Q&A: Sherida Paulsen

Q&A: Sherida Paulsen


On December 11, Sherida Paulsen assumed her responsibilities as the 2009 president of AIA New York. William Menking, editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, sat down that afternoon with Paulsen in her office at the architectural firm PKSB, where she is a partner, to talk about her goals for AIA NY, her thoughts on architects as communicators and public activists, and her experiences with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, where she served as commissioner from 1995 to 2004.

The Architect’s Newspaper: AIA NY presidents come into office with a theme or initiative for the year. In 2008, James McCullar focused on housing, and in prior years, it was public policy and interior architecture. What have you proposed for 2009?
Sherida Paulsen: My theme is “Elevating Architecture,” which is broad enough to allow us to do a number of things. I hope to use the Center for Architecture as it was intended—a true public resource center. I want to build up the awareness of our library as a professional and public resource and to promote our public information exchange and our online information site for projects around the city. I also want to get AIA members out into the community as much as possible. My secondary theme is “Design Literacy for All,” and that is meant to broaden our outreach to various educational constituencies and neighborhood groups in order to increase design literacy among the public.

What specific initiatives, programs, or projects do you have in mind?
Some programs have been happening for years. At the Center, they run a symposium with the NYC Department of Health, called Fit City. It broadens the audience for health-related things having to do with architecture. And we’re planning another one. We’re also doing a symposium on design literacy for kids with the AIA’s existing programs, Learning by Design, which has over 5,000 kids participating in the public schools and on Family Days at the Center. If we can increase the numbers of those programs, it gives more people a reason to come to the Center on Saturday or Sunday. And this does two things: It teaches people about design, and it creates awareness among parents and children that architecture is a profession that might be of interest to them. 

This suggests there is a disconnect between the profession and the public. Do you believe the public misunderstands architects?
The public doesn’t understand what we do. It’s never been properly explained to the users of our designs what they should expect from a building. We need to explain better what quality design is. Part of that means shifting from simply grading buildings on a form-making scale for design and looking at a performance scale. Does it result in a sustainable building? Does it function? Does the building work for the people who use it?

Do you think that’s because architects don’t explain well enough what they do?
I think that we’re good at explaining buildings, but I don’t think we’re good at explaining why we’ve made the choices we’ve made in designing a building. When I was at the Landmarks Commission, it was interesting to watch architects get up and describe what they were doing. In order to explain why a design is appropriate in an historic district, you need to cycle back and think about narrative. What’s the story of this site? What’s the story of the building? What’s the story of the company or the people who are going to use the building? You need to put this story together. Architects are picture people, but it’s a right-brain/left-brain kind of shift that needs to occur. We need to use both sides of our brain to be successful architects.

Your job as AIA NY president is to represent architects. So are you trying to help architects make the larger case that they are better qualified to design public spaces as well as buildings? Especially now, they’re all competing for public commissions.
I tend not to draw boundaries. My goal has always been to get the best environment in the public realm that we can get. If an architect can do the job, fine, but if a landscape architect has got a better answer, that’s fine too. As someone who has been a public servant, I understand that we have to look at a wide array of designers to get the best possible results, usually working in teams.

Architecture is often viewed as an extra benefit—if you can afford an architect, you get one; if not, you leave them out. How’s the architect supposed to deal with that situation?
It does initially cost more to hire an architect, but I’m hopeful in this current economic climate that we stop looking at quick returns or first costs. We need to look at a building’s entire life cycle. The value of having a design professional, whether it’s an architect or anybody else, is that there’s a value to including that person as part of your team, and that person’s cost is basically spread out over a much longer period. The most money we spend as adults is on our houses, our furniture, and we don’t teach anybody how to make choices for those items, which seems a bit insane. How can you create a consumer audience for design in this country when developers are only looking at whether a marble counter or a Corian counter is going to sell the house, instead of what material makes the most sense from an environmental and functional standpoint?

What other areas might architects be involved in, areas that currently are not thought of as being in their purview?
Every time a new elected official comes into office, they start making appointments. Rarely are architects included in the applicant pool. If we’re really looking for people who know how to analyze problems, know how to create a range of options, and know how to do the analysis to recommend an appropriate answer for the problem, architects are the people who can do that. What architects have not been trained to do is to talk about and articulate why those choices are rational. Broadening the pool of people that are considered as candidates for appointment to include architects is very important in any administration. The New York AIA is trying to motivate its members to volunteer to serve on community boards, because it’s a first step into the public realm. My path to public service was volunteering to be on different committees with outside industries like the real estate board. You widen the audience for architecture, and begin to understand how to communicate with the users of a building. It’s a sure way to be an advocate for architecture and good design.

