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Architects Not Welcome

Were Thomas Ustick Walter, fourth Architect of the Capitol, asked today to make the same expansions to the Capitol building he completed 144 years ago, Washington might be without one of its most iconic and recognizable landmarks. “When he added the north and south wings, he realized the proportions were off with [Charles] Bulfinch’s rotunda and so added the cast-iron dome everyone now knows so well,” Alan Hantman, the tenth Architect of the Capitol, who retired in February, said in an interview. Though the cost of the dome skyrocketed from $100,000 to $1.47 million, and the nation was on the verge civil war, Congress suppoprted Walter’s vision.

If only Hantman had it so good.

For the last decade, Hantman has been in charge of the daily operation and preservation of the Capitol Complex, including the management of 2,200 employees overseeing 15 million square feet. But during this time he was also tasked with directing the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center, a subterranean complex beneath the East Capitol Grounds. But as costs and delays mounted, largely due to security concerns and expanded plans, Congress grew restless, laying much of the blame on Hantman and his office. Now, as the Senate considers Hantman’s replacement, it has come to light that non-architects are also up for the job.

“The post is called the Architect of the Capitol, but it is largely a job of managing the facilities,” said Howard Gantman, staff director of the Senate Rules Committee. The committee recently submitted three names to the White House to fill the position, “some of which were architects,” Gantman said. None, however, came from the American Institute of Architects, which submitted four names, as it had a decade earlier, when the selections were met with approval by senators and President Bill Clinton. This time, Gantman said, the Senate sought “significant, very significant management experience,” which, according to Gantman, none of the AIA candidates possessed.

Instead, so-called facilities managers were considered, many with campus or military experience. Hantman struggles to understand why. “I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive,” Hantman said, referring to facilities management and architecture. He emphasized that at a historically significant building like the U.S. Capitol, an architect’s expertise is essential. “With a bottom line person, who’s interested only in getting things done instead of how you get things done, well, you would end up destroying a national treasure,” Hantman said.

Still, it is hard to argue money with Congress. Initially budgeted in 2000 at $225 million, with a completion date of 2004, the Capitol Visitor Center will not open at least until next year and costs are pushing $600 million. A number of inconceivable events, namely 9/11 and an anthrax scare a month later, lead to expanded security messages, which in turn lead to an extensive redesign. Contending with layers of Congressional oversight lengthened this process, while prices skyrocketed amid a building boom. “He did an incredible job under very difficult circumstances,” Florida Representative John Mica, a Hantman booster and former member of the Capitol Preservation Commission, said. “Unfortunately, he got caught up in the politics.”

Paul Mendelsohn, vice president for government and community relations for the AIA, said politics has played a definite role. “The plans went from 170,000 to 550,000 square feet, along with all these Congressional demands,” he said. “They’re just trying to save political capital by turning Alan into a scapegoat.” Though the names are already off to the White House, Mendelsohn said the AIA continues to lobby for the Architect of the Capitol to be just that.

Hantman, having moved on to consulting work, continues to look to Thomas Walter as an example, and hopes Congress will, too. “He built the dome because he was an architect and he had the big picture in mind,” Hantman said. “That’s what I think we could lose if a non-architect is brought on.”

Coney Island Drum Roll

All summer long, rumors have swirled around the future redevelopment of Coney Island, generating an atmosphere nearly as carnivalesque as the boardwalk itself: anonymous media reports of city officials’ intentions, tea-leaf readings of ambiguous signals, alarmist claims that Coney is shutting down. Change is coming, but it’s not yet clear in what form.

Coney Island is New York City’s only C7 zone, a special amusement-park category that bans residences, restricts commercial uses, and limits Floor-Area Ratios to 2.0. However, developer Thor Equities saw massive potential for hotels, timeshares, and other new features in the area should the zoning change. Thor purchased 10 acres (over half the amusement zone), hired a design team, and started to float the plan to the public. They may have jumped the gun: The inevitable battles under the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure await the Department of City Planning’s revision of the C7 requirements, serially rescheduled and still under wraps. DCP press secretary Rachaele Raynoff said that no date has been set; Charles Reichenthal of the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) and Community Board 13 anticipates an announcement by early September.

Thor’s plans and the CIDC’s 2005 strategic plan clash on key points. Adding housing to a C7 district, for example, is unlikely; DCP chair Amanda Burden has stated flatly that residences and amusements are incompatible. Whatever ultimately gets built inside or outside the zone, “We’re still going to be here,” said sideshow proprietor Dick Zigun, founder of the arts and preservation organization Coney Island USA. “If you come to the neighborhood and you want something sleazy, we’ll provide it.”

The developer faces accusations of warehousing, flipping, Vegasification, and worse. Chief executive Joseph Sitt has evinced a talent for attracting opposition; speculation about his aims has overshadowed attention to the designs by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn (buildings) and Thinkwell (amusements). Since removing condos from his plan at a June 26 community meeting, Sitt has lowered his public profile. Thor representatives were unavailable for comment for this story.

Citing historic assaults on Coney by Robert Moses, Fred Trump, and others, Zigun sees a classic battle between a speculator’s potential gain and civic resistance to homogenization of “the people’s paradise.” “It’s astonishing,” he said, “how developers still don’t realize it’s more sophisticated to mix old architecture that’s still worth preserving and rehabilitating together with new buildings, creating a sense of culture and continuity.” While working to preserve Coney’s freaky grit, CIDC member Zigun disavows any public position for or against Thor.

All parties regard the “Coney Island’s last season” meme as mythical. Parks Department attendance estimates are around 14-15 million people per year, up from 3-5 milliontwodecades ago;most key businesses have no intention of closing.

What may be in its final season is Astroland. Operator Carol Albert sold the property to Thor in 2006, leasing it back annually, but a 2008 renewal lease remains under negotiation. After listing her rides with Nashville-based amusement broker Ital International, she took them off the market in August; though the unmistakable Astrotower remains among Ital’s offerings at this writing, chief manager Carlo Guglielmi confirmed that sales of Astroland equipment are “suspended until further notice.” Albert’s representative Joseph Carella explained that Thor has informally given her a steep rent increase—roughly 15 times the current payment.

