Author Q&A with John Hill: Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture

By Steve Kroeter March 29, 2012

John Hill

Architect and Architecture blogger John Hill: Archidose (New York)

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Architect and architecture blogger John Hill, of Archidose, discusses his book Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture, published in December 2011 by W. W. Norton. The book was named a Designers & Books Notable Book of 2011 by Justin Davidson.

Designers & Books: How did your book get started?

John Hill: I pitched the idea to Norton after I reviewed a couple of New York-centric guidebooks—Public Art New York by Jean Phifer and the Municipal Arts Society’s 10 Architectural Walks in Manhattan—pointing out to them that a guide to contemporary architecture in the city had not come out for five or six years. I have also been an avid “architourist,” documenting buildings I visit on my various web pages; the bulk are ones in New York City, from both before and after moving here in 2006.

D&B: In addition to New Yorkers who are fans of architecture, whom else did you have in mind as the audience for the book?

JH: I wrote the book with a general audience in mind, whether architects or non-architects; this is manifest in what I chose to discuss and how. Ultimately the book was written for me, not out of any selfish desire to create a book for an audience of one, but with the assumption that the buildings and spaces I wanted to learn about, and the deficiencies I saw in other guidebooks that I could hopefully improve upon (selection criteria, book size, navigation through the book and through the city), would be shared by others.

D&B: You selected more than 200 buildings and spaces to highlight. What were the key selection criteria you used?

Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture, 2011
(W. W. Norton)

Poe Park Visitor Center, Riverdale, Bronx, designed by Toshiko Mori

JH: They need to be visible and able to be experienced in some way, whether as facades on the street, as public interiors, or as urban spaces. They also need to be planned for the long term, not as temporary structures, so that the guide would not be obsolete the day it came out. This criterion eliminated most retail and restaurants, which come and go in the city quite rapidly, but nevertheless some are included as sidebars among the 200 main entries. Last, they need to be built after 1999, a cut-off that makes the book focus on the first decade of the 21st century.

D&B: Could you name one or two of your favorite selections—perhaps something from each borough?

JH: It’s hard to limit my favorites to just a few, but these should help show the variety of the projects included in the book. In Manhattan, Raimund Abraham’s Austrian Cultural Forum (ACFNY) is a striking sliver in Midtown, my first and really only choice for the cover of the book. Farther north, on the Columbia University campus, the Toni Stabile Student Center by Marble Fairbanks features a café inserted between two old buildings. It is a small space that is great to spend time in, especially when the café opens to the quad via a movable wall.

I’m a fan of interesting infill projects, and another favorite is the Terian Design Center by Hanrahan Meyers Architects. Located on Pratt Institute’s campus in Brooklyn, the cantilevered gallery over the entrance is skewed in plan, as if it’s buckling under the pressure of its neighbors.

In the Bronx, the recently completed Poe Park Visitor Center by Toshiko Mori is a contemporary addition to the park, but one that carefully and referentially frames Poe’s restored cottage just north of it.

Queens is home to the Museum of the Moving Image and the addition by Leeser Architecture that contrasts with the existing landmark by being covered in blue aluminum triangles. Yet inside it’s even more striking, offering a seamless series of public spaces and galleries, and more triangular panels in the Yves Klein-blue theater.

Museum of the Moving Image, Long Island City, Queens, designed by Leeser Architecture

For Staten Island I’m holding out for what is under construction: the 121st Police Precinct Stationhouse by Rafael Viñoly Architects and the Mariners Harbor Public Library by Atelier Pagnamenta Torriani. These will hopefully entice people to hop on the ferry and explore this borough.

D&B: What would you consider to be some of the more eclectic or unexpected choices you included?

JH: I hope the book offers surprises for even the most dedicated urban explorer. Some of these might be the Wonder Woman-plane-like link at the American Academy of Arts and Letters by James Vincent Czajka; the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s Concrete Plant Park on the Bronx River; Vito Acconci’s Wavewall installation on the side of the West 8th Street Station in Coney Island; and a couple urban houses—one in Brooklyn made from shipping containers (architect Michele Bertomen), and one in the Bronx assembled from prefab modules (Resolution: 4 Architecture).

