My title

Public Design: Is There Still the Will to Build Great Spaces?

Public Design: Is There Still The Will To Build Great Spaces?

Chicago Riverwalk, designed by Ross Barney Architects, created a new waterfront civic space for downtown. 

Chicago Riverwalk, designed by Ross Barney Architects, created a new waterfront civic space for downtown. 

1445897402505.png

B     I     E     N     N     I     A     L         D     I     S     P     A     T     C     H     E     S

____________________________________________________

by JOHN GREGERSONSecond in the series | Nov 8, 2015

Moynihan urged quality.

Moynihan urged quality.

The year was 1962 and, at the behest of President Kennedy, a young Daniel Patrick Moynihan was tasked with writing what came to be known as Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture. Among the future Senator and U.N. Ambassador's thought-provoking conclusions: “The belief that really good design is optional...does not bear scrutiny.”

More than 50 years later, acclaimed Chicago architect Carol Ross Barney, on the eve of receiving AIA Illinois' 2015 Gold Medal for outstanding lifetime service to architecture, wondered aloud whether Moynihan's sentiment still holds true. “Do we still have the will to continue designing good public architecture?” asked the Ross Barney Architects design principal. She posed that question to panelists and attendees Nov. 3 at a Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB) public forum entitled Right or Privilege: Design in the Public Realm. The highly anticipated ticketed event at the Chicago Cultural Center, kicked off month two of the city's extraordinary three-month-long open dialogue on The State of the Art of Architecture,

CRB posed the question.

CRB posed the question.

No one on stage directly answered moderator Ross Barney, but the common thread among panelists, many of whom serve as custodians of public spaces, is that they are privileged to act on behalf of entities that believe excellence in public design is actually a right.

Safety first

That wasn't always the case with the U.S. Department of State, for which impenetrability became the mantra after the 1998 Al Qaeda bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa killed hundreds and injured thousands. Over the following decade, the agency built some 75 embassies, many of them, including a facility in Berlin, assailed for their fortress-like features.

Life safety and security remain paramount in embassy design, stressed panelist Christine Foushee, director of external affairs for the State Dept.'s Bureau of Overseas Operations. But an internal initiative, "Design Excellence in Diplomatic Facilities", adopted in 2010, also emphasizes life-cycle costs, location, sustainability and results-driven design, in addition to architecture that is responsive to context and culture. “When we issue RFPs, we carefully evaluate a designer's response to contextual issues,” she said.

New U.S. Embassy in Berlin opened to criticism in 2008 for a "super-max" design said to be too fortress-like.

New U.S. Embassy in Berlin opened to criticism in 2008 for a "super-max" design said to be too fortress-like.

A planned embassy in Mexico City has been of particular concern due to its sprawling, eight-acre footprint, which Foushee acknowledged could be construed as imposing. “Our ties to Mexico are significant, in view of issues we share relating to trade, narcotics and immigration,” she explained. “At the same time, we had concerns about plopping down this large building in Mexico City.”

In 2012, a jury selected Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and Davis Brody Bond, both of New York City, as project architects for the facility because “their portfolio of work is compatible with local culture and shows sensitivity that highlights their connection to the character of the site,” according to an account at the time in the Latin American Herald Tribune.

Peer evaluated, profit motivated

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) likewise executes projects in accordance with a design excellence program, launched in 1994 with a federal courthouse in Boston, added panelist and GSA Chief Architect Leslie Shepherd. A key program provision is peer evaluation of design schemes, an initiative Shepherd says has elevated the performance of several GSA facilities. As landlord to more than 100 federal agencies, GSA also issues an annual survey to evaluate tenant satisfaction.

Shepherd says GSA is tenant-focused.

Shepherd says GSA is tenant-focused.

“It's important that we design efficiently,” Shepherd said. “Our programs are funded by the rent we collect, and we can't achieve our return on investment if our tenants aren't happy.”

Shepherd walked attendees through an array of projects demonstrating that the days of cookie-cutter government offices are long gone. Among the more iconic: a new regional HQ for the FBI in Miramar, FL, that features an undulating glazed facade and achieves net zero energy use. The 475,000-sq-ft facility, designed by Chicago architect Krueck+Sexton, captivates nearby freeway drivers, who exclaim, “'Wow! What is that?'” Shepherd said.

'Wow! What is that?' Boasting net zero energy use, the FBI's new Miami Field Office opened this spring in Miramar.

'Wow! What is that?' Boasting net zero energy use, the FBI's new Miami Field Office opened this spring in Miramar.

New York City, of course, certainly has its own 'wow' factor, though Rick Bell, executive director of design and construction excellence with the city's Dept. of Design and Construction, said there is still room for improvement. He recited NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio's pledge that “change will come, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, requiring new technologies and innovative thinking.”

Bell indicated the city executes public projects in accordance with “lenses that ensure spaces are welcoming to New York's diverse population.” Resiliency is one such lens, he added, acknowledging the vulnerability of public shoreline to climatic disasters such as 2012's Superstorm Sandy. “We're working toward preventing future destruction of that magnitude, including flood protection, while providing greater public access to our waterfronts,” he elaborated.

Change will come, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, requiring new technologies & innovative thinking
— NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio

Another lens focuses on sustainability, more particularly an initiative to reduce the carbon emissions of city-owned buildings 80% by 2050, as compared to 2005 levels. “Every one of our projects is dedicated to meeting that objective, whether by incorporating green roofs or geothermal walls,” Bell said.

He pointed with particular pride to the 425,000-sq-ft Manhattan Districts 1/2/5 Sanitation Garage, which will house vehicles for the Dept. of Sanitation. The city collaborated with a joint venture of two local architects Dattner Architects and WXY Architecture + Urban Design, “to create one of the city's largest green roofs,” Bell said. Other features, including exterior, perforated, metal fins to mitigate heat gain, combined to earn the municipal facility LEED Gold certification. (See below)

Panelist Peter MacKeith, dean and professor of architecture at University of Arkansas's Fay Jones School of Architecture + Design in Fayetteville, reminded attendees that superior public design isn't the sole province of great cities, citing Bentonville, AR's striking Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, designed by architect Moshe Safdie. The facility, founded by Alice Walton, the daughter of WalMart Founder Sam Walton, sets a high bar for the Walton Family Foundation's newly established Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence (NADE) program, for which MacKeith is serving as advisor.

“We're the new kid on the block,” MacKeith said, “and have much to learn by studying exemplary public architecture.” As this CAB session demonstrated, NADE should find no shortage of that.

Google+ Google+