David Burney: Architecture/Urban Planning

When he moved from London to New York in 1982, David Burney says, “You could count the number of good new buildings in this city on the fingers of one hand.” If that has changed, it is due in part to Burney, who as director of design and capital improvement for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) for 13 years, introduced a number of fresh new buildings into some of the most design-deprived corners of the five boroughs.

Now as head of the city’s Depart-ment of Design and Construction (DDC)—the first architect to hold that title—Burney, 58, is preparing to leave an even bigger mark. The DDC oversees capital projects for 22 client agencies, including the fire, police, and cultural affairs departments. It also performs infrastructure work, including the just completed renovation of Columbus Circle. Recruited by Michael Bloomberg—whom he says is the “first mayor since John Lindsay to really care about urban design”—Burney is hoping to use the agency to match in the public sector the design boom that is taking place in the private realm.

Burney’s inspiration is the Design Excellence program that Ed Feiner spearheaded at the General Services Administration. Now director of office operations at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Feiner says, “I think he’s the right person to carry the torch.” Right now the torch is burning brightly, with some 700 projects on the DDC’s agenda. Some of them predate Burney’s Design and Construction Excellence program. A few of those—including Rafael Vi–oly’s expansion of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and a new visitor center at the Queens Botanical Garden, by BKSK Architects of Manhattan—show promise.

But those are the exceptions.

Before Burney’s arrival the department randomly generated a small list of forms for each public project, with little regard to suitability. Those on the list were asked to bid on jobs; inevitably the low bid won. Under that system “the odds of matching the right designer to a job were low,” Burney says dryly.

So Burney—with the help of Marla Simpson, director of the mayor’s office of contract services—switched to a system where firms would be selected for panels on the basis of design ability and then would be invited to submit proposals for projects as they came up. For projects under $10 million, only firms with ten or fewer employees were considered for the panel; those chosen include Marble Fairbanks (now working on a library), Andrew Berman Architects (a firehouse), and Dean/Wolf Architects (a hospital EMS station). For projects over $10 million, the panel includes Polshek Partnership Architects—already responsible for expanding the New York Hall of Science in Queens—as well as firms that had never before worked for the DDC, such as 1100: Architect, now creating a children’s discovery center at the Queens Public Library, and Gluckman Mayner Architects, currently renovating the Staten Island Museum. “Involving a higher caliber of design firms in our work,” Burney says, “is going to have an impact on quality of life in the city.”

Burney, who was born in Liverpool, came to New York to work with Davis, Brody & Associates (now Davis Brody Bond) on such projects as the Rose Building at Lincoln Center and the Zeckendorf Towers on Union Square. Mentored by firm founder Lewis Davis, he has a clear preference for modern buildings. When he works with the fire department, Burney says, officials point to old buildings and ask, “Why can’t we have one like that?” The challenge, he tells them, is to create modern firehouses that will also stand the test of time.

But that doesn’t mean Burney only wants to do buildings that dazzle. “There’s a place for iconic buildings,” he says, “and a place for buildings that blend in.” At the Housing Authority he was proud to have created infill housing that, he said, “you could walk right past and never notice.” Burney took that job after being approached through AIA in 1990. With 16,000 employees managing 181,000 apartments, the agency could have been a bureaucratic morass. “I felt like I had joined the Army,” Burney recalls. But he made strides both in creating new public housing and giving existing projects architecturally significant centerpieces, including the much published Melrose Community Center in the Bronx, by Agrest and Gandelsonas Architects. More than 100 community centers were renovated, expanded, or built during his tenure. Unfortunately, he says, “federal funding for public housing dried up just as we were learning to do housing right.”

At the DDC funding seems safe for now: Burney will spend more than $1 billion this year. But his method for choosing architects isn’t yet set in stone. The pilot program will be extended, he says, only if he can prove to the city controller that “the sky hasn’t fallen in.” As Burney put it before the election, “My goal for the second Bloomberg administration is to make this program permanent.”

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