Search results for "Public Design Commission"

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Split Decision
Will developers or environmentalists win out at a former Bay Area salt flats?
Courtesy DMB

Plans were unveiled last month for the largest bayside development along the San Francisco Peninsula in the last fifty years. If Scottsdale-based developer DMB is successful in satisfying local, state, and federal regulatory agencies, a site currently covered by glittering salt ponds in Redwood City could become a residential community of as many as 12,000 units.

But the 1,400-acre parcel of open land, a rarity in the narrow belt between San Francisco and San Jose, is also coveted by environmentalists, who dream of restoring it as tidal wetlands. The next couple of years will show how this struggle between the two interests—contributing to a healthy Bay or adding much-needed housing stock— plays out.

These two square miles of ponds next to the historic port of Redwood City have been used for salt evaporation since the turn of the last century. The surreal landscape is sandwiched between a gleaming office park at its bayside edge and one of the Peninsula’s two major freeways. DMB, whose luxury projects include Tejon Mountain Village, a huge development north of Los Angeles, is proposing to transform them in a joint venture with Cargill, the agricultural and industrial conglomerate that owns the land.

DMB's proposal for the site. (Click to enlarge.)

The current DMB Redwood City Saltworks proposal calls for half of the property to be devoted to development, about a third to restoration, and the remaining twenty percent to sports fields and open space. The plan calls for 8,000 to 12,000 townhouses and apartments (15 percent devoted to affordable housing), 1 million square feet of office space, retail shops and community services including five schools, and a fire station. It would connect to public transportation via a ferry terminal, linking it with San Francisco and the East Bay, and a streetcar line to a CalTrain station about a mile away.

“The problem here, as in many places, is that the waterfront was turned over to industrial use. This will reconnect the city to the bay in a positive, ecological way,” said Peter Calthorpe, a major proponent of New Urbanism known for designing a mixed-use community on the brownfield at Denver’s Stapleton Airport. The Oakland-based architect and urban planner is leading the master plan for the Redwood City project, together with San Francisco–based ROMA design. He cites San Francisco’s Marina District as an example of the “walkable” community he envisions. The other firm on the project is Baltimore-based Biohabitats, wetlands restoration specialists.

The C-shaped development will connect with 440 acres of restored wetlands using an approach that gradually transitions from the built to the natural environment. A levee running along the curve is designed to act as a shoal, with a tidal-fed lagoon between it and the mainland. On top of the levee, a three-mile trail will overlook the wetlands.

A satellite view of the two-mile-wide salt flats.

With the closest two counties gaining an estimated 680,000 jobs by 2035, proponents say that the area’s notorious housing shortage will only worsen without this type of major development. But environmentalists criticize the site’s lack of infrastructure and its distance from downtown as well as the wisdom of building on a low-lying tidal plain when sea levels are expected to rise dramatically.

“It’s not a transit-oriented site,” said Melissa Hippard, director of the local chapter of the Sierra Club. “And this is a huge opportunity to return the Bay to maximum health—we’re at the end of a trajectory that was started in the 1960s to reclaim as much of the bayfront as possible.” In fact, the state considered purchasing the land from Cargill in 2003 when it bought 16,500 acres of salt ponds for the largest wetlands restoration project on the West Coast, but its price tag was too high.

Hoping to break ground in 2013, the developers kicked off the formal process by presenting the plan to the city council on May 12. They will have to get rezoning approval, along with permits from state and federal agencies including the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) and the Army Corps of Engineers. Local residents, who have stopped other city-approved bayside developments at the ballot box, may also weigh in: In the 1980s, voters scuttled plans for Bair Island, now a national wildlife refuge; and in 2004, they sent the Marina Shores project back to the drawing board.

The last major bayfront communities, Foster City and Redwood Shores, date back to the 1950s and 60s. They were not only massive landfill projects, but extensions of the low-density, car-centric suburbia on the Peninsula. If the Redwood City proposal moves forward, it could give the area a new model to contemplate.

“We’re as conservative here as any small town in Kansas, when it comes to anything near the shoreline,” said Will Travis, executive director of the BCDC. “But the lack of housing is our Achilles heel—we need to consider all our options."

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Times Square, Slightly Tamed
I’m a Times Square avoider. It’s too crowded, clogged with slow moving tourists, for me to get where I need to go without being so frustrated that I swear to never return. On rare occasions, I succumb to the charm of the lights, but those moments are usually glimpsed from a distance, down a street corridor or out the window of a cab. But yesterday, on my way to an event in midtown, I chose to go through Times Square to see how it had changed since Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s recent street closure plan had been implemented. While I don’t think anything will persuade me to visit Times Square with any regularity, the mini plazas created by the closure of Broadway from 47th to 42nd streets go a long way in improving the place (Broadway from 35th to 33rd Streets in Herald Square was also closed). The increase in public space makes it much easier, and more pleasant, to walk through. The cheap lawn chairs—which look oddly right there, though they are already sagging from all the use—give people a place to relax and hang out, so that the square feels like a giant, and highly animated, street party. Sadik-Khan deserves credit for recognizing the potential lying under our feet and tires as well as the pent-up desire for public space in New York. The spaces are not designed—just some orange barriers and the chairs—so it will be interesting to see what DOT will do to make the plazas permanent. DOT is obviously making these improvements with very little money, but I hope that Times Square will get something beyond the standard-issue planters used elsewhere. It is a special place, special enough that I only need to pass through it a few times a year.
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A New Leaf
The Oak Room, circa 1960.
All photos Ezra Stoller/Esto