Dennis Vourderis, whose family is the owner/operator of Deno’s Wonder Wheel and has seen plans come and go over four decades, advised that any developer should consider local expertise, economics, and values,avoiding chain-amusement practices. “If you outprice yourself, you’ll be closed,” he said. “What works here may not work anywhere else, and what works somewhere else may not work here.” Outsiders brought in by city officials, he noted, were partly responsible for closures and blight in previous decades, a precedent he hopes Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg will avoid. “The city’s track record—not the current administration, but previous ones—is not any better than Thor’s,” he said. “Not to cause animosity, but at least Thor has a concrete plan.”

Still, any Coney Island veteran develops a skeptical streak. “Until we see shovels in the ground and rides starting to be built,” Vourderis said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Imitation of Life

There’s a rising star in the architecture and design communities. She can build homes so strong, they withstand more than 2,000 times their own weight. She taught Mercedes-Benz a thing or two about making more aerodynamic cars. And in her spare time, she developed a technique for creating vibrant colors with no toxins.

So who is this superstar? You know her already—her name is Mother Nature. Time and again, she’s proven herself to be a master architect and engineer. (In case you’re wondering, tests have shown snail shells can support more than 2,000 times their weight, the streamlined form of the boxfish helped Mercedes-Benz build an ultrafuel-efficient car, and butterfly wings have their glorious color embedded in their structure.) We might feel humbled, but then again, nature’s been at this game a lot longer than we humans, honing her designs through the process of evolution.

As scientist Janine Benyus wrote in her influential book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (1997), “After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival… All our inventions have already appeared in nature in a more elegant form and at less cost to the planet.”

Scientists and technologists have been imitating nature for years to foster innovations in engineering. The strategy is known as “biomimicry” or “biomimetics, ”meaning “imitation of life.” Many architects and designers are catching on, reading Benyus’ book and others on the topic, and some are giving biomimicry a try themselves.

Biomimicry can be applied at various levels: forms (biomorphism), functions, or entire ecosystems. In architecture, mimicking nature’s forms is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Consciously or not, builders of primitive huts echoed the form of a skeleton, crafting simple wood frames covered by animal skins. More modern architects, too, regularly develop their designs visually inspired by organic forms: the curves, tendrils, and floral shapes of Art Nouveau, the spiny spires of Gaudí, the structural vertibrae of Calatrava.

Biomimicry gets more interesting, though, when it goes beyond form. “For us, it’s asking a deeper question of how the natural world does it: not what is the form but what is the function that that form provides,” says Dayna Baumeister, who helped found the Biomimicry Guild, along with Benyus. The group is devoted to biomimicry consulting, education, and research. Best of all, according to the guild, is biomimicry that echoes the workings of entire ecosystems, encompassing principles of adaptability, synergy, and efficient uses of limited resources.

While the deeper forms of biomimicry have more to offer in terms of sustainability and functionality, they’re also more tricky to execute well. “It needs very careful thought,” says Julian Vincent, director of the Centrefor Biomimetic and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath. “When you’re looking at biological systems, they tend to solve problems in very different ways from engineering systems, which is why the area is so interesting. But that means that if you’re looking for an answer, you shouldn’t look for it in the most obvious place.” To even be able to formulate the right questions to ask and the right areas of nature to emulate, “you always need a biologist on hand,” he says.

Despite its potential pitfalls, architectural biomimicry has resulted in some striking successes. The most famous example is the 1996 Eastgate building in Harare, Zimbabwe, which uses natural air conditioning modeled after the air flow in a termite mound. Designed by architect Mick Pearce with engineering by Arup, the office and retail building reportedly saved its owner $3.5 million in energy expenses in the first five years alone.

Biologically obsessed architect Eugene Tsui once designed a house in Berkeley, California, with lighweight, strong trusses modeled after seagull bone marrow and a subsurface solar heating system based on the bone and capillary structures of two dinosaurs, the stegosaurus and the dimetrodon. Grimshaw Architects covered their Waterloo International Terminal in London with glass sheets that overlap like snake scales, to better hug the structure’s serpentine curves.

Some biomimetic projects in the works show promise, too, such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s spongelike design for the Pearl River Tower, a 71-story corporate headquarters. The design won a competition calling for sustainable design thanks to some unconventional thinking by Roger Frechette and his team in SOM’s performative design group. Frechette says they turned to the sea sponge for inspiration because “we found it doing a lot of things we look to buildings to do but without mechanical energy or electricity.” The squishy creatures are superbly engineered to harvest fuel from the sea: They can pump thousands of gallons of water a day, from which they draw their food. Sponges also shelter and protect a multitude of tiny inhabitants, which benefit from the flow of food-bearing water.

So what do you get when you cross a highrise with a sponge? The design for the Pearl River Tower is porous, with four holes that house wind turbines to create electricity from the strong winds that blow above the ground. Defying convention, the tower faces the wind, to better harness its energy; the holes also relieve wind pressure. The building soaks up energy from the sun as well, thanks to strategically placed photovoltaic cells. With these and other energy-saving measures such as radiant cooling, the building’s energy use will be reduced by 58 to 60 percent. Frechette claims it will be by far the world’s most energy-efficient supertall tower when it’s completed in 2009.

In another competition-winning design, landscape architects Grant Associates of Bath, England, designed a grove of “supertrees” as part of a larger future project to develop three parks around a Singapore marina. Reaching around 100 to 180 feet high, they are tree-shaped structures that will serve as homes for orchids and ferns, and shelter the humans below from rain and sun, as real trees do. The plants grow on and through the supertrees’ steel lattice skin. “Current computer analysis studies are investigating a structural design solution for the skin that reflects natural patterns of branching and cellular structures,” says Andrew Grant, director of Grant Associates.

The supertrees also absorb solar energy in a way that’s analogous to their organic counterparts, since they support extensive arrays of photovoltaics and solar thermal panels, he says. Canopies collect rainwater, and the structures even have irrigation and misting systems that mirror natural transpiration. At night, the trees’ high-tech origins are revealed, for they transform into lanterns for the garden.

Kevin Stack, president of Syracuse, New York–based Northeast Natural Homes and Northeast Green Building Consulting, exemplifies biomimicry on the grandest scale: emulating the intricate interworkings of ecosystems. His sustainable strategies recently helped him win the state’s first LEED-H Gold rating, for a residence in Skaneateles, New York.

