It was business as usual when I stopped at the Queens Central Library in downtown Jamaica the other morning. Visitors were nosing through racks of dog-eared best sellers, schmoozing near the circulation desk and peering into banks of computers on long tables in the lobby.
Across the room, beneath “Discover!” in red lettering, light poured through a large candy-colored doorway opening onto a new addition, a children’s science center. Immaculate and all white, the place gave off the cheery, vaguely techno vibe of a Swatch shop on the Ginza.
Designed by 1100 Architect with an interior by Lee H. Skolnick Architecture & Design Partnership, the Children’s Library Discovery Center, as it’s called, is part of a quiet revolution reshaping the city’s public architecture. Piecemeal across the five boroughs, New York is gradually being remade.
These changes come largely thanks to David J. Burney, a polite Englishman who has lived here for 30-odd years and, since 2004, has been Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s commissioner for the Department of Design and Construction. Under him, and mostly under the radar, dozens of new and refurbished libraries, firehouses, emergency medical stations, police precincts, homeless processing centers and museums have been designed by gifted and occasionally famous architects. Taken together, they have brought fresh architectural standards to the city’s infrastructure and, often, to poor, middle- and working-class neighborhoods that have long been overlooked.
It’s a big change from decades ago, when city bureaucrats considered good design a costly frill. The quality of construction was allowed to suffer to serve the bottom line. This message of official indifference contributed to a climate of public skepticism about government and the city that, in turn, dimmed expectations for urban improvements, large or small.
And it’s the small things, after all — some greenery, good lighting, well-maintained sidewalks and well-made buildings — that shape our perceptions of where we live, whether or not we’re always conscious of them.
“The little interventions add up,” is how Mr. Burney put it to me recently. The projects his department has been overseeing aspire to improve the general quality of street life and, in a few cases, tip the balance in neglected corners of the city. For instance, an E.M.S. station on Bond Street in Brooklyn, by Beyhan Karahan Architects, has added eyes on the street to what had been a fairly deserted and derelict stretch near the Gowanus Canal. The area has become safer since.
A century ago Gilded Age patrons, inspired by progressive ideas, enlisted lions of Beaux-Arts architecture to devise landmark schools, firehouses and police stations throughout the city. Andrew Carnegie distributed branch libraries — raised like temples or courthouses a few steps above the street, with stony facades and lofty reading rooms — to serve the masses as silent palaces for public improvement.
Today libraries double as centers for the elderly and toddler playrooms. They’re safe after-school havens for teenagers of working parents, with rooms set aside that are stocked with computers and, at a few branches, like the Rockaways, even with recording studios.
Libraries have also learned from retailers like Starbucks and Barnes & Noble about what people expect when they leave their homes to go someplace public to sit and read. Libraries have become modern town squares and gathering places; they offer millions of New Yorkers employment counseling, English-language classes and, crucially, Internet access. Quiet rooms, like those Carnegie built, tend to be smaller and set aside these days, almost like smoking sections in airports.
Is that a bad thing? Times change. Research libraries still survive. To imagine that libraries could remain as they were half a century ago would entail wishing away the Web and the demands of old people, immigrants, the unemployed, schoolchildren and parents who want constructive places to keep their young children occupied at a time when public resources and political good will are in increasingly short supply.
“We need to be less introverted,” is how Thomas W. Galante, the chief executive officer of the Queens Library, summed up the challenge for libraries today.
The Discovery Center, which he oversaw and raised $30 million to build, occupies what used to be the site of a nightclub on a corner lot next to the Central Library. At two stories, it is scaled to match the mix of low-rises in the area, although its shiny, sleek facade of textured and opaque glass makes it look about as inconspicuous in this context as Angelina Jolie at a Wendy’s drive-through.
A 22,000-square-foot glass box, the center comes with a wonderland interior by Mr. Skolnick’s firm. Its sculptured central stairway, encouraging people to walk rather than take the elevator, links easy-to-decipher displays of planets and animals that show different parts of the science collection.
The aging Central Library building next door, by York & Sawyer from 1966 and trimmed in limestone and granite, is by comparison a glum, modernist affair, conceived to face down the bus depot and commercial strip across Merrick Boulevard. Its interior is mostly concealed from passers-by.
The Discovery Center is the opposite: all transparency and nonchalance. Its facade, pierced by large windows opening the interior to the street, and vice versa, glows as day turns to night, acting like a beacon in the neighborhood and redefining a humdrum, bus-clogged block.
The new building illustrates what can happen when architects, even without an outsize budget, have a creative agenda and a supportive client. When New York authorities used to hire only the lowest bidders for projects, good architects didn’t bother to compete. There was no one in government who would watch their backs. That proved costlier for the public in the long run.
“All the money the city thought it saved, it lost,” Mr. Burney told me, “because projects were often left unfinished or in disrepair. People tend to think design means more money. But the truth is that the tighter the budget, the more expertise you need to squeeze something good out of the process.”
This was the argument he took to Mayor Bloomberg’s budget crunchers. After a dozen years as chief architect for the New York City Housing Authority, and as the first architect to take over the Department of Design and Construction, he was hired by the mayor with a mandate to create a Design and Construction Excellence program, along the lines of a federal plan, that brought better design to government buildings, starting in the mid-1990s.
The New York program reaches out to good architects, guaranteeing them market-rate fees. It sets aside money for projects — under $10 million at first, and now $15 million — for small firms, to encourage fresh ideas and young talent in the city. Crucially, it appoints project managers whose sole task is safeguarding design through construction when “the risk,” as Mr. Burney put it, “is that because budgets and schedules can be quantified, but design can’t, design is always the first place people look to cut.”
Mr. Skolnick echoed that thought the other day. “Those of us who went into architecture to do some public good felt that if you didn’t go into the public realm, you weren’t doing your job,” he said. “But for years you were hesitant to take on projects with the city because you knew there would be trouble. With David, it’s all changed now.”
It’s changing, certainly. At the corner of Mulberry and Jersey streets in SoHo, I stopped in at the Mulberry Street Branch Library, another public library that opened a few years back. It fills a storefront and two floors below ground in a former chocolate factory. On a tight budget of about $7 million, Rogers Marvel Architects, the firm hired by the New York Public Library and overseen by Mr. Burney’s department, restored the building’s old cast-iron columns, masonry walls and timber beams, and inserted a stairwell to bring daylight and at least a partial view of the street to the subterranean levels. Separate areas were carved out downstairs for teenagers and for toddlers, and a reading room with a tall ceiling was devoted to adults who want peace and quiet.
It’s a modest project, and that reading room seemed to me like the bottom of a well when it was empty that morning. But then I returned in the late afternoon. The teenage and toddler areas were bustling, the desks in the reading room all taken, and the benches beneath the big plate-glass windows on the ground floor occupied by older people mulling over shelves of DVDs. The place felt warm and welcoming.
Like the center in Queens, the SoHo library, easily overlooked when public attention tends toward more glamorous projects, points toward something larger than itself. It is a reminder that humane cities don’t reserve quality architecture just for rich people, that small urban improvements help everyone because city neighborhoods are interdependent.
And that governments actually do get things right sometimes.
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN