investment and advertising pole, puzzled by the intersecting traffic jams of cars and people, crossing the limits of civic safety. This backs up well the designers’ main concentration on finding ways to improve economic valorization with the simultaneous amelioration of the locals’ experiences of faster commutes and more detached nodal crossings.


Stressing the importance of the area, in parallelism with its high density and inefficient circulation, the proposal traces back to morphological alterations in order to penetrate through the historical paradigmatic shifts of urban tissues and spatial forms, for a logical evolutional future public space reality.  Thus prior to visiting the square, one becomes aware of the initial 1809 “commissioners” master plan, the logic of the streets and avenues, the historical origin of Broadway being an old Indian road amid the then existing hills and swamps. Of course, the actual accord, eventually witnessed, has nothing to do with eco-related urban landscapes, or the traditional definition of what a “square” is. Surely, it does not follow the Italian “dolce far niente” of carefree idleness. A critical lover of a preconceived comfortable civic space might even categorize Times Square as a well-advertised infrastructural intersection, ignoring the pedestrians’ needs, but equilibrating—or consoling—this downfall with flashing tabloids and instances of visual brainstorm and pre-constructed imagination.

The authors’ suggested morphological changes, including subway stations underneath the square and subway line expansions to five different icons, satisfy two primary goals: The first is to preserve and promote the capital display of the architectural facade billboards, working around the ever-changing compositional collage of financial amplification. The second is to recognize and promote the role of Times Square as a public space icon, celebrating its uniqueness that contradicts the traditional norms of what a public space should be. The process is executed under the umbrella of two concluding conceptual keywords: distribution and compression.

Comparison of the size of Times Square with New York's major airports.

Distribution creates complementary public open urban spaces radiating from Times Square and nesting on five key point waterfront-design suggestions. For the purposes of “relieving” the pressure of Times Square, “acupuncturing the shoreline,” and “diversifying” the users, the suggestions hold a valid point, but up until the mentioning of iconographic borrowing and “injection.” Then one unwittingly deliberates on the dilemma of multiplication of authenticity, which takes place during an effort to take something that works and apply it elsewhere. Perhaps when the context changes, an open space absorbs its own character and spirit, however, it is a process naturally succeeding through layers of evolutional time, building on to each spot’s unique needs and contemplated issues. Nevertheless, the suggestions are extremely interesting and diverse in their typology, morphology, function, orientation, and form.

Compression involves the connectivity of circulation problems through means of an underground tunnel, pedestrianization, Seventh Avenue street penetration through the ground and the lowering of ground levels to directly access the new tunnel while creating new commercial centers and public events.  This incorporation of underground vertical layers, mirroring the upward direction of the over-ground skyscrapers, accommodates the increase of surface density for improved pedestrian experiences, expressing in a genuine way the stressed need for urban fabric depth as a futurist solution of a reversed order, opposite to the one of reaching the sky. It nicely suits a parallelization of a contemporized technological image of Piranesi’s envisioning through his fictitious and atmospheric “prison” etchings. In this sense, also the proposed over-ground residential catwalks would make some perfect sense, adding to the spirit of three-dimensional collage-perception and instantaneous flashlights of diversified and unpredictable typological context married with disordered visual deliberation.

The whole process is the witnessing of a future collage of supplementary contending public open urban nuclei, consulting with the idea of a multi-layered urban playground. It brings to mind the infamous Collage City and the appropriate recent exhibition of MoMA’s Cut ‘n’ Paste, envisaging signs, layers of digital information, and visual installations: “If democracy… is, inherently, a collision of points of view and acceptable as such, then why not allow a theory of contending powers (all of them visible) as likely to establish a more ideally comprehensive city of the mind than any which has, as yet, been invented” (Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, in Collage City).