Service at the Four Seasons on East 52nd Street is so solicitous, the Knoll banquettes so comfy, and pricey entrees so reliable, most patrons don’t notice how ratty the place looks as it reaches age 50. Paint has chipped on the railings along the staircases and mezzanines. Faux leather wall panels and ceiling downlights have shifted off kilter. Swaths of plaster have cracked, and travertine walls and floors are marked with stains.

Not even Belmont Freeman, a Manhattan-based architect who will renovate the Philip Johnson–designed interior in July, realized the extent of the damage when original client and guiding spirit Phyllis Lambert contacted him last fall. “My original reaction was, ‘What does it need? It’s fabulous!’” he said, and added, laughing, “But then, I’d never been there in broad daylight, sober.”

While giving a tour recently in harsh morning light, he pointed out a mixture of dire and cosmetic problems throughout the Landmarks Preservation Commission–protected restaurant that opened in 1959. “The most beat-up areas are the ancillary spaces” on the ground floor, he explained. In the foyer, lobby, and cloakroom, ceiling plaster sags, travertine is grimy, and light fixtures with glass or anodized-aluminum coverings are failing. Square footage is wasted on two walnut phone booths and a telephone-switchboard alcove where the phones were torn out long ago. “It’s strange how the spaces were re-purposed over the years,” Freeman said.

The three-martini lunch of the Mad Men years.

Then he headed into the restrooms, where Philip Johnson’s luxurious finishes have held up relatively well: pink marble and Brazilian rosewood in the women’s room, French walnut and gray-black marble in the men’s. But in the women’s powder room, white glass counters and Saarinen tulip chairs are chipped. And the men’s urinal partitions “need help,” Freeman said, as they’re stained with uric acid.

His five-person firm, Belmont Freeman Architects, has spent months strategizing how best to save or replicate the Four Seasons’ historic fabric while improving circulation routes and mechanicals. This summer, the team, with contractor F.J. Sciame Construction Co., plans to recycle walnut from the phone booths while converting them into closets for catering equipment.

Textured glass and anodized aluminum sheets on the lights will be salvaged or reproduced for LEDs or other high-efficiency bulbs. William Armstrong Lighting Design and the fixtures’ original manufacturer, Edison Price, are collaborating with Freeman on the upgrades, and researching the original schemes by renowned modernist lighting designer Richard Kelly.

In the women’s room, intrusive brushed-metal trash cans will be replaced with slots cut into the marble counter. Replica faucets will come from Speakman—which still manufactures Johnson’s original design—and Knoll is sending over new Saarinen tulips. Fortuny is supplying a copy of its original feather-pattern fabric at $200-some a yard for the powder room walls, supplanting a recent wall-covering that Freeman calls “some kind of fake suede—it’s gross.”

The room has seen better days, though soon to return to Johnsonian glory.

The architect declined to disclose the project budget. “It’s not a public number,” he said, “in fact, it’s not a known number yet.” There are obvious urgent matters: Bronze door levers flop weakly when pressed, and panels are detaching from the Pool Room walls. The famous billowing window curtains of pink, gold, and silver chains “are failing because of metal fatigue, and the original source is long out of business,” said Freeman, who is scouring jewelry manufacturers for potential replacement strands.

He has also been supervising test-stripping of the upstairs metal railings. “Some misguided soul painted the bronze a chocolate-brown at some point, so it didn’t have to be polished,” he said. The thick coating obscures Johnson’s playful metal specs: He set spindly steel rods within the railings’ thick bronze frames. Until a sample section railing was recently cleaned, Freeman said, “no one realized that Philip Johnson had mixed metals here, the way he did on the window chains, the way you’re not ‘supposed’ to mix metals. It was exhibit A of his over-the-top aesthetic. But for years, it all looked bronze.”

Freeman sees opportunities for further brightening in every room and corridor. “It’s so much fun to luxuriate in the potential, the details here,” he said, noting that the original carpet was a bold plaid, not tame scrollwork, and Johnson’s bar stools were pale saddle, not dark, leather. The restaurant will remain open during the summer as Sciame staff sneak in for shifts of a few hours a day. “It’s difficult and frustrating to do it piecemeal, but these spaces are occupied seven days a week,” said co-owner Alex von Bidder. The logistics of future overhauls will be even harder to orchestrate. Von Bidder has shut down the restaurant for renovations just once before, when the kitchen was rebuilt ten years ago.

Lambert, who oversaw Johnson’s design in the 1950s and commissioned occasional furnishing updates from him for decades thereafter, said that Freeman’s downstairs assignments are desperately needed. “I’ve seen problems there for some time,” she said, and the brown paint on the railings “is completely mad—I can’t remember when that happened, and why.” Happily, the space is now getting the close attention it deserves.

