Against a phalanx of mostly bleak new residential towers, Steven Holl Architects' soon-to-be-opened Hunters Point Community Library is a diva parading along the East River in Queens, south of the famous Pepsi sign. With its sculpted geometry – a playful advertisement for itself – it even looks a bit like the Pepsi sign.
Compact, with 22,000 square feet and 82 feet high, the library is one of the most beautiful and uplifting public buildings that New York has produced so far this century.
It also cost a little north of $ 40 million and took forever to complete. So it raises the question: why can't New York build more things like this, faster and cheaper?
Hunters Point, opened on September 24, is certainly what the Queens Library officials and former president of the town, Helen M. Marshall, had in mind when the project was presented more than 15 years ago: a crown jewel among the Queens branches, in a unique, symbolic location opposite the United Nations and the exalted Four Freedoms Park over the water of Louis Kahn.
On dark days and evenings, the huge, eccentric windows act as inviting beacons of light that attract eyes and feet. They cut whimsical puzzle pieces from a cool, silver-plated concrete facade.
This façade is a load-bearing structure, allowing the liberated interior of the library to spiral about 60 feet up and out from a shallow canyon-like lobby, which unfolds in height as a series of layered desks, book stacks and social spaces. The inside is mostly warm bamboo, with spectacular views.
Outside there is a beautiful new triangular ginkgo garden, a kind of mini-place Dauphine, by Michael Van Valkenburgh. For a growing, diverse community, the entire project is a blessing and a locus of neighborhood proud of Long Island City.
Over the years it became a poster child for the dangers of public architecture in New York, as if the ambition of the design and not the broken bureaucracy of the city was to blame for the extensive timetable of the library and the escalating budget.
From the beginning, pea counters in the City and Budget offices did not see why Hunters Point needed a large chic library, despite all the new residential towers that brought in many young families. The pea counters held the project up. Delays increased costs.
I spoke with Chris McVoy, a partner at Steven Holl Architects. (Steven Holl was the library architect; Olaf Schmidt, the project architect; Mr. McVoy also played a key role.) Mr. McVoy defended the city and gave the problems mainly due to construction complications.
There were specific obstacles, such as the resignation of the former president of the Queens library, a major lender and fundraiser for the building, and a strike by dock workers in Spain who stopped glass shipments. Praise goes to the local councilor, Jimmy Van Bramer, a former library official, who helped keep the project alive when the town hall seemed to be ready to die.
Whatever the details in this case are, the problems with public architecture in the city are greater than Hunters Point. It is not difficult for architects, customers, builders, officials and others familiar with the city's capital building program to be ready to release symphonic tirades about the crazy New York purchasing rules, about the small, internal arguments between city agencies, about the shotgun required by the city, marriages between architects and contractors, costly and heavy liability schemes, notoriously late payments and huge, sclerotic bureaucracy that wastes millions of tax money by causing unnecessary, long-term delays in the name of value engineering, then scapegoats architects .
What is supposed to protect taxpayers' money and the public interest does the opposite.
Following the example of the federal government, New York began the. During the Bloomberg years Design Excellence program inject architectural distinction in public buildings. The Queens Public Library system became an early user.
A pre-qualified list of local architects was drawn up. Large, medium and small architects have applied for the privilege and the opportunity. Gifted young companies were allowed to burn their portfolios. New York slowly began to produce some notable public buildings (fire and police stations, libraries, housing projects) – architecture worthy of the city, it helped to spread beauty and dignity in remote neighborhoods.
At the time, architects were willing to run the gauntlet of bureaucracy because they had design champions David Burney, who supervised the Ministry of Design and Construction for the city.
Nowadays the town hall has everything but design quality. An unrelated mayor shows zero interest in good design or architecture or much of something related to the physical fabric of the city and urban design.
I have traveled with Hunters Point Thomas J. Foley, deputy commissioner of the D.D.C. He acknowledged problems with the construction process of the city and regretted the lack of a pre-approved list of "excellence" for contractors, or an equivalent filter to remove soil feeds in the construction and attract better companies.
Jobs are now assigned to the lowest "responsible" bidders, which effectively means the lowest bidders. An architect on the schedule of excellence recently described a project to me in which the low bid came from a contractor with a long track record. The D.D.C. had just informed the contractor of the company's inability to complete other projects, said the architect. Needless to say, the contractor nevertheless got the job. With predictable results.
How can the city attract good builders if the recruitment process favors soil feed?
Or attract the best architects if the city often deprives them of the basic tools for which they work ensure the work is performed correctly?
The city also does its budgeting every year. How can a public office plan a multi-year construction project when it is not even sure whether the necessary money will be there?
No wonder that the golden ticket for many city agencies is the so-called "pass through" contract, which means that a project has received sufficient private funding in advance and is supervised by an organization that is responsible and competent enough to handle the construction itself . A few weeks ago, the New York Public Library unveiled its new Van Cortlandt branch in the Bronx. Library officials made sure that the financing was structured to get through.
The construction was completed on time and within budget.
Which means that the city can clearly do better.
Earlier this year, the current Commissioner of D.D.C., Lorraine Grillo, released:A strategic blueprint for outstanding construction. ”It outlines a plan to eliminate unnecessary assessments and reduce costly delays, keeping contractors up to higher standards. That all sounds great – if it also guarantees good design, it is not too short.
At Hunters Point, construction workers put the finishing touches to the communal space on the ground floor when I was there; soft furniture had been moved to the sunny teenage area, cleverly quarantined on a top floor and partly trimmed with glass, to buffer the sound.
Chairs at the adult desks are from Jean Prouvé. They are at Aalto in the large, two-story children's wing, on the south side of the building, nestled in a sling with bamboo panels protruding above the lobby. The children's wing is one of the most beautiful and artistic spaces I have seen in a new library building. A large eyelid window, beautifully sculpted, on the second floor of the wing gives an impressive view of Gantry Plaza State Park, with Manhattan in the background.
From the lobby I climbed the zigzagging staircase that traces the amusing, vibrant, meandering incision cut into the western wall of the library through the huge central window overlooking Manhattan, the stairs ascending stairs and upper floors that seem to float they are in the air. As the building rises, there is a constant shift of forms and views, a weightlessness and dynamics. The stairs lead to a roof terrace with grandstands overlooking the city.
New York deserves a committed and conscious government that understands the virtues of good design and what it can do for communities. "If all goes well," as critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote half a century ago, "this is a city with fantastic power, sophistication and beauty."
It is the kind of city that produces public buildings substance and obstinacy such as Hunters Point library. And does not require decades and wastes fortunes doing this.