One of the keynote addresses at the AIA Conference in Orlando this week is “Anticipate Need: Architecture that Matters,” which focuses on the renowned architects who are creating iconic buildings that shape and serve a given community. The topic of designing exemplary public buildings is also trending in Architectural Digest right now.
In urban settings, municipal buildings often fail to live up to the high-minded ideals of their related institutions. Though these structures may be dedicated to justice, education, sanitation, or public safety, their designs usually reflect budget constraints and bureaucratic compromise more often than they do civic virtue.
In recent years, however, top architects have taken on modest municipal projects in the metropolitan New York area to apply their considerable talents to everything from police and fire stations to neighborhood libraries, sanitation garages, and recycling plants.
In Long Island City, Queens, NY, Steven Holl’s Hunters Point Community Library is likely to become the waterfront’s third landmark when it opens this summer, joining the local Pepsi-Cola sign and ferry gantries in drawing public attention. In the South Bronx, Denmark’s Bjarke Ingels Group is designing NYPD’s 40th police precinct headquarters—the second outer-borough police station done by a big-name architect. The Chicago-based Studio Gang is designing a firehouse in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and a proposed 911 call center in the Bronx will be the work of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM).
Such projects, though scattered and few, suggest that civic architecture, largely neglected since the urban flight of the 1960s and ’70s, is having a renaissance. Architectural pundits suggest that public projects such as these are important because they communicate an imaginative aesthetic to a large audience, allowing architects to adhere to their Hippocratic oath to improve the built environment, and to bring synthesis and integration into what could be a haphazard or bland urban infrastructure. Civic commissions are invariably modest compared to those for a luxury, high-rise condo or a corporate headquarters, but the municipal sites have a unique appeal in that they offer architects an opportunity to reach the public-at-large in a different and significant way. Such projects make the subtle case that public institutions serving the community still matter.