The Designer Dozen: The Best New York Architecture of 2011 and a Good Year for Public Space

After decades of doing its worst, the city has been quietly commissioning some of its best architecture for the public housing sector in recent years. It reached its peak three years ago, when the city held a competition for Via Verde, a highly sustainable low-income housing development in the hotbed of enlivened subsidized housing that is the Melrose neighborhood in the Bronx. The work of British modern masters Grimshaw and conscientious locals Dattner Architects, Via Verde proves that attractive green architecture is suitable for all New Yorkers, and something they should all rightfully demand.
The first section of the elevated park, which opened two years ago, transformed an entire corner of Manhattan and, more importantly, changed the way we look at the city. In May of this year, the second section opened, and brought with it yet more aerial perambulation. With extra room to roam, the Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s signature space has become even more park like, with more features, more vegetation and a full mile to traverse. It will be a few years still before section three even begins, but there is plenty to enjoy until then.
The most dynamic addition to the architecture-clogged High Line since the Standard opened, HL23 brings Neil DeNari’s SoCal cool to Manhattan. With funky floorplates and a sleek façade, the luxury condo project may be more style than substance, but it still offers an unusual housing form almost unheard of in the straight and narrow streets of Manhattan. A knock-out on the runway that the High Line has become.
For decades, the Pratt Institute has sealed itself off from the surrounding community behind high walls and closed doors. New buildings have begun to break down the divisions, but the greatest yet is the standalone Myrtle Hall, located on the avenue of the same name. Built to house the Digital Arts program and administrative offices, the new building by WASA/Studio A, faces the neighborhood with a bright terra cotta façade that is both inviting and sheltered while a cooler glass face opens to the school, creating an important link between town and gown. Plus, it is one of the greenest academic buildings in the city, hopefully setting the standard for others.
This pixilated addition to the Jackson Heights museum creates a destination where one may well be needed to attract the crowds. Thomas Leeser has taken the dynamism of the silver screen and turned it into an architectural blockbuster. The tessellated façade is pulled into the inside of the building, mirrored in new theaters and exhibition space that celebrates a variety of visual culture born and bred on the streets of New York and beyond.
Quality waterfront access has finally come to the East Side of Manhattan. Following 9/11, when the Lower Manhattan community was given millions of dollars in federal grants to rebuild, one of the top priorities was the new two-mile East River Esplanade, running from the Battery to Williamsburg Bridge. The right bank of the river has long been neglected, cut off by Robert Moses’ FDR Drive. SHoP has sought to reconnect the water and the city by activating the underside of the overpass itself while repurposing the piers and moorings of old for the active enjoyment of bikers, strollers, shoppers and sitters.
Norman Foster and his ostentatious high-tech architecture has no place on the Bowery, or at least The Bowery of yore. From DBGB to John Varvatos to the Whole Foods boutique, the gallery represents everything about the transformation of this perhaps too venerated strip: cheap thrills and cheaper money. Not a bad place to see art, the building offers nothing to the city itself, with its obnoxious orange elevator and blank sides surrounding it. This is the acme of the new Bowery, the soulless heart of what was once one of the most vibrant thoroughfares in the city.
It used to be, to get from the G-Train to the elevated 7, you had to cross a dangerous Jackson Avenue. If the weather was bad, the trip was that much worse. Now, the M.T.A., one of the city's great patrons of public art and architecture, has bored a giant hole in the ground and constructed a muscular glass passageway between trains. A 21st Century rendition of the florid ironwork of the past, the connector brings dignity to this simple transfer.
The pavilion created by Tokyo design stars Atelier Bow Wow is impressive, serving as a lecture hall, event space and neighborhood landmark, but what is more impressive is what the structure fostered. For 10 weeks in the late summer and early fall, the BMW Guggenheim Lab transformed a corner of the Lower East Side into an urban think tank, one that will now travel around the world, stopping in eight other cities, disseminating new ideas for the future of urban living along the way.
Proving that it does not take much to constitute architecture, Dekalb Market transformed a vacant lot in Downtown Brooklyn into an open-air mall and gathering point, and all it took was some savvy shopkeepers, artisans and chefs and a few shipping containers and a blow torch.The brainchild of developer Young Woo and British designers Urban Space, this is a holdover until a real mall, City Point, can be built, which, no matter how nice the design, will probably never be as dynamic a place to visit as the Dekalb Market.
Sure, the name is a bit commercial, but Mercedes House is the best thing to rise on the Hudson since Richard Meier’s Perry Street lofts almost a decade ago. (Gehry’s IAC Building is too goofy for our tastes, Nouvel’s 100 11th too brooding.) TEN Arquitectos and their Dumbo-departed patrons at Two Trees development have created a new type of New York apartment building, one that is at once forceful and sinuous. In form, it offers unparalleled views of the river from almost every apartment while also maximizing environmental exposure and efficiency. Already BIG’s 57th Street pyramid is pushing things to the next level, and hopefully it will not be the last far west building to follow in the winding path of the Mercedes House.
It took 10 of the longest years in American history to see this project through. With more constituents involved and more eyes watching than any construction project since the Tower of Babel, this seems both understandable and inexcusable. No matter the histrionics, to get behind the cordon that has kept the world out for so long, and suddenly discover a mystical forest in the middle of Lower Manhattan, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, is a magical experience. We will never be able to fully and fairly judge the space given the weight of history surrounding it, but watching families both intimately and remotely connected to the events of the tragic day succumb to the power of this space is to know the full potential of grand design.

It has not been a great year for buildings, but that does not mean this has been a bad year for architecture.

In years past, the soaring condos and office towers of the building boom have dominated this list. Most of those are done, finally done, or never will be done. We still find room for two, but the vast majority are civic buildings and public spaces, perhaps what New York needs now more than ever as the city continues to fill up with more New Yorkers. It has been a good year to find room to breath, to see, to walk, to live.

mchaban [at] | @MC_NYC

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