Designing Public Schools in New York City for Oculus

Designing Schools, Building Communities: Building schools to meet New York City’s booming student population pushes the limits of project-delivery capabilities as construction costs continue to multiply. Amid logistical challenges, architects and officials still reach for the intangible, delivering spaces designed to last for years and provide a sense of community for children and neighborsOculus, Summer 2023.

The School Construction Authority (SCA) maintains 1,400 public school buildings serving more than one million students in the five boroughs of New York City. It analyzes the flow of students into multitudes of neighborhood and borough-wide schools, and it repairs, expands, and builds new structures—quickly—as demand changes. Currently, the SCA anticipates needing more than 6,200 new seats in Queens high schools alone by 2026. Its budget, fortunately, is appropriately enormous: $2.13 billion for 29 extensions and new buildings in Queens, adding more than 18,000 seats, and $19.4 billion to manage the herculean task of building and maintaining schools citywide from 2020 to 2024.

Thus, on a busy section of Northern Boulevard at the crossroads of Woodside, Astoria, Sunnyside Gardens, and Jackson Heights, between the Home Depot and a row of car dealerships, a new $178.85 million high school designed and built by SCA’s in-house staff of 170 architects and engineers is expected to serve more than 3,079 teenagers. It’s the biggest project in the SCA’s history, and its bylaws dictate that 40% of the scoping, design, and construction support work be done in-house, with the rest contracted to consultants. “They go to the in-house staff because they know we can handle challenging projects that are tight in construction schedule,” says Jahae Koo, director of the SCA’s architecture and engineering department.

At the moment, the Northern Boulevard structure is raw. So far, its fire-retardant-coated six-story steel shell has pre-cast concrete panels on a few sides, which will mitigate the sound from the busy four-lane road and Amtrak trains running behind and achieve an extremely high level of energy performance. Flatbed trucks roll up with more of the panels embedded with four-inch rigid insulation, which crews lift on cranes and attach to the structure. This school must open by September 2025, but it doesn’t yet have a principal, teachers, staff—or walls. “Understand, this has been going on for months!” shouts a construction manager behind a closed door, as we meet in the construction office trailers parked on the building site.

Because of the accelerated schedule, the project had to be conceived, designed, and built based on the SCA’s tried-and-true ideas of spatial organization and understanding of how to incorporate flexibility for the school’s future administrators. The structure will accommodate 96 classrooms, including six art rooms, three music rooms, and six science labs, along with three exercise rooms, a two-story competition-size gym, changing rooms and showers, two cafeterias, a 550-seat auditorium, bike storage, and outdoor handball and basketball courts. Fifteen special education classrooms will be contained in their own school within the same building—there will be multiple principals running several distinct schools with their own administrative offices within groups of floors in the two wings of the structure. The special education classrooms will have bathrooms and a dedicated second-floor courtyard open to the sky, offering students a place to play and find calm within the commotion of a high school the combined size of three city schools.

“That’s one of the challenges: How do you design a high school community for such a large number and still have an impact?” asks Koo. “It’s important that our building façade design embraces and opens to the community.” The scalloped entry plaza sits back from the street to create open space for play areas and socializing. Two six-story wings on either side of the entrance can be subdivided and administered by multiple principals to manage the huge population. The large number of science labs at upper levels anticipates the educational interests of young people who were still in elementary school when architects developed the program.

In terms of sourcing of materials, energy efficiency, building envelope, water conservation, and storage of stormwater, the Northern Boulevard building meets the latest updated codes. Its R40 roof and R25 walls, energy use index of 28, 270 rooftop solar panels, plumbing that uses 35% less water than normal fixtures, and regional sourcing of steel and pre-cast panels meet the SCA equivalent of LEED standards. All city school buildings now undergo a blower test for air tightness. Rainwater is collected in detention tanks below the plaza area.

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Review of Shared Space—Collective Practices at Art Omi in The Architect's Newspaper

Documenting Activist Design: Art Omi revisited urban interventions with a display of work from four architecture collaboratives. The Architect's Newspaper, Jul. 20, 2023.

