Building Blank Walls


Social Security Administration, Jamaica, Queens

The issues around architecture and placemaking are among the most interesting and controversial in the field. I have argued here that in the creation of public spaces programming and maintenance are more important than design. Recently, I have been saying that just about any public space, no matter how “badly” designed (and evaluating the quality of any design involves not that many hard principles and a good deal of personal preferences). With respect to buildings though, there are design features that in my experience can create a context for placemaking that ranges from difficult to impossible.

Here I am drawing on my work in Jamaica, Queens where, in order to stimulate economic activity, government built major new structures in the Downtown – including York College, a million square foot building for the Social Security Administration (SSA), a home for the Family Court and a lab and office development for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the last thirty years. All of these structures drew on a similar design vocabulary that influenced large urban buildings of the 60’s and 70’s. The York campus in particular has a fortress-like presence on the street that speaks generally of cement and is surrounded by a high fence. The campus was designed with a fairