Architects and Urban Thought Leaders on Design for the Public Realm
Eight architects, artists, and urban thought leaders speak with RECORD about soft infrastructure and design for the urban realm. Scroll through the slideshow above, or click the names below, to read:
- Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Urban Revival
- Claire Weisz of WXY in New York on Connecting People in Public Space
- Chicago-based artist and architect Amanda Williams on Transforming but Respecting Traditional Neighborhoods
- Charles Renfro of Diller Scofidio + Renfro in New York on Private Projects for the Public
- Architect Teddy Cruz on Making the Public the Essential Client
- Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of DPZ Miami on Architecture that Addresses the Street
- Boston-based MASS Design Group’s Michael Murphy on Interventions that Catalyze Greater Change
- Thom Mayne of Morphosis on Infrastructure vs. Design
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Urban Revival
To make the renaissance that is currently happening in cities continue, we need to underscore and amplify our values of tolerance, inclusion, and equity. In Chicago, projects like the Riverwalk, the 606 elevated trail, and the Maggie Daley Park help to bring distinct neighborhoods together.
Claire Weisz of WXY in New York on Connecting People in Public Space
Any time architects get a building commission, they need to look at it as an opportunity for public engagement. Maybe part of the ground floor or even sections of the roof can be made public. And of course every building affects the area around it. So it’s important to think about the tone it sets for the block, the neighborhood, the city. When architects are sitting on a board, or working at their kids’ school, or brainstorming with a client, they should advocate for public space. In an era when people are becoming more isolated, and perhaps less empathetic, public space is our only hope for bringing people together—especially spaces that serve multiple functions, like a plaza where you can run, or hold a health fair, or have a wedding.
The boardwalk we did in Rockaway [in Queens, New York] after Hurricane Sandy performs like a giant, 5-mile-long public space. If you want to see people, you can find them on the boardwalk. But it’s also a connector of public spaces, and that’s incredibly important. Connecting parks and other public spaces, so people can get from one to another safely, is as important as the parks themselves
Chicago-based artist and architect Amanda Williams on Transforming but Respecting Traditional Neighborhoods
I’m in love with the South Side of Chicago, watching it constantly evolve and change. I trained as an architect at Cornell University, but now I’m known as an artist. My art is about asking questions, about making issues visible, whereas architects lean toward solving problems.
I’m part of the exhibition design team for the Obama Presidential Center. I’ll have my South Side Chicago–girl hat on at the table. But I’ll also have my artist and my designer hats on. The mandate is how do we make a place that motivates people to effect change. That change could be national or international. But the building itself will have its greatest impact on the South Side of Chicago. How do we make sure that the change is for the better—that it doesn’t have unintended consequences?
Because of the magnetism of the individuals behind it, the Obama center has the ability to totally shift real-estate values in the area. What we need to try to do is use the building to improve the neighborhood but not completely transform it, so that it gives agency to people who’ve been here their whole lives.
Charles Renfro of Diller Scofidio + Renfro in New York on Private Projects for the Public
As a design firm interested in the public realm and social space and the importance of person-to-person exchanges, we push clients to include program elements that address civic culture in generous and even provocative ways. In the past, civic placemaking was more in the realm of government agencies. Now, more of our private projects offer the opportunity to impact public experience. We want our buildings to be expansive, inclusive, and welcoming to people who would not normally think of themselves as invited in. We did it, for example, at Stanford University, where our scheme for the art and art history building drew the public into, through, and onto the top of a building originally envisioned to be secured at the front door.
And we’re doing it with the Museum of Image and Sound in Rio de Janeiro. There, it all starts with the beach, the most democratic surface in that geographically and economically segregated city. The building extends that democratic surface vertically, inviting the general public to walk up its facade to a new public park nine stories in the air. It’s the only public lookout over the beaches of Rio, where historically you’ve needed a hotel or condo key to gain access.
Architect Teddy Cruz of Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman on Making the Public the Essential Client
To be political today in architecture is to prioritize. As architects we need to prioritize the public over privatization, marginalization, exclusion. The profession in general has been focused on the 1 percent. Our client has not been the public. With my partner, Fonna Forman, we are trying to recover the institutional memory of the New Deal and the many decades after the Great Depression that were defined by a robust investment in the public.
We have declared the Mexican-border region, where we see the most dramatic proximity between wealth and poverty, as a laboratory for urban and political creativity. While the public realm has been eroding in the United States, and austerity has become a mantra of European governments, Latin American cities have constructed a very different brand of politics that is transparent, inclusive, and devoted to the public realm. We are learning from Latin America that public space cannot just be a space of beautification, a neutral space of leisure. It needs to be a space of knowledge and education, and an agent for community engagement.
Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of DPZ Miami on Architecture that Addresses the Street
The best things architects can do is to ensure that their buildings contribute to the public spaces to which they are adjacent. If a building is next to a street or a square, its facade should improve the ambience of that street or square. Usually that means frequent doors and windows. The building can certainly have personality, but a blank wall, no matter how beautiful the material, doesn’t contribute to the public realm.
During my time on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, I could see many architects either striving to enhance the public realm or ignoring it. The difference was very clear. That’s not to say there can’t be object buildings—the African American Museum is appropriate as a civic object. Architects of civic objects can go for the wow factor, but the rest of us should imagine that we are part of an ensemble
Boston-based MASS Design Group’s Michael Murphy on Interventions that Catalyze Greater Change
What I’ve learned, working around the world, is that with the right projects, places can change, often quite rapidly. Now we’ve started the Hudson Valley Design Lab, to encourage equitable development in Poughkeepsie, New York, where I grew up. My social consciousness was born in Poughkeepsie, which had been a vibrant city. But what happened in the ’70s and ’80s around the nation—the unjust rejection of the city as a place for investment—happened in Poughkeepsie, in microcosm. You can still see the scars. The Design Lab will be a place for exhibitions, for research, for publications focused on how to use design thinking as a driver of change. Right now, we’re looking at an affordable-housing project on Main Street and a new art and cultural center in an old trolley barn. We’ve seen these kinds of catalytic projects improve people’s lives. It’s worked in tougher places than Poughkeepsie.
Thom Mayne of Morphosis on Infrastructure vs. Design
The architecture world seems to be overly invested in design with a capital D. I’m interested in broadening that. The problems in the 21st century are going to be much more infrastructural than architectural, and they’re the ones I’m preparing my students for. I’m not giving up design; it isn’t either/or. But the most compelling work in front of us today is infrastructural. I’ve run the Now Institute at UCLA for 10 years. We did social housing in Madrid, and in Haiti we’re about to complete a system to bring people drinkable water. And our report on the future of LA is about to come out. The goals are to make L.A. energy-neutral and water-neutral by 2050—and it’s anticipating that, by 2050, one-third of the city’s food will come from hydroponic farms. We’re building a prototype now. Overall, I’m attacking what I see as a passivity in architectural education. And I’m reuniting with my ’60s activist past.