Concrete Plant Park, Bronx, designed by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation
Wavewall, Coney Island, Brooklyn, designed by Acconci Studio

D&B: You alert your readers to certain biases in the book—for instance, the fact that you believe that “the majority of tall buildings are not architecture” (a sentiment you attribute to Kenneth Frampton). Can you name some prominent buildings—tall or not—that might have been expected to be in a book like yours, but didn’t make the cut with you? And why?

JH: The absence of some big-name architects may be questionable for some: Michael Graves (425 Fifth Avenue), Philip Johnson (Urban Glass House, his last building), and Kevin Roche (NYU, Museum of Jewish Heritage). Others will probably balk at the omission of the new stadiums for the Yankees and the Mets, both of which were completed in 2009. These and other absences are ultimately the result of subjective preferences and the need to narrow down the projects to a manageable result of 200—my working list of buildings after my initial research was close to 700!

D&B: You must be something of an expert now on guidebooks to New York City architecture. Are there others you would recommend that cover different territory than yours?

JH: In making the book I consulted numerous guides and other books on New York City as reference and research material, such as the voluminous AIA Guide to New York City, now in its fifth edition, and Kenneth T. Jackson’s The Encyclopedia of New York City, which saw a second edition come out right before my manuscript deadline in late 2010. Other valuable titles are Kevin Walsh’s Forgotten New York and Kate Ascher’s The Works: Anatomy of a City, which respectively reveal the historical and infrastructural layers of the city, most typically unnoticed or invisible. A great general guide that I used before moving to New York is City Secrets, edited by Robert Kahn; it was particularly instrumental in revealing places and ways of exploring the city beyond merely the architectural.

D&B: What’s the most significant thing you learned about New York and its architecture while you were making this book?

JH: New York is a city with many layers, be they physical, historical, social, or economic. One doesn’t need to write a book to realize this, but writing the guidebook forced me to get out and experience these layers in parts of the city I may not have otherwise ventured to. In this way I also learned that quality architecture has a need and presence in all parts of the city, not just the centers of money and power.

D&B: As you look out over the next five to ten years, which buildings are you most excited about seeing come into existence?

JH: On the immediate horizon are a couple buildings in Brooklyn: The Weiss/Manfredi-designed Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitor Center—a true “landscraper”—opens in May 2012; also under construction nearby is the Barclays Center, the first component of Atlantic Yards, designed by SHoP Architects.

In addition to the Staten Island projects mentioned earlier, this year will also see the completion of FDR Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, arguably Louis I. Kahn’s last project, which he was working on at the time of his death in 1974; and Michael Van Valkenburgh’s design for Jacob Javits Plaza in Lower Manhattan, which I’m particularly interested in, since I’ve written extensively on the predecessor designed by Martha Schwartz, which replaced Richard Serra’s controversial Tilted Arc.

A few projects related to education are particularly striking, all expressing diagonal circulation across their facades: Steven Holl's Queens Library in Long Island City is due next year (unfortunately this project was announced too late for inclusion in my book); the New School’s University Center by SOM is under construction at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street; less certain is the proposed C2 building for the Fashion Institute of Technology by SHoP Architects.

And finally a couple of West Side projects that may or may not happen: the pyramid-like W57 residential project on, appropriately, West 57th Street by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels (BIG); and the transformation of Pier 57 into a mixed-use building assembled from shipping containers, designed by LOT-EK.

D&B: This is your first book. Are you working on a new book?

JH: Currently I’m developing ideas for my second book. If my first book does well the obvious direction is to branch out to other cities for more guides, but my interests are too broad to limit myself to that. One idea is more theoretical, using a single building as a launching pad for discussions about experience, nature, and sustainability. Another idea would exploit the book as medium, as a valuable means of presenting visual and verbal information that cannot be readily replicated in a digital format. Having produced a great deal of content online, and now my own book, I’m aware of the shortcomings and potential of each medium. That said, I’d love to produce a book that is not just a step toward a digital future, but something special as a printed artifact.

Images courtesy of W. W. Norton.

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