05 November 2009

The Modern City: Ugly Won't Cut It Anymore

I'd never heard of either the New York City Department of Design and Construction or Commissioner David Burney until I was flipping through the pages of New York Magazine the other night and was stoped by a photo spread showing five terrific-looking civic buildings. Burney, whose job is to approve the design of municipal buildings in the city, commissioned them all, and Justin Davidson, New York mag's architecture critic, says he's doing a great job:

For decades, the trinity of quick, cheap, and ugly dominated the city’s building program. Quick was always a chimera, and cheap remains sacrosanct, but ugly won’t cut it anymore. Agencies that once indifferently crammed schoolkids, cops, low-income residents, and garbage trucks into an assortment of interchangeable brick boxes now hire brand-name architects to infuse public buildings with panache....

One of Burney’s first acts as commissioner was to reject an anodyne design for a new firehouse in Bushwick that was trudging its way through the approvals process. Engine 277 and Ladder 112 deserved a home that was better than basic, he insisted, and he told the fire chiefs and the architects at STV to come up with something more distinctive. The happy result resembles a building-size fire truck with a rounded body and a windshield expanded to a curtain-wall fa├žade.

Determined to get more for the public’s dollars, Burney put out the word that he values design and revamped the hiring process. Instead of giving jobs to the lowest bidder, he instituted a competitive process in which firms were short-listed on the basis of their achievements, then paired with a specific project later on. The latest list of preapproved firms includes Asymptote, Annabelle Selldorf, and Thomas Leeser—names whose cutting-edge luster might seem an odd fit for a senior center or police precinct. The recession has swelled the pool of available talent, DDC is energized, and officials who never expected to give much thought to architecture have become its patrons.

Here's a slide show that goes with the New York story. Davidson also singles out Polshek Partnership, which I hadn't heard of until yesterday, when I visited Sarah Lawrence College.

I haven't seen these buildings, of course, but what I like about the way Davidson characterizes them is that they all seem to work within the context of their neighborhood. They are not necessarily buildings that you'd go out of your way to see, but they are buildings that would elevate the experience of living in specific parts of the city.

I'm not a regular New York reader and I had never heard of Davidson before, but his short column is a model of popular architecture writing. -- ta

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