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Olafur's Island
Inside Eliasson's steel latticework bridge.
Karl Rabe

Not every art opening features frogs in full-throated chorus, but then again, The parliament of reality at Bard College isn’t your everyday installation. This 100-foot-diameter island is the latest work from Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist whose waterfalls ringed New York Harbor last summer. As the artist’s largest permanent outdoor public commission in the United States, the project marks an ambitious blend of art, architecture, and public platform.

Eliasson discusses his work at the project's inauguration.


Inspired by Iceland’s original parliament, known as the Althing (or a “space for all things”), the project was spurred by a long-running discussion with Tom Eccles, Bard’s executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies, about creating a public work on the college’s upstate New York campus. The result is an agora-like artwork that is “productive, proactive, inclusive,” as Eliasson said at the project’s inauguration on May 16.

The $1.4 million installation—funded by the LUMA Foundation, which supports art and cultural ventures—sits adjacent to the college’s Frank Gehry–designed Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, and consists of two central elements: the island, which rests on a concrete foundation within a small lake, and a 20-foot-long bridge covered by a steel canopy. Topped with boulders as seating, the island’s round bluestone surface is incised with a pattern of intersecting lines based on old navigational charts and meridian lines. The bridge’s steel latticework forms a similar pattern.

Creating the latticework was one of the project’s greatest technical challenges, noted Ricardo Gomes, an architect in Eliasson’s Berlin-based studio. “The tunnel is made of five layers, and of course each layer has a different curvature,” he said. Conveying the complex shapes of the interwoven steel tubes to German fabricator Pollux required several horizontal sections to indicate the exact placement of each tube.

The parliament of reality will be surrounded by a canopy of foliage and a small, meditative lake.

Around the perimeter of the lake stand 24 golden rain trees, which will eventually grow large enough for the branches to nearly touch, giving the island the feeling of a secluded clearing, according to architect-of-record Robert Nilsson. With yellow blossoms in spring and yellow leaves in fall, the trees will form a blazing circle of color.

The full arboreal effect may take a while, however, and adjusting to the slow pace of landscape architecture initially frustrated Eliasson, Gomes said. But “eventually Olafur settled with this idea that the more you use the piece, the more interesting it will become.” Judging from its early uses—a conference on music as torture, a site for improvisational dance—Eliasson’s installation has a promising future indeed.

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Public Art New York
East Coast Memorial, Gehron and Seltzer (1963)
Francis Dzikowski

Jean Parker Phifer’s just-published Public Art New York has the friendly, down-to-earth feel of a travel guide.  And it would indeed make the perfect accessory to a walking tour of New York City: it's colorful, packed with photographs and maps, and organized by neighborhood.   

Joie de Vivre, Mark di Suvero (1998)

Still Hunt, Edward Kemeys (1883)
News, Isamu Noguchi (1940)
Crack is Wack, Keith Haring (1986)
All photos Francis Dzikowski

But plentiful aesthetic and social insights from Phifer (and the book’s photographer, Francis Dzikowski) make Public Art far more than just a guidebook.  Phifer is an architect who spent five years presiding over what is now the Public Design Commission, where she learned to weigh “the complex interplay between a work of public art and its immediate physical surroundings,” she says in the book’s introduction.  She draws on that experience to talk engagingly about how each artwork contributes to its surrounding architecture and public space -- like the way the whimsical benches in the Jacob Javits plaza counterbalance the adjacent courthouses’ grimness and entice passersby to use the square.

Public Art
is also notable for the breadth of its scope, both geographically (it spans all five boroughs) and conceptually.  Phifer extends the definition of “public art” well beyond the traditional monuments and murals:  some of the book’s most interesting choices are unofficial (like the patterns carved surreptitiously into one Soho sidewalk), temporary (like the lighting that appears on the George Washington Bridge on special occasions), and commercial (like the neon advertising in Times Square).

Photographer Francis Dzikowski may be a silent presence in the book, but he’s a strong one nonetheless.  His photographs are thoughtful works of art in their own right, commenting on their subjects through their compositions.   A photograph of the sculpture "Joie de Vivre" (rebuilt on its Ground Zero site soon after 9/11) offers a reminder of the resilience of the quotidian, the sculpture’s exultant form grounded by an unceremonious heap of garbage bags at its feet. Keith Haring's "Crack is Wack" mural provides the backdrop for a huddled trio of sleeping vagrants, whose presence balances the cartoonish mural with the somber realities it references.

And Dzikowski’s lens is frequently playful, capturing people interacting -- sometimes unknowingly -- with the artworks. The muscled figures in Noguchi's "News," above the entrance to Rockefeller Plaza, seem to be considering an oblivious passerby; a bronze panther in Central Park appears about to pounce on a passing biker; and a photograph of the East Coast Memorial is punctuated by a syncopated pattern of pedestrians, their positioning echoing and riffing on the straightforward rhythm of the granite slabs.

