Headshot of Oculus Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Krichels
Oculus Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Krichels. Photo: Asya Gorovits.

On a recent visit to the American Museum of Natural History’s Gilder Center with my family, my six-year-old son stepped into the year-old addition’s cavernous atrium, stared up and turned his body in wonder. “Mommy!” he exclaimed. “Are we inside a real asteroid?” The swooping, shotcrete-textured forms of Studio Gang’s design do what architecture is meant to do—support different experiences for different people, whether evoking a foreign celestial body for a child, sparking scientific curiosity for museumgoers, or easing physical entry barriers for those who can’t contend with the museum’s original grand staircase facing Central Park West.

The idea of architecture in its best, most versatile iterations is what makes putting together the AIA New York Chapter’s annual Design Awards issue each year such a joy for the magazine’s staff. The jury’s unique areas of expertise and the diversity of the entries spark new conversations during every iteration of the program, and this year was no exception. If I had to tease out one thread from the jurors’ comments during their deliberations and awards symposium conversation, it would be that they praised projects that showed thinking and strategies that could be replicated on both large and small scales.

Take, for example, comments by juror Frank Harmon, FAIA, about MODU Architecture’s design for Mini Tower One, an addition to the rear elevation of a multifamily residential building in Brooklyn. According to the architects, the tower adds 30% more area to the existing structure while requiring just 12% additional energy, which they have offset with a rooftop solar array. “What it meant,” said Harmon in his commentary on the project, “was that if you adopted this approach or some version of it, you could double the density of a district, and you could double the population without building a single street.” The project wasn’t only locally impactful, but perhaps a workaround to bureaucratic slowdowns: “You might also find a way to bypass the immensely complicated regulations about creating affordable housing and the resistance of communities to that, and help solve this very pressing issue of housing in New York. I thought it was a brilliant suggestion about an intervention.” He connected the design potential of a project like MODU’s with the writing and research of ecologist and conservationist Douglas Tallamy. “He observes that if each of us took care of our little garden plot and created pollinator gardens or planted oak trees, we could have more of an effect on the entire environmental health of the country than all the national parks put together.”

This kind of thinking is what architects, and really all of us, could do more of in an attempt to solve the world’s seemingly intractable problems. This idea also led us to choose a relatively small idea with big potential, at least for New Yorkers, as the subject of this issue’s cover: Grain Collective’s concept for redesign of waste yards at the NYC Housing Authority’s campuses throughout the five boroughs. Currently, this public housing is home to one in 17 New Yorkers, and keeping up with the 200,000 tons of waste produced each year is a huge drain of resources and also a potential source of poor living conditions. By proposing designs for more attractive and people-centered waste yards, Grain Collective is confronting a daily problem that is often overlooked, and turning it into a potential source of community engagement and improvement—both here and potentially in other urban areas as well.

We hope you will consider the many ideas put forth by each of this issue’s 22 awarded projects, and use them as inspiration for other multi-pronged architectural approaches going forward. As I said to my son in response to his wonder at the Gilder Center’s vibrant space: “Architecture can be whatever you want it to be.”


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