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Bjarke Ingels Lays The First Brick at LEGO House in Denmark
The Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) has begun assembling the pieces of its life-size LEGO House in Billund, Denmark. The wunderkind, himself, recently joined the LEGO Group’s brass (er, plastic?) for the ceremonial groundbreaking, which was really more of a brick-laying as six LEGO-shaped foundation stones were unveiled at the site. Imprinted on those stones were the words: “imagination, creativity, fun, learning, caring, and quality.” According to LEGO, the 129,000-square-foot structure—which, duh is shaped like the little bricks—will offer both “hands-on” and “minds-on” experiences. Those experiences will be had within four separate “play zones.” For the more academic tots, the LEGO House will also present “the story of the family company including the development of the LEGO products, the LEGO brand and the LEGO Group.” Not as exciting, but still important. “[LEGO House] will appear like a cloud of interlocking LEGO bricks that form spaces for exploration and exhibition for its visitors within,” Ingels said in a statement. “On the outside the pile of bricks form the roof of a new covered square as well as a mountain of interconnected terraces and playgrounds."
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Glyptic Phenomena
Courtesy Prestel

Regenerative Infrastructures: Freshkills Park NYC, Land Art Generator Initiative
Edited by Caroline Klein
Prestel, $50

In pursuit of an inventive and flexible interpretation of Freshkills Park’s damaged land and its recovery of health and biodiversity, together with the intention to trigger the imagination of people, the Land Art Generator Initiative hosted the competition “Regenerative Infrastructures.” The results of the competition are featured in the book Regenerative Infrastructures: Freshkills Park NYC, Land Art Generator Initiative. The projects include a variety of proposals including visitor-tours, on-site events, educational programs, installations, performances, scientific environmental research, and the expanding definition of the park that challenge the terminologies of public art, urban landscapes, and sustainable structures and technologies.

The introductory essays lay down the Land Art Generator Initiative’s theoretical opinions on sustainable land art considerations, covering topics on aesthetics in sustainability, the contemporary issue of garbage-production, the artist’s role, and the relationship between landscape and infrastructure.

The extreme articulation of land art, which came to being in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where the designer interprets the direct linkage between landscape and project, is expressed in this competition through various sources of inspiration. This artful process reminds one of the epistemological relevance of the ground playing a significant role of a constant in the equation of the earth’s complex stability, similar to the formulation of the Gaia hypothesis of the 1970s by chemist James Lovelock, taking place parallel to the phenomenological investigations and new-expressionism. The Gaia hypothesis considers the treatment of the ground as a point of reference of a self-organizing system, where each particle that is being placed becomes strongly affected by its behavior. This doesn’t refrain much from the complexity theory of the same period of post-modernism, where qualities of architectural open space compositions were trying to find deeper values of linkages among forms, themes and aesthetic ideas, investigating multivalent relationships of many meanings.

This evolution of ideas becomes supremely relevant to the Regenerative Infrastructures projects, which try to use every installation piece for the production of renewable energy. A noteworthy example could very well be the winner of the competition, “Scene-Sensor//Crossing Social and Ecological Flows,” which uses piezoelectric generators to harvest energy from the wind and the visiting humans, employing the form of an attractive screen and the metaphorical concept of mirroring and reflection in the actual experience of the final solution.

The intensions of land art were initially a movement of disapproval towards the modern developing movement of machinery, artificiality, plastic aesthetics, and commercialized architecture. Pursuing natural simplicity through concepts of minimalism, geometrical simplicity and organic expressionism, the movement initially spread in Europe, with works usually positioned in the countryside and intended to reveal their pure concept from a bird’s eye view. With the Regenerative Infrastructures of Freshkills Park, one sees the progress, not only in the sense of sustainability, but also in the partaking in the traces of the memories of the urban ground, offering experiences of subconscious investigation. Ideally, the land art figures follow existing patterns of the land, being traced as blueprints in quest of creating memories of past existing contours.

Dimitris Pikionis, of the same generation as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, delves deeply into the investigation of this groundscape and topographical sensibility, associating the designs with the direct interaction of the being with the “glyptic form of the site.” This very glyptic over-design of the site’s topography is evident in Regenerative Infrastructure projects such as “Fresh Hills,” “99 Red Balloons,” and “Currents,” to name a few. But also Aldo van Eyck’s interpretation of the Amsterdam playgrounds are a pure expression of this phenomenon, translating the morphological characteristics of the place into playground objects laid out on the outline of a cement grid. In the Freshkills Park projects, using the topography as the blueprint layer, this happens with the “PowerPlay” proposal, a “sculpturally stimulating and energy-generating interactive kinetic play-space.”