Stack has been in the sustainable home building business for nearly 30 years, and he recently became immersed in the concepts of biomimicry through reading Benyus’ book and studying at the Biomimicry Institute. He found the concepts eye-opening, especially the emphasis on studying and learning from the ecological systems of the local environment. After examining patterns of rainfall in upstate New York, he found that in an unbuilt area, 30 percent of rainfall goes into the aquifer, 30 percent is taken up by vegetation, and 40 percent evaporates. He now makes sure his buildings don’t disturb those natural proportions.

Stack regards the trees that surround his construction sites as natural capital since they provide shade and oxygen and their roots help manage stormwater, so he treats them accordingly. “We actually hand-dig around their root system when we have to get close, and instead of just excavating roots out of the way, we’ll bend them by hand,” he explains. “If we have to cut a root, we cut it cleanly, and we apply a hormone that stimulates regrowth.” Instead of using materials that would have to be shipped in, such as bamboo, he chooses local ecofriendly materials such as recycled wood from old barns and PureBond, a type of plywood made from local hardwoods using a natural, nontoxic adhesive.

When it comes to green building design, “everyone’s going out, looking throughout the entire world for this special item or technology or material, but the answers are right in front of us,” Stack says. “You just need to pay attention.”

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Don't Block That View
Courtesy Salk Institute

On June 6, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla found itself on a list that no one wants to be on: the World Monuments Fund’s (WMF) annual inventory of the 100 most endangered cultural and architectural sites in the world. 

The institute, a research center housed in a worldfamous modernist complex designed in 1963 by Louis Kahn, is on the list, according to the fund’s announcement, “because of a planned construction project that would partially obscure its iconic view of the Pacific Ocean from its paved courtyard.” That project, a three-story building known as the Campus Community Center, located on the northwest mesa of the institute’s property, will include a library, meeting rooms, administrative offices, and a dining facility/faculty lounge. The fund says that the building “threatens to breach the 30- foot height limit along the coast” and that it is “clearly visible” from the Luis Barragan–designed courtyard that separates the institute’s two Kahn-designed concrete research buildings. 

The community center is part of an update to the 1962 masterplan. Developed by NBBJ last year, the updated plan will help accommodate a research staff that has almost quadrupled since the Salk’s founding. The plan still needs funding and city approval. It also includes a new laboratory building to the east of the main complex and a support center for researchers and their families to the southwest. In a report, WMF officials note that these plans have been criticized because the support center includes a “fitness and day care center… uses never intended by Kahn,” while the science center is a “big box” building “obscuring the public’s view of the Kahn building from Torrey Pines Road.” 

In a statement, the institute called the WMF’s claim that the new development would damage the view of the Pacific Ocean from the courtyard “grossly erroneous and irresponsible.” The statement added, “The original masterplan created by Jonas Salk and Louis Kahn included future development west of the courtyard and throughout the site.” Salk’s director of communications Mauricio Minotta said that the institute conducted computer simulations and ground surveys to confirm that the view wouldn’t be impacted. 

“From the image that we’ve seen, we feel it does look like it intrudes on the site,” said Henry Ng, the WMF’s executive vice president. “It is the land and the siting that are integral to the genius of this design.” Ng added that the National Trust for Historic Preservation recently reported to the City of San Diego that the plans would intrude on the view. Local preservation groups, such as the Friends of Salk Coastal Canyon and Coalition to Save the Salk, have agreed and have pointed out that the new buildings will disturb the habitat and landscape of one of the state’s last undisturbed coastal canyons. 

As for the other two new buildings, Minotta noted that the future laboratories will have a glass atrium in their center to allow views to the original building, while the support center is a necessary element for families. “They always wanted residential space for visiting scientists. They couldn’t predict there would be families with children who would need to put families in day care,” he said. 

Eavesdrop: Editors

THEY’RE NOT AS DUMB
AS THEY LOOK, KEN…

Ok, fine, so New Yorkers may take a dim view of the intelligence of our West Coast brethren, but Ken Smith is taking it a little far. Smith is the landscape architect for the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California, and he was apparently asked to come up with something snappy to mark the opening of the parks’s first phase, which was July 14. So what did he come up with? A fivestory- tall, 10,560-pound, bright orange helium balloon (which actually sounds kind of cool, since it can carry 30 people at a pop). But surely the symbolism is a little simple-minded, you think; an orange ball for Orange County? Wait, it gets better: “The balloon is an uplifting symbol…for all Orange County, and soon all the nation,” Smith declared in a press release. Balloon? Uplifting? You don’t say! Constant good weather doesn’t addle the brain that much.

KNIGHTED AND DANGEROUS

While we are firmly in the Groucho Marx camp regarding group activities—We wouldn’t join any club that would have us—we congratulate Peter Cook of Archigram fame and HOK on his new knighthood, which was conferred by Queen Elizabeth herself on June 16. But we’re a little worried that all of the Lordy-this Sir-that stuff is going to his head: We have it from a reliable source that he got a letter from Her Majesty’s garter king of Arms (which frankly sounds a little racy to our Yank ears) asking if he wants to bear arms, and he is considering taking said garter king of Arms up on the offer! In a country where even the coppers don’t carry guns! Note to members of the London Olympic Authority: It would be wise to approve his stadium design, and fast!

COLOR US IMPRESSED (OR AT LEAST PINK)

We’ll reserve judgment on his skills as a painter, but Julian Schnabel is clearly a natural at real estate development. According to the New York Observer, the triplex unit atop Schabel’s newly enlarged and violently pink building on West 11th Street is for sale in the $50 million range, and Madonna is a serious potential buyer. U2’s Bono and The Edge were also spotted nosing around. $50 million? Hot pink? Just goes to show that the rich are indeed different from you and we.

SEND STORIES AND GOSSIP (SPECIOUS OR OTHERWISE) TO EDITOR@ARCHPAPER.COM 

Midtown's Dream Team

 

Several weeks ago, in one of the most unique planning exercises in recent city history, six leading design professionals donated their time to collaborate on a day-long charrette in a vacant storefront at United Nations Plaza. They produced a bold new vision for the redevelopment of Midtown Manhattan’s forlorn-looking East River waterfront.

 

Most of the area that the designers focused on, between East 38th and East 42nd streets, is currently a no-man’s land that bears the imprint of a period in planning when cars were given priority over pedestrians. The dominant feature is a nine-acre development site where a Con Edison plant was once located in front of a massive elevated off-ramp from the FDR Drive.

