In this article, one of six in ARCHITECT's 2021 "What's Next" series on post-vaccine architecture, contributor Gideon Fink Shapiro speaks with Marion Weiss, FAIA, and Michael Manfredi, FAIA, principals of their namesake multidisciplinary design firm Weiss/Manfredi. Founded in 1989, the New York–based firm has received numerous national and regional accolades for their work.
How has the pandemic affected your outlook on cultural and public space projects?
Weiss: More than ever, it’s important for cultural and outdoor spaces to welcome serendipitous gathering and performance, but also to provide a sense of calm and retreat. It’s important to give the arts room to breathe.
"Room to breathe” is a notable choice of words. Are you referring to the importance of fresh air, or a general sense of opening up?
Weiss: Both. Too often, cultural institutions have been viewed as gated communities. Now is truly a moment to open up and invite all communities in. The transparency of arts institutions and the ventilation of the arts with open space are both essential. Connecting the worlds of the outdoors and the indoors, and art with ecology and urban life, benefits all when they have reciprocity rather than clear divisions. When we designed the Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park in New York, we saw it as a connector of this new affordable housing community with the fluctuating tides of the East River. Even flooding was seen as a gift to the identity of the place.
Manfredi: The idea of giving art room to breathe quite literally happened at Olympic Sculpture Park. The Seattle Art Museum decided to keep the park open during COVID-19, and the park became a sanctuary for folks who couldn’t afford to flee the city. Another example is the La Brea Tar Pits master plan, which we started just before the pandemic. The tar pits, park, and museum are about the Pleistocene, which holds great lessons in terms of climate warming and the cycles of environmental disaster. And because the site includes open space, we’re starting to think how the museum will operate in a post-COVID environment where fresh air is crucial.
How do you advocate for fabulous cultural and public spaces when institutions and governments are cutting costs?
Weiss: When budgets are tight, people might think that they can’t focus on design. In fact, that’s the very moment to talk to architects who focus on design and think strategically about how to create gathering places that are incredibly robust. We don’t think there’s a discrepancy between high ambitions and modest budgets. It’s modest dreams that constrain you.
Manfredi: In this moment of global, psychological, and physical stress, beauty has to be woven into the metrics of what makes open space successful. It’s crucial to our well-being.
How do you get to know your users?
Manfredi: Institutions often have an idea of who their audience is, but as architects, we can only imagine who will inhabit our spaces 10, 20, or 50 years from now. So we design spaces that have lasting value and a sense of poetry to engage audiences after we’re gone.
Weiss: You look at the ancient Greek amphitheaters. They’re compelling and memorable places for people to gather because they leverage the topography of the hillside. They endure yet they welcome change.
Manfredi: We have always advocated the idea of designing spaces that have a loose fit to them—meaning that they’re not so carefully crafted for a particular moment, and they’re not so hyperarticulated that if the function or the needs shift, they become obsolete.
You were selected to design the adaptive reuse of a former jail on the Trinity River in Dallas as part of the large urban project Harold Simmons Park, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. How does social equity figure into your design approach?
Weiss: We begin by listening. We’re learning a tremendous amount from our client—the Trinity Park Conservancy—and the communities, including people who had been incarcerated. The concept is to give expression to these voices and open up the walls. It’s going to be a front door to the river and a front door to the community. We’re inverting the paradigm of a closed fortification to create a place that is all about having room to breathe and connect.
Manfredi: Social equity and ecology aren’t mutually exclusive; they’re woven together. Architecture can make these paradigms legible and accessible to everyone.
What’s the next big idea in cultural and public spaces?
Manfredi: Open space isn’t a luxury. It is the great democratizer of our cities and it is central to the life of big cities. It’s not a new idea, but it is a realization that has emerged in sharper focus through the tragic lens of the pandemic.
Do you think cultural institutions will emerge from the pandemic with a new set of design priorities?
Weiss: Cultural institutions are recognizing that their reach can improve because they are acquiring incredible skills at digital outreach. And they’re creating new audiences through that.
Manfredi: Yes, and many of the cultural institutions we’re working with have robust educational programs, which predate COVID. But now those educational programs, because often they’re online or supplementing school systems that are under extreme distress, have become even more important and more crucial to those institutions’ missions. Their artistic resources are deployed into the community.
Weiss: It’s another dimension of accessibility, which is so important, especially when you’re designing a public space to welcome every person or group you can imagine. At the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, we just completed the Robert W. Wilson Overlook, a 600-linear-foot-long slaloming switchback that makes a 20-foot grade change from the subway-entry side of the park into the heart of the garden. It’s an improvement in accessibility but also in the quality of experience. You walk by the fragrance of herbs, the movement of grasses, and the beauty of crepe myrtle trees in a way that wasn’t formerly possible. As we look at our institutions collectively pre- and post-pandemic, questions of equity and accessibility should be thought of not as accommodations but as opportunities to enrich and reflect the missions of the institutions.
At the La Brea Tar pits, why are you exposing some of the storage spaces, laboratories, and work rooms to public view?
Manfredi: The open space is an extension of the museum and has a pedagogical role. The ongoing paleontological excavations on the site are central to the museum’s mission and exhibition program, so there’s a built-in synergy between what happens inside and what happens outside. We wanted to break open the inside box of the museum so that those synergies would be much more apparent.
You also think about education as professors. What interests do your students bring to questions of public and cultural space?
Weiss: This generation values a couple of things differently. They’re as excited about form as anyone has been, yet they’re also excited about projects that have greater social relevance. They’re mindful of their impact on the land, and topics of climate change are intrinsically embedded in concepts of architecture and urban life. We’re seeing the formal, social, and ecological ambitions merging together in inspiring ways.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.