A show on the community-engaged projects of four architecture collaboratives based in the U.S., Central America, and England, Shared Space—Collective Practices, was on view at outdoor sculpture park Art Omi in the Hudson Valley for the first half of 2023. Organized by Art Omi architecture curator Julia van den Hout, the exhibition within in the Newmark Gallery revisited a form of social activist design work known as urban interventions that emerged in the mid-to-late 2000s: a way of organizing small-scale projects to activate vacant spaces, advocate for social and political issues, and serve historically discriminated-against and economically disadvantaged groups.

Featuring a selection of projects by WIP Collaborative, FUNdaMENTAL Design Build Initiative, Colloqate Design, and Assemble, the show exhibited photos and videos documenting the four practices in the gallery of Art Omi’s stone-and-glass-walled visitor’s center, designed in 2008 by Ghent, New York–based FT Architecture & Interiors. A series of sloping, multicolored platforms with varying surface textures designed by WIP is the center point of the gallery. The colorful platforms are being reused after the show in the organization’s education pavilion.

The four collaboratives share a style familiar to many community-oriented design initiatives: ad hoc, colorful, joyful, and often temporary, they react to the unique situation of a place and engender a sense of belonging among residents normally ignored by government programs and private finance-led redevelopment. They create places of identification and inspiration that signal intangible, unseen possibilities. While the scale of these projects can often seem inadequate in the face of larger-scale systemic and institutional failures, the work has a self-evident value. They serve as pilots, models, examples, and inspirations, change agents stimulating others to act, and opportunities to expand the imagination for people with little exposure to art and design. They can have substantial results when adequately funded and expanded into policymaking regimes. And the collaborations with community members can be incredibly fun, meaningful, and rewarding.

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Grand Junction Park by Land Collective and HWKN in The Architect's Newspaper

Grand Junction Glow-Up: Land Collective and HWKN complete a park in Westfield, Indiana, that supports the lives of residents. The Architect's Newspaper, Jun. 30, 2023.

Above the start of Grassy Branch of Cool Creek in the small city of Westfield, Indiana, a wooden boardwalk snakes through a renaturalized streambed where pedestrians can hop over the stream or get their feet wet in the flowing water. Nearby, the new park, the Grand Junction Park & Plaza, accommodates dedicated spaces for open-air performances; a glass-walled cafe with a cascading, stepped Indiana limestone facade; and a Great Lawn for lounging. Park users can picnic and play, ice-skate in the winter, or enjoy the many comfortable wooden benches from which they can peacefully observe the resurgence of wildlife.

The park, which officially opened last year, was designed by David Rubin of Land Collective with architecture by Matthias Hollwich of HWKN in collaboration with RATIO Architects and signage and wayfinding by Bruce Mau Design, along with an extended team of civil engineers and riparian-corridor specialists. While the end result is impressive, the effort began as a more limited project focused on flood control.

“All of these assets became possible because there was a social overlay to infrastructure,” Rubin said. “It was that marriage that made this all possible. We came up with this vision for the park that resolved the climate crisis issues and the riparian-corridor reparation issues that then had this social overlay that would create a new central park around which development could happen.” The creek at the downtown crossroads of Westfield had overflowed throughout its history. After the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act of 1850, the Army Corps of Engineers fixed the problem in the rough- and-tumble way of early American settlements: It channelized Cool Creek to keep water from destroying productive farmlands, inserting a pipe through which the normal flow of water could pass. But in the last 20 years, regular 100-year storms began to repeatedly overtop the levee, overwhelming the pipe and flooding the area.

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Reinventing Dealey Plaza by Mark Lamster, Stoss, and MPdL Studio in The Architect's Newspaper

Reinventing Dealey Plaza: Mark Lamster, Stoss Landscape Urbanism, and MPdL Studio offer a new public terrain for downtown Dallas that addresses its violent past. The Architect's Newspaper, Jun. 28, 2023.

Settled in 1841 by Tennessee-born trader John Neely Bryan, who opened a general store, post office, and ferry on the banks of the Trinity River, Dallas is now a major destination within Texas and the country at large. Yet like many cities, traces of a violent past remain underacknowledged in its terrain.

In July 1860, a fire destroyed the city’s business district. At the time Dallas was a town of fewer than 700 people, including 97 African Americans. The fire, occurring not long before the outbreak of the Civil War, sparked accusations of arson against abolitionist and Black leaders, culminating in the lynching of three Black men.

