This year in architecture saw no major buildings launched with the kind of hoopla that in 2016 greeted
World Trade Center Transportation Hub (the Occulus) and David Adjaye’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. And that’s probably a good thing.
Aspirational plays for iconic status can miss the mark. The standout buildings completed over the past 12 months were instead notable for focusing on concrete needs, not dazzling form. Long-term planning and a smart use of innovation served a purpose.
In the Bronx, a new 911 emergency call center designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is a cube-shaped fortress of shimmery recycled aluminum serrated to catch light and nestled into a sloping landscaped berm. Basically a stronghold slotted with only a few strategically placed windows, the Public Safety Answering Center II, or PSAC II (an older one is located in Brooklyn), is the most technically advanced building owned by New York City. Here is where the police and fire departments coordinate emergency responses and it has been organized with keen sensitivity both to intense security requirements and the highly stressful nature of the work, featuring not only a generator capable of supplying uninterruptible power but also workstations that can be customized for sitting or standing. Workers get no views, but the ceilings are high, the indirect light is ample, and a plant-filled green wall freshens the air. Attention has been paid as well to the forces’ different customs: The police prefer bright lights and shared TV monitors; the fire department wanted a dimmer ambience and more individual screens (two or three per desk).
PSAC II will handle over 10 million emergency calls a year, but for drivers passing it on the Hutchinson River Parkway at dawn or dusk, this 450,000-square-foot monolith looks more like a pink-purple mirage gentled by a waving sea of grass.
On the West Coast, the Portland Japanese Garden’s new visitor center opened in April, the first U.S. project by one of Japan’s most eminent younger architects,
Known for weaving old craft traditions with a modern sensibility often involving water and stone, Mr. Kuma is also designing the stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Conceived in the 1950s as a healing cultural space, the Portland Japanese Garden is the most authentic such garden outside of Japan. The new visitor center functions as a village-like portal to the gardens, which now get over 350,000 visitors a year. The approach follows a steep path rising through Japanese maples and towering native Douglas firs and wending upward to a formal stone stair. Visitors arrive at a plaza surrounded by three bamboo-clad structures with low-swept roofs stacked picturesquely. While the structures house exhibitions, horticulture classes, a gift shop and a tea house that are too busy to achieve much serenity, the visual composition of mossy green roofs—their edges curling out toward the dense, ancient-echoing forest that surrounds the clearing—is unrivaled as a romantically exotic setting.
In March, the 2017 Timber Innovation Act was introduced in Congress to support research into using wood for structures over 85 feet tall. Considerable research already shows how composites such as cross-laminated and glue-laminated timber can be more sustainable, fire resistant, lightweight and seismically viable than concrete or steel. The new John W. Olver Design Building at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, designed by Boston-based Leers Weinzapfel Associates, is a forerunner. At only four stories, it’s no timber skyscraper, but it is the first cross-laminated timber academic building in the country, housing the university’s architecture, landscape and building technology departments. Wrapped in copper-toned aluminum panels on the outside, its presence on the street is not especially glamorous. But its interiors radiate with the saturated warmth long associated with woodwork. Here it’s engineered wood used in exposed beams, columns, braces, ceilings—even the stairwells and elevator shafts. For the flooring, an innovative wood and concrete composite developed right on campus is used here for the first time. The Design Building is helping to lay the foundations for the smart use of mass timber in ways that will soon enrich, and transform, our built environment.
Not every year delivers major architectural stunners, but sometimes there’s something even better—buildings that contribute to a more promising future. Since 1967, the Yale School of Architecture has required first-year students to set aside theoretical and academic course work to actually build something that benefits the community. Over the years (and depending on available funds), students in the Jim Vlock First Year Building Project have designed and built—hands-on—community centers, bandstands, park pavilions and, most recently, affordable housing.
This year, the 50th project was completed: a 1,000-square-foot house for the homeless. Clad in cedar with a standing-seam metal roof and several window-seat-deep gables, the prefabricated structure contains one studio and a two-bedroom apartment with abundant built-in storage. Columbus House, a New Haven nonprofit organization, will identify and provide additional support for tenants.
The Building Project has always been highly commendable (and imitated at other schools), but this year’s house is particularly sophisticated and handsome—worthy of inspiring pride of place in whoever is lucky enough to dwell there.
Ms. Iovine reviews architecture for the Journal.