Big Architecture: AIA New York Has Shaped the City, But Can it Reshape City Hall?

Last month, Mayor Bloomberg stood in a shiny white conference room inside Department of Buildings headquarters on lower Broadway, two

Margaret Castillo, rubbing elbows with royalty. (Spencer Tucker)

Last month, Mayor Bloomberg stood in a shiny white conference room inside Department of Buildings headquarters on lower Broadway, two blocks from City Hall. He was surrounded by some of his top deputies and a giant flatscreen monitor mounted on the wall. Welcome to the Hub, a new high-tech system that allows the city’s architects and engineers for the first time to interface with plan examiners at the 17 different departments with oversight of their projects simultaneously.

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“We all heard horror stories about delays in the approval process that cost time and money,” Mayor Bloomberg told reporters.

Standing at the podium beside the buildings commissioner and landmarks chair, closer to the mayor than the reps for the Real Estate Board and developer the Related Companies, was a striking woman in a black tweed dress and gray cardigan.

Margaret O’Donoghue Castillo, along with her members at the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, where she is currently serving as president, have told the city more of these horror stories than anyone else, and it was through their advocacy, their lobbying, that encouraged the mayor and the Department of Buildings to create the Hub.

“When anyone submits a permit or has to change one during construction, the whole process is very cumbersome,” Ms. Castillo said during a recent interview at the chapter’s sleek Center for Architecture in the Village. “You have to touch many agencies–Parks Department, DOT, it’s not just the Buildings Department, there’s Planning, Landmarks, Mayor’s Office, so on and so forth. So you can reach a stalemate on an issue, where one says the tree has to be here and the other says the curb cut has to be there, and there’s no way we can resolve it, we just get bounced around.”

For years, the AIA was used to getting bounced around. Many architects, despite their progressive convictions, are allergic to politics, at least publicly. Dependent on developers and patrons of other persuasions, designers are often concerned that if they come off as firebrands, it could cost them work in the future. However, the institute has been quietly raising its profile, politically, professionally and culturally, all in the interest of furthering its interests within the corridors of power—which it helped build but rarely gets the credit for.

Taking a political role is especially important in New York. Not only is this a city singularly associated with its architecture, its skyscrapers and townhouses, but it is also a place where politics has more to do with how we build than in almost any other city in the country. Rather than design commissions and planning boards negotiating projects on their aesthetic and community merits, it is zoning and building codes that define the shape of our structures. There is a common joke that is meant only half in jest, that the real designers in New York are the land-use attorneys.

“It used to be we were more reactive, waiting for the forum to air our views, and by then it was usually too late,” Rick Bell, the executive director of the chapter, said. “Now we want to be there for the start of the discussion, or even initiating the discussion ourselves.”

Mr. Bell is largely responsible for the AIA’s recent transformation. He joined the trade group a decade ago chiefly because he saw its potential to take a more active role in the civic life of the city. “Architects shape so much about the city, and yet they have so little influence in how they shape it,” he said.

Mr. Bell came to the profession in 1970s, and his first endeavor was a nonprofit on the Upper West Side that essentially offered free architecture and planning advice to other nonprofits, like housing groups and block associations. He then spent about 15 years in private practice, mostly building educational projects, before having “a cathartic moment in my 40s,” when he decided to go into public service. He joined the Dinkins administration in the General Services Department and then led the creation of the Department of Design and Construction for Mayor Giuliani. When he left in 2000, he took a year’s sabbatical before joining the AIA. “Rick’s a very strong personality and a very courageous personality,” said Margery Perlmutter, a land-use attorney and trained architect who serves as the AIA’s legislative director. “He is willing to talk to anyone and he is willing to talk about anything.”

Big Architecture: AIA New York Has Shaped the City, But Can it Reshape City Hall?