A widely circulated 1910 postcard picturing a massive crowd of whites lynching a Black man at the center of Dallas offers another window into its hidden history of racial terror. In 1963, the city dedicated Martyrs Park to the victims, but the site remains isolated from pedestrian access beneath the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad yards—the so-called Triple Underpass—with an uncomfortably narrow and dark walkway before Elm Street emerges and descends to the river.

This history is overshadowed by another incident of violence: Dealey Plaza is just on the other side of the Triple Underpass. Many Americans know it as the site of one of the country’s most shocking and calamitous events: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—a figure of enormous hope and aspiration for a generation of young people—as his motorcade drove through Dallas on November 22, 1963, the streets lined by throngs of supporters. The event, captured on film by an amateur photographer, was followed by an uncanny series of improbable incidents, among them the killing of the oddball assassin by an equally oddball nightclub owner—also photographed in the act. The graphic and incongruous official account of events spawned innumerable government investigations, conspiracy theories, Hollywood movies, and deathbed confessions.

Dealey Plaza became a place of shame and embarrassment for Dallas’s elected officials, who tried to ignore it, placing only an informational plaque at the site until, in 1970, the city commissioned Philip Johnson to design a memorial several blocks away. The unfortunate result is a grim, Brutalist artifact. Work proceeded slowly to fully and properly tell the story of the event. In 1989, the Dallas County Historical Foundation dedicated a museum to commemorate the assassination, the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, located inside the Texas School Book Depository building from which the assassin fired the fatal shots.

In the meantime, Dealey Plaza attracted hucksters and conspiracy theorists, who regularly marked the locations where bullets were found with spray-painted x’s on the pavement. Rather than taking the situation as an excuse for grandstanding and the reprimand of city leaders, Mark Lamster, architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, decried the sad state of this part of downtown. “It is a deplorable state of affairs,” he wrote last October, “but also a great opportunity; a chance to transform this site into a space of civic memory and understanding that embraces the past and points to the future.”

As Lamster wrote in his article last year presenting the concept, Dealey Plaza has become “perilous to navigate, marked by tawdry vandalism and utterly inadequate to both its historical gravity and to the functional demands of the city.” Its pedestrianization would be a fitting way to honor the place, an imperative for the safety of visitors, and an opportunity for Dallas, he argued.

“I think our first and most significant move was to shut down Elm Street, one of the three roads that are moving through [Dealey Plaza],” Lamster told AN. “That’s the road that Kennedy was shot on. And just to say, we will no longer have traffic on this road, that having moving vehicles going quite fast over the site was not appropriate. Shutting that down, making it a pedestrian space—making it a safe space—was really important.”

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Review of Mass Support at CCNY for The Architect's Newspaper

Manufacturing Home: At CCNY, Mass Support documented the work of SAR, led by John Habraken, and displayed alternate forms of housing. The Architect's Newspaper, May 30, 2023.

A uniquely American mania has taken hold in the area of housing reform. For the last few years, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and regional newspapers across the U.S., along with architects, planners, and real estate experts, have proffered the misguided idea that reformation or elimination of zoning would allow the free market to somehow produce an adequate supply of affordably priced dwellings. According to the going logic, if regulations were eased, real estate developers and homebuilders would flood the market with inexpensive units that they would sell at below market rates for mysterious reasons and then donate their potential profits for the benefit of society. Advocates also mistakenly believe that bankers would willfully loan money for this cause at subprime interest rates and, presumably, excuse developers who sell units at less than their offering plan.

Zoning-reform activists may not have been paying attention in 2008 during the subprime mortgage–backed securities crisis. The federal government opted to shore up the banks and allow them to take away the homes of hundreds of thousands of families rather than sacrifice the difference between their declining market value and mortgages. The same thing happened recently, when three banks collapsed in the second-largest incident in American history. The ideology of regulators is to protect bankers, who have no interest in giving away potential profits. No one is giving a break to buyers unless forced to do so. Given this trajectory, the idea that zoning reform by itself, without other regulatory mandates, will have more than a marginal effect on the price of housing is madness. The free market will not save us.