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The Woodstock of Street Design
The city has transformed parts of 9th Avenue into a haven for cyclists and pedestrians.
Courtesy NYC DOT

Traditionally, most New Yorkers’ attitudes toward their city’s streets could be summed up by the proverb “familiarity breeds contempt,” according to Deputy Mayor for Operations Ed Skyler. “They only noticed the streets to complain about potholes,” he said. But Skyler and company have been working hard to change that in recent months by creating a growing number of no-car zones, including a prime piece of Times Square roadway that closed to traffic last weekend.

While car-free Broadway has grabbed headlines, the city took another major step toward reinventing streets on May 20, with the release of New York’s first Street Design Manual, a “playbook” of guidelines for creating new streets and retrofitting old ones. The joint product of ten different city agencies, it offers guidance on everything from paving materials to the ideal width of bike lanes on different types of thoroughfares. Although it does not mandate policy change directly, the manual will become the new standard for the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Public Design Commission when they review proposed projects.

A view of the new Times Square from one of the many towers overlooking it. But this is not the only plans the city has for its streets, as outlined in the manual.

Skyler was on hand for the official launch of the manual on Wednesday at the Municipal Art Society, along with DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Parks and Recreation commissioner Adrian Benepe, Design and Construction commissioner David Burney, and a large crowd of planners, engineers, and designers. Excitement ran high among both the speakers and the crowd, not just for the manual itself but for what it represents: New York’s determination to conceive of greener, more people-friendly streets, and an unprecedented interagency collaboration toward that end. “This is like the Woodstock of urbanism!” laughed Benepe.

Although the Street Design Manual delves into the finer points of paving and planting, all those details are in the service of a few underlying principles. One of the most prominent is to further PlaNYC’s goal of making New York a sustainable city by 2030. “When you realize 26 percent of the city’s surface area is sidewalk and street, there are enormous opportunities there,” Burney told the crowd. And although environmental considerations are less of a rarity in street design guides now than they were a decade ago, the New York manual is exceptional for weaving those concepts throughout the guidelines rather than shunting them off into a separate section. The description of every design feature includes suggestions for “Sustainability Opportunities,” such as planting trees in medians or paving sidewalks with porous materials.

The manual is clearly committed to being in the vanguard of street design, venturing beyond the tried-and-true standards into more experimental waters. “When there are things that we don’t know work in New York, we have them in there as pilots,” said Andy Wiley-Schwartz, Assistant Commissioner of the Division of Planning and Sustainability and one of the guide’s primary authors. That includes speed cushions (speed bumps with gaps that allow emergency vehicles to pass through at full speed), and separated busways (currently enjoying success in Quito, Ecuador).

A sizable crowd turned up for the unveiling of the manual at the Municipal Art Society last Wednesday.
Julia Galef

It’s also a champion for pedestrians. The guide is packed with strategies for making intersections more pedestrian-friendly, and for reclaiming street space by widening sidewalks, adding corner and mid-block extensions, and narrowing streets. Its authors are especially protective of the public realm, criticizing streets that try to use design to discourage public access: “For example, private streets along waterfronts should not significantly differ from public streets in their appearance,” they warn.

There remain a few blind spots in the guide, notably a lack of discussion about how the community fits into the planning process. Filling in that part of the picture will be crucial, both in ensuring these principles get implemented, and in making New York an inspiring role model for other cities to follow. But as Sadik-Khan emphasized at the launch, “This is just the beginning.” She encouraged feedback for future incarnations of the Street Design Manual, and added: “Knowing this crowd, I’m sure you’ve got plenty.”

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Q&A: Ed Feiner


After a four-year odyssey that took him to development projects around the world, Ed Feiner, former chief architect of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), has landed back in Washington, D.C. Effective May 11, he joined Perkins+Will as principal in charge of business development, design, and project delivery.

In over ten years as chief architect, Feiner, 62, brought distinction, attention, and even glory to the GSA. Under his leadership from 1996 to 2005, the administration and its Design Excellence initiative awarded commissions to the country’s most distinguished architects. Feiner went on to work as managing director of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s (SOM’s) Washington, D.C. office and then as chief architect at Las Vegas Sands Corporation.

A day after the announcement, Feiner chatted with
AN about his experiences and expectations when it comes to government and good architecture.

The Architect's Newspaper: Where have you been since leaving the GSA?

Ed Feiner: My last four years have been really unbelievable, like a magical mystery tour. After I graduated from government, I accepted a position with SOM as director of the Washington office, and I was there for three years. Then one day, out of the blue, I got a phone call from the chairman of the Sands Corporation. At the time, it was the largest developer in the country. They knew I had experience hiring good architects, and they wanted to move away from themeing to iconic contemporary architecture. I was overseeing millions of square feet of work.

But Lehman Brothers was a major backer, so ultimately we had to freeze construction and design on all the major projects, particularly Macao. [Moshe Safdie’s project in Singapore is still scheduled to open in about a year and a half.] At that point, there wasn’t much design intervention for me because that phase was completed. So I packed my four boxes and went back to Washington, D.C.

What will your responsibilities include at Perkins+Will?

The whole collection. I wanted to have a full range of what a leader within an organization does. They carry a lot of management responsibility and design leadership—not necessarily designing the buildings—but encouraging and mentoring the next generation. For a firm that’s been around for such a long time [since 1935], I was amazed at how young and motivated the people are there. I hope I can keep up!

