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New Leaf for Beloved Urban Center Books
Van Alen Institute's pop-up bookstore to reincarnate much-missed architecture hub
Van Alen's storefront on West 22nd Street, seen here with a mural designed by Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio, will be home to a bookstore and event space.
Courtesy VAI

When Urban Center Books closed last January, architects lost more than the ability to shop for the latest design tomes. The dressing room–sized bookstore was meeting place, research incubator, perfect stopover between errands, and essential repository of the books, academic journals, and magazines that architects depended on to stay current.

It is not too much to say that its closure stymied the flow of intellectual discourse across the city. And so it is very good news that the Van Alen Institute has announced plans to incarnate an equally generous go-to source in the shape of a pop-up bookshop and event space at its own storefront on 22nd Street in Chelsea. The six-month experiment, scheduled to open in November and perhaps take root in a permanent interactive bookstore, will be supported by $25,000 from the JMKaplan Fund, the very same foundation that launched the original Urban Center Books.

“It is vitally important that New York have a place where architectural books and journals can be seen, touched, perused, and purchased,” said Rick Bell, president of the AIA’s New York Chapter.

The effort to resuscitate Urban Center Books goes back to almost the day it closed, with many (including The Architect’s Newspaper) taking part in the discussion. The Municipal Art Society, which managed Urban Center Books in its three decades at the Vuillard Houses on Madison Avenue, will be offering some of the inventory of books it has held in storage, and will be offering consulting services on how to run the place. Publishers will be sought to supply their newest titles.

But the pop-up won’t be just about books. Olympia Kazi, executive director of the Van Alen Institute, has much bigger plans: “There’s an opportunity for a huge synergy, and I would be blind not to see it,” she said. The institute recently launched the Reading Room, a space within its offices where the public can go to read, research, attend lectures, and access some of the impressive design archive dating to 1894. Kazi plans to move these activities to the storefront pop-up to engage more of the public. In May, she also plans to sponsor an “architecture publishing summit” to discuss with all stakeholders—whether publishers, writers, editors, and book sellers—where architecture content is going and where best it will be found in the future.

“It’s not just about a store but an installation, a curated selection of volumes and other media, too,” Kazi said. “Just imagining the possible collaborations is very exciting.”

Julie V. Iovine