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Paris apartment facing Père Lachaise by Atelier Varenne in Dwell

Before & After: Elegant Arches and Curves Shape Up a Fusty Paris Flat: The apartment had potential with windows looking over the city’s biggest green space, so a young couple traded out its old rugs, wallpaper, and tight floor plan. Dwell, May 23, 2023.

Paris apartments with open views are hard to come by, so when Pierre Vérité and Allira Swick found one with three rooms of south-facing windows overlooking the verdant landscape of Père Lachaise cemetery, what also serves as the city’s largest green space, they knew they’d found something special. And there was more to love: antique chandeliers, plaster medallions, and wood paneling. Yet the apartment had not been updated since 1963 by its most recent inhabitant, a woman in her ’90s.

Pierre and Allira wanted to preserve some of its antique charms while making it their own. "We wanted the apartment to reflect Pierre and I, our tastes, and also how different we are as people and see how that could marry together, with me being Australian and him being French," said Allira. As a native of Western Australia, Allira gravitated toward earthy, matte, porous finishes that hearkened to a warm outdoor climate. Pierre envisioned a clean modern vibe animated by historic details.

Interior architect Asma Florençon of Atelier Varenne took cues from their different sensibilities, iterating the flat’s finishes and adding new ones to create something that felt whole. "It was a matter of putting different things together in a way that brought out the best features of the space, but with an added layer of what the couple were bringing to it with the next chapter of their lives," Florençon says.

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Michael Sorkin Reading Room in The Architect's Newspaper

Sorkin’s Stacks: The Spitzer School of Architecture preserves the library of Michael Sorkin Studio and Terreform Urban Research in the Sorkin Reading Room. The Architect's Newspaper, May 22, 2023.

Beyond the main library within the City College of New York’s Rafael Viñoly Architects–designed Spitzer School of Architecture building, a cobbled-together space composed of a former storage area and the visual resources room has become the Sorkin Reading Room. Windows overlooking the landscape have vinyl letters that read: “Fish are symmetrical but only until they wiggle. Our effort is to measure the space between the fish and the wiggle. This is the study of a lifetime.”

Designed by Elisabetta Terragni with red-carpeted floors and a long seminar table alongside KEEP bookshelves designed by Keller Easterling, the Sorkin Reading Room houses the book collection of architect, critic, urban theorist, and author Michael Sorkin, who died in late March 2020 due to COVID-19. Had he survived, the pandemic would be the type of crisis about which Sorkin would have much to say. Given the spatial, economic, and political dimensions of the crisis, which continues to impact us today, the milieu would have become material for a compelling argument about how to better organize social and political space.

The library embodies the thick history of this form of thinking. Terragni painstakingly documented the arrangement of the books in the studio to preserve their order. The shelves are stocked with an extensive collection of titles under headings like Utopia, Green Cities, Suburbia, Green Eco-Ecology, Globalism/Imperialism, and an international array of regional urbanisms. Terragni will eventually fully restore the studio’s books in the order Sorkin left them.

“I knew Michael very well in his work, but to go through all the books helped me to understand how these books were the tools for him to write and to think,” Terragni told AN. “If you flip through any of the books, you can find notes, letters. The work I did is just the beginning. Now they’re there to open up for research and studies, because there are a lot of clichés about Michael. He was a talented writer, he was an agitator, he was all of these things, but it’s high time to go deeper and to start to talk seriously about his work.” 

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Modern New Orleans Renovation by Nathan Fell Architecture in Dwell

Budget Breakdown: Hate Your Gable-Sided Home? Shield It: A strategic renovation with a striated facade helps a New Orleans homeowner meld his modern ambitions with his more historic home. Dwell, May 9, 2023.

Eric Roland doesn’t mind being a little contrarian. "People love historic New Orleans charm, and I’m not saying I hate it," says the longtime resident of the city. "But it’s not my favorite." That was clear back in 2021, when he was on the hunt for a two-family home that he could turn into an owner-occupied house with a rental apartment. He found a two-story, two-unit brick building just a block and a half from streetcar-lined St. Charles Avenue and the stately Garden District. The gable-sided home with a half-moon attic window had been a characteristically neglected rental owned by an absentee landlord. The structure was perfect, but the style? "I’m on the younger spectrum, so it’s kind of the old school/new school divide going on," Eric says. "I like clean lines. I don’t like anything circular. I even hated the gable roof."

