The Center for Architecture’s Director on Redesigning New York’s Scaffolding

Rick Bell talks a new competition to replace the city's protective scaffolding system, Archtober, and bringing down disciplinary boundaries.

This fall season’s shows and programs promise to bring important educational opportunities for anyone interested in the built environment. The most intense learning opportunities in New York City are coming to the Center for Architecture, home to the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIANYC). Among the upcoming programs is the exhibition Beyond Zuccotti Park, September 10–22, looks at public space as a follow-up to the Occupy Wall Street protests which put New York City in the national headlines.

I have been involved with the Center’s programs (as a member of the Exhibitions Committee and program moderator) since it opened in 2003. On each visit to the building on LaGuardia Place, I discover a hive of activities on street level, in the basement, and sub-basement alike. As I watched the number of scaffoldings multiply this summer on New York City streets, I wondered how and to what extent the local architecture community is involved in this seemingly positive happening , and as I began to anticipate the fall’s activities, I approached Rick Bell, the Center’s executive director, to discuss what an active group of architects can do for themselves, their profession, their city, and the world.

Susan S. Szenasy: In this summer of powerful downpours, I have often been saved from getting drenched by the many scaffolds that line New York City sidewalks these days. Hundreds of buildings are getting fixed up. Are architects involved in these projects? If they are, how? If not, why not?

Rick Bell: The scaffoldings that cover our sidewalks usually indicate that building façade repair work is going on above. The 6,000 “sidewalk sheds” in New York City stretch over a million linear feet, more than the distance from Brooklyn to Baltimore. They protect pedestrians from the risk of falling debris caused by masonry re-pointing and other building maintenance.

Periodic inspections of street-facing walls have been obligatory since a Barnard student, Grace Gold, was killed in 1979 by falling masonry on Broadway and 115th Street. Local Law 11 of 1998 toughened the regulations, and since 2008 some 12,500 buildings are required to have timely repair. Many architects conduct the inspections, as well as specify the remedial work necessary to assure public safety and allow for the removal of the protective scaffolding.

Standard-issue sidewalk sheds have long been criticized as unsightly. In fact, AIA New York partnered with the NYC Department of Buildings on the urbanSHED International Design Competition, launched in August 2009, to come up with a better and more environmentally appropriate 21st century version. Think of the scaffolding as a kind of umbrella—needed at some times, but put away when the rain stops. The winning scheme of the competition, in fact, was called Urban Umbrella (PDF) and architect Andrés Cortés, AIA is working to see his design realized citywide.

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It is also worth noting that sidewalk sheds surround not only the locations where older buildings are being restored or repaired. Many new buildings continue to be erected in all five boroughs and architects in New York City are guardedly optimistic that an improving economy translates into more design opportunities and construction starts.

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SSS: The Center for Architecture has been a hotbed of learning for professionals ever since the recession hit (it was that before then, too, but in the past three years the learning programs have been almost like retrofits for the profession itself). Can you talk about some of your most successful programs and how they might have prepared New York architects for the new normal?

RB: The Center annually hosts 1,000 daytime and evening programs that cover a wide range of subjects related to architecture, planning, and design. Since opening in 2003, we have partnered with city agencies, non-profit organizations, and cultural institutions to create learning programs that attract diverse audiences and influence how the public experiences architecture and design. All of the Center’s talks and seminars are open to the public and can be seen on our weekly calendar.

With the economic downturn, we took a hard look at what type of professional development coursework we were providing and launched a series of “Not Business as Usual” sessions that concentrated on developing job skills for those newly unemployed or under-employed. The training center that we created from one of the smaller gallery spaces remains a place where AIANY members and non-members can get instruction in Revit and ArchiCAD.

But the “new normal” is more than a response to changes in software technology. One of our most important recent initiatives is intensive training about changes in the City’s environmental requirements. Called Cracking the Code, it is a four-hour course designed to familiarize architects and engineers with the ECCCNYS-2010 and Energy Conservation Code of New York City more (Local Law 1 – 2011).