 

The charrette, which was held under the auspices of the Municipal Art Society (MAS), was an effort to harmonize the development agendas for four proposed projects: the United Nations expansion, the renovation of the FDR Drive, the extension of Manhattan’s greenway up the East Side, and the redevelopment of the Con Ed site. “We wanted to bring all the players together,” says Kent Barwick, president of the MAS.

 

On the morning of the charrette, Midtown East stakeholders—including representatives from Manhattan CB6, the New York State Department of Transportation, the New York City Parks Department, and East Side Realty Company, which is redeveloping the Con Ed site with a master plan by Richard Meier and David Childs—made a presentation to the participating designers: Ricardo Scofidio of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Kate Orff of Scape Studio, Margie Ruddick of WRT, Ken Smith of Ken Smith Landscape Architect, Brian Jencek of Hargreaves Associates, and Matthew Urbanski of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. This was actually the first time that their representatives, with the exception of the UN, discussed their objectives in the same room.

 

In many ways the different visions presented appeared to be irreconcilable. For example, some of the stakeholders presented plans showing options for decking over FDR Drive to provide access to the East River. But for the DOT, there are major constraints against building a deck that slopes down to the river, most notably the FDR’s elevated 42nd Street exit ramp.

 

However, the design that was unveiled the following Sunday addressed the various objectives of the different stakeholders. It links together the proposed projects with a 33- to 36-foot-high terrace running from East 38th Street to East 42nd Street, which cantilevers over FDR Drive. A forested hill on the terrace conceals infrastructure, by surrounding a ventilator shaft and covering over the FDR's 42nd Street exit ramp. Access to the waterfront is provided by a pedestrian/ bicycle ramp descending from the terrace across the FDR and another extending across the highway. A six story glass pylon at the river’s edge would house a restaurant and a ferry terminal. “We realized that if this was going to be viable,” said Scofidio, “we would have to please the DOT.” 

Prouve lands in Queens

When Christie’s has a house to sell, it usually handles it through its real estate arm, Christie’s Great Estates. But a property so special and unique has come on the market in Queens that the 20th Century Decorative Art and Design Department is handling its sale. On June 5, Christie’s will auction off Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale, one of three prefabricated houses the arch-designer made in the late 1940s for use in French colonial Africa. This maison is the premier item in a sale of 110 other mid-century design objects by Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand, Corbu, and Pierre Jeanneret.

An exhibition cum open house began yesterday at the foot of the Queensborough Bridge in Long Island City, where the Maison Tropicale landed after a stint in France, where it was restored and exhibited by French antiques dealer Eric Touchaleume. “I’m very sad to sell this house,” Touchaleume said, his shaven head still slightly sunburnt from the three weeks he and 14 others spent constructing the house on the banks of the East River. But, he added, the money would go to the restoration of the last house, which he intends to turn into a traveling Prouvé museum. 

The first of the three houses, which were recovered from Niamey, Niger, and Brazzaville, the Republic of Congo, was donated to the Centre George Pompidou last year (“Prouvé perched on Pompidou,” AN 04_03.07.2007) by Robert Rubin, an American financier and architecture critic who financed the expeditions to recover the houses. The two have since had a falling out over the principals of preserving the houses.

Christie’s said it expects the house to sell for between $4 million to $6 million, but given the intensity of the art market and particularly the interest in Prouvé, Carina Villinger, the specialist overseeing the sale, said the auction house would not be surprised to see the Maison Tropicale go for much more. As for the buyer, Villinger said, “We believe it is probably going to be someone who buys contemporary art and will buy it as a piece of art or sculpture, someone who is already a collector on a high level and has an appreciation of design.”

For those who appreciate design but don’t have a few million dollars lying around, the Maison Tropicale is open to the public everyday through June 4 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ron Eng, a principal of the firm Formactiv, was there for opening day, snapping pictures of a building by a man he finds very inspiring. “In some ways,” he said, “what’s great about this is you get some perspective that we’re not that far ahead in terms of prefabrication and what we consider high-tech construction.” The house is located at 41-98 Vernon Blvd. in Long Island City, an appropriate choice since it is the future home of Silvercup West, a project by Richard Rogers. Rogers not only admired Prouvé, but the French designer also co-chaired with Philip Johnson the jury that selected Rogers and Renzo Piano to design the Pompidou. Admission is free, though the house certainly is not. “It’s such a masterpiece,” Villinger said. “If you want one, this is your chance.” 

A Second Act for the Bam Cultural District

When the Brooklyn Academy of Music decided to throw its cultural heft into remaking its then-dingy neighborhood, it did so the BAM way, i.e., con brio. With a master plan from Rem Koolhaas’ OMA and Diller + Scofidio, and renderings of a state-of-the-art new public library by TEN Arquitectos, the future looked glamorous. And while it took almost nine years, new architects, scaled-back projects, and some political shifts, several significant pieces of the plan are about to go forward. By Alan G. Brake. 

When the Brooklyn Academy of Music burned to the ground in 1903, the New York Times opined, “In short, there has hardly been a great public movement of national import but the old Academy has been at one time or another its principal focus.” BAM quickly relocated from Brooklyn Heights to its present location on Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene where it has enriched the city’s cultural life for more than a century. Over the last ten years, however, BAM has added an unusual element to its portfolio of offerings, and that is neighborhood redevelopment.

In 1998, Harvey Lichtenstein began to move out of his position as the institution’s director, and looked outward at the neighborhood. It wasn’t pretty: The 1970s and 1980s had not been kind to Fort Greene and downtown Brooklyn, and one of the most respected performing arts organizations in the country found itself surrounded by a nondescript mix of parking lots, liquor stores, and not much else. But with a location near commercial hubs and lots of subways, there seemed to be no reason why the area couldn’t come back. Lichtenstein formed the BAM Limited Development Corporation (LDC) as a catalyst for the transformation of the ten or so blocks immediately around the theater into an arts district. The organization hired New York’s Diller+Scofidio and the Rotterdam-based OMA to develop a conceptual masterplan in 2000. Two years later, it held a competition for a Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) branch for the Brooklyn Public Library; the jury chose TEN Arquitectos, and images of an ship-like building were published everywhere.