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La MaMa renovation by Beyer Blinder Belle in The Architect's Newspaper

A Resonant Retrofit: Beyer Blinder Belle builds a contemporary theater behind a historic facade for La MaMa Experimental Theatre ClubThe Architect's Newspaper, Apr. 4, 2023.

La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club has reopened behind its original landmarked red brick facade, spiffing up its Renaissance Revival and Neo-Grec cast-iron decorative details. Inside, the brick walls are nearly all that remains of the original 1873 structure. Renovated and restored by Beyer Blinder Belle, led by architect Chris Cowan, working with theater and acoustic consultants Charcoalblue and theater consultant Jean Guy Lecat, the project transplants a new interior into the guts of La MaMa, resituating its raked, brick-lined theater club from the ground level to a newly inserted, expanded second level. Above, the club and new programming and amenity spaces in the lobby and third and fourth levels are hoisted on earthquake-safe and sound-isolating steel beams, brackets, and floor plates.

The $24 million renovation maintains a close spiritual connection to the intentions of La MaMa founder Ellen Stewart, the African American Saks Fifth Avenue porter-turned-fashion designer-turned-theater impresario, dearly departed in 2011, who rented a basement theater on East 9th Street in 1961 to create a venue for her brother, playwright Frederick Lights. Stewart stumbled onto the 4th Street building looking for expanded performance space in 1967, guided by her intuitive feeling about people and places—what she called her “beeps.”

“That’s how she programmed shows,” Mary Fulham, managing director of La MaMa, told AN. “If she met you and she felt her beeps, she would give you a show. She was totally intuitive in that way. It was about the artist. Who are you? Do you need the space? What do you want to do? If it resonated with her, she called it her beeps.”

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Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced Bangalore home by Taliesyn Architecture in Dwell

A Ribbon of Red Seating Ties Together a Sublime Concrete Home in India: A Bangalore couple build a simple, sustainable getaway in the city’s relaxed, leafy south side so that they can spend weekends close to their parents. Dwell, Apr. 3, 2023. 

Microblogging entrepreneur Aprameya Radhakrishna and nutrition and health coach Parinita Narain live in central Bangalore with their young child, across the city from the Jaynagar neighborhood where they were born and raised. A few years ago, they acquired a 3,800-square-foot lot in the south Bangalore locale with the aim of building a home where they could spend weekends closer to family—and they called upon childhood friend Shalini Chandrashekar of Taliesyn Architecture to design a small, cabin-like retreat.

The double-height, glazed entrance framed with sustainably harvested ash wood makes a grand statement, but the home’s style otherwise exhibits a spare, minimalist restraint worthy of the name Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright estate that serves as a namesake for Chandrashekar’s firm, founded in 2010 with G. S. Mahaboob Basha.

"We were initially very influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and the nuances that he brings into spaces—especially the attention to detail," says Chandrashekar. "He used very clean lines, and he paid a lot of attention to natural resources. We drew from what he did and tried to bring in our own take on his architecture."

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STUDIO V and Majora Carter's Bronxlandia in The Architect's Newspaper

Majora Carter and STUDIO V to transform a 1908 Cass Gilbert train station for Bronxlandia, an event and performance space. The Architect's Newspaper, Feb. 24, 2023.

For the past two years, urban revitalization strategy consultant and community-based developer Majora Carter has been operating Bronxlandia as a site for temporary events in a decommissioned Cass Gilbert–designed Hunts Point train station. Within the remains of the 1908 French Renaissance New York, Westchester, and Boston Rail (NYW&B) line stop, the MacArthur Award–winning Bronx native and author of Reclaim Your Community has hosted everything from under-the-radar music concerts and book events to pro wrestling matches and TED talks. Now Carter is launching the venue’s next phase as a restored and updated landmark designed around its latest function as a South Bronx-focused performance space.

Working from a theory of real estate investment Carter calls “restorative community development,” she acquired the Hunts Point rail station from Amtrak in 2016 with the initial aim of turning it into a food hall for local restaurant startups like Ghetto Gastro’s Black Power Kitchen. The Hunts Point station had a particular resonance for Carter, as her father worked as a Pullman porter. He was part of a generation of Black middle-class train attendants who had been at the forefront of the civil rights movement. He won $15,000 in a horse race and purchased a house nearby in the Bronx, which Carter grew up in.

