Urban Intervention

The recently completed Syracuse Center of Excellence, designed by the former Harvard Graduate School of Design architecture chair Toshiko Mori with the local firm Ashley McGraw Architects, is located at the confluence of two elevated high-ways trampling through the center of Syracuse, New York. The building’s double-height ground floor pivots from a five-story structure and swerves around onto a ramped green roof like a verdant freeway interchange.

From the highway, the CoE stands out as a visual landmark in a fairly blighted landscape. Syracuse suffers from the depopulation and deindustrialization that has been symptomatic of declining American cities since the 1970s, especially manufacturing centers in the Rust Belt. The project is part of a series of initiatives led by Syracuse University’s architecture dean, Mark Robbins, to apply the best ideas currently available to spur revitalization.

From the street, the transparency of the building’s facade uncannily bares the movements of the people inside, who appear like toy figures in a preschooler’s parking-garage play set. Inside, the offices are at the same level as the freeway, giving workers a hypnotic view of the cars and trucks rattling by. “They were very aware that this was a visible place in the city, and they wanted to make a place that the public would respond to and recognize,” says Mori’s project architect, Josh Uhl. “Like a new icon for renewal,” Mori adds, “but it’s symbolic that in Syracuse it’s about energy and environment. It will be the future.”

Paid for by state grants along with local universities and corporate sponsors, the $41 million project combines educational thinking with an urban theory for Syracuse. Its main purpose is to test human responses to indoor air quality for Syracuse University’s engineering school (in collaboration with Carrier, the air-conditioning manufacturer formerly based in the city). There are laboratories on each floor, and a wing for research on advanced biofuels produced from woody biomass. The facade also has a small test bay where experimental building-envelope systems can be plugged in.

It’s currently occupied by the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology’s dynamic solar facade, developed by Anna Dyson, which uses an array of pyramidal windows to track sunlight and magnify it onto photovoltaic cells.

The building itself deploys a multitude of environmental systems and architectural strategies to reduce energy use, increase comfort, and monitor its own performance. Radiant ceiling panels flowing with hot or cold water—not widely used in North America but commercially available in Europe—keep the temperature comfortable. Ed Bogucz, the CoE’s director, says, “There are some elements of the building that for me are simply mysterious and give me this profound intellectual and spiritual joy, and the radiant ceiling is one of them. There’s this very gentle air fall, a curtain of air. It’s a different sensation. It creates an environment that is very pleasing and also mysterious, because they’re really forces of nature at work.”

Other technologies, such as Carrier’s geothermal pumps and heat exchangers, photovoltaic panels, underfloor displacement ventilation, rainwater recycling, and automatic shading and lighting systems, are integrated with more traditional features like solar orientation, insulation, and material choices. Matthias Schuler, of Transsolar, Mori’s colleague at Harvard, collaborated with Arup and Mori on the climate concept, from which Arup developed the environmental engineering.

It’s all excellent as ecological architecture, but it would be perfectly ordinary as urbanism if it were an isolated project. What’s exceptional is the extent to which the building anchors a larger vision for the city and the neighborhood, as put forth by Robbins, who led the architect-selection process. As soon as the highway-interchange lot was chosen—a brownfield that once had a Smith Corona typewriter factory on it—the CoE became absorbed in rhizomic urban strategies connecting it to other initiatives. “It’s thinking on multiple fronts,” Robbins says. “It’s not like green is going to be the saving grace, and it’s a little bit simplistic to think that either a single building or a single constellation of businesses will single-handedly change the city. One needs to work simultaneously on the schools, housing, basic infrastructure, culture, and arts. It always requires multiple linked things to drive things forward.”

A New York native and part of the generation of architecture graduates who passed through Peter Eisenman’s Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies and became absorbed in the downtown scene of the early 1980s, Robbins is an idiosyncratic figure in the field of architecture. He is a practicing artist and an energetic freethinker who intuitively collects the best ideas from everywhere and applies them as new opportunities present themselves. Formerly the curator of architecture at the Wexner Center, in Columbus, Ohio, and the onetime design director at the National Endowment for the Arts, he has taken lessons from the rebirths of Columbus and New York and, since his 2004 appointment as dean, applied them in Syracuse on a different magnitude.

One of his strategies has been to aggressively position Syracuse University as the setting for creative collaborations with some of the smartest people in the regional design scene, including prominent alumni. He uses the promise of work as an incentive to get high-profile studio instructors and applies their ingenuity to projects he initiates himself. Among his collaborators are New York architects—Mori, Rick Cook, Richard Gluckman, Susannah Drake, Jared Della Valle—and emerging and established Philadelphia firms like Onion Flats and Olin. Robbins calls it “opportunistic urbanism”: recognizing existing assets and using them to the greatest advantage. “It’s looking at the ways in which more strategic interventions can begin to drive larger moves within cities. I don’t know that any one of the strategies in and of themselves is unique or hasn’t been done elsewhere. It’s trying to get them all to happen in one place and to use a city that’s as small as Syracuse as a test bed for these things.”