Another new initiative, following up on the success of the seven-year old program of Fit City conferences, is training about the ideas in the NYC City Active Design Guidelines.  Released in January 2010, the document offers concrete strategies for a healthier, more sustainable future. Case studies show how to promote physical activity and help counteract the most pressing health epidemics of our time—obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes. Active Design 101 is a 1-hour presentation and discussion session that explores the relationship between health and the built environment.

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One of our most successful recent programs, measured by participation and enthusiasm, was the 7/31 Pre-Submission Conference for the adAPT NYC Competition. This pilot program is intended to develop a new “micro-unit” housing model for the City’s growing small-household population. Our program brought the competition’s initiators from the Housing Preservation Department, the City Planning Department, and the Mayor’s Office, to the Center to answer questions about the City’s Request for Proposals.  Mayor Bloomberg had initially announced the program at a press conference at the Center on July 6th. Our space allowed for a full-size representation of a 300 square foot apartment laid out on the floor of our lecture hall.

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The design of the 2012 Summer Olympics, and the intended legacy for East London of the Olympic Park was the subject of a jam-packed Friday night session on the opening night of the games. Large screen teleconferencing brought six of the key architects and planners in London into the Center’s lecture hall, accompanied by Skype commentary by one of the key designers of the next Olympics in Rio. When the educational component, organized by the AIANY Global Dialogues Committee, was over, a link-up to the opening ceremonies entertained over 300 guests drinking British beer. This was part of a series of international programs ranging from Finnish architect/rap star Tuomas Toivonen, to upcoming programs with French landscape architects A+R Salles Paysagisme and Freaks—Freearchitects.

As for other upcoming programming, I would flag the third in a series of half-day programs about the design of public space. Called Freedom of Assembly: Public Space Today, this series continues on Sunday, September 16th from 11:00am to 3:00pm at the Center for Architecture. One year following the start of Occupy Wall Street, we will be continuing the public discussion of the design and function of open space in cities around the globe. The presentations made by the twenty prior speakers are now published in a book called Beyond Zuccotti Park, being released by New Village Press here at the Center for Architecture at an “Oculus” Booktalk on September 10th.

SSS: You, yourself, have a reputation among architects as an intrepid advocate for the profession and for the profession’s key role in building the 21st-century city. What efforts are you most proud of? What could you have done better and what did you learn from the experience?

RB: I have been fortunate to work for and with activists at the AIA New York Chapter for the last decade—almost since the start of this new century. Without an engaged board of directors and phenomenal staff, any individual advocate comes across at best as a gadfly. The efforts that the Center for Architecture has enabled include three things of which I am particularly proud.

The first is Fit City.  Relating what architects and designers do to create a more active lifestyle meant getting out of the comfort zone where architects only speak with architects.  From the outset, a discussion with public health professionals enabled the design community in New York to be taken seriously in the fight to prevent obesity and other chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.  The NYC Active Design Guidelines document resulted from the series of conferences that we’ve had on this subject. And with funding from both the NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, we’ve been able to take this message on the road with our Fit Nation conferences.

As important is our effort to say that energy policy starts with buildings in urban centers such as New York. Carbon footprint reduction and energy conservation is a function of the building system decisions that architects make in conjunction with building owners and engineers. At the Center for Architecture our mechanical system is based on two geothermal wells, each descending 1260 feet into bedrock. The “ground source” system is visible to all who come to the Center through a glass door into the sidewalk vault.

Energy code training in collaboration with Urban Green under a NYSERDA contract parallels our other educational programs. And last year, our Buildings=Energy show brought many together to envision a future where decision-making is predicated on long-term costs and environmental benefits. That exhibition has been in great demand and is currently on view in downtown St. Louis through the Creative Exchange Lab design center.