Carter’s office also overlooks the station, which has been closed, along with passenger service on the NYW&B railway, since 1937. Commercial rail service continued on the track, now operated by Amtrak, which had leased the storefronts to the owner of the El Coche strip club from the 1970s through the 1990s. A nail salon and fried chicken takeout place sublet the other spaces for many years. In 2017 Carter started a café, Boogie Down Grind, a block away as one of her first developments in response to her inability to find high-quality coffee in the area.

Led by architect Jay Valgora, STUDIO V took on the Bronxlandia project in 2021 as a labor of love. He was inspired by Carter’s vision. Her core message of restorative development is simple: People in what she calls low-status communities—“places where inequality is assumed by people both inside and outside, where you feel like you need to measure success by how far you get away”—don’t have to move out of their neighborhoods to live in better ones.

“Our approach to real estate development was about creating the kind of spaces that folks could see themselves in—because they were the ones filling them,” Carter told AN. “Suddenly they were the draw, they were the reason why people would even want to come to or stay in the neighborhood, to see themselves literally being showcased. It was super exciting and still is, and we’re about to go into construction now.”  

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Review of Liberland for Outland magazine

Land of the Free Market: Zaha Hadid Architects is building a libertarian metaverse whose vision of the future looks remarkably similar to our current reality. Outland, Feb. 24, 2023.

With its soft launch last spring, Liberland Metaverse joined a growing number of technology startups, web interface companies, and distributors of conceptual architecture projects competing to offer a more visually rich digital environment for videoconferences, social media, shopping, gaming, and public events. In principle, these platforms—among them Decentraland and Spatial—would support user interaction within a three-dimensional audiovisual network. This so-called metaverse or web3—essentially, 3D internet—might imaginably combine functions of Zoom, Facebook, Google, TikTok, ArtNet, and Evite into one seamless graphical interface. Most of the projects up to now are more or less stylized mockups, limited by the cost of developing the software tools, purchasing computing power, and achieving data speeds required to process hi-res 3D renderings in real time. Some of the “worlds” are being sold as NFTs on platforms like Mona. Liberland anticipates renting out rooms and offices for creative workers within larger building- and- city-like agglomerations meant to have a counterpart in the physical world.

Led by Patrik Schumacher, principal and chairman of Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), the Liberland Metaverse began as a collaboration with the Free Republic of Liberland—a proposed libertarian micro-state located in a no-man’s-land of former Yugoslavia disputed between Serbia and Croatia. The currency would be a crypto coin called the “merit.” Since it was founded by Czech politician Vít Jedlička and his partner Jana Markovicova in 2015, the 4.3-square-mile territory on the bank of the Danube River has remained unpopulated (although it has received around one million applications for citizenship). Some more tangible progress has been achieved by the Liberland Metaverse, which is still in development, in collaboration with Daniela Ghertovici, founder of ArchAgenda, and Mytaverse, which offers a cloud-based platform focused on high-end product marketing and customization. ZHA has invested time in it through its computational design research studio, run by associate director Shajay Bhooshan, and Schumacher promotes its development through the Architectural Association School of Architecture’s Design Research Laboratory, which he also directs. So far the work-in-progress has gone live for two events, including this summer’s Floating Man Festival—an annual event in Liberland featuring bands, sport competitions, competition and blockchain workshops, AI art presentations, and a conference. A video tour of this virtual realm, powered by the Mytaverse platform, can be viewed online.

