Design Orgs Need to Meet the Street

Design Orgs Need to Meet the Street

The AIANY’s Center for Architecture in Manhattan.
Courtesy Andrew Berman Architect

The AIA New York’s Center for Architecture storefront on LaGuardia Place has helped transform the chapter into perhaps the most dynamic in the country. It was once—in pre-LaGuardia days—a sleepy, under the radar professional organization that had little presence in the city. But the 2003 Andrew Berman–designed space gave the AIA a visible and much used lecture hall, light filled gallery, and meeting rooms that are booked every day and sometimes simultanesly with AIA and non-AIA events.

The AIA Storefront concept was first created in Pacific Northwest cities but the success of New York’s space has not been lost on other local chapters. There are now many with glass-fronted facilities and a sidewalk presence. One of the latest is in Washington D.C. and it is quickly becoming the hub for all design related events in the District.

However, the success of the LaGuardia storefront is apparently being lost on many of the architecture and design non-profits in New York City. Though many of these organizations are being caught up in the rapidly gentrifying and expensive real estate environment of Manhattan, several seem to be willing to give up their public spaces and move into traditional back offices.

Those who have been in New York since the 1980s will remember the Urban Center in the McKim, Mead & White–designed Villard Houses on Madison Avenue. From 1980 until 2009 a single building housed the offices of the Architectural League, the New York chapter of the AIA, the Parks Council, and the Municipal Arts Society. This one-stop architecture and design shop also had a great bookstore and a gallery that constantly had design, city planning, and architecture exhibitions. It was a real New York center where one could go for an event and likely run into colleagues sometimes at other events.

In 2009 these organizations were forced to move out of the Villard House and they scattered all over the city. Sadly, the League and the MAS no longer have access to exhibition spaces for public lectures and symposiums spaces. These organizations—even with their professional and highly qualified staffs—have lost some of their presence in the city. They had to relocate when their subsidized rents at The Urban Center ran out. But now, inexplicably, organizations are voluntarily moving out of their spaces with public galleries and seminar rooms. The Van Alen Institute, for example, recently gave up its large upper-floor gallery and library space for a reconfigured ground-floor office that has seating for future staff and can accommodate up to 250 standing guests in the back in addition to a small study and research library. Its argument is that while costs have gone up dramatically, its income has not kept pace and it needs to rent out the larger top floor space and move to save money. Now the AIGA National is giving up its 5th Avenue headquarters, which has a gallery, to move into an upper floor of the Woolworth building.

These public exhibition spaces give New York its street-side excitement, and every time one of these organizations moves into an office floor the city becomes less exciting on the curb. There are very real financial considerations for boards and staff running non-profits, but as architects and designers they should also realize the value and need for space, especially public space, in the city.