A few weeks ago, Richard Meier’s four-block-long mixed-use development was approved by Newark’s planning board. The project is a drastic shift for Meier; a break from his New York Five era and the decades of working with exclusive clientele on neo-Corbusian residences and museums. The development brings Meier back to his Newark roots and speaks to the recurring trend of architects designing for the people.
More about project after the break.
The apartment complex will serve middle-income teachers, as there are already 1,000 teachers for charter schools and another 5,000 working within the public school system. The buildings will extend from new charter schools on either side of Halsey Street, “like limbs reaching out into the neighborhood.”
The project touches upon an important reality that indeed, education is the primary way Newark can undergo her urban renewal. By attracting these highly educated professionals to the city, it is the hope that the downtown area will see improvement.
Yet, the project is not aimed at filling Newark with a new demographic. Meier has taken significant and thoughtful means to merge the design with the existing context. Pedestrian passageway cut between two of the charter schools, and Meier has chosen to preserve buildings, such as an old red-brick factory, that will be restored. Even in materiality, the metal panels and brick were chosen to “diminish the monumentality of the building”. These site conscious approaches integrate the complex into the urban fabric rather than merely placing an object on the existing grid.
Only time will tell how the city will take to the project. Throughout the middle of the twentieth century, what seemed to work in architectural theory became unsuccessful once constructed. Meier is no stranger to this happening as the physical state of his Twin Parks, a 1960s commission for the Bronx, is quite different from his initial envisioning. The community space is “walled off behind chain-link fencing, giving it the air of a minimum-security prison. A steel gate, flanked by a security booth, blocks off a street that used to run through it.”
“If the project succeeds in revitalizing Newark’s bleak downtown — or even if it simply manages not to be swallowed up by the decay around it — its most important impact may be to help open eyes again to architecture’s potential role in addressing complex urban challenges.”
Indeed, Meier’s attempt to amend social issues with architecture seems to be one of several recent instances which indicates architectural efforts beginning to trickle down to focus on affecting other segments of society. Michael Maltzan, who designed the MoMA’s temporary home in Queens, just finished his second housing project for the homeless. And of course, Architecture for Humanity not only focuses on providing immediate housing after crises, but also seeks to regionally help mitigate the effects of urbanization in unplanned areas, etc.
Could the era of every component being custom designed and the never ending budget now be branching off to a new direction? After the Dubai days of architects fantasizing an ad-hoc conglomeration of the wildest ideas, architecture may be shifting gears toward becoming less of a stoic entity and becoming more related to people.
“It’s always about the clients,” said Steven Holl. “Without good clients you can’t have good architecture.”
We may be in the midst of the profession returning to focus on the people and making some serious architecture in the process.