The Total Package

After a torrential downpour in August 2007 shut down New York’s subway system, then Governor Eliot Spitzer called the MTA for a design rethink. It was the third time in seven months that rain had caused subway outages when water poured through the street-level vents, flooding the tracks and the electrified third rail and causing fires and short circuits. The MTA responded with engineering, operations, and communications improvements, and within a year revealed its trump card: public street furniture. On West Broad-way in Manhattan, for example, a subway ventilation grate appeared with built-in steel-pipe bike racks and two crescent-shaped seats. Few people noticed that the ventilation grate had been raised several inches higher than its predecessor to prevent rainwater from washing off the streets and into the subway. “Immediately, they became part of the landscape,” says Sandra Bloodworth, director of MTA’s Arts for Transit, who oversaw the design aspects of the project. “People started calling here and saying, ‘How can we get those in our neighborhood?’ We had to explain that they were part of flood mitigation.”

The bike rack/public seat/vent is one of several public improvements to New York street life to have emerged in recent years from the New York offices of Grimshaw Industrial Design, a division of the international, London-based architecture firm. In this instance, adding a perch for footsore pedestrians and a rack for bicyclists was a clever ruse for getting the raised ventilation grate past the wall of stakeholders who scrutinize public design in the city. The Department of Transportation didn’t want a tripping hazard; community boards, the Landmarks Commission, and the Public Design Commission didn’t want an eyesore; and the Fire Department didn’t want an obstacle. The raised-ventilation grate had to be visible, transparent, and perceived as a benefit. Closing off the grates was not an option, as they are vital to the piston effect of arriving and
departing trains expelling and drawing fresh air into the stations. Grimshaw’s solution was a street-wise response negotiated out of a quagmire of conflicting interests. “They had just come off another project with the city, and had a great deal of experience at looking at the streets and the requirements of the street,” Bloodworth says. “They brought those assets that made this project work.”

Public architecture and industrial design is, relatively speaking, a growth area. Prior to the subway project, Grimshaw was part of a team behind the design of 3,300 new bus shelters, 20 public toilets, and 330 newsstands in New York, a contract worth a billion dollars. It is also working on New York’s Croton water-treatment plant, the renovation of the Queens Museum of Art, and the redesign of the Fulton Street subway station, all public projects. While architecture firms elsewhere have conspicuously shrunk with the economic downturn, Grimshaw’s New York office has doubled in size in the last two years.

Visiting the firm’s newly converted warehouse space in West Chelsea is to drop into a kind of hothouse, complete with a hydroponic wall (for cleansing the air), a shower suite (to encourage biking to work), and about 70 staffers buzzing around an open-plan floor of desks, plotters, models, and monitors. Before moving in, the firm upgraded the plodding elevator and punched out giant windows from the 1895 brick walls, providing sweeping views of downtown, the Hudson River, and the New Jersey docks. A more appropriate postindustrial setting for the firm couldn’t be imagined.

I am met by Andrew Whalley, one of the firm’s 15 partners, and Casimir Zdanius, head of industrial design, for a presentation of ID projects. Whalley, a cheerful Brit who joined the firm in 1986 and founded the New York office eight years ago, likes to show “inspiration” slides to first-time visitors. First up are two monumental feats of Victorian engineering: Paddington Station, by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the British civil engineer of the industrial age; followed by Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, from 1851. “What was clever about the Crystal Palace was the ingenuity of construction and detailing,” Whalley says, “and the fact that it was made out of small components that enabled it to be built by horses and men in nine months.”

Component-based, modular, and industrial-grade architecture and design are a Grimshaw signature. Fresh out of school and long before founding his own firm in 1980 and becoming a key figure of the high-tech movement, Nicholas Grimshaw attracted the attention of the architecture establishment for his 1967 conversion of six crumbling Victorian houses in London into a hostel. Instead of squeezing bathrooms into the student rooms, he added a service tower at the back of the houses. It was made of prefabricated fiber-glass bathroom “pods” slotted around a steel stem, with a continuous helical ramp for access.

Grimshaw is less hands-on these days: he was knighted in 2002 and elected president of the Royal Academy of Arts in 2004, a job that increasingly preoccupies him. His influence, however, permeates the firm. “Our interest in industrial design and components goes back to Day One,” Whalley says. “The service tower is appropriate today, as more and more we find new uses for old buildings by inserting technology into them.” Slide number three shows a young Grimshaw, circa 1967, in floppy hair and floral tie, standing in front of his Service Tower and gesturing to an inquisitive-looking older man with a white, military-issue crewcut. The older man is Buckminster Fuller, best known for trying to turn surplus grain silos into low-cost housing, and polygons into self-standing domes. (See page 74 for our story on Norman Foster’s recent re-creation of Fuller’s iconic Dymaxion car.) Grimshaw later reflected on the conversation he had with Fuller: “I was fascinated by the way in which he could range from the most minute engineering details to the whole concept of linking new mechanisms to old structures.”

Grimshaw ID’s embrace of technology should be distinguished from the earlier, 20th-century variety pursued by Fuller and his modernist peers. Grimshaw sees projects less as opportunities to impose one-size-fits-all solutions or new technology than as a site-specific creative wrangling involving complex and sometimes conflicting requirements. The project that brought the first trained industrial designers into the architecture practice was the 1993 Channel Tunnel rail terminal at Waterloo Station. Here the firm began exploring industrial-fabrication methods: investment (or “lost wax”) casting to create complex, repeatable shapes that would become the steel joints of a snaking, asymmetrical glass roof; sand casting to make custom light fixtures, which were bead-blasted and finished with epoxy. More recently, the Southern Cross rail station in Melbourne was to have a complex roof curve and other design elements that couldn’t be solved with investment casting, since the craft is not as developed in Australia. Instead, the roof, which features “moguls” for extracting heat and diesel fumes through natural ventilation, was built with metal decking. Other design elements, including multimedia displays, wayfinding, light poles, balustrades, gates, turnstiles, and seating, were coordinated using an array of local manufacturing methods: water jetting, laser cutting, welding, and polishing.

