New York City-There’s always something fascinating going on in the so-called “city that never sleeps” and we don’t just mean after hours. Constrution is still happening in new, exciting neighborhoods, there’s plenty of attention to architecture, and AIANY has a new president, Jill Lerner, who is also a principal with Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates architects. She agreed to chat with us about various NYC developments and her vision for her role in the first part of this two-part interview. Check back on the site this afternoon for more of Ms. Lerner’s impressions. 

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1. What is the first, most important thing for you to tackle as AIA President?

Most important is continuing our efforts to provide recommendations to post-Sandy initiatives.

Next, it’s to continue to highlight those areas in which architects can, and do, make a difference in the city, and to champion those issues that can enhance New York’s growth, it’s sustainability, the quality of life for its citizens, and its global competitiveness.

This includes framing issues critical to the built environment for the upcoming Mayoral election, and to highlighting lessons learned from working around the globe.

2.  What is the most interesting building in the works in New York City and why?

I would have to say building(s), plural!  There are a few stand outs!

Both Hudson Yards and Atlantic Yards are setting new precedents in the city, in urban design, and will change large swaths of New York and Brooklyn. Hudson Yards is providing added transportation to the west side, and combines commercial, residential cultural, public space all linked to the Highline, with a range of distinctive architecture.  At Atlantic Yards, the use of modular housing, long available in the rest of the world, is finally being utilized in NYC on a large scale, and in a creative way. 

And of course Cornell’s development on Roosevelt Island, their goal for a net zero carbon emissions campus, and the other high tech academic initiatives underway by NYU, CUNY, and Columbia are all exciting. Both Columbia and CUNY’s upper Manhattan research campuses will greatly shape the future of the upper west side, while NYU’s CUSP project has the potential to rejuvenate an important location in downtown Brooklyn.  All will be transformative, not just in terms of diversifying our economy, creating jobs, and making us competitive in the tech sector, but also in terms of the new neighborhoods they will create and the spin-offs that major educational and research centers can generate.

And the World Trade Center area still amazes.  We finally have a landmark once again, rising above the fray as a marker in the skyline of Manhattan!

On the residential front, the new design by BIG along 57th street and others have the potential to invent radically different forms of housing, highlighting New York’s continuing ability to recognize and promote innovation.

3. Will midtown east zoning be a boon or a bust for NYC?

Ultimately the midtown east re-zoning could be very good for the city, but the devil is in the details, so to speak. The AIA is currently reviewing the issues and has not yet made a formal statement, but it is certainly sound planning for the city’s future to have first class commercial space and added density linked to transportation.  If we can do it carefully, replacing outdated buildings with new, sustainable structures that contribute to the public realm, and if we are careful not to lose the grand character of Park Avenue, it will surely be a win win for everyone. Around the globe there numerous excellent examples of transit-oriented development, and they consistently add to their city’s accessibility, quality, and competitiveness of their business centers.

Zoning is just zoning…it provides an allowable envelope, not a mandatory requirement to build, should the need for additional commercial space be more limited in the coming years. But the timing and the proposed “sunrise” clause is definitely important, so as not to undermine other developments coming online earlier.

4. If you had the opportunity to work on one area, why and how would you reshape it?

That’s a tough one. So much of New York is varied and fascinating….personally I am most drawn to projects, either individual projects or large developments, that have the ability to transform.  Architecture is an optimistic profession – we are always envisioning how things can be better. I think I take equal pleasure in harnessing the design potential of an existing building or landmark as I do in creating new structures from scratch – especially those that will affect the character of a neighborhood, the quality of the experience for the occupants, or change the culture of an institution.

5. Which project, nationally or internationally, were you most invested in and why?

Also tough! I’ll pick three projects, in three categories - 

The vertical campus at BaruchCollege in Manhattan was a fabulous opportunity to remake a major institution in the city, and resulted in an internationally-recognized, award winning design.  We pursued innovative planning concepts with vertical interlocking “quads,” utilized new materials, worked within a tight budget, and designed something unique, where the students are proud to be there, and where the quality of their experience is affected every day. CUNY had very high aspirations, and challenged us to create a “Village in the City.”  It is always rewarding to work with a client with these sensibilities.

Beyond New York, the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) were two exceptionally complex and gratifying projects.  Both knitted together a major expansion linked to an existing complex.  In both cases we started with no idea of the final answer, trying multiple solutions along the way, and helping to guide the  institution in the possibilities that would shape their identity, their culture, and their internal  programmatic and working relationships. Architecturally, both are distinctive game-changers on their campuses.

Internationally, working with NYU’s Shanghai Campus has provided our first opportunity to do an academic building in China for a US institution,  so we feel we are part of the experiment – bringing liberal arts education into the heart of Shanghai’s commercial center and furthering the cross-cultural dialogue. While this is just now under construction, I cannot wait to see how it is occupied and utilized, knowing how it differs from other Chinese universities I have visited.