Both of Pikionis’ and van Eyck’s theories combined translate to some of these projects’ solution of touching and the sensory perception of the child searching for elementary signs traced on the ground and punctuated through a rediscovery of landscape obstacles that absorb and distribute energy.

The interplay of the proposals takes various forms, including solar loop landmarks, the minimal element of the line, triangles representing natural healing, cylindrical energy collectors, bird-forms, panels, mechanical ghosts, kites, arching frames, rods as generators, three-legged modules, clouds, gas molecule forms expressed under high pressure, natural-looking elements of stems and blooms, trees, currents, and inflatable roofs. They are all valid solutions for contemporary situations of a landscape of historical importance, in the midst of a strong topographical imagery. The sources of inspiration for this imagery are also rich and inspiring, including-window reflecting and revealing scenes, the relationship between energy and land, the aligning on the moving condition of the landfill’s gradual sinking and the rising of the surrounding level, the expression of loss/hope/memory, interactive kinetic play-space, the bond between humans and the park, a bird’s wing movement, the revelation of process of power generation, a kite’s or flower’s or tree’s metaphor…

The book concludes with a comprehensive glossary explaining all of the mentioned energy technologies used for every project, completing the figurative character of the new landscape imagery.

Conclusively, it is a book that flirts among phenomenological facts of reality, illusion, and technology, transcending objects and sceneries into multiple layers of meanings, while offering symbolic advice.

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What If?
Steven Holl Architects, Natural History Museum Addition Proposal, 2002.
Courtesy Steven Holl Architects

Never Built: Los Angeles
A+D Museum
6032 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles
Through October 13

For an exhibition about architectural projects that never broke ground, there’s something rather cheery about Never Built: Los Angeles, on view at the A+D Museum through October 13. Outside, an oversized lenticular facade is a shade of yellow that shouts Southern California—it’s all citrus groves and sunshine. A billboard-sized image of the Cadillac-like Goodell Monorail is frozen mid-zoom along Wilshire Boulevard. Inside, a map of the Los Angeles Basin stretches out across the gallery floor. Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin have brought together a selection of unrealized works, many of which, if built, had the potential to change our understanding of the city. For the curators “what if” is not a lament, per se, but rather a celebration of speculative possibilities and a challenge to the present status quo.

“The message of these unrealized projects is one of not only regret but also optimism… We see that our city clearly still holds its original promise—that there remains unfinished space here to transform and build,” writes Thom Mayne in his forward to the impressive Never Built catalog. And that’s the thing about LA, its endless urban fabric still inspires a kind of starry-eyed hope in the possible among Pritzker Prize winning denizens, even though according to the latest census it is the densest city in the nation. Where once the civic landscape begged to be filled with new construction, now it teases.

B+U Architects, Downey Office Building, 2009 (left). Murphy Jahn, Figueroa Tower, 1987 (right).
Courtesy B+U; Courtesy JAHN

Never Built divides into a few categories: buildings, master plans, parks, follies, and transportation schemes, with works illustrated via models, drawings, renderings, and, in the case of Lloyd Wright’s Twentieth-Century Metropolitan Catholic Cathedral (1931), Legos—neatly accommodated by an exhibition design by Clive Wilkinson Architects.

The scope of potential projects for inclusion at first seems as vast as LA’s sprawl; Lubell and Goldin mindfully narrowed the checklist to works in the civic realm. Notably, the single-family residence, the city’s most famous piece of architectural cultural production, barely makes an appearance.

Lloyd Wright, Civic Center Proposal, 1925.
Courtesy UCLA Special Collections
Left to right: OMA, LACMA Proposal, 2001; Santa Monica Offshore Freeway, 1965; Pereira & Luckman, LAX Original Plan, 1952.
Courtesy OMA; Courtesy City of Santa Monica; Courtesy LAWA Flight Path Leaning Center

Architecture media is currently awash in speculative design, those projects that digitally render fictional futures with the same technique as fact. As such, there is little expectation for proposals to manifest outside the screen and to encourage a larger public debate. Although unconstructed, the designs in Never Built are not exercises in fantasy or “paper architecture” polemics. The wall texts and the catalog make clear again and again, these are commissions that failed fruition for any number for reasons—city hall sputtering, developer nerves, political gamesmanship, overreaching scope, financial ruin. The proverbial noir to LA’s perennial sunshine.

