Against a phalanx of mostly dreary new apartment towers, the soon-to-open Hunters Point Community Library by Steven Holl Architects is a diva parading along the East River in Queens, south of the famous Pepsi sign. With its sculptured geometry — a playful advertisement for itself — it’s even a little like the Pepsi sign.
Compact, at 22,000 square feet and 82 feet high, the library is among the finest and most uplifting public buildings New York has produced so far this century.
It also cost something north of $40 million and took forever to complete. So it raises the question: Why can’t New York build more things like this, faster and cheaper?
Opening Sept. 24, Hunters Point is surely what Queens Library officials and the borough’s former president, Helen M. Marshall, had in mind when the project was proposed more than 15 years ago: a crown jewel among Queens branches, at a singular, symbolic spot facing the United Nations and Louis Kahn’s exalted Four Freedoms Park across the water.
On dark days and evenings, its enormous, eccentric windows will act like inviting beacons of light, attracting eyes and feet. They carve whimsical jigsaw puzzle pieces out of a cool, silvered-concrete facade.
That facade is a load-bearing structure, allowing the library’s liberated interior to spiral some 60 feet upward and outward from a shallow canyon-like lobby, unfolding in elevation as a sequence of tiered desks, book stacks and social spaces. The inside is mostly warm bamboo, with spectacular views.
Outside, there’s a lovely new triangular ginkgo garden, a kind of mini-Place Dauphine, by Michael Van Valkenburgh. For a growing, diverse community, the whole project is an instant boon and a locus of neighborhood pride for Long Island City.
Over the years, it became a poster child for the perils of public architecture in New York, as if the ambition of its design and not the city’s broken bureaucracy was to blame for the library’s extended timetable and escalating budget.
From the start, pea counters in the city’s Office of Management and Budget didn’t see why Hunters Point needed a big fancy library, notwithstanding all the new apartment towers going up, bringing in droves of young families. The pea counters held the project up. Delays raised costs.
I spoke with Chris McVoy, a partner at Steven Holl Architects. (Steven Holl was the library’s architect; Olaf Schmidt, the project architect; Mr. McVoy also played a key role.) Mr. McVoy defended the city, blaming the troubles mostly on complications with construction.
There were specific obstacles like the resignation of the former Queens library president, a big backer and fund-raiser for the building, and a dockworkers strike in Spain that held up glass shipments. Credit goes to the local City Council member, Jimmy Van Bramer, a former library official, who helped keep the project alive when City Hall seemed ready to let it die.
Whatever the specifics in this case, the issues around public architecture in the city are bigger than Hunters Point. It’s not hard to find architects, clients, builders, public officials and others familiar with the city’s capital construction program ready to unleash symphonic tirades about New York’s crazy procurement rules, about the petty, internecine squabbles among city agencies, about the city-required shotgun marriages between architects and contractors, the costly and onerous liability regulations, notoriously late payments and a vast, sclerotic bureaucracy that squanders millions of tax dollars by causing needless, yearslong delays in the name of value engineering, then scapegoats architects.
What’s supposed to safeguard taxpayers’ money and the public interest ends up doing the reverse.
Following the lead of the federal government, New York during the Bloomberg years started the Design Excellence Program to inject architectural distinction into public buildings. The Queens Public Library system became an early adopter.
A prequalified list of local architects was compiled. Architects big, medium and small signed up for the privilege and opportunity. Gifted young firms got to burnish their portfolios. Slowly, New York began to produce some remarkable public buildings (fire and police stations, libraries, housing projects) — architecture worthy of the city, which helped spread beauty and dignity in far-flung neighborhoods.
Architects were willing to run the gauntlet of bureaucracy back then because they had design champions like David Burney, who oversaw the Department of Design and Construction for the city.
Today, City Hall has all but abandoned design excellence. A disconnected mayor demonstrates zero interest in good design or architecture or much of anything related to the physical fabric of the city and urban planning.
I toured Hunters Point with Thomas J. Foley, deputy commissioner of the D.D.C. He acknowledged problems with the city’s construction process, lamenting the lack of a preapproved “excellence” list for contractors, or some equivalent filter to weed out the bottom feeders in construction and attract better firms.
Jobs are now awarded to the lowest “responsible” bidders, which effectively means the lowest bidders. An architect on the excellence roster recently described to me a project on which the low bid was from a contractor with a long record of failure. The D.D.C. had just put the contractor on notice for the company’s inability to complete other projects, the architect said. Needless to say, the contractor got the job anyway. With predictable results.
How can the city attract good builders if the hiring process favors bottom feeders?
Or attract the best architects if the city often strips them of basic tools they employ to ensure the work is carried out properly?
The city also does its budgeting year-by-year. How can any public agency plan a multiyear building project when it can’t even be sure the money it needs will be there?
No wonder the golden ticket for many city agencies is the so-called “pass through” contract, which means a project has received ample private funding up front and is being overseen by an organization responsible and competent enough to handle construction itself. A few weeks ago, the New York Public Library unveiled its new Van Cortlandt branch in the Bronx. Library officials made sure to structure the financing to get the pass through.
Construction was completed on time and on budget.
Which means the city can clearly do better.
Earlier this year, D.D.C.’s current commissioner, Lorraine Grillo, released “A Strategic Blueprint for Construction Excellence.” It outlines a plan to eliminate redundant reviews and reduce costly delays, holding contractors to higher standards. That all sounds great — if it also guarantees good design isn’t shortchanged.
At Hunters Point, construction workers were putting the finishing touches on the ground-floor community room when I visited; cushy furniture had been moved into the sunny teen area, smartly quarantined on an upper story and partly cordoned off with glass, to buffer sound.
Chairs at the adult desks are by Jean Prouvé. They’re by Aalto in the big, two-story children’s wing, on the south end of the building, cozily nestled inside a bamboo-paneled sling bulging over the lobby. The children’s wing is among the nicest and most artful spaces I have seen in any new library building. A big eyelid window, beautifully sculptured, on the wing’s second floor frames a killer view over Gantry Plaza State Park, with Manhattan in the background.
From the lobby I climbed the zigzagging stairs that trace the funny, lively, meandering incision cut into the library’s west wall by the huge central window overlooking Manhattan, the stairs ascending past stepped tiers of desks and upper floors that seem to float as if in midair. As the building rises there is a constant shifting of forms and views, a weightlessness and dynamism. The staircase summits on a roof terrace with bleachers overlooking the city.
New York deserves an engaged and mindful government that grasps the virtues of good design and what it can do for communities. “When it is good,” as the critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote half a century ago, “this is a city of fantastic strength, sophistication and beauty.”
It is the sort of city that produces public buildings of substance and whimsy like Hunters Point library. And doesn’t take decades and squander fortunes to do so.