But things seemed to slow down soon after, and there wasn’t much news from the intersection of Flatbush and Lafayette Avenues. In 2004, WORK AC quietly took over the planning job. “The Diller +Scofidio/OMA masterplan still provides the basis for what will be built,” says principal Dan Wood. Wood founded WORK AC after leaving OMA and continued to be involved in the project. The main innovation of the latest version is shifting the site of the Theatre for a New Audience, a respected Shakespearian company, to Layfayette Avenue, next to the Mark Morris Dance Center and catercorner from BAM, opening up space on Lafayette for a substantial new park with the working name Grand Plaza. Toward the end of the process, WORK AC brought in Ken Smith’s firm to consult on open space and streetscape plans. The Grand Plaza will act as a front door for three of the major cultural institutions, making it a sort of Lincoln Center stitched into the fabric of brownstone Brooklyn. Parking will be built under the plaza and will match the existing number of spaces. “The modified plans allows us to create a park where you want to be, not just a remnant patch,” says Christian Gabrial, a designer at Ken Smith Landscape Architecture.

After the masterplan was complete, the teams switched roles to further develop the open space and streetscapes, with Ken Smith’s team as the prime consultant and WORK as the subsidiary. “A lot of time and energy are going into the streetscape, which will have a key role in pulling the district together,” says Louise Eddleston, a designer at Ken Smith. “The district is primarily residential and with more units of housing going in it will remain that way.” She says the short blocks and intimate scale of the neighborhood have to be understood and used to their best advantage. The firm will present schematic designs to the Economic Development Corporation in the Fall, and hopes to get the contract to build the project.

This is more likely to happen than it would have been even a year ago: Last year, the city, frustrated by the lack of action on the VPA and other projects, stepped in and moved the BAMLDC under the umbrella of the larger and more powerful Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DBP), which includes business improvement districts for Metrotech and the Fulton Street Mall. DPB has close ties to deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff, and this has clearly contributed to the recent up-tick in development activity in the district. “There was a sense in early 2006 that the city needed to step up, not just in terms or time, but also in terms of high-level attention,” says Joe Chan, the DBP president. “Coordinating development with cultural groups is a lot more complicated than private developers.”

The move is yielding results. Though the VPA library was recently declared all but dead by the Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin due to lack of fundraising on the part of the Brooklyn Public Library, several other significant projects are moving forward in the district. Along with the streetscape design, a revised design for the Theatre for a New Audience is in the works by Frank Gehry and the H3 Partnership, and the department of Housing Preservation and Development just concluded an Request for Proposals for a new mixed use building that will house Danspace, the contemporary dance incubator. All of this is happening in the shadow, metaphorically speaking, of Forest City Ratner’s controversial and gargantuan Atlantic Yards development.

But curiously, the fighting around Atlantic Yards seems not to have affected plans for the BAM cultural district, at least thus far. “It’s sort of an elephant compared to an ant,” says Wood. “The BAM cultural district can fold into an existing neighborhood, whereas Atlantic Yards will generate its own.” From the beginning, too, BAM LDC also worked with community groups, local churches, and elected officials to address concerns about rising rents and over development. “There was a call for many opportunities for input,” said Chan. “Gentrification and displacement is the greatest fear.”

Chan, however, sees Atlantic Yards and the cultural district as complementary projects. “Both projects emphasize the development of mixed-income communities,” he says. “They are a part of changing perceptions about Downtown Brooklyn and about catering to diverse and inclusive tastes for art, culture, entertainment, and sports.” Gabrial adds, “The cultural district operates within a web of existing neighborhoods, including Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn. It’s really a linchpin project.”

While coordinating multiple city agencies and cultural groups and meeting fundraising goals has somewhat slowed and altered development, the district’s largely positive reception in the community speaks to the thoughtful and neighborly scale of the project, as well as a flexible, piecemeal approach. The subtle way in which increased cultural programming,open space,and higher density are being woven into the neighborhood could prove to be a model for the borough and beyond. It also shows that Brooklynites aren’t averse to change, they just don’t like to get steamrolled.

Movers & Shapers 07

Movers & Shapers 07

The nexus of design currently hovers somewhere in the ether above The Netherlands, England, and Italy, and draws the occasional spark from Germany, France, and Belgium. This ferment is fueled by a group of youngish creative-types who work across borders, media, professions, and aesthetic sensibilities, intent on rethinking everything from the most prosaic bathroom tap to the production economies of small villages in India. Here’s a look at what’s on the minds and the drawing boards of a few of the key European designers who will be in NewYork during this year’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair.
Produced by Julie Iovine and Melissa Feldman

TOM DIXON
LONDON / UK


Only two years ago, British designer Tom Dixon dismissed the ICFF as a marginal player on the international furniture scene. “I don’t think New York figures, frankly,” he told the Financial Times, in explaining why he preferred to be in Milan and at 100% Design in London. But in 2007, the UK superstar and former creative director of the Londonbased retail chain Habitat decided to come to America under the flag of his own company, Tom Dixon, to show his latest lighting, furniture, and accessory designs at the ICFF and at Moss on Greene Street. “For a long time America has been very obsessed with either Italian luxury or nostalgic movements like Shabby Chic or the Eames generation,” Dixon said. “It feels like things are changing—there’s a contemporary mood in the air.”

If Americans know one Dixon design, it is probably the Jack Light (1994), a stubby polyethylene lamp for the floor in the shape of play jacks and possessing considerably more oomph than a nostalgic Noguchi lantern. Lighting continues to figure largely in Dixon’s work, but he rarely sticks to one material, preferring “industrial experimentation” in substances ranging from copper to cast iron to foam. His 2007 theme is metal, but he has gone way beyond architecture’s stainless steel or fashion’s silver and gold. His Beat Lights are hammered brass, made with traditional methods in India, while the Copper Shades are plastic coated in vacuum- metallised copper.

At Moss he’ll be showing his CU29 chairs. While this set is a limited edition of eight, their form— based on a Big Mac container—is the same as that of 500 polystyrene chairs given away last August in Trafalgar Square. “Those were the cheapest of the cheap, i.e. free,” he said. “These are the polar opposite. These have a skin of pure copper,” which is applied by submerging each chair in an electrified vat of copper sulphate. “The edition is limited by the amount of time it takes and the difficulty of the process.”

