Building for Complex Experiences - 2018 Architecture and Beyond

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Sunday, July 5, 2020
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Architects created ambitious spaces with an eye toward the sensory in a series of museums, memorials and public places. If there are themes connecting the best architecture of 2018, one of them is certainly the eagerness of architects to give shape to complex and varied experiences, the more sensory the better. This is architecture that offers a sequence of events revealed gradually with constantly shifting perspectives, as opposed to classic modernism’s tightly controlled image of architecture as geometric tableau.



The approach is taken to enchanting extremes at Glenstone, a private museum of contemporary art in Potomac, Md., where there’s a 10-minute stroll through woodsy glens and sculpture-strewn meadows just to get from the car park to the museum entrance. A 230-acre rural estate, Glenstone expanded this year from a smallish gallery to a vast campus designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners within a landscape by PWP Landscape Architecture. The main building is not a single edifice, but actually 11 pavilions assembled along a ridge and around a half-acre pool sprouting with rushes, irises and lilies.

 Glenstone Water Center

Glenstone Water Court at the Pavilions


Approach to the Pavillion
Approach to the Pavilions 

Mr. Phifer is a master of richly textured, minimal shapes. Here, the pavilions are built of 6-foot-long, one-foot-thick cast-concrete blocks set with 30-foot panels of clear glass framed in stainless steel. With overhead clerestories flowing with natural light the feeling is permanence in a new-fashioned way. Paths and bridges carry visitors deeper into the landscape, past site-specific works and restored streams to two cafes, the older gallery and an environmental center. Admission is free, and the hope is that visitors will stay long and return often.


National Museum of Linching 


The slow reveal built into the hillside approach to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., is an emotional necessity. As designed with a powerful simplicity by MASS Design Group in collaboration with the Equal Justice Initiative, a walled path leads up a grassy slope that gradually lays bare the view of a vast formation of casket-sized slabs pipe-hung from a horizon-wide plane. Each rust-red steel slab is inscribed with the name of a state and county, along with the names of humans lynched there and the dates they were murdered between 1877 and 1950. From here, we descend into an unadorned, timber-floored space, where the Legacy Museum provides bluntly and succinctly effective historical context. An interior waterfall lowers the temperature, adjacent to a contemplative open space beneath the slabs. The explanatory narratives are informing and significant, but it’s the architecture that seems to embody the heavy weight of tragic, unrighted wrongs.


 National Memorial for Peace and Service

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama


The Museum at the Gateway Arch


On July 3, the last phase of the Gateway Arch Park renovation opened in St. Louis. For years, the famous parabolic 630-foot arch, designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1965, was one of the most popular destinations in the National Parks system, but it had become ensnared in highways cutting the park off from downtown and from access by surrounding low-income neighborhoods. To reach the arch from a hotel just 75 feet away across I-44, you had to take a taxi.



The landscape overhaul by Michael van Valkenburgh Associates includes a pedestrian boulevard bridging over the highway and extending into the heart of the city. A new visitor center designed by Jamie Carpenter is a crescent-shaped glass wall wedged below the arch. Where visitors once lined up outside to enter directly into a leg of the arch, the much improved experience now includes a museum theater, shops and café. New landscaped berms buffer the traffic’s noise, while paths weaving around the rest of the park are embedded to preserve sightlines of both the arch and the Mississippi River. The $380 million project was financed by a local ballot proposition to raise sales taxes plus $250 million in private donations, a type of public-private funding that actually lives up to the hype.


 Museum of the Gateway Arch

The Museum at the Gateway Arch, St. Louis


Hunter’s Point South along the East River facing midtown Manhattan has long been a site of forlorn post-industrial abandonment. A green renaissance is well under way with the recent completion of an 11-acre waterfront park by SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi, with ARUP as the prime consultant and infrastructure designer. Phase One (2013) of Hunter’s Point South Park introduced a hugely popular playing field, volleyball beach and zoomy-looking pavilion. The 5.5-acre Phase Two that opened this summer offers more direct contact with nature, with paths dipping through tall grasses and then circling around to a landform amphitheater on a peninsula. An embankment trail swings out into the river to circle a frog-filled marsh transformed into a pond at high tide. The $100 million public-funded project is a triumph of soft infrastructure over hard. Here, bushy rosa rugosa—not concrete walls—are barriers; storm sewers look like watery gardens; and playing fields are at the ready to absorb flooding.



The best architecture of 2018 features a productive breaking down of the barriers between architecture and landscape, interior and exterior, above and below that translates into a more enriched environment to be experienced by all.


 Hunters Point Park

Hunter’s Point Park South, Phase 2 Long Island City, NY


NYC aerial 


While 2019 is shaping up to be a big year for New York City architecture, 2018 left us whelmed.  We’re counting plenty of major developments in NYC, of course, and any year that includes the imminent arrival of a massive corporate behemoth is going to have a tangible effect on the built environment. We’re hard-pressed to think of a single newly completed building that inspired much chatter, awe, or outrage—for example, no one took much issue with Zaha Hadid’s posthumous debut, and we’re not counting the preservationists’ knowing disapproval of a few key historic places under threat. If buildings were boring, green spaces were thriving!



Three beautiful new parks opened along the East River, and the Ford Foundation’s indoor botanical garden got a much-needed refresh.

2019 will almost certainly be a bit more interesting: Hudson Yards will officially debut (that’s right, it’s not even open yet), MoMA’s long-planned expansion will open its doors, and the TWA Hotel is set to let visitors inside Eero Saarinen’s Jet Age terminal once again. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’ll be a while before The Fitzroy, the condo designed by Roman & Williams, welcomes its first residents, but the building itself is already a lovely addition to the West Chelsea landscape. Art Deco architecture inspired the design—Roman & Williams cite Los Angeles’s magnificent Eastern Columbia building as a direct influence—and its green terra-cotta facade, punctuated with pops of copper, is a gloriously retro counterpoint to the neighborhood’s swath of boxy contemporary structures.