Still, some of the works are more suitable to imagination than implementation. There are the numerous people mover, automatic vehicle, and monorail schemes. But it’s Pereira and Luckman’s mammoth plan for Los Angeles International Airport that truly captured the enormous mid-century mythos of flight. Watercolor illustrations depict a central terminal topped in a three-story-high glass dome. According to the curators, the cost of air conditioning killed the scheme.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Huntington Hartford Sports Club, 1947 (left). John Lautner, Griffith Park Nature Center, 1972 (right).
Courtesy FLLW Foundation; Courtesy GRI / John Lautner Foundation

Then, consider the towers: There is the 1,290-foot-tall dream cocked up by William H. Evans, the Tower of Civilization for the Los Angeles World’s Fair, Jean Nouvel’s 45-story Green Blade condos proposed for Century City in 2008, and, at 50-story-tall, Welton Becket’s Century City Theme Building (1963) for Alcoa would have dwarfed the modest office buildings that were built as part of the master plan.

Or Anthony Lumsden of DMJM’s beachfront scheme for Pacific Ocean Park Development (1969), commissioned by real estate developer and rancher John “Jack” Morehart, proposed a 600-room cylindrical hotel rising from the Pacific. As with the Theme Building, Carlos Diniz evocatively illustrated the project in black and white. Here on the coast, the renderer added in breaking waves and seagulls. Lubell and Goldin give the backstory in the Never Built catalog, chronicling the back-and-forth posturing of Morehart, the Santa Monica Redevelopment Agency, and the city of Los Angeles over four years that resulted in the acquisition of the 20-acre parcel for what is now the public beach.

DMJM, Pacific Ocean Park Redevelopment, 1969.
Courtesy Edward Cella Art & Architecture

Of course, there are the projects that seem to blaze a utopian trail only to end in tears. Such is Robert Alexander and Richard Neutra’s housing plan, Elysian Park Heights (1958). The scheme for Chavez Ravine, then home to a Mexican-American community, is a reformist vision with a socialist heart that nods to the modernist Weissenhof Settlement. The progressive plan to transform the “slum” was met with anti-public housing opposition, which ultimately gave way to one of the biggest social injustices in the city’s history: the controversial razing of the original village and the construction of Dodger Stadium. The curators don’t pull punches, but the works, while treated thematically, are also treated neutrally. In a city like Los Angeles, political history is always the elephant in the room. But by including Elysian Park Heights, they introduce the possibility for a smaller, more reactive show with a tighter checklist.

“Something about the innate beauty of the hills, the ocean, and the pellucid air combined with an uneasy feeling of upheaval—fed by earthquakes, drenching rains, and scourging fires—aroused architects’ daring impulses in this caldera of ceaseless striving,” reads Lubell and Goldin’s catalog essay entitled City of Illusions. “Daring impulses” invokes images of grand formalist gestures, but perhaps the most daring of Never Built’s proposals are the most mundane and infrastructural. As the City of Los Angeles continues to build its Metro Line, the show features subway and elevated rail systems dating back to the 1930s. But it is the Olmsted Brothers and Bartholomew map of Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region from 1930 that breaks hearts. The lacy green filigree of green spaces and preserves across the city was proposed as a barrier to unmitigated urban growth. It’s the promise of “not building” that Angelenos are still waiting to be fulfilled.