For his own label, Dixon is trying to design for “the opposite of planned obsolescence,” he said, or in other words, future classics. One contender is the Link Easy Chair, whose metal frame is wired in a pattern that Dixon said is Celtic in inspiration but is also structural. With Finnish manufacturer Artek (Dixon is creative director), he recently launched the renewable Bambu line, and has the company buying vintage Aalto pieces from schools to put back in circulation. He doesn’t have a green agenda for the accessibly-priced Habitat stores (where he remains as “nonexecutive” director) but instead sees them as a showcase for young European designers. Dixon helped select 100 emerging talents for a new Phaidon book, & Fork. “The British don’t have the finesse of the Italians or the conceptual nature of the Dutch,” he said. “We have sturdiness. Metal is a material of value and it is long-lasting, so we should make things a bit more robust and anti-fashion.” 

ALEXANDRA LANGE


PATRICIA URQUOILA
MILAN / ITALY


With her rapid speech and restless energy, architect-designer Patricia Urquiola is a natural fit for New York City. She is based in Milan, but recently spent some time here as she worked on designing her first American retail space, Moroso at Moss. An extension of the legendary Moss design store, the new boutique at 146 Prince Street showcases the furniture of Italian firm Moroso and the textiles of New York–based Maharam. During one visit a few weeks ago, Urquiola zipped around the still-raw 3,800- square-foot space, gesturing like a choreographer to indicate where mirrors, platforms, and other design elements must be to transform the former warehouse into an ultrastylish store and offices in time to open during the ICFF in late May.

Best known for bold and uninhibited furniture, Urquiola is an architect with a keen awareness of space and a designer’s appreciation for beautiful forms, fabric, and patterns. At the new store, reflective and semireflective surfaces afford multiple perspectives on the furnishings and allow viewers to see themselves with the products. Four platforms of varying heights help create a sense of separation and order in the open space; an alcove showcases Maharam’s textiles and accessories.

Color plays a central role in conceptualizing the store’s frequently changing decor, just as it’s a strong element in Moroso furniture. But beyond brand identity, Urquiola seems most concerned with honoring the individual visions of the designers whose works will be on display, such as Ross Lovegrove, Tord Boontje, Ron Arad,Tom Dixon, and Urquiola herself. She often speaks in poetic terms of her desire to help “tell the histories” of the creative talents.

This is not Urquiola’s first crossdisciplinary venture. After studying architecture, she switched to design near the end of her studies at the Politecnico di Milano, inspired by her teacher Achille Castiglioni and others in Milan who were equally “in love with the big ‘A’ of architecture and the little ‘d’ of design,” she said. Since graduating in 1989, she has done everything from residential architecture and luxury interior design to booth and showroom design, though she’s perhaps most famous for her furniture designs for Moroso, Driade, Kartell, and other companies. In 2001 she founded her own firm, Studio Urquiola.

Aside from Moroso at Moss, other ventures include new products for Italian furniture company B&B Italia and interior designs for two hotels, one in Vieques, Puerto Rico, the other in Barcelona. While most of her work is centered outside the United States, she said she’s “happy to share in the energy” of Prince Street and become a part of its “genius loci.” 

LISA DELGADO


TORD BOONTJE
BOURG-ARGENTAL / FRANCE


Industrial designer Tord Boontje’s ascent was triggered by light and fairytales. In 2002, the British home retail chain Habitat commissioned Boontje to produce Garland, an affordable mass-produced light based on an early version of a limited edition design. Garland sold for about $30, and quickly became the It shade to dress a bare bulb. At the same time, the soft-spoken Dutchman made a splash with his Blossom chandelier for Swarovski, which was a sparkling branch covered with chunks of crystals unveiled during the 2002 Milan Furniture Fair.

Two years later, Boontje was back in Milan with a showroom exhibition entitled Happy Ever After for the Italian furniture company Moroso. It was the culmination of work based on his ideas involving nature and technology, and crystallized the nascent trend in design towards the decorative. Boontje included prototypes and one-of-a-kind pieces: rocking chairs, tables, poufs, as well as his signature laser-cut fabrics upholstered on furniture and draped in loops from the ceiling.

A number of Boontje’s designs will be on display in New York at the new Moroso at Moss store opening during the ICFF. His Bon Bon tables made from glass and Corian are decorated with floral patterns created by a technique known as dye-sublimation printing, and will be available at retail stores along with Nest, a molded polyethylene outdoor seating system. A book by Rizzoli has just been published on the designer’s work, and it showcases the past ten years of his processes and designs. Tord Boontje is lavishly produced with flourishes including burlap covers and pages elaborately die-cut with punched patterns that exemplify Boontje’s careful craft. Martina Margretts, the author, describes him as “a William Morris for our times, taking a local message and practice and transforming it for mass consumption.”

Designed in London with his longtime collaborator Graphic Thought Facility, the huge book takes the reader on a visual tour of Boontje’s career, starting with his early days in Holland at the Eindhoven Academy. There, he honed his skills in ceramics and textiles before going on to study at the Royal College of Art in London and eventually settling in the south of France with Emma Woffenden, his wife and design collaborator.

Upcoming work in the studio includes a large architectural project in Shanghai with a spa and wellness center, and a design museum with shops and a restaurant. New products are also in the works for the Table Stories collection for Authentics as well as new lighting for Artecnica. Time will tell how far this latter-day William Morris hopes to go. 

MELISSA FELDMAN


WIEL ARETS
MAASTRICHT / THE NETHERLANDS

Wiel Arets’ path to architecture and product design was an oblique one, to say the least. His early childhood interest in sports changed forever when the United States landed a man on the moon in the summer of 1969. “I was flabbergasted that we as human beings could put someone on the moon and drive a car there,” said Arets, the Maastrichtbased architect and designer. Spellbound by the space program, Arets began to study physics, but quickly decided that, while the subject was necessary to hurtle humans to extraterrestrial destinations, it was not for him. At the same time, he realized that if an astronaut were to drive a car on the moon, someone had to design that car in the first place. So Arets shifted his focus to architecture, and after graduating from the Technische Universiteit Eindhoven, he founded Wiel Arets Architects in 1984.