In terms of business development, where do you think the profession is headed right now?

Publicly funded projects are going to be in vogue again. Not just the federal government work that will be in the pipeline at first. That will filter into state and city governments, so that once they get past this first phase of “shovel-ready” work, there will be a much bigger opportunity for the architectural community.

At the GSA, they’ll basically be retrofitting a huge stock of buildings from the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. When you go back and have to improve performance in terms of energy and sustainable design, you’re engaging these buildings in more than painting and putting up storm windows. These projects will become real challenges for top designers. And that’s just at the GSA. The Defense Department has a huge infrastructure, and there’s the Veterans Administration and the State Department. All these organizations are going to start to redevelop their properties.

Support for GSA has varied under different administrations. When did Design Excellence get under way?

I started just three months after Reagan became president, and those years were the only ones in which the GSA did very little. When George H.W. Bush came on, there was a backlog of work, particularly for the courts, and then came Design Excellence.

I really hate when it’s referred to as a program, because it was never envisioned as a design program but as a series of actions we could take to change the nature of design in government. It was all about process. When we started, I would get calls from people out in the field saying they didn’t have enough money to do a particular project and would have to remove some of the “Design Excellence features” on the building!

Design Excellence flourished under Clinton, and continued until the Iraq war strained the budget, and then it slowed down. That it commissioned some of the country’s really great buildings is what I am most proud of.

What do you think the Obama administration will do about architecture?

This is the first administration that I have heard using language I relate to in terms of infrastructure, design, sustainability, and planning. Our profession travels all over the world. We’re doing these wonderful projects in China, India, the Middle East, even Canada. The nature of what’s going up all around is incredible, and then you look here. There is so much to be done to make us competitive again.

The reality is that we have to rebuild our country. I don’t think the government is going to be there to tell people what to do, but it can be a facilitator with a vision. And I am very excited about the new vision. I hope it’s infectious.

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The Gatekeepers
The Public Design Commission controls most every detail of most every public art and design project in the city, including the new Grimshaw-designed bus stops.
Courtesy Cemusa

For nearly 35 years, Paul Broches of Mitchell/Giurgola Architects has been working to make Louis Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island a reality. On a recent Monday, he unrolled his drawings in a low-ceilinged City Hall annex before one of the least known but most influential deliberative bodies in New York: the Public Design Commission (PDC). On this afternoon, the engineer Guy Nordenson, one of 11 commissioners, took a typically conscientious line of questioning: “Will the park be high enough above the East River waterline,” he asked, “to endure rising sea levels due to global warming?” You bet it will, said Broches, who counted the meeting as one more modest victory for the quixotic Kahn project.

For Broches and other architects, the Public Design Commission is a customary stop on the road to public-works approvals. But ask many in the design community about the PDC, and you’re likely to draw a blank. Known until last August as the Art Commission, the PDC has maintained an air of mystery even as it exerts a strong influence over the city’s built environment. According to its mission statement, the commission is charged with approving all “permanent works of art, architecture, and landscape architecture proposed on or over city-owned property.” Yet many architects who have presented municipal projects for review are unclear how the commission works, where its jurisdiction begins and ends, and what guiding principles the commissioners hold in shaping the city’s future.

The commission oversaw the expansion of Staten Island's St. George Ferry Terminal, designed by FTL Design Engineering Studio, which includes these pavilions.
Francis Dzikowski/ESTO

The Design Commission’s low profile is all the more surprising, since its operations are effectively hidden in plain sight. “All our hearings and meetings are open to the public,” said PDC Executive Director Jackie Snyder. The commission’s online calendar includes a docket of every project currently under consideration, and recent committee meetings—informal rehearsals for city agencies in the early stages of a new project—have featured everything from the installation of signage for a library book drop in Queens to a comfort station in the Bronx. Public hearings, where official submissions are made and approval granted or withheld, have recently ranged from newsstands on Madison Avenue to the reconstruction of East Fordham Road in the Bronx.

The PDC’s bailiwick has remained largely unchanged since the Art Commission’s creation in 1898. As called for in the charter of the then newly consolidated City of New York, the commission’s first members were appointed for three-year, unpaid terms at the recommendation of the Fine Arts Federation, an independent cultural consortium. The federation nominated one architect, one painter, a sculptor, and three “lay members.” Three additional commissioners were selected by the most prominent cultural institutions of the day: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the New York Public Library. Today, the PDC’s membership breaks down in precisely the same way, chosen by the same process, with one more lay member appointed at the mayor’s discretion and a landscape architect rounding out the group.

James Carpenter designed The Inclined Light Wall for a Polshek addition to the hall of Science in 2004.
Francis Dzikowski/ESTO
The Commission Also oversees public institutions, such as the Hospital for Special Surgery, which expanded in 2006
Courtesy HSS
One Stone (2007) by cai guo-qiang was conceived in concert with the Bronx County Hall of Justice, by Rafael Viñoly Architects.
Francis Dzikowski/ESTO




The commission’s review powers are much as they were over a hundred years ago. In developing any public works project, every branch of the city’s vast bureaucracy must prepare a series of presentations for the commission. Usually the work of the consulting architect, these presentations follow a three-step process: conceptual, preliminary, and final.