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Rockwell Group Designs A Treehouse-esque Playground for Park in Brownsville
The Rockwell Group and NYC Parks unveiled their plans last week to turn a 1.5-acre section of Betsy Head Park in Brownsville into a lush and active playground. When designing Imagination Playground, the firm looked to treehouses for inspiration. The site will feature a winding ramp that snakes around London Plane trees and connects to slides and a series of jungle gyms that spill out into an open area with sand, water, benches, and plantings. In collaboration with landscape architecture firm MKW + Associates, the Rockwell Group has taken on this project pro-bono and will donate a set of Playground Blocks to the Brownsville Recreation Center. The $3.92 million playground was funded with the help of government subsidies from Mayor Bloomberg, Borough President Markowitz, and Council Member Mealy. Partner David Rockwell founded Imagination Playground in partnership with NYC Parks and KaBOOM, a non-profit organization, to encourage activity and unstructured play for children at nominal cost by providing loose building blocks in outdoor recreational spaces. Right now the project is slated to break ground in spring of 2014 and open in 2015.    
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Brooklyn Bridge Park
Brooklyn Bridge Park struggles with being both human scale and monumental.
Courtesy MVVA

Sometimes allegory writes itself. Here, it’s the removal of the futuristic stainless-steel playground climbing domes at the Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates– designed Brooklyn Bridge Park. Following the opening of the park’s Pier 1 first phase in April 2010, the domes scorchingly overheated in early summer sunshine. Their replacement by a direly anodyne but liability-proof dollhouse structure could stand for the sensible return of quasi- traditional designs after modernist overreach, or for a failure of imagination and ambition, in which the optimistically risk-taking formal and functional intelligence that is modernism’s timeless legacy is abandoned in favor of the complacently picturesque.

The design of parks and playgrounds in New York City seems currently torn between these two impulses. On the one hand, there are projects like David Rockwell’s Imagination Playground, a Constructivist Legoland just opened at the Burling Slip near the South Street Seaport. On the other, there are developments like the recent renovation inflicted on Washington Square Park, in which the once superbly sensitive prospect-and-refuge modulations of the park’s multi-level ground plane, and the once lively handling of its historically off-kilter plan (developed by polymath designer Robert Nichols in a community-driven 1971 project) have been flattened by a tightly-wound ersatz-historical pastiche of windswept symmetry, bench-shaped benches and fence-shaped fences, from which tiny tidy bits of lawn can be surveilled, but not much else.

A new playrgound at Pier 6, with Red Hook and Governor's Island beyond.

Brooklyn Bridge Park would appear to be safely in the first camp. To be arrayed when complete across some 65 acres of Brooklyn’s former shipping piers, it continues for the outer boroughs such large-scale waterfront reclamations as Manhattan’s Hudson River Park and Harlem Piers Park—in this case financially initiated and sustained, not without controversy, by the residential and hotel development of six adjacent parcels with priceless skyline and river views.

Much of Pier 1 is unimpeachable. A robust vocabulary of galvanized steel, maritime wood, asphalt paving, cable fencing, and other no-nonsense materials hold their own against a tough urban setting in the shadow of the BQE. Behind the shoulder of a steep hill, a cascade of granite steps, salvaged from nearby Roosevelt Island, forms an amphitheater and climactic overlook high above the East River. Thirty-five-foot telephone poles become totemic tree trunks and laconic lighting uprights. A sinuously sloping ridgeline provides ramped tree-lined pathways that delay and reveal views of city and water. A broad waterfront promenade recalls the one far above in Brooklyn Heights.

Joggers and bench-sitters enjoying the promenade at sunset.

A complex three-dimensional problem of physical and visual occupation has been methodically and successfully solved, with crisp detailing pleasingly combining industrial manufacture and contemporary élan. Still to come are a rainwater runoff pond, a reconstructed salt marsh, and a boat slip. On a recent Friday afternoon, the park was densely and delightedly occupied by diverse constituencies—including an intrepid group of soccer players who had miniaturized and adapted their game to fit into the mostly concave hollow of the main north-facing lawn.

That miniaturization speaks to one challenge facing the Pier 1 park, which is scale: Mediating its 9.5 acres between the scale of the human body and the scale of nearby infrastructural icons like the Brooklyn Bridge, Pier 1 has chosen to be a little-big park, rather than a big-little one. What this means is that in the cumulative effect of its many small hills and valleys, switchbacks, and meadows, it can feel slightly like a three-quarters-scale model of itself: packed with beautiful and effective features, and almost continually delightful, but without a lot of room to breathe or improvise. At Brooklyn Bridge Park, that room will, of course, eventually arrive with the continuing development of the adjacent five piers, which will provide full-size indoor and outdoor sports fields, event spaces, and miles of trails and lawns.

