However proud native New Yorkers can be about their city, the immigrant’s zeal for their adopted city lends the five boroughs a thrum and beat that gives them life. So what does architecture have to do with it? What buildings, spaces, or places scream “New York City” to those who now call it their home? Ask seven transplants—whether they’ve been residents for three years or 30—and you’ll get seven answers. At least, we did.
Michael Waters, assistant professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University
Being a native of the Chicago area, my impression of New York architecture has always been inherently biased. Nevertheless, I have come to love the architecture of my adopted city, even if it will always occupy a secondary place in my heart. Like many transplants, it is the scale and grandeur of the buildings and spaces of New York that first captured my imagination and have continued to captivate me.
I still remember vividly the first time I went swimming in Astoria Pool after moving into an apartment nearby. I had never experienced anything like this enormous aquatic facility—the largest in the city. Set along the East River and framed by the Triborough and Hell Gate bridges, this pool seems capable of holding thousands. While the Art Deco brick, concrete, and glass-block structure has dulled with age, the architectural spectacle of swimming in this WPA pool remains as fresh as when it was finished in 1936.
The other architectural giant that continues to amaze me is St. John the Divine, the largest cathedral in the world. Perched atop the edge of the schist outcropping of Morningside Heights, the sheer size of this Gothic edifice—with its towering façade, mammoth nave, and colossal granite ambulatory columns—is astonishing. Visiting regularly now has somewhat normalized it; nevertheless, the staggering nature of this building—made all the more present by its unfinished state—continues to excite.
Susannah C. Drake, AIA, founding principal, DLANDstudio Architecture + Landscape Architecture
I lived in New York City until I was 3. My dad was a professor at Columbia University, then he moved the family up to Vermont to become chair of the Geology Department at Dartmouth College. I’ve always felt a connection to the city, but I’m a country girl at heart.
While studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, I came to New York to visit a friend; it was a bit of an awakening. I started seeing this thriving built metropolis in a way I hadn’t considered while growing up. I hadn’t really thought about the different levels of design that go into making a city. One of the elements I find most compelling is how the pedestrian is king. As I travel to other cities around the country, or even around the world, I don’t find the pedestrian is valued as much as they are in New York.
As a child, I was entranced by the skyline. And I still love it. But now, as a designer with a very systematic approach, I’m more fascinated by the systems that make the whole city operate. The grid, the subways, even the way that our water system brings some of the best water in the world to almost 8 million people: They never cease to amaze me.
Andrea Steele, AIA, principal, TEN Arquitectos
I arrived in New York City in October of 1998, almost 20 years ago. Having not even unpacked, I spent my first evening in the city attending the Municipal Arts Society Gala celebrating the restoration of Grand Central Terminal. While I had visited New York many times prior to moving here, my first impression of entering through this magnificent space as a new resident and recent architecture graduate is impossible to separate from my understanding of the city as a whole. Arriving through this incredible threshold, I felt immediately like an integral part of the fabric of this city.
Grand Central continues to be a pivotal part of my life here, as I now pass through it daily as part of my commute. What makes this space so incredible is that it does not act at the scale of a building but performs as a public space, a civic landscape, and a critical piece of infrastructure that connects people to people, people to place, and people to resources.
John Heida, director, Visible Futures Lab at the School of Visual Arts
I went from a town of 2,100 people in Montana to San Francisco and then to New York City, so it was a series of steps toward a very big change. When you don’t live in New York, you think of it as a collection of buildings that you know from photographs or watching television. So many of those iconic views are ones you never get as a New Yorker. The vision of view you’d have as a New Yorker really doesn’t end up being the case.
That said, the most profound element of being a New Yorker for me was negative space. You come to appreciate and admire the space between buildings. These tall walls—on a scale I had never really encountered before—with little gaps for air or space, or the beautiful moments between buildings, really started to define the city. To me, New York is defined by what’s not there.
Kai-Uwe Bergmann, partner, Bjarke Ingels Group
I was 6 years old when my parents and I boarded the Queen Elizabeth 2 in London, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, and arrived at the harbor of Manhattan. The first sight I had of the United States was the Statue of Liberty. It obviously made a huge impression; that’s the New York City that I remember in the 1970s.
I then bounced around the United States—from Georgia to Virginia to Los Angeles to Seattle—plus 10 years in Europe. After I settled in Copenhagen and joined Bjarke Ingels Group, we received a commission to design a high-rise—what became Via 57 West—in New York. We brought a European courtyard typology and married it to an American skyscraper typology; it became known as the “courtscraper.” Being able to come back and add a new typology to the Manhattan skyline has been an amazing experience, one I find extremely humbling.
I think any architect really has to believe that they can add to New York’s great legacy of buildings and urbanism. You also don’t necessarily have to build the biggest building; you can build something modest and scaled to the community that has a tremendous impact.
Roberta Washington, FAIA, principal, Roberta Washington Architects
Before New York City, most of my life happened in a town where the tallest building downtown was 18 stories high and the second tallest was four stories. Once in New York, I was first struck by the heights, the congestion, and the muted-color palette. And then by how close in proximity buildings of different heights, styles, and ages seemed to live in peace with each other.
After settling in, I visited neighborhoods so architecturally unique that it was hard to imagine that they were only separated by a block or two—like Federal Hall and the modern buildings that surrounded it. I visited all the spots I had only known through books and TV: the clubs and restaurants of Harlem, most of which no longer exist, and in the Village. I sat at the fountain between Lincoln Center’s music and arts buildings; I stood at the spot where Malcolm X had once delivered fiery speeches—whose backdrop had been replaced with the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building— and met friends after work at the greatly missed World Trade Center complex. New York’s architecture was a draw for coming, and remains a prime reason for staying.
Oral Selkridge, principal, Selkridge Architecture
I am originally from Antigua; I also competed as a sprinter in the Olympics in 1988. So I’ve traveled a lot, but I’ve also lived in and around New York City for 30 years, and I can say the electricity here is unique and intoxicating. Once you’re plugged in, it’s very hard to leave. And if you’re a young architect in the early stages of your career, there’s no better place to get your name out there.
The buildings here stand out, and they’re always building more. New York City changes; Times Square changed over time. Once upon a time it wasn’t a good place to visit; now it’s one of the city’s hubs. Even Harlem, at one point, was not a very nice place. I worked on the Apollo Theater; once they started putting on Amateur Night, the whole strip of 125th Street started to change. At one point the whole city looked like it was dying; to be revived and to come alive through architecture has been amazing to witness.