The first two take place during public hearings in the commission’s offices, attended by members of the agencies involved (invariably) and by concerned members of the public (infrequently). The presenter outlines the project’s objectives and design strategies, while the commissioners make suggestions and take a casual thumbs-up, thumbs-down vote. The final stage entails only a submission of project documents. The result is fair and reasonable, according to veterans of the process. “I’ve presented to the PDC many, many times,” Broches said. “Even though the character of the commission changes as the commissioners change, I’ve always found them to be smart, serious-minded, and amicable.”

Some civic construction escapes the commission’s purview: Federal and state buildings fall outside their mandate, and some city buildings are the province of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The PDC also passes judgment on a surprising volume of construction beyond the city limits, like the entire Croton Aqueduct system, with its headhouses, gatehouses, and signposts scattered throughout Westchester County.

Other projects submitted for review aren’t actually being reviewed at all. “Courtesy” reviews are commonplace, delivered by non-city agencies in an effort to garner broad political support. As it turned out, the presenters of Four Freedoms Park, which is to be built on state-owned land, were performing one such courtesy call. “The Design Commission is involved with so many projects on public land in New York, it just seemed eminently reasonable to get their opinion,” said Sally Minard, who has helped spearhead the project.

The commission strives to avoid unexpected—and expensive—design revamps as much as is practical. As Snyder explained, “We usually try to have people come in earlier, so that it’s easier and less expensive for agencies to change designs.” But clearly, the committee isn’t just applying a rubber stamp. At a recent hearing, Department of Transportation (DOT) personnel milled around the PDC’s waiting room, having just finished their “second or third preliminary” for a Bronx highway improvement. More anodyne projects—a public toilet for Prospect Park, for example—are sometimes fast-tracked, given final approval at their preliminary hearing.

So what is the PDC’s yardstick for successful design? “Our goal is not to turn people into clones of us, but to make their project the best it can be,” said Signe Nielsen, principal of environmental planners Mathews Nielsen and the commission’s current landscape architect. The “us” of the moment constitutes a fair cross-section of influential New Yorkers: Other commissioners include architect James Polshek, Paula Scher of Pentagram, and a former director of Forest City Ratner, James Stuckey. “Whether we are wealthy patrons or scruffy academics, professionals or artists,” Nordenson said in an interview, “we share the belief that we can build a discourse about what is good design or not and cut through the bureaucratic yadda yadda.”

At times, New York’s small design world can cause complications. At a recent hearing, Nielsen recused herself for one session as Anne Trumble of Mathews Nielsen gave the preliminary proposal for the firm’s DOT-sponsored redesign of West 125th Street just landward of the Hudson River. The renovation includes moving and resurfacing crosswalks to coincide with Columbia University’s planned satellite campus for the neighborhood. At the advice of the PDC, benches with rounded armrests will be scattered around the site, echoing the looped arches of the Riverside Drive viaduct above.


Rendering of a Department of Transportation-sponsored redesign by Mathews Nielsen of West 125th Street at Fairway Plaza; the PDC suggested bench arms to echo the shapes of the viaduct passing overhead.
Courtesy Mathews Nielson

And the commission has had its share of contention. An uproar over the Parks Department’s Washington Square renovation brought crowds to commission meetings in 2005. (To little avail: The project moved forward.) Another episode, described in former commissioner Michele Helene Bogart’s illuminating book about the commission The Politics of Urban Beauty, involved former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, whose enthusiasm for “yardarm” flagpoles and animal motifs led him to circumvent the Art Commission on a number of occasions. This prompted a lawsuit, eventually settled, from Commission President Reba White Williams.

More typically, though, the PDC expressly avoids confrontation. “If the person running the meeting senses there’s a mixed opinion, we table the project,” said Nielsen. These rare differences are ironed out at executive sessions that are closed to the public, and where, according to Bogart, members discuss projects candidly. “When the politics around a project are particularly sensitive, it’s better to have an executive session,” Bogart explained.

Politics do occasionally intrude. Former Commission President Jean Phifer of architecture firm Thomas Phifer & Partners described an attempt in the late 1990s to abolish the commission outright, spurred on by a Staten Island councilman. (Phifer is the author of the new book Public Art New York, which includes the photography of Francis Dzikowski that can be found accompanying this article.)

The commission oversees work of all sizes and uses, including Barretto Point Park in the Bronx, designed by landscape architect Ricardo Hinkle with designer Rachel Kramer.
Malcolm Pinckney/Courtesy NYC Parks & Recreation

Mayor Giuliani interceded on the commission’s behalf, but Giuliani was otherwise less supportive of the commission than Mayor Bloomberg has been. “The difference between now and then is that the commission under Giuliani had no clout,” Bogart said. Mayor Bloomberg’s support of the PDC and of urban design generally has helped bolster the commission’s efforts, as evidenced by his creation, with the PDC’s input, of the Design and Construction Excellence program. One more change under Mayor Bloomberg has been the reassertion of PDC review power in the case of private leases on public land, a move that has helped extend the commission’s reach.