A cove created by the former pilings of Pier 2 adjacent to Pier 1.

And yet this tendency toward dense specificity of activity can risk suppressing the imaginative improvisation, drift, opportunism, serendipity, and loosely counter-programmatical use of space that are the greatest gifts of playgrounds and parks to their users. The new Washington Square Park fails so profoundly because, unlike the old, it encourages the narrowest one-to-one mapping between object and event: a hospitably curving edge calibrated along a shift in ground level can be a bench, a bed, a stage, a gameboard, a skate ramp, a soap box. A faux-Victorian bench is a bench is a bench.

A sign at the Pier 1 playground outlaws, along with amplified sound and smoking, “using playground equipment in an unsafe or unintended fashion.” Safety matters. It’s that “unintended” that worries. And yet somewhere there’s a tipping point in which the regulation of space required by a density of narrowly single-use features starts to betray the magnificent liberties of unintended consequences, that, ever since Richard Dattner brought the Adventure Playground to Central Park in the 1960s, has been the city’s contribution to play and to public space.

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Rockwell makes a ruckus at Imagination Playground
“It doesn’t seem like it, but everything connects with each one perfectly,” said Gabrielle Sunderland, 12, squinting happily toward the hot July sun. Around her were piles of weather- and germ-resistant foam blocks in sundry shapes and sizes. The blue pieces are the signature element of David Rockwell’s Imagination Playground, which opened Tuesday on Burling Slip near the South Street Seaport. A designer of theaters, high-end restaurants, and Broadway stage sets, Rockwell found his own children bored by the playgrounds of Lower Manhattan. So he set out to create a playspace where kids could use their own imagination, just as he once did. “Playgrounds are the places where kids can learn how to be a community and create their own worlds, but the ones we visited were all too linear,” he told AN at the opening. “That gave me the idea of a different kind of playground.” Gabrielle and her friend Ajda Celebi, 10, were industriously showing off Rockwell’s central strategy: providing kids with loose pieces that promote unstructured play. The girls set two rectangular blocks together with a noodle on the side and a ball on top, creating something like a giant teapot. They liked the fact that the playground allows them to make structures entirely “out of your own creativity,” as Ajda put it. The project got its start after Rockwell persuaded Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe with a drawing on a lunch napkin, and then spent five years researching progressive learning theory and child development. He also helped round up funds for the $7.5 million project, which included a $4.5 million grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and $3 million from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection for the relocation of two water mains and a sewer line into the adjacent street. Rockwell also teamed with nonprofit playground designer KaBOOM! and together they developed Imagination Playground in smaller portable versions, tested and tweaked after trial tours in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Miami, and New York. But the first permanent site for the concept is designed pro-bono on a former parking lot at Burling Slip. Comprised of a large multi-level deck in the shape of a swooping figure eight of reclaimed Indonesian teak, the new playground is essentially an empty space for the array of 350 props. Situated in a landmark district, the landscape does include some features that recall the surrounding area’s nautical past, including reused benches from Coney Island, barrels, and burlap bags. The west end is the sand pit, consisting of sloping wooden ramps and four wooden masts made by a shipbuilder, each connected by ropes and pulleys. In the center stands a crow’s nest atop a red, circular structure housing bathrooms and a storage space for the blocks. At the east end, a rounded amphitheater for storytelling overlooks an ankle-deep pool with pipes and canals that enable the control of cascading water. A staff of city workers trained as “play associates” oversees the action, as with all Imagination Playgrounds. According to Benepe, Burling Slip is the start of a new era of New York City playgrounds, where Rockwell’s sponges will replace worn-out monkey bars, swings, and jungle gyms. “The next step is to look at playgrounds that are underperforming and need renovation in central Brooklyn and the South Bronx, and apply the concept,” he told AN, adding that these might come with a different set of materials. “Here we had a flexible budget, but we could take a traditional Parks Department playground budget, and use these approaches.” For his part, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg described the project as a tremendous success. “It is always amazing to see what children choose to create when they are fully using their imagination,” he declared. As for the little pirates, they too gave the playspace top grade. “It’s all big and blue and bendy,” Gabrielle said, while balancing a cog on top of a cube tower. “It’s a lot of fun!” And Ajda added, “The new West Thames playground where I live is really cool, but this one is more fun, because you can do anything here.” With that, she eagerly returned to helping the other kids dam a cascading water flow in the pool area. To everyone’s joy, the jets of water created unexpected rainbows against the blue afternoon sky.
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Parks, Public Space, and Streetscapes
Starr Whitehouse and FXFowle have reimagined Water Street with new medians and retail to enliven the barren streetscape.
Courtesy Alliance for Downtown New York