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Beyond Accommodation for Oculus

Beyond Accommodation: Architects Are Learning that Physical Design Solutions Are Only Part of the Answer, Oculus, Winter 2023

The ideal of inclusive architecture implies an accessible, welcoming space for all. We imagine the architect acting as a mediator, deliberately eliminating barriers to entry, appealing to a myriad of potential users, and transforming narrow programs into coherent forms and encompassing visions. Yet we experience countless examples of the opposite: Designers hired by private clients to flaunt amenities that by definition most of us cannot access, armed with deterrences to exclude those who potential buyers may consider undesirable. Brooklyn-based Interboro Partners created a 440-page encyclopedia of such details, practices, and policies in its 2017 The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion, now in its second edition, which remains a salient expression of design at the threshold of belonging.
In David Gissen’s The Architecture of Disability: Buildings, Cities, and Landscapes beyond Access, published this winter by University of Minnesota Press, he dreams of another way of designing. Instead of an approach that identifies specific groups, needs, and hindrances, ensuring inclusion or non-exclusion by complying with guidelines layered onto forms conceived without disability in mind, Gissen imagines an architecture that transcends an additive approach. Up to now, design in the modern tradition has emerged from metaphors and symbols shot through with notions of deformity. What if disability itself became a motif, a generative starting point?
Gissen offers as an example the Salón de Pinos in Madrid RIO—a park designed by Burgos & Garrido, Porras La Casta, Rubio & A-Sala, and West 8, along a recovered river in Madrid—in which a section of plantings is composed entirely of pine trees that had been damaged, repaired, and reshaped into beautiful, resonant forms. As an amputee with a prosthetic leg, he can think of almost no other examples. In his essay “Disabling Form” (e-flux Architecture, May 2022), Gissen argues that the modern discourse of form itself relies on terms such as aberration, disfiguration, deformity, and imbalance to aggrandize “an expressive overcoming of gravity and physical force, optical and mobile perception, and the kinesthetic production of architectural ideas and spaces.”
“One theme of the book is that the reason why buildings, nature, and history are inaccessible in the first place is not because people don’t care about disabled people or ignore their needs,” says Gissen. “It’s because the very idea of history, nature, and form actively positions impairment as a negative. There are ideas of incapacity within the very ideas that understructure what history, form, environments, and construction are and what they do.”
In this sense, the seemingly neutral framing of inclusivity may position the already-included as a tacit “norm” and the excluded as an “other” to be paternalistically allowed in, but only if we comply with a mandate of conformity to an existing order. “I wrote The Architecture of Disability with younger practitioners or students in mind who may have impairments and may doubt they can find a place in architecture,” Gissen says. “It’s a book for my younger self that I wish I had starting out in the field, written as a way for people with disabilities to find a place for themselves in this discipline—a place that is forceful and shows them how they can change it as well.”
In lieu of notions of inclusivity, it may be more precise—if rather clumsy and unpoetic—to talk about “those who have historically been discriminated against” to emphasize that individual projects, small or large, do not in themselves portend a larger change to structural and institutional norms that tend to make the society as a whole extremely unequal. For example, New York City has a 0.5149 “Gini coefficient”—a standard measure of income inequality, which can range between 0 and 1. (A coefficient of 0 indicates a perfectly equal distribution of income, while a coefficient of 1 represents a perfect inequality.) New York’s value is the worst in the U.S., alongside the District of Columbia, making it the 15th highest in the world, comparable only to that of developing nations.

Investigation into the Future of Offices in L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui

Investigation into the Future of Offices, L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui, Jan. 2023.

In an era when people are placing a renewed emphasis on enjoyment of life, community, meaning, and connection, the office has unexpectedly survived.

Two years ago, as offices shut down and lockdowns spread across the globe, we were left to wonder: what is the future of the office? Tasks could seemingly be completed perfectly well without the encumbrance of moving ourselves across cities in buses, trains, and automobiles. Meanwhile, reality set in: home became a place too packed with everything. The home office had become both too full of and too absent of other people. Parks became a refuge for wanderers, but the social world of the city was all but lost. Eventually, maybe rather quickly in some cases, a feeling coalesced: coming together in real life outside of the home had a purpose.

The transition to what has been called the “new normal,” in the ongoing vernacular of doubtfulness about what, in reality, constitutes the present moment, has extremely divergent characteristics. In Silicon Valley, it’s not unheard of for companies that had invested in innovative new headquarters just before the pandemic to continue to be 100 percent remote. That is the case, for instance, at the interactive graphics hardware manufacturer NVIDIA. The company opened a second 250,000-square-foot building this year as a part of its spaceship-like Santa Clara, California headquarters designed by Gensler, yet it has been functioning as an all-remote workplace since early 2020.

