Civis, civilis, civitas. Citizen, civil, city.
This month, we look at buildings whose function is rooted in those closely related Latin words—civic buildings that serve citizens in the city and house the institutions underpinning what we have come to call civilization. Few architects today would conceive a public building along the lines of an ancient Roman monument—all pediments and columns– but contemporary civic buildings remain crucial to the life of the city— and some turn out to be catalysts for reviving urban areas that have been in decline.
A case in point: the new Tribunal de Paris by Renzo Piano Building Workshop that will open in April on the northern edge of the city. For a thousand years, justice has been dispensed from the Île de la Cité in the heart of Paris, but now the courts are relocating to this expansive facility on a former industrial brownfield, just inside the heavily trafficked Boulevard Périphérique. The tribunal is part of a larger plan to spark redevelopment in the neighborhood near the Porte de Clichy, once planned for an Olympic village in Paris’s failed bid for the 2012 Games. Just on the other side of the Périphérique is the suburb of Saint-Denis, one of the city’s toughest banlieues, with high unemployment and crime rates—and where police engaged in a fierce gun battle with terrorist suspects after the tragic November 2015 attacks in the city. It’s a tall order to transform such an area, but already change has begun, and Piano’s elegant glass building, with its slender, stepped tower and terraced roof gardens, sets a high bar for civic design.
Similarly, the new U.S. Embassy in London, featured on RECORD's January cover, is a catalyst for a rapidly evolving neighborhood south of the Thames called Nine Elms, with high-end apartment towers and offices popping up all around it. Last month, President Trump called the embassy move a “bad deal,” but that misses the point: the old Eero Saarinen–designed chancery, completed in 1960, would have had to be radically renovated to meet today’s space and security needs, an almost impossible—and costly—task, given its tight site on historic Grosvenor Square. The building was sold in 2009 to the Qatari sovereign wealth fund and will be turned into a hotel designed by David Chipperfield Architects. Its sale, and that of other London properties owned by the U.S., completely paid for the new $1 billion embassy by KieranTimberlake, on four acres of riverfront, surrounded by gardens, a moatlike water feature, and other discreet security elements. The selection of KieranTimberlake’s scheme marked a new era of design excellence for State Department buildings.
Meanwhile, an already gentrifying neighborhood in Seattle, on the formerly industrial Lake Union waterfront, faced a different kind of problem: what to do about an existing solid-waste transfer station? Despite objections from residents, the dump was staying put. But the new building that’s replaced the transfer station, by Mahlum, turns out to be a friendly neighbor—in its planning, its surprisingly handsome low-lying structure, and in the landscaped buffer created as a recreational amenity for the community.
The success of such projects not only reflects the imagination and sensitivity of the architects but the wisdom of planners who are designating sites and encouraging private development, taking the long view of how cities evolve. Renzo Piano, known for his work on the fringes of Rome, and now Paris, believes in the future of the urban edge. “Cities have a long metabolism,” he says. “They don’t change in one year—they change in 30 years or 50 years. But if we keep moving precious items like halls of justice, or universities, or hospitals to the outskirts, we will change the destiny of the city.”
In closing, I want to pay tribute to another champion of the role of architecture in communities, Mildred Schmertz, FAIA, who died last month at the age of 92. Mildred was the first woman editor in chief of Architectural Record (1985–90) and before that was a longtime writer and editor here. Armed with a B.Arch. from Carnegie Mellon and an M.F.A. from Yale, she covered the major architectural figures of her day, from Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius to Edward Larrabee Barnes and I.M. Pei. Of course, almost all successful architects then were men—and Mildred was a rare woman leader in both journalism and the design world. She began her career before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique and lived into the #MeToo moment. She was a wonderful colleague, supporter, and friend. We will miss her.