Lower Manhattan boasts some of the city’s oldest parks, Bowling Green and the Historic Battery, as well as one of the borough’s leafiest neighborhoods, Battery Park City, but the area is best known for its warren of narrow, winding streets, corridors darkened by the blackening crowns from New York’s first skyscraper boom. This wonderfully eclectic area retains a sense of mystery while also evoking the quintessential Gotham City.

As the neighborhood diversifies to become increasingly residential, more places to stretch your legs, walk the dog, or play with the kids are needed. In the granite canyons of Lower Manhattan and along its eastern waterfront, new public spaces are being carved out or spruced up. The first phase of the East River Esplanade, from Wall Street to Maiden Lane, is taking shape under the shadow of the FDR. Designed by SHoP and Ken Smith, the stretch includes a dog run with a giant squirrel and tree, both of bronze. Several street furniture mockups, including a handsome High Line–like lounge/bench, have been installed near Pier 11. Phase One is scheduled to open by the fall, and the rest of the Esplanade should be complete by 2012. According to the Economic Development Corporation, which is overseeing the project with the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the project is being rolled out in much the same form as the original design. The number of kiosks, however, which will house cafes, restrooms, and storage facilities, has been reduced to four.

SHoP is reinventing the East River Esplanade with Ken Smith Landscape Architect.
Courtesy SHOP

Along Fulton Street, a new string of pocket parks is meant to suggest a greater connection from West to East, connecting the World Trade Center site to the Fulton Transit Center to the Seaport to the East River Esplanade. The most notable of these is Burling Slip, designed by the Rockwell Group with the Parks Department, which features a so-called Imagination Playground with blue foam pieces that can be arranged and manipulated by children. Burling Slip is to open at the end of July.

A less well-known part of Lower Manhattan’s evolution is the complete reworking of the area’s street infrastructure, including all of the data, utility, water, and sewer lines, funded through a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) grant following 9/11. According to officials at the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, more than a third of the 100 miles of streets have been excavated and completely rebuilt. One of the last of those streets to be rebuilt will be Water Street, the focus of a new plan by the Alliance for Downtown New York.

At night, Water Street would be activated by new lighting and multimedia elements.
Courtesy Alliance for downtown new york

Water Street: A New Approach calls for extensive tree planting and landscaped medians running up Water Street, one of the widest in Lower Manhattan. Created by landscape architects Starr Whitehouse working with FXFowle, the plan is conceived as a way of boosting the value of the street’s midcentury office buildings and retaining its commercial tenants by making what is currently a fairly barren nine-to-five streetscape into a more active and attractive place. “Bill Rudin came to us and said it was time for a new vision for Water Street,” said Nicole LaRusso, senior vice president for planning and economic development for the Alliance. “So we began a collaborative process involving building owners, residents, and city agencies.”

Robert Moses widened the street in the early 1960s, and it became the model for POPs, the new zoning allowance wherein developers were granted extra height as long as they included privately maintained publicly accessible plazas and arcades in their projects. One of the more complex issues addressed in the plan is what to do now with these under-performing POPS that dot the street. The plan calls for greater commercial activity, including restaurants and retail space to be built on the plazas, something that would necessitate zoning changes. In the short term, the Department of Transportation is planning an 8,000-square-foot temporary plaza at Water and Whitehall streets that will act as a gateway to the corridor. “There is a long history of Lower Manhattan being recognized as a special case,” LaRusso said. “We think unique zoning for Water Street could be a fine outcome.”