Unsurprisingly, materials research is given high priority at the firm. “We spend a lot of time in factories, learning the limits of materials,” Whalley says. Metal casting, for instance, as Zdanius explains, typically requires foundry visits and discussion with metallurgists. “During the process, the design would be simulated through CAD to show any problem areas, such as structural integrity due to porosity,” Zdanius says. Unlike a stand-alone industrial-design firm, Grimshaw ID benefits from the resources of the larger architectural practice: in-house rapid prototyping, computer-generated imaging, parametric design, and animation are all tools shared by industrial design and architecture. The common currency is a concern with the details of fabrication. Occasionally, close collaboration with manufacturers leads to new product lines, as in the case of work Grimshaw did with the Austrian lighting manufacturer Zumtobel on Waterloo and an exhibition-hall project in Frankfurt. Zumtobel now sells spot-, track- and LED-lighting systems by Grimshaw, which bear the precise, high-tech aesthetic and attention to detail of the buildings. As Nicholas Grimshaw wrote in 1994, “I believe that there are very few universally-admired buildings where the detailing is not superb.”

One other feature that unites the firm’s large-scale public projects is the abundance and variety of light. Before hiring Grimshaw for the job
of renovating the Queens Museum of Art, in New York, the museum’s executive director, Tom Finkelpearl, took a tour of some of the firm’s architecture. “The light in their buildings is always well thought out,
and what’s more important in a museum than light? It’s a complicated subject because you can’t have direct sunlight,” Finkelpearl says. Grimshaw’s $34.5 million renovation of the 1939 building, which is scheduled for completion next year, directs light into a previously gloomy space through a glass facade facing Flushing Meadows Park, and through a unique glass structure that hangs below four new skylights in the main lobby. “It’s quite tricky,” Zdanius says of the glass installation below the skylight. “You have to think about wind deflections because it’s not fixed to the floor and it has to be quite lightweight. We put a solid rectangular piece at the bottom that keeps it stable and keeps the cables in tension.” Uniform-width glass panels suspended from cables will diffuse and reflect daylight through the lobby and perimeter galleries, “like a lamp-shade,” Finkelpearl says, “but the bulb is the sun.”

A well-hidden design secret is that those favorite sources of misery—demanding clients, large numbers of stakeholders and shrinking funds—can sometimes improve a design. For the new transit hub at Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan, Grimshaw first proposed a glass dome to reflect and diffuse daylight into the subterranean levels. As the project progressed, however, the criteria changed. The MTA was facing budget constraints, procurement costs were rising, and the program shifted. Grimshaw responded with a design that refined the dome into a cone shape, or what the firm describes as a “hyperbolic paraboloid cable net” with a built-in reflector, which helped reduce costs. The new, helical form was “geometrically optimized” to capture and distribute year-round daylight to the lower levels of the transit center, and it’s currently being constructed by the artist and designer James Carpenter. “The key thing,” Whalley says, “is to make sure that there’s a strong idea that will stand the test of battering and come out at the end as a good piece of architecture.”

Grimshaw’s spare and elegant street furniture, produced in collaboration with the Spanish manufacturer Cemusa, similarly improved as it was run through the wringer of stakeholder approvals. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s art commission “pushed for a plainer, sharper design,” according to Whalley, which manifested itself in the clean, rectilinear lines of the tempered-glass and stainless-steel bus shelters, newsstands, and automatic bathrooms. The bus shelters designed for Postermedia in Monterrey, Mexico, are similarly clean, though subject to completely different criteria. Whereas New York’s invested parties preferred discreet transparency, Mexican advertisers wanted high visibility. The Monterrey shelters also had to be equipped with tamperproof bolts, since steel theft is quite common.

Whalley’s last slides are of a rendering of a wind turbine that resembles a sycamore seed, which Grimshaw ID is designing with Cranfield University; followed by renderings of the new Crossrail link being built under London, for which Grimshaw ID is designing the signage, glazing, and lighting of the entire subterranean line. As I descend in the silent elevator to the ground floor and emerge into the harsh light of Eleventh Avenue, it is difficult to shake off the sense that I’ve moved into an alternate, Grimshaw universe, where all large industrial spaces have been converted into smooth, efficient caverns of light activated with finely detailed points of interaction. A universe where bicycling in the city is a safe and pleasant experience, train stations are uplifting, and bus shelters don’t look like crap. It is no surprise, really, that Grimshaw New York has benefited from the Bloomberg era, with at least four current projects on the boards coming directly from the firm’s presence on the Design and Construction Excellence program’s short list of eight architects recommended by the city for jobs over $10 million. Bloomberg’s push to improve public space in the city has fueled the growth of a tiny segment of the profession.

In his introduction to Architecture, Industry and Innovation: The Early Work of Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners, Colin Amery recounts an episode from Grimshaw’s student days at the Architectural Association, in London, when his master’s thesis on the use of the grid in the planning of Greek towns earned a warning from his tutor Maxwell Fry, who argued that Grimshaw’s approach was “mechanistic at the expense of architectural factors.” Amery argues that Grimshaw never forgot this lesson, and it became “the key to much of his thinking about architecture today—an awareness of the value of the structural and mechanical, but combined with an understanding of the art of architecture.” Clearly, for this firm, the art of architecture extends to industrial design, to the user interface of the built environment, to the tactile moment of first touch.

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