Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Book Review: We Build the City

We Build the City: New York City's Design + Construction Excellence Program edited by Jayne Merkel
ORO Editions, 2013
Paperback, 488 pages

The role of New York City DDC's (Department of Design and Construction) Design + Construction Excellence Program (D+CE) in elevating the quality of architecture in all five boroughs in undeniable. When I pointed out the important factors in shaping NYC architecture in the 21st century in the introduction to my Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture, D+CE was one of those. By prioritizing excellence in design via a shortlist of architects for projects under $50 million, the city has taken quality architecture – often the purview of parts of Manhattan where the most money is made – and distributed it throughout the city with libraries, firehouses, parks, museums, community centers, and even infrastructure projects.

Stapleton Library[Stapleton Library in Staten Island, Andrew Berman Architect | All photos from DDC's Flickr page]

This sizable book collects many of the D+CE projects, grouped by typology: Streetscapes + Plazas + Parks + Recreational Facilities, Cultural Facilities, Health + Human Services, Public Safety, and Infrastructure. Understandably, the book is not comprehensive in its presentation of D+CE projects, since that would have required multiple volumes or undeservedly short documentation of each project. While the Ely Avenue Step Street (below) is an example of a project that didn't make it into the book – I'll admit it's not as flashy as other projects in the book, such as the library and fire station pictured here – the selection successfully conveys the different types of projects and the many creative responses by architects in creating public buildings and spaces in the city.

Ely Avenue Step Street[Ely Avenue Step Street in The Bronx, Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects]

Each project is discussed with at least two pages, a few photographs or renderings (depending on if the project was completed before the book went to press), the occasional drawing, and some text describing the design and any problems it needed to overcome. The presentations are fairly straightforward, making the book a guide of sorts to what the city has accomplished in the last 15-odd years. The color coding of each chapter gives the whole book a consistent graphic design that also illustrates how the different libraries, police stations and other projects are distributed throughout the city, through their mapping on some mylar sheets at the beginning of the book.

EMS 27[EMS Station 27 in The Bronx, WXY Architecture + Urban Design]

While the book is a much-needed display of how the D+CE has improved architecture in New York City (as much or more than developers hiring big-name architects), its organization and self-referencing could have been improved. The book is missing an index and the table of contents only lists the sections and typologies, not the individual projects. Likewise, the architects' bios at the back of the book do not reference the projects. So the reader who wishes to find a particular project is left to flipping through the book, something that is easier if the typology is known but kind of a pain if not. But probably the best thing the book does is to whet our appetite for the buildings that are in the works, the ones that are represented by renderings and that will someday be realized alongside the other buildings that have, with the D+CE, made New York City's neighborhoods a canvas for contemporary architecture.