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Mess With the Imagination (Playground) of David Rockwell
For the past few years, David Rockwell, that master of stage and scene, has been developing the Imagination Playground, a deployable playground-in-a-box that has been finding its way across the country. Now, he is just finishing a larger playground, sort of a showcase for the concept, at Burling Slip in Lower Manhattan. (As the rendering after the jump shows, it's quite literally a flagship.) To celebrate the opening of the new playground at the end of July, the Parks Department is taking imagination playgrounds on a pop-up tour, which kicked off this past weekend in Staten Island, with stops in all five boroughs to follow. It truly is a revolutionary concept in recreation, though not the first, as we've chronicled. In the current issue of New York, Justin Davidson even gives us the best 19 in the city, yet another mind of the parks renaissance currently taking place in New York.
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Adventure Central
Richard Dattner's Ancient Playground was one of two adventure playgrounds recently refurbished by the Central Park Conservancy
Courtesy Central Park Conservancy

Being a kid—or at least a playground designer—was a lot more fun in the 1970s, before the advent of telephone-book-thick ASTM standards, not to mention things like critical fall heights, head-entrapment guidelines, and the virtual outlawing of sand. “It’s almost like a police state, what you can and cannot do in a playground,” said Paul Friedberg, the landscape architect who created some of New York’s most innovative play spaces. “The freedom that we once had is just completely gone.”

A child plays in a water feature at the Ancient Playground.

But vestiges of that freewheeling age can be found in Central Park, where the spirit of adventure thrives thanks to restorations this summer of two pioneering playgrounds. In overhauling these spaces to meet modern safety and accessibility needs, the Central Park Conservancy has shown that safety and rambunctiousness can still coexist.

Designed by Richard Dattner in 1972, Ancient Playground was one of 21 Robert Moses–era playgrounds installed around the park’s perimeter. In the late 1960s, these spaces began to be remade in the style of postwar Europe’s adventure playgrounds, where children molded their environments out of bricks, timber, and tires. Dattner themed his space on the Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just across a transverse road at West 84th Street. “I thought it would be wonderful to teach kids something of ancient construction—the pyramids, obelisks, mastabas, and so forth—and relate in a kids’ scale to what was across the street,” Dattner said.

The central challenge of the renovation—the fourth of Dattner’s playgrounds to be reconstructed in the park—was to create a required clear space around the main playground elements. Among other changes, the conservancy’s designers created a regulation tire swing that mimics the original design, while increasing the size of Dattner’s tunnels for better visibility. Since sand is not considered an accessible surface material, designers used safety surfacing that matched the spirit of the original.

The West 100th Street playground, designed by Ross, Ryan, Jacquette Architects, has also been restored by the conservancy.

The second playground, at West 100th Street, took its adventure-style form in 1972 to designs by Ross, Ryan, Jacquette Architects. The curving bridge, climbing cone, and water-spray feature have been restored, with the addition of complementary new equipment and resilient carpeting. A tree house was built around several mature trees, which were sadly removed after suffering damage during the August 18 storm. (The tree house remains.)

These respectful restorations are the latest sign that, 40 years later, adventure play is back. “In the 1970s, adventure playgrounds pushed the limits of demanding, physical play,” said Christopher Nolan, the conservancy’s vice president for capital projects. “We’ve been able to preserve the innovations that those playgrounds represented.” The two spaces join other playgrounds of this style, like the Rockwell Group’s Imagination Playground in Lower Manhattan, due to open next year, with a kit of loose parts that kids can use under the supervision of “play associates.”

Dattner, who consulted pro bono on his playground’s redesign, regards this latest generation of play spaces with a certain bemusement. “Much of my knowledge of the value of play has really been from the observation of kids playing with junk in the gutter,” he said. “The two major materials are sand and water. The rest is extra.”

A version of this article appeared in AN 18_11.04.2009.

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Meet Mister Streetscape

Dennis Finnin / Courtesty New York Public Library

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

Bronx Public Library Center

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

Courtesy Dattner Architects
Central Park Adventure Playground, 1967

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

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

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

Courtesy Dattner Architects
Modular Ticket Booths, 1974

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

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

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

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

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

Dennis Finnin / Courtesty NYPL
The glass-enclosed atrium stair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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