Draining the Mundane from the Municipal: A Renaissance for Public Architecture

City life may be vibrant, buzzing, and inspiring to be a part of, but – as anyone who lives in a city will no doubt attest – the physical surroundings can be, well, decidedly the opposite. Public architecture, municipal buildings, in particular, notoriously fail to do justice to the buzzing nature of the city these buildings oversee.

The dreary sense of bureaucracy and drudge that accompany our notions of what goes on inside municipal buildings are all too clearly exemplified on their exterior. Some Brutalists may argue that this is quite as it should be – why veil the mundane with misplaced grandeur? Nonetheless, a number of top architects in New York have decided it’s high time for a municipal makeover.

Architectural Digest lists a long line of prestigious US architects that are turning their talents to transforming fire stations, libraries, sanitation garages, and recycling plants into buildings of beauty.

“Public projects,” says Nader Tehrani, dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union. “Should be deemed important because they have the ability to communicate to a large audience. They allow architects to execute their Hippocratic oath to better the built environment, to bring synthesis and integration into what could be haphazard spaces in the city.”

Former New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, created the Department of Design and Construction’s design excellence program, which was perhaps the biggest catalyst for this new movement towards rejuvenating the public architecture of the city. The program selects two up-and-coming architecture firms each year to bid for the opportunity to work on such city projects.

There is, of course, less money to be made on doing up a fire station than on designing a set of luxury apartments. However, an architect driven by that higher desire to enrich the built environment, particularly those early in their career, or those in an elite position to do pro bono work, will welcome this kind of public architecture project.

One particular good reason for creating public architecture of aesthetic quality is in order for them to meld seamlessly into their surroundings. A key example is the recycling transfer station in Brooklyn, designed by architect Annabelle Selldorf. Structures such as these are typically ugly and utilitarian in appearance, created with function rather than form in mind. This can cause issues with local residents on the basis of bringing down the general aesthetic of the area, devaluing property as a result. As Architectural Digest notes:

“Visitors marveled that the facility interacted with the waterfront as elegantly as the multimillion condos Selldorf had designed in the West Chelsea area of Manhattan, highlighting the value of the work done there”.

Rather than local residents complaining about the prospect of a recycling plant in their neighbourhood, Selldorf’s contribution to the public architecture of the area was met with pride. Architecture of beauty enhances the beauty and desirability of a neighbourhood, driving up property prices, and creating a built environment that is a pleasure to be a part of.