From the very beginning of his architectural practice Arets designed products, primarily one-off custom jobs that attracted little attention. That all changed in 1994 with his Stealth office furniture line—a series of cabinets,benches,and conference tables that combined minimalist design with acoustic materials to provide sound-dampening in large, open-plan spaces. Designed for AZL Headquarters in Heerlen, the Netherlands, the line quickly garnered international attention and was picked up by the Dutch furniture maker Lensvelt in Breda. Three years later Italian design house Alessi—a company that has a long history of working with architects— contacted Arets, inviting him to design a coffee and tea service. Now he is involved in six projects with Alessi, including a watch called Watch.it, which was just introduced; a forthcoming espresso machine, and a line of bathroom fixtures, Il Bagno Alessi Dot, which will be on view at the AF New York showroom in September.

For Arets, the difference between designing a building and an espresso cup is primarily a matter of scale—meters to millimeters. “As far as how I design, there is little difference between architecture and products,” he said. “I develop a concept and that leads me to the design.” His Alessi bathroom line is a prime example of this idea-to-form approach; the idea here, naturally, is water. “When a water drop falls on the floor you have a dot,” said Arets, “so I thought the circle should be the main design element.” From this simple concept, Arets decided to de-emphasize the materiality of his fixtures and focus attention on the fluid component by “chopping off” the steel spigots and ceramic pedestals and leaving simple basins with flat edges.These elegantly primitive forms with their exaggerated circle motifs make water the central feature. 

AARON SEWARD


JEAN MARIE MASSAUD
PARIS / FRANCE


With a mantra like “Design is nothing, Life is everything,” it’s surprising that Jean-Marie Massaud is so sought-after right now on the corporate branding scene—he has designed stores for Lancôme worldwide, auto-show installations for Renault, and a makeover for the stolidly exquisite Italian furnituremaker Poltrona Frau. Then again, the 41-year old Paris-based designer (who has Jean Nouvel’s bare pate and Gerard Depardieu’s twinkle, and has done time in Philippe Starck’s studio) embodies an approach to design that is unabashedly sensual but environmentally aware and seems to be catching on. When Massaud edits a chair to almost nothing, he is not making an aesthetic statement so much as trying to use as few resources as possible. In addition to furniture for several leading Italian brands, including B&BItalia, Cassina, and Cappellini, his portfolio contains more than a few hypothetical projects; his favorite is an airship in the shape of a whale made for tourists in order to keep their footprints off the land. A seemingly improbable project in Guadalajara, Mexico, for a $120 million stadium in the shape of a grassy volcano with a floating sunscreen roof and berm-buried parking, may actually get built.

Closer to home, the furniture Massaud presented in Milan this year was varied, but each piece played with the idea of collecting sensual experiences over objects— a very French response to rampant consumerism. His bath collection for Axor-Hansgrohe, introduced two years ago as a Water Dream complete with a Corian thundercloud swelling to burst over a luxurious sunken bath, is now in production. Surprisingly pragmatic, the Axor collection features a tap with water cascading from the lip of a 16-inch shelf, handy for shampoo or candles. In 2006, the molded mineral washbasin and faucet received the International Forum Product Design Award.

The designer’s Heaven chair for EMU and the Ad Hoc outdoor chair for Viccarbe display the same hightech organic elasticity as Spider Man’s web. During the ICFF, the Ad Hoc will be shown in both black and white as part of an exhibition of new furniture from Europe at the just-opened Lepere Gallery on 20 West 22nd Street.

JI 


TRUE TO FORM
Zaha Hadid’s forays into furniture design have become serious events ever since her Aqua Table sold at Phillips de Pury in 2005 for $296,000, a record for contemporary furniture at the time. In Milan last month, Hadid exhibited three new pieces for three different companies at very different scales and materials but all bearing remarkably similar DNA. Top to bottom: the 9.4-foot-long, vinyl-fabric-covered Moon system for B&B Italia; the 7-foot polyester resin Gyre with polyurethane lacquer in a limited edition of 12 for Established & Sons; and a sterling 27.5-inch silver bowl also in a numbered edition of 12 plus 3 artist’s proofs for Sawaya & Moroni.

Keepin It Industrial

While the population boom and housing crisis have caused industrial zones in neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Long Island City to be transferred to residential uses, the city is also taking measures to preserve its manufacturing base. On March 28, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) announced an RFP for the acquisition and redevelopment of three buildings comprising 130,000 square feet at Bush Terminal in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the 18-building, 6.5-million-square-foot industrial park completed by Irving Bush in 1895.The EDC is specifically seeking proposals from industrial businesses for employment- intensive uses such as manufacturing and fabrication. Proposals are due by May 21st.

Currently the city rents space at the site on a month-to-month basis, a factor that, along with the building infrastructure’s dilapidation, has become a deterrent for businesses. One such company, Brisco— a silk screening shop that employed 100 people—packed up and moved to North Carolina. According to Rachael Dubin of the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation, Brisco left due to the leasing issue and because the site’s frequent power outages caused their machinery to break. The RFP requires developers wishing to acquire space at the terminal to seek at least LEED certification. Interested parties can submit proposals for the entire site or a minimum of 40,000 square feet, though no one scheme will be chosen without related plans that fill all three buildings. 

Previously, in summer 2006, the EDC issued a similar RFP for three other industrial loft buildings at Bush Terminal. Though the city has yet to announce the businesses that have been selected, the EDC determined to make a decision on the current RFP within six months. An 18-acre park has also been planned on a brownfield to the southwest of the site.

Industrial development is also happening in other areas of Sunset Park, which is a neighborhood where 40 percent of residents walk to work and the vacancy rate for industrial buildings is as low as one percent. At the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, cementkingpin LaFarge North America recently opened a $20 million, 6.8-acre storage and shipping terminal, and scrap-giant Sims Hugo Neu is working with the city to establish a $25 million recycling facility. “The media often portrays these areas as blighted,” noted Dubin. “They’re not. Sunset Park’s industrial properties have lower vacancy rates than office space in Manhattan.” 

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Green Gold
Courtesy SOM

Situated off rocky Yerba Buena Island and connected to the Bay Bridge, 400-acre Treasure Island, formerly the site of the 1939 International Exposition and home to a U.S. Navy base, is centrally located in San Francisco Bay, yet strangely desolate. A major urban renewal project should change that significantly over the coming decades.

