Field Condition

At the corner of Spring and West Streets in lower Manhattan, sandwiched between a ventilation tower for the Holland Tunnel and the Hudson River waterfront, there is a large, jaggy object that could be a monument. It looks like the sort of commemorative hunk of marble you might find along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Except that it’s not marble: the lovely mottled surface of the crystalline polygon is cast-in-place concrete. And the building, completed late last year, doesn’t commemorate anything. As Claire Weisz, FAIA, a partner at WXY, which collaborated on the project with another New York–based firm, Dattner Architects, puts it, it is a building “about salt.”

More accurately, it is a building containing salt: 5,000 tons of it, waiting to be scattered on roadways by the truckload when it snows. If you visit the Spring Street Salt Shed and walk around the creased perimeter, you’ll encounter a giant garage door, about four or five stories tall. It opens onto a huge, concrete-lined room containing a mountain of salt in cappuccino colors: light brown and white. It could be a work of minimalist sculpture, something by environmental artist like Andy Goldsworthy. The building, inside and out, is so off-kilter and so wonderful that it’s hard to believe it exists. How did this roughly $18 million piece of publicly funded infrastructure, one built for so quotidian a purpose, wind up being so gorgeous?

The short answer is this: New York’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) has an in-house architect named Mike Friedlander. In more than 30 years of working for the department, he’s developed a strategy for circumventing the objections that neighbors (who, in this case, included celebrities like John Slattery and the late James Gandolfini) generally have to the construction of one of his facilities. His secret, he says, is “build the best building in the neighborhood.”

Salt Shed
Field Condition Salt Shed

But the Salt Shed exceeds even Friedlander’s standard. It is sui generis. And in New York City, there never truly is a short answer. The long version starts in the 1990s with the Hudson River Park, a 4-mile-long waterfront recreation facility that forced the DSNY to abandon a couple of piers that the agency had long used for parking and storage. To replace the piers, the city purchased a large parking lot on West Street from UPS and began planning a new garage for garbage trucks. The road salt was, originally, supposed to be stored on the first level of the garage. But the city instead sold the first floor back to UPS as an industrial condominium, and the salt storage was relocated to a small, triangular site across the street occupied by an obsolete 1920s sanitation garage, one too small to house today’s garbage trucks.

There were a number of key players. There were, of course, the architects: Dattner has a reputation for designing solid, high-quality public buildings in New York City, commissions that don’t afford the firm much opportunity to dazzle. WXY is a much smaller firm, with a staff of about two dozen, a deft touch, and many eye-catching projects to its credit, such as the swirly new Rockaways boardwalk in Queens that replaced the one washed away by Hurricane Sandy. Dattner invited WXY to partner up in a response to a 2005 RFP for the sanitation garage. For Weisz, it was an opportunity to land a project that was bigger and more complex than anything her firm had ever tackled on its own: “We thought this was our chance to actually do a large-scale civic, industrial building,” she says. For Dattner, according to principal Paul Bauer, AIA, it was “a good teaming opportunity.”

"Burney arrived at an agency as hidebound as any other, where architectural selection was determined by the rules of government procurement. 'Whoever was cheapest got the job,' Burney recalls."

The most crucial player, however, doesn’t appear on the project credits. In 2004, David Burney, FAIA, was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to be commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction (DDC). The DDC, charged with erecting all of the city’s public buildings (with the exception of schools) and also much of its infrastructure, was a workhorse agency not well known outside government. But Burney, a soft-spoken English transplant who had previously been the director of design for the New York City Housing Authority, made it his mission to upgrade the quality of libraries, firehouses, EMS centers, and streetscapes. Burney was inspired by a General Services Administration initiative to improve the design of federal buildings, as well as by a manifesto called “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture,” which was written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1962 (before he was a senator). “Major emphasis should be placed on the choice of designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought,” Moynihan wrote.

Burney arrived at an agency as hidebound as any other, where architectural selection was determined by the rules of government procurement. “Whoever was cheapest got the job,” Burney recalls. One former agency creative director, Victoria Milne, who began working there in the 1990s, called the DDC regulars “change-order artists”: architects who know “how to deliver on time and on budget—and how to increase fees through change orders.”