The NVIDIA office had sought to locate each employee within a two-minute walk of every other employee, enhancing face-to-face connectivity. It aimed for maximum versatility, allowing team members to choose their ideal spaces within the complex. Abundant outdoor areas, roof decks, terraces, and four acres of gardens designed by landscape architect Walter Hood were meant to enhance creatively and offer relaxation. Inside, a living wall by Habitat Horticulture and planters springing up with grasses, vines, and shrubs find themselves in isolation in people-less constructed environments. Perhaps fitting for a company that is at the forefront of technology for artificial intelligence and quantum computing, the in-real-life headquarters buildings of Nvidia are currently just for display. Nevertheless, the company has a market capitalization and stock value three times greater than before the pandemic.

Undoubtedly, offices continue to be important “third places” where people can meet, learn, share ideas, and create together. Massive new ones have not stopped construction in major cosmopolitan centers like Singapore, where KPF completed the 20-story 18 Robinson tower in 2019 on a triangular lot overlooking the marina. Its features were meant to be state-of-the-art at the time, and they continue to animate certain tendencies supposed to moderate the potential drudgery of office work. As at NVIDIA, the 18 Robinson office contains extensive green plantings within the volume. Above the retail podium, a three-story outdoor atrium is embedded with trees, and a rooftop above the tower holds a voluminous greenhouse open to the sky. Since 2009, Singapore planning regulations have mandated green landscape features within buildings replacing 100 percent of the square footage of greenery lost on the site due to development, even if the site previously had only been occupied by a building. 

“The office building is not dead,” says Bruce Fisher, design principal at KPF and lead designer of 18 Robinson. “There do need to be these places where people meet. Then the office becomes more and more important in terms of what you are going to—in terms of well-being and real flexibility of how you can work—both in the office and amenities within the building and places to get away. The idea of integrating green space, balconies, spaces for fresh air and for getting outside is critical in everything we’re doing now.”

Surveys of small offices on how they’ve been adapting to life in the current epoch tend to produce much clearer answers regarding how a separate workplace enhances their everyday experience. These workers characterize the office as a personable place away from home that offers sociability and spatial variability compared to their personal life and private rooms. It’s a place where younger associates gain skills that enable growing expertise in their craft, without which they would likely stagnate. As for the bosses, they express serious doubts whether creative work can be sustained over the long term without the unifying “culture” of the office and its ability to bring people together for informal conversations. 

It may be, in this sense, that the future of the office is already here, in these values of well-being, sociability, flexibility, enjoyment of life, and access to nature—not to speak of biodiversity and the need to protect of places for other species in our environments—which should be spread universally through regulatory requirements of the workplace, labor law, and city planning codes rather than depending on the kindness of uniquely altruistic bosses and an exceptionally permissive office culture. 

Eagle + West: OMA's New Zigzagging Towers in Brooklyn in Abitare


Eagle + West: OMA's New Zigzagging Towers in Brooklyn, Abitare, Jan. 2023. 

Two zigzagging towers at the northwesternmost corner of Brooklyn give occupants sweeping panoramic views down the East River, taking in the entirely of Hunters Point South and midtown Manhattan down to the Financial District from the mouth of Newtown Creek. The mirroring of the two shapes, one composed of trapezoidal prisms that step back to reveal outdoor terraces, the other stacked cuboids blocks that cantilever over the gap, effects a parallax as you move along the Greenpoint waterfront. The stacked forms merge and separate like puzzle pieces shaping the horizon, changing the landscape in time with the movement of your body.

Designed by the OMA-NY’s co-director and less-well-known partner Jason Long, the towers belong to an extensive 5,500-unit housing development that wraps around the neighborhood’s northern edge. Long’s reputation is about to grow. “We settled on a strategy of making siblings that would be clearly related but also, in a way, opposites,” Long says. “In the end, that works well to make a singular complex that also is varied, both in the different parts, but also as you move around it.”
The name of the development, Eagle + West, refers to two streets that hitherto dead-ended where Greenpoint pivots around the Newtown Creek and the East River. The two towers replaced the nearby sewage treatment plant’s demolished sludge tank, which stored solid matter to be loaded onto tankers and hauled to the desert in the southwest United States. Once impassible streets now cross in front of the towers, accentuating the sense of flow and movement.