Are architects equipped or trained to work in this kind of civic realm?
Yes. One of the things that was interesting to me as a Landmarks Commissioner was seeing the so-called star architects make their presentations. Without exception, those were the people who had the greatest skill at describing and presenting, or making a compelling story for their projects. It says to me that if Norman Foster and Aldo Rossi can be good at that, and also good at designing buildings, the two aren’t exclusive. It’s simply that not everyone is encouraged or asked to use both sides of the brain.

The skills of a really successful architect are rarely found in a single person, and sometimes not even in two people.
That’s why we have partnerships. It’s very hard to be a sole practitioner. I’ve watched Jim McCullar this year as president, and he’s exceptional because he’s one of those people who can speak very eloquently and also practice in a very compelling way on affordable housing. But when I look at our firm [PKSB], there are two partners, three principals, and it really does take all of us to do the kind of work that we want to do.

You’ve talked about being commissioner at Landmarks. What did you think about the preservation series that The New York Times did last December?
It was a lot of ink to no great effect. I don’t know what [Robin Pogrebin] was hoping to accomplish, and I think some of it was simply inaccurate. My experience of being both a commissioner and a chairman was that nobody ever told me what to do or what decisions to make, and I served two mayors. I was asked what did I think, and what would I recommend. And that went for everybody in City Hall, whether it was the mayor or the deputy mayors. The assertion that commissioners respond only to the mayor is just not accurate. Commissioners are voted on and approved by the city council, undergo background checks and conflict of interest evaluations by both City Hall and the city council, and must meet professional and residency requirements. So to be appointed to a job that pays you nothing is a pretty arduous path.

Pogrebin claimed in one piece covering the controversy over the Museum of Arts and Design that consultant Laurie Beckelman was sending Bob Tierney notes that influenced his decision. The article tried to make it seem like they were scheming to keep the building from receiving a hearing. Is this a normal part of the process of landmarking a building?
That charge has been made in print for a number of years. It was at the time that the advocacy groups tried to stop the museum from doing what they wanted to do. The courts rejected those charges. I’m not a judge, so I can’t say, but I don’t think there’s anything to it. Bob Tierney and Laurie Beckelman are friends of long acquaintance.

What do you think about the Landmarks Commission not landmarking the Edward Durrell Stone building at 2 Columbus Circle?
I was never in favor of landmarking it for the simple reason that the facade of the building could not be preserved. There was nothing from a technical point of view to protect. It had to come down, and you could say “Fine, we need to rebuild it.” That’s the way that we did it with the Lever House facade. I simply didn’t see this building as rising to that iconic level. I wrote a New York Times op-ed piece on the subject and I compared it to John Carl Warnecke’s buildings and Charles Luckman’s buildings in California which used similar kinds of material, and also had a few bits of quotations from other cultures.

What do you think of the new building?
I think adding the horizontal band of windows weakened the design of the facade, and I’m disappointed in the detailing. I like the building on the inside tremendously. One of the initiatives I’m promoting this year is a major landmarks exhibition. It will open on October 7, and will focus on new buildings in historic districts. It happened because Mark Silberman [counsel to the Landmarks Preservation Commission] called and said, “We’d really like to do an exhibition that explains how the commission looks at new buildings in historic districts.” It was critical to try to dig down and get a list of all the new buildings in historic districts, which is hard to do. The records of the commission are excellent from 1986 forward, when they got computerized, but before 1986, things were filed by address. And so you don’t really know whether it was a new building application or a window replacement application. You just don’t know. So it took a lot of work to assemble a list of buildings for review.

Designing a modern building in an historic district is a big issue in New York. Can you point to important precedents that show it’s possible to achieve?
The Hugh Hardy townhouse in the Village on the site of the building destroyed by the Weather Underground bomb is important. Brooklyn Heights probably has the most new buildings as a proportion of the district overall. The Brooklyn Heights Association, while very protective of their historic buildings, has always been a strong advocate for contemporary design.

What about Aldo Rossi’s Scholastic Press building in Soho? At the time it went up, I thought the Mercer Street facade was about as far as anyone could push for modern architecture in a historic district.
It opened the door to more modern designs because people saw the postmodern answer on Broadway and then they saw the modern or contemporary answer on Mercer Street and they all liked the Mercer side better.