Both Yerba Buena and Treasure islands are part of a major project, years in the making, though the bulk of the redevelopment will occur on Treasure Island. The manmade island has presented a formidable set of challenges to redevelopment efforts, not least being the handover of the land from the Navy, scores of public meetings, and the need for major toxic cleanup and seismic upgrades.

This past December the project cleared a significant hurdle: The development plan received preliminary approval from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The approval paves the way for the design and development team (chosen through an RFQ issued in 2001) to finalize a binding contract for the project. With overall completion of the development scheduled for 2022, the first new residents are expected to begin moving in by 2013. Costs are projected at $1.2 billion, of which $500 million will be private investment and $700 million city bonds. The development team includes San Francisco’s Kenwood Investments and Wilson Meany Sullivan, along with Lennar Corporation, headquartered in Miami; the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill will complete the design with SMWM and CMG Landscape Architects, both San Francisco firms.

At the heart of the environmentally sustainable scheme, which includes green elements ranging from runoff-filtering wetlands to green skyscrapers, is 300 acres of open space that include—in addition to the wetlands—an ecological education and art park, a shoreline park at the island’s edge, playgrounds, and a 20-acre organic farm. Diagonal rows of planted trees will provide protection from the island’s strong winds, and a wind farm—another integral piece of this sustainable “working landscape”— takes advantage of those same conditions.

The scope, scale, and visibility of this dramatically situated project make it one of the highest-profile urban redevelopments in the country,and certainly one of the largest development plans in San Francisco’s history.

The plan’s compact footprint (it occupies only a quarter of the island’s area) will be built in phases. The residential zone will house some 13,500 residents in approximately 5,900 units (about 30 percent of which will be affordable) arranged in a variety of massings: high-density, low-to-midrise blocks of townhouses, flats clustered around neighborhood open spaces, and residential towers of around 14 stories. A new street grid, aligned with the wind-shielding rows of trees, offers a “richer pedestrian experience than the typical Cartesian grid,” said SOM partner Craig Hartman.

The new island skyline centers on a slender “campanile-like” central tower of 60 stories, accompanied by four 40-story towers. These are concentrated at the island’s urban core, which incorporates a new ferry terminal and an adjacent retail, cultural, and commercial district, served by a parking system designed to encourage car-free living. Pedestrian and bike-friendly neighborhoods are grouped so that most are no more than a ten-minute walk from the ferry terminal.

The terminal, nestled into the island’s western “cityside,” about a ten-minute ferry ride from mainland San Francisco, features a curving canopy designed with advanced digital wind modeling. According to Hartman, the terminal’s roof panels will be configured as articulated scales that “diffuse rather than simply deflect the strong winds.”

The central tower will be supported by a sophisticated structural exoskeleton that frames an optimal amount of glass for the exterior. Dubbed the Sun Tower in reference to the island’s former Tower of the Sun— a 400-foot-tall structure that was the first major landmark of the original exhibition grounds—the building will tap into geothermal energy. A series of glass light shelves clad in transparent photovoltaic film covers the building envelope, while a glass sky garden crowns the building.

As is typical of projects this large, there will likely be a selection of other architects involved in fleshing out the plan. Hartman imagines that a range of buildings will be designed by some of the Bay Area’s best design talent. “The intent here,” Hartman said, “is to make this a new national model for what a wholly sustainable community can be about.” 

Hailing the Future

For tired, cold New Yorkers stranded far from home, there’s no better sight than a yellow cab. But sometimes the sight can be less welcome. 

When a taxi passenger door swings out unexpectedly into the path of a cyclist, it can be a mortal threat. According to a Department of City Planning survey, being “doored” by cars is the number-one cause of crashes for cyclists in New York City. Taxis are a frequent culprit, due to their chaotic passenger pickups and drop-offs. 

But if taxis were better designed, cyclists would have less to fear. 

To that end, Antenna Design has come up with a highly visible roof light that declares when passengers are entering or exiting. The light is just one of many prototypes on display through April 15 at Taxi 07, a free exhibit created to spur discussion and development of the ideal taxis for the future. 

The exhibit is staged outside the New York International Auto Show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, on the convention center's inner roadway near the corner of 35th Street and 11th Avenue. Visitors can check out several full-scale, functional taxi prototypes. One model can zoom along at 200 miles per hour; dubbed the World’s Fastest Taxi, it's driven by a 1,000-horsepower hydrogen-fueled engine. 

Less sexy but more spacious internally, the Standard Taxi is wheelchair accessible. The Kia Rondo offers a smorgasbord of good design, including a Birsel + Seck child-safety seat that folds up when not in use, a light from Smart Design that illuminates the ground when passengers exit at night, and Antenna Design’s LED roof light. On the nearby sidewalk, visitors can view small-scale models, a film about taxi drivers, and a rendering of Weisz + Yoes’ concept for a GPS-enabled taxi stand that would let riders hail taxis digitally. 

The exhibit coincides with the centennial of New York’s gas-powered taxi, an appropriate moment to reflect on the less-than-progressive current state of our taxi system. Grimy, uncomfortable, toxin-spewing cabs constitute as much as half of all traffic at some times of day, according to Deborah Marton, executive director of the Design Trust for Public Space, the organization behind Taxi 07

The exhibit is just one part of a multifaceted program. The Design Trust will soon release a report with the working title “Taxi 07: Roads Forward.” Examining the current state of affairs and offering strategies for improvement, the report will be available online at www.designtrust.org. The group is also planning to launch an advocacy group to fight for reform. 

While there is growing momentum to explore green alternatives, of the 13,037 taxis currently operating in New York City, just 327 are electric hybrids and one is fully electric-powered, according to Allan Fromberg, a spokesperson for the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. Only 47 are wheelchair accessible, though more are on the way. And many cabs remain startlingly low-tech, though by the end of 2007 all cabs will offer at least a credit-card payment system and personal information monitors that provide maps, news, and entertainment. 

“The goals of Taxi 07 are to recognize that the New York City taxi is already an icon,” Marton said. “We think that the taxi should also be a symbol of our commitment to sustainable mobility, access for all, and good design. There’s no reason the taxi shouldn’t have the highest level of design for its usability, its access, its fueling systems, and its looks.” 

These issues don't only concern design geeks, political activists, urban planners, and nonsuicidal cyclists. Since most New Yorkers don’t have automobiles of their own, Marton observed, “the taxi is basically our shared family car.” Maybe it’s time to consider a serious upgrade.