The best evidence of the commission’s scope and vision is in the city’s public works over the past decade. Hudson River Park, the Fulton Street Transit Center, the
Van Cortlandt Park filtration plant—if these can be taken together as signal projects, what sort of design preferences emerge? A clarity of visual language; a clean, muscular sense of materiality; an emphasis on environmental sensitivity. Struggling to sum it up, Nielsen simply said, “I could say it in fancy archi-speak, but it boils down to this: Will I still want to look at it in 20 years?”

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The British Noninvasion
As Jonathan Glancey gamely points out in his piece today (a piece which ANN gamely pointed out to us), British architects--namely lords Foster and Rogers--have had a bit of a hard time building in New York. For proof he points to the speculative story from yesterday's Daily News that has the PA nixing both architects' towers. Of course, those aren't the only problems they've had. Foster's 980 Madison has been dogged by detractors since its inception, drawing the notable ire of Tom Wolfe. And as plans for his Bowery art gallery move forward, those at the New York Public Library have been put on hold. Rogers, meanwhile, lost his commission to design an expanded Javits Center, though the likelihood of anything happening there seems in doubt, as well. Glancey does rightly note that the French have fared slightly better, though here, still, he should look beyond the obvious--in this case, the Statue of Liberty--to the more contemporary and familiar, say these three projects. (Okay, so that last one's Swiss.) Also, being Japanese doesn't hurt, even at Ground Zero. Though, as one might expect in New York, it is best to be Italian or a Jew from Toronto.
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Planting Pavilions
SANAA's Serpentine pavillion
Courtesy the Serpentine Gallery

In July, an undulating aluminum canopy threaded through the trees will open on the lawn of London’s Serpentine Gallery. Designed by Tokyo-based SANAA, the pavilion is the latest addition to the gallery’s high-profile roster of temporary
structures by prominent designers. Also opening this summer in London, the Art Fund Pavilion, from a competition-winning design by the young Brooklyn-based firm Tina Manis Associates, will serve as an annual seasonal gallery for the Lightbox in Woking, a contemporary art center founded in 1993, which opened its current home in 2007.

The 2009 Serpentine design is a stark departure from Frank Gehry’s weighty composition of wooden beams, steel, and fractured glass, built last year. True to their ongoing investigations of lightness, thinness, and surface, the SANAA pavilion is designed to blur the boundaries between architecture, landscape, and furniture. The canopy will rise overhead and dip down to table height, reflecting land and sky on its curvilinear planes. “For us it’s a dream come true to be working with SANAA, to be able to introduce their first built work in the UK,” said Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine.

Tina Manis's Design for the  Art Fund Pavilion offers selected views of the city and site as well as the art.
COURTESY tina Manis Associates

The SANAA design will be executed with the engineering help of Arup and SAPS. “The aluminum will be incredibly thin, thanks to our spectacular design and engineering team,” said Serpentine co-director Julia Peyton-Jones. The pavilion will open in July and will remain standing through October. Obrist and Peyton-Jones believe the design will allow for flexible programming, from impromptu picnics to formal symposia.

Unlike the Serpentine structure, which lasts only one season, the Art Fund Pavilion will be disassembled and reinstalled on site each summer. Made of structural plywood box panels with Finnply cladding, the structure is designed to display hanging and freestanding works, while providing seating space for 30, as well as event space. In order to accommodate the program while differentiating the space, Manis conceived of the structure as a ramp guiding the visitor through the pavilion and offering strategic views out to the city and the adjacent canal. “We are creating a new topography for a flat site,” Manis said. “The goal is to create a sense of movement, of dynamic engagement with the area.”

The project comes with a tight, £100,000 budget, but for Manis the commission is a breakthrough for her four-person firm into the realm of public, cultural projects. “It’s the scale and program we’re most interested in,” she said. The firm prevailed over entrants from around the world. “You rarely see opportunities like this in America for young, small firms. We’ll definitely be pursing this kind of work more diligently now.” The pavilion will be previewed in September at Tent London, a fair that is part of Design Week. It will be constructed on the Woking site in the spring of 2010.

The Serpentine pavilion is lighter and more diffuse than many of its predesecors.
Courtesy the Serpentine Gallery


Usher's Revenge?

On April 13, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Thomas McKnew Jr. abrogated parts of LA’s SB 1818 ordinance, which compels local governments to craft their own rules rewarding density bonuses to developers who include a percentage of affordable housing units in residential projects. Former LA planning commissioner Jane Usher, who recently stepped down, had been an outspoken opponent of the measure.

In some cases, the LA ordinance provided bonuses 300 percent greater than those mandated by SB 1818. The ruling prevents the city from approving projects with density bonuses that exceed state law.

The ordinance has been the target of numerous lawsuits. One such suit, filed in April 2008 by a group of homeowners called the Environment And Housing Coalition Los Angeles (EAHCLA), argued that the city acted improperly by approving the ordinance, which allowed developers to increase density and height while reducing parking and open space requirements—all without environmental review. Judge McKnew agreed, and his decision throws an unknown number of proposed developments into jeopardy.