Determined to do better, Burney found an ally in Marla Simpson, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, who helped him devise a way to do “innovative procurement.” The DDC decided to issue RFPs at a set dollar amount. Because the architectural fee was a given, there could be no low or high bids, and architects were judged on their portfolios and their technical skills. Smaller firms could apply for $4 million contracts and larger firms for contracts worth $10 million. By 2005, the agency began hiring architects under Burney’s initiative, which he called Design and Construction Excellence. A few years later, beautifully designed and crafted public buildings began rising: a swooping Staten Island police precinct by Rafael Viñoly Architects; a handsome, terra-cotta-clad center for homeless families in the Bronx by Ennead Architects; a daylight-filled library in Queens by Marble Fairbanks. As Milne recalls, the change “felt glorious and rewarding, as though we were doing something great for the city.”

The Salt Shed and DSNY garage (right)
Field Condition The Salt Shed and DSNY garage (right)

The firms that designed the Salt Shed and the garage were hired in 2005 by the DSNY, but the process was informed by the DDC’s design excellence agenda, and the project was built by the DDC. It is exactly what you’d expect from a collaboration between Dattner and WXY: The garage (which cost $194 million) is muscular but nuanced. It has a green roof that harvests rainwater, which is stored in a cistern and used for washing garbage trucks. It has color-coded floors (a different hue for each of the three sanitation districts housed within) visible through a glass curtainwall and movable louvers that help regulate sunlight, keeping the building warmer in winter and cooler in summer. The facility is heated by steam piped in from a Con Edison plant, which also drives a turbine that supplies about half the electricity needed to light the building. The project was shaped by the usual stew of conflicting forces, including the concerns of those celebrity neighbors. The architects, says Bauer, did everything they could to make a building for giant trucks “more people scale,” including shaving 12 feet off the garage’s height.

"At one meeting, Polshek crumpled up a piece of paper and said, ‘Do this.’ "

But the Salt Shed is even more of a fluke. According to Friedlander, the crusading community members didn’t want a shed that was in any way open. “They were afraid of the salt. We were ordered to build a sealed building.” He says that his office and both architecture firms were staying up nights trying to figure the thing out. Several times, the architects had to show their work to the Public Design Commission (PDC). A little known body (originally the Municipal Art Commission), it was established by the city charter in 1898 and must sign off on all public buildings, structures, and spaces. (During the Bloomberg years, the commission was unusually potent, but several of its high-profile members have since resigned and it reportedly no longer receives the same level of support from City Hall.)

One of those former commissioners, James Polshek, FAIA, saw an early version of the Salt Shed—one with concrete walls that had a strip of polycarbonate material at the top—and didn’t care for it. “It seemed to me that this is a very important site because it’s the entrance to the Holland Tunnel,” he recalls. The garage was “a very neutral building,” he thought, shaped by neighborhood complaints. But the Salt Shed could be something entirely different. During a PDC meeting, Polshek Googled “salt” and, after looking at highly magnified photos, suggested that the building be more sculptural, that it should resemble a salt crystal. According to Friedlander, at one meeting, “Polshek crumpled up a piece of paper and said, ‘Do this.’ We said: ‘Can we have this piece of paper?’ ” When I asked him about the crumpled paper, Polshek told me, “I definitely did that.”

So the crazy concrete object is either a stylized salt crystal or a crumpled piece of paper. Either way, it’s lovely. It is, in fact, a monument. It represents the apotheosis of Design and Construction Excellence as conceived by Burney. It also represents an architectural moment that may never happen again.

Salt Shed interior
Michael Anton Salt Shed interior

The current mayor, Bill de Blasio, and his administration are not known for their enthusiasm for urban design. They don’t do aesthetics. The DDC is still using Burney’s design guidelines to hire architects, but they have updated the program, which is now called Design and Construction Excellence 2.0. An engineer named Feniosky Peña-Mora, who became the DDC’s commissioner in 2014, explains that the department revised the approach based on “lenses” delineated by the mayor in a document called OneNYC. Peña-Mora lists them: “a growing city, an equitable city, a sustainable city, a resilient city, and also a healthy city.” He continues: “In Design Excellence 2.0, one of the things we are asking, as our designers are coming up with ideas, is how do you incorporate those values, those lenses, those goals, into your designs?”