The third—and the list could have been much longer—is the outreach to the general public about why and how design matters. Emblematic of this effort is the annual subway exhibition of architectural work by AIANY members. During the month of October—which we have renamed “Archtober”—we rent all of the advertising space on the south end of the West 4th Street Station. Some two hundred projects, selected by their architects or designers, are displayed for a month and the message is unmistakable. A panorama of work is presented that is reshaping our urban landscape. People stop and linger and say, on occasion, what a great ad for the value of architecture.  The month-long Archtober festival of architecture and design has really taken off, with over forty collaborating museums and organizations putting forth a common calendar this year.

As to what I could have done better—well, let’s just say that there is a need to continue to build strong coalitions with other organizations. Sometimes I find myself just talking about things that I should be doing.

SSS: I’ve been to, and been part, of many programs at the Center, and have been impressed by the intellectually challenging yet practical information imparted about everything from global issues to local details that shape the profession today. Here I’m interested in your assessment of how the many NYC oriented discussions might have helped shape city policy while alerting the profession to the city’s needs. Or is it less about shaping policy and more about a meeting of the minds–architecture and its allied practices being at the table with policy makers and other concerned parties?

RB: The Center has participated in many design-related policy discussions during the Bloomberg decade. These range from issues I already mentioned such as active design, the adAPT micro-unit housing, Urban Shed sidewalk scaffolding re-design and energy code revisions, to things that are just as transformational that have not been marked, as much, by events or exhibitions at the Center. Among them are our participation in the Vision 2020 discussions about the changing waterfront—our sixth borough—and any number of land-use discussions on Hudson Yards, Atlantic Yards, Domino, and Governors Island. We hosted the exhibition of the finalists on the Governors Island park design, and we similarly brought to our walls the four finalists of the High Line competition.

The City’s Inclusive Design Guidelines were announced at the Center by the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, and we worked with the Parks Department and the Design Trust for Public Space to both present and exhibit the Guidelines for 21st Century Parks.

The Center serves as a place where design professionals, elected officials, agency staff, and concerned citizens can come together for frank discussions. Our goal has often been to help develop consensus on controversial issues. But, just as importantly, we strive to get information out when a lack of media attention leaves the general public and design community in the dark. Our “neutral” exhibition about the proposal by the Museum of Arts & Design for 2 Columbus Circle, allowed proponents and opponents of that contentious project to find information useful in bolstering their arguments. Most often we find that the Center can serve as neutral ground, and a place where both sides of a complicated proposal can be understood.

And perhaps most important was the use of the Center as the base for New York New Visions, the coalition of 20 design and planning organizations which had, I would like to think, a positive role in the re-envisioning of Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center site.

SSS: In the years since you took your post as executive director of the Center for Architecture, what is the most dramatic shift you’ve seen in professional practices and equally important, in the professionals’ attitudes and aspirations?

RB: The most dramatic shift I’ve seen in the decade since I’ve been at the Center for Architecture is the falling away of boundaries and barricades. International work has kept New York architects and designers alive. A global approach to practice, relying on technology and partnership, has become the rule rather than the exception. This coincides with an openness to learn from other cities, other practices, not only for survival and profit, but to create a better world. Those of us who came of age in the late ‘60s used to think that we had a generational monopoly on idealism. My take–influenced by the Future Now!—our theme this year is that there has never been a better time for the next generation of practitioners to make a difference. The downturn has caused us all to catch our breath and tighten our belts. In so doing it has forced a reassessment of what architects do and why we do it.

The current Harlem Edge exhibition, put together by the Emerging New York Architects (ENYA) group here at the Center, showcases how a marine transfer station in the Hudson River can become a community resource for West Harlem and the City.

Architects young and old are making a change in neighborhoods and nations. The two exhibitions we are opening at the Center for Architecture on October 1st are the Edgeless School showing domestic work and the Best Schools in the World, highlighting work in Finland. In these shows a wide variety of architects and educational theorists talk about how thinking out of the box helps prepare for a different and better future. The attitude is upbeat and the aspiration is both political and pragmatic.

Categories: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Cities

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