Proponents of the ordinance have said that it encourages affordable housing and limits sprawl. Foes have long argued that it was a giveaway to developers and speculators which would have resulted in a net loss of affordable housing as developers razed older apartment complexes to build profitable, market-priced condominiums with one or two affordable units.

In March 2008, then Los Angeles City Planning Commission President Jane Ellison Usher authored an email opposing the ordinance and inviting public action. In the now-famous missive, Usher pointed to language within the ordinance defining some projects seeking density bonuses as “ministerial,” thereby exempting them from review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Usher noted that the ministerial designation was at odds with a Categorical Exemption issued by the Planning Department, which stated that all projects filed in accordance with the ordinance be subject to CEQA review.

Not surprisingly, Usher is pleased with the judge’s ruling. “It did justice to the legal requirements of CEQA,” she said. Although she was critical of SB 1818, asserting that the bill had developers “licking their chops,” Usher nevertheless saw an opportunity for Los Angeles to draft an ordinance that embraced a smart growth formula. “The city didn’t follow that path,” she noted.

Will Wright, Director of Government and Public Affairs for the Los Angeles Chapter of the AIA, believes the city’s intent was to cut through the “bureaucratic bog” and make it easier to bring projects to market, thereby increasing opportunities for low-to-moderate housing. Still, Wright sympathizes with those who feared the ordinance would destroy the character and scale of their communities, citing the “low levels of sophistication” that have plagued many residential developments. “Over the last 15 years or so, you’ve seen massive condo projects go up that have no character and no connectivity to the neighborhood, and this represents the monster,” he said.

Ric Abramson, founder of Workplays Studio Architecture, points to another quandary, namely that of instituting SB 1818 over a broad range of jurisdictions, citing the turmoil it has caused in West Hollywood. “That’s a community that had a very proactive and progressive affordable housing program in place, and when the state passed SB 1818, it completely upset their balance,” he said.

Councilmember Ed Reyes, who chairs the council’s planning and land-use management committee, was unavailable for comment, as were representatives of the city’s planning department.

While the city council may appeal Judge McKnew’s ruling, Usher hopes they will instead redraft the ordinance in a manner that will promote smart growth rather than sprawl-inducing densification. “I think that the city has to grab hold of its future growth pattern for traffic and environmental reasons—here is an occasion where the city can be a leader,” she noted.

When asked if she is hopeful that an ordinance embracing those principles might eventually be adopted, Usher let out a hearty laugh, adding: “There’s always room for hope.”

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The Superdome's New Skin
With its anodized aluminum panels, the newly reclad Superdome maintains the original's monolithic appearance.
Courtesy Trahan Architects

Construction is currently underway on a complete recladding of the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, the final phase in a $200 million renovation of the massive sports and exhibition facility by Baton Rouge–based Trahan Architects. Designed by local firm Curtis and Davis, and opened to the public in 1975, the Superdome became a symbol of national distress thirty years later when it served as a shelter for thousands of residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That same storm also damaged nearly 20 percent of the building’s anodized aluminum panels, necessitating the facade’s replacement, which is scheduled for completion in 2010.

The State of Louisiana, which commissioned the renovation, gave Trahan the option of aesthetically altering the Superdome’s exterior, but the architects decided to preserve the existing look while updating the system’s components. “Most people believed we should have looked at a painted-steel system,” Trey Trahan, principal of Trahan architects, told AN. “I felt painted steel would take the variety out of the skin and create a dead finish, instead of mimicking the variety of the original. Anodized aluminum has a beautifully diverse look.”

A system of louvers conceals club windows.


The new facade is a clipping rain screen system that provides increased insulation values while easing repairs.
COURTESY trahan architects


The Trahan-designed system comprises 16,000 12-inch-high by 25-foot-long aluminum panels—approximately 400,000 square feet of surface area—finished with an architectural Class 1 anodized finish and a custom, light-bronze color.

While the redressed Superdome will appear just as it has for the past 35 years, the new cladding system possesses the advantages of current technology. The original panels were riveted together and secured to the dome’s structure. If one panel was damaged, every panel above it had to be removed to replace it. The new system employs clips, allowing individual panels to be removed without disturbing their neighbors.

The new system also greatly increases insulation values, from an existing R-value of about 2 to 4 to an improved R-value of 16 to 18. While the original system had gaskets and caulking at the exterior, which quickly degraded from direct exposure to the elements and resulted in air and water infiltration, the new system is a rain screen. An outer leaf sheds most of the water, and beneath that is a sheltered inner system that serves as the final weather barrier. The new cladding also improves the skin’s structural capabilities, and was subjected to a series of rigorous wind and rain testing protocols to meet contemporary building codes.

In the previous two phases of the renovation, Trahan replaced the nearly ten-acre roof, and removed 4,000 tons of debris, 800,000 square feet of dry wall, and 600,000 square feet of ceiling tile. The architects also updated all of the suites, club level lounges and concourses, and concession stands.

THE restoration repaired SEVERE roof and facade DAMAGE from HURRICANE KATRINA.