Concepts like sustainability, resilience, and health are easy. In New York City, LEED Silver has been a minimum requirement for all publicly funded buildings since 2005. And in 2010, the city published a landmark handbook of strategies (authored by the DDC and other agencies) for healthier buildings and urban environments. The drive for equity, however, is de Blasio’s political signature, and it doesn’t suggest an obvious architectural response. When I ask Peña-Mora how equity plays out in built form, he points to renderings of a Bronx police precinct designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). The firm was awarded a contract in 2013, under the previous administration, but the design is one of the first to be issued by the new DDC leadership.

At the time the project was getting started, the city was embroiled in the controversy over Eric Garner, who died when an arresting officer held him in a choke hold. “It was almost an aha moment,” says Peña-Mora, “in which everybody came together and said: This is a great opportunity to incorporate this notion [of equity]. We created a wonderful integration of public space.” The precinct has a street-level room for community use at the front of the building, and the exterior wall of that room is conspicuously perforated, a very literal connection between inside and outside.

Rendering of BIG's Bronx police station
Courtesy BIG Rendering of BIG's Bronx police station

Another example of equity in architecture is a remodel of a 1970s public library in East Flatbush by LevenBetts. In this case, “equity” is represented by a transparent street wall that replaced an opaque one. “The one before is telling you stay away,” says Peña-Mora. “The message now is, ‘We really welcome you.’ ”

Neither of these architectural moves is exactly unprecedented. Moreover, any time you deliver a thoughtfully made public building, park, plaza, or streetscape to an underserved neighborhood, you’re advancing the cause of equity. But in the realm of Design Excellence 2.0, it’s not enough to work conscientiously or make a good building; you need call out features that correspond to the “lenses.”

“It’s equity, equity, equity,” gripes Polshek who, after nine years on the PDC, quit in February. Speaking of the de Blasio administration’s approach toward design, Polshek says, “It’s all a matter of equality or inequality. There’s no sense that the quality of the architecture itself could bring pride to the people who live in the city.”

"It’s not that there’s anything wrong with his goals, but rather that the method of achieving them threatens to suck some of the life out of public architecture. Where is the lens of inspiring civic pride? Where is the lens of inspiring curiosity about the world?"

Faith Rose, AIA, who worked at the DDC as a design liaison under Burney, and who was subsequently appointed as executive director of the PDC by de Blasio (a post from which she recently resigned in order to work in private practice with her husband, also an architect), is more generous. “I love the equity thing. I think it’s right on,” she says. “I actually understand why DDC is doing these lenses, because they’re trying to figure out how to make design relevant” for people who don’t understand or care about architecture. “I think that’s really important and really valuable, because de Blasio is not the only one who doesn’t get [the importance of design],” Rose says. “I would say that most of America doesn’t get it.”

I asked Margaret Castillo, FAIA, the DDC’s chief architect (a new position under Peña-Mora) about whether equity and the other lenses are a kind of prosthetic device to help people like the mayor to see the value of design. “I think by reframing good design in those terms it won’t seem like a luxury,” she told me.

From the outside, it’s hard to see how designs that cut EMS response times, or divert stormwater from the city’s overtaxed sewer system, or give children safe, brightly lit places to read could possibly be viewed as a luxury. On the inside, it seems, the de Blasio administration needs to keep reassuring itself that its design excellence program responds to the larger agenda, the mayor’s quest for “a strong and just city.” It’s not that there’s anything wrong with his goals, but rather that the method of achieving them threatens to suck some of the life out of public architecture. Where is the lens of inspiring civic pride? Where is the lens of inspiring curiosity about the world?

Yes, talented architects are still being hired to design public buildings, and while their portfolios are not evaluated solely on commitment to the lenses, every proposal is expected to incorporate them. Architects, of course, know how to talk a good game, but it would take an exceptional rhetorician under the current regime to defend something as unexpectedly spectacular as the Salt Shed.

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