East River Walk

The East River waterfront was positively brimming with new park openings this year, with three noteworthy expanses—the second phase of Hunter’s Point South Park, Domino Park, and Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 3—debuting over the summer.


Domino Park Brooklin NY


Each serves a different purpose: Where Domino is bustling with activities that seem reverse-engineered to suit the megaproject on the rise behind it (splash pad! Bocce court! taco stand!), Pier 3 and Hunter’s Point are both intended for so-called “passive” recreation. At Brooklyn, that means a wide, open expanse not unlike Central Park’s Great Lawn; in Queens, there are winding waterfront pathways and a series of newly established wetlands.


East River NYC


While these spaces have replaced the post-industrial landscape that once dominated the neighborhoods hugging the East River, the change is a welcome one. “What these parks represent is a comprehensive reimagining of a once-neglected waterfront,” Karrie Jacobs wrote in her meditation on the three very distinct green spaces.


Ford Foundation Atrium

Ford Foundation


Best renovation: Two years after the Ford Foundation announced that it would refurbish its circa-1967 headquarters on 42nd Street, the fruits of that project were unveiled—and as Curbed critic Alexandra Lange put it in her review of the renovation, “the foundation rose to the challenge of aligning its architecture with its values.” Gensler oversaw the revamp of the building, originally designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo Associates, and spruced up the things that make it special—its indoor botanical garden, the building-topping atrium—while updating it for the present day. The result is a building that’s more accessible, in keeping with the foundation’s ethos, while maintaining its midcentury bona fides. As Lange put it, the reno proves “A landmark can rise to meet the challenges of the future, and not get left behind.”



 53W53 walkway


53W53, Jean Nouvel’s 82-story tower rising next to the Museum of Modern Art, topped out this year, and the slender skyscraper, with its distinctive crisscross facade, plays nicely with the museum campus next door. (Though we would have preferred if the American Folk Art Museum hadn’t been lost in the process.) A few blocks away, SHoP’s skinny, Steinway-straddling tower at 111 West 57th Street also made progress: In addition to finally launching sales, it crept closer to its 1,428-foot pinnacle, and more of its elegant facade (more terra-cotta!) was revealed. Both are on track to finish up by or before 2020; we can’t wait to see what they’ll look like in a year’s time.


 Coney Island



The Coney Island Boardwalk became a scenic landmark over the summer, but that wasn’t the only development this year at the people’s playground.


Aquarium Coney Island NY


Six years after the New York Aquarium was severely damaged during Hurricane Sandy, its marquee exhibit, “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” finally debuted. The exhibit—which will house hundreds of marine animals, including the titular saw-toothed predators—is located in a pavilion inspired by the ocean. There’s a kinetic, 1,100-foot “shimmer wall,” created from tens of thousands of aluminum pieces, that evokes waves on the water; the building’s shape, meanwhile, resembles a nautilus shell.


hudson Yards with Vessel in teh Center

Hudson Yards, with Vessel in the Center


Hudson Yards Aerial May 2018

It’s not often that you get to watch an entire neighborhood materialize out of thin air, but that’s exactly what has happened over the past few years at Hudson Yards. Many of the megaproject’s public-facing spaces—Thomas Heatherwick’s architectural geegaw Vessel, the high-end shopping mall, and the Shed—have come into focus in the past 12 months, and while questions about who these shiny new amenities are for remain, watching these structures take shape has been a trip.


 Hoxton Hotel Williamsburg NY


British chain The Hoxton finally landed in New York City this year, opening its first U.S. outpost on Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg. In keeping with the chain’s commitment to stylish spaces at an affordable price (rooms can be had for under $200/night), the new hotel—built on the onetime site of a wooden water tank factory—has chic rooms kitted out with local wares (including bedding by Brooklyn-based Curbed fave Dusen Dusen). The nearby Wythe Hotel paved the way for this kind of effortlessly cool lodging; the Hoxton takes it to the next level.


 Rendering of David Adjaye Financial District Condo Tower


Rendering-to-reality: David Adjaye’s first NYC skyscraper, a nearly 800-foot-tall tower on William Street, is still a ways off from being complete—its first move-ins aren’t expected for another year or so—but the glimpses we’ve gotten of the facade thus far live up to the promise of its renderings. The building is Brutalism by way of the 17th century; Adjaye was inspired by “New York’s heritage of masonry architecture,” which translates to a concrete pillar with a dark, textured facade that’s punctuated with bronze accents and arched windows. It has the potential to be one of Manhattan’s most interesting new buildings once it’s finished.


3 World Trade Center 

3 World Trade Center


3WTC Exterior with Transit Authority Terminal


Another piece of the World Trade Center site crossed the finish line in 2018, with 3 World Trade Center opening over the summer. The skyscraper, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbor + Partners, is the second-tallest building in the WTC complex, and—for now—the fifth-tallest building in NYC overall. It’s taken a bit to get here, though: Construction originally began all the way back in 2010, but stalled until an anchor tenant could be secured. Eight years—and several signed leases—later, the structure has finally taken its place among the WTC site’s completed towers.


Pier 17 


Building of the year:  Pier 17, the newest addition to the revamped South Street Seaport. SHoP Architects is responsible for the design, which replaced the dusty old mall that once stood at the edge of the East River. The glass cube that makes up the main structure is a nice addition to the waterfront, but the design also incorporates an abundance of open space with lots of benches and other seating areas—something that was sorely lacking before.