In a great stroke of luck, the same year that Robbins landed in Syracuse, Nancy Cantor became the university’s chancellor. Cantor has advocated a pragmatic educational theory that she calls “scholarship in action.” It bridges the gap between academia and society through community engagement and applied research. With her support, Robbins has also been able to use the architecture school to amplify the impact of new investments by the university. “There’s a real multiplicative effect of combining these substantive areas—environmental sustainability, green tech, art and design, education, and entrepreneurship,” Cantor says. “Those all positively influence each other. Projects overlap, neighborhoods overlap, and there’s a chance for a much bigger impact.”

Cantor even created a new title for Robbins: senior adviser on architecture and urban initiatives. Together, these initiatives begin to add up to something significant on the scale of a small-to-medium-size city. When he arrived in 2004, Robbins set an example by buying a Beaux Arts–revival building downtown and renovating it into a modern loft with gigantic arched windows, a vaulted ceiling, and a large living room where he hosts events for the school. The architecture school needed to rehabilitate its classrooms and studios, so in 2005 he found an empty warehouse downtown and hired Gluckman, a Syracuse alumnus, to readapt it into a temporary industrial-modern home for the school. It’s now a permanent building for the College of Visual and Performing Arts and the School of Architecture. That year he also created Upstate, a real estate–development and urban-research nonprofit hosted by the architecture school. It focuses on Rust Belt cities so the students can become actively involved in researching and building in Syracuse.

Then, in 2008, Robbins partnered Upstate with a local community developer, Home HeadQuarters, to organize a green-home design competition, From the Ground Up. Three passive-energy infill projects, by Cook + Fox with Terrapin Bright Green; ARO with Della Valle Bernheimer; and Onion Flats, were selected as the winners. The homes were recently completed in the Near Westside, a poor neighborhood where Upstate is also updating several warehouses in conjunction with local galleries and businesses to create a live/work arts district. “Everything we do is about pushing this idea that design innovation and experimentation is able to leverage positive change in these cities,” says Joe Sisko, assistant director of Upstate and a graduate of the Syracuse master’s program. “That’s kind of our shtick—that design can matter. Design and experimentation can produce an effect that changes things, not just aesthetically but socially and economically and politically.”

The real core of the entire series of urban interventions, though, is an extensive urban-design and streetscape project by Richard Newton, of Olin, with the local firm Barton & Loguidice. In 2005, Robbins organized public discussions to gather ideas for a design competition for the so-called Connective Corridor, with financial support from Time Warner and the National Grid energy company as well as state and federal funds. The Connective Corridor would link the Syracuse campus to Mori’s signature building and to the arts district of the Near Westside, sewing together parts of the city long divided by the highways that cut through the center of town. (One of them, Interstate 690, built in the early 1970s, runs alongside the route of the Erie Canal, the engine of Syracuse’s emergence as a regional economic center until it was made redundant by the railroad in the late 19th century.) James Corner’s Field Operations won, working in collaboration with Clear—one of whose principals, Julia Czerniak, directs Upstate and teaches landscape architecture at SU—but Corner eventually abandoned the project because of limited funding. It was further developed by Czerniak and is being completed by Olin.

Traffic-calming conversions of one-way streets to two-ways and lane reductions are combined with bike paths, park redesigns, and signage by Pentagram and Tillett Lighting to ease the passage of pedestrians from the university to the Syracuse Center of Excellence, then underneath the highways to the central business district and the Near Westside. Streets will be installed with green infrastructure elements, soft landscape features that capture storm water and help reduce sewage overflow into Onondaga Lake, on the city’s northern edge. The lake is a mercury-spiked Superfund site polluted by 19th-century salt mines and, until the 1970s, the industrial manufacture of sodium carbonate, used for glass and paper production. Onondaga County is under federal court order to stop the sewage overflows, and the landscape elements, if widely implemented, would preempt the need for a new water-treatment plant.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the cooperation of city officials and a great sensitivity to community concerns through well-orchestrated public processes. The project has been approved for construction next year and will receive federal, state, and county funds for traffic calming, safety improvements, and environmental remediation. “What’s so exciting about the project is you have a plan that understands that revitalizing cities is just not about one thing,” Newton says. “It’s about approaching it in many different layers, and we see this as a model of how cities like Syracuse can start to regenerate.”

Yet even with the comprehensive streetscape improvements, the arts district, the industry-oriented research, the infill housing, and the signature building, the initiatives are too small to have the kind of generative impact that comes from a flood of private investment, a booming real estate market, and an expanding economy. There’s a trickle of that latest model of urban dwelling, the loft-style condo, but it’s still a niche market that prices out most people with middle-class incomes. That investment may arrive in the future. For now, though, one of the most promising Syracuse University projects does not involve architecture or urbanism at all: Cantor led the establishment of a local Say Yes to Education program that guarantees the tuition of public-school graduates if they qualify for college admission. It could help curb the movement of families to the suburbs. But even if the scale of these projects remains too limited to transform the landscape and create a thriving economy in the way the Erie Canal once did, any postindustrial city in the Midwest has to envy the thoughtfulness, creativity, community spirit, savvy design sensitivity, and attention to aesthetics that a conspiracy of elite architects has brought to this little corner of the Rust Belt. “When I talk to mayors, I have to talk about how design and design practice can solve problems,” Robbins says. “But I love beautiful things. I love things that are beautiful without utility. In our world there’s room for lots and lots of approaches.”

Stephen Zacks is a reporter and critic working on a book about the rebirth of New York City and the emergence of the contemporary city during the 1970s fiscal crisis.

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