In April 2015 we heard that the AIGA in New York City was giving up its 5th Avenue storefront headquarters to move into an upper floor of the Woolworth Building. In response, we published an editorial, “Design Orgs Need to Meet the Street,” that argued it was a mistake, at least in New York, for design organizations to give up street frontage, and more importantly, that as architects and designers, “they should also realize the value and need for public space in New York.” AIGA’s 5th Avenue storefront held ambitious, scholarly exhibitions with cutting edge graphics that were visible to the street. This gave them a powerful street presence and the city’s news outlets covered the organization’s projects.
The idea that design nonprofits needed a public presence was a hangover from the 2003 loss of the Urban Center in the Villard Houses on Madison Avenue that housed the Architectural League of New York, the Municipal Art Society, the Parks Council, the local AIA, and a constantly programmed gallery and bookstore. The Center did not have a direct street presence but was open and easily accessible off Madison Avenue, and it quickly became a meeting place for the city’s design community.
The AIA eventually opened in the Center for Architecture, a public-facing storefront on LaGuardia Place, which quickly became a success in a way that was unimaginable before the AIA had a street presence. Sadly for New York, design organizations have not learned from these examples and, caught up in the rapidly gentrifying and expensive real estate environment of Manhattan, seem willing to give up their “public” spaces and move into the background.
The 2015 editorial mentioned that the Van Alen Institute had recently given up its large upper-floor office, which contained a gallery and meeting space, along with its short-lived ground floor bookstore, in exchange for a small storefront that did not allow dynamic public programming. When it did this, the Van Alen gained an office off the street that held a dysfunctional, inconvenient space that was hardly fit to host public events. But its ground floor space had access to the basement, and there was hope that the lower level would be opened up for the office so that the ground floor could be converted into a public event or gallery space. This never happened.
Now we have word that the Van Alen has sold its 14-story headquarters at 30 West 22nd Street as a way of substantially increasing its endowment.
The Van Alen staff, according to the organization's statement, is now “spending an increasing portion of their workday dealing with property management issues.” Furthermore, it argued Van Alen is no longer a New York City–centric organization as it sponsors programs and initiatives across the globe. With the rise in real estate values in New York and the rent they are bringing in from the building, it made sense to the organization to sell the building to support its international programming.
We are not in a position to decide what is best for the Van Alen, which claims it was “uncommonly diligent and methodical in its decision to turn a real estate asset into a resource that gives the organization broad geographic and programmatic flexibility.” But still, one can feel sad for New York City that organizations like the Van Alen are giving up the possibilities of ground floor public space, with little assurance that they can one day get another space with that kind of presence in the city.
When AIGA left its 5th Avenue headquarters, it disappeared from public view, and though its new office is two blocks from the AN office, we have heard virtually nothing from the organization. Let’s hope that the Van Alen Institute stays engaged with the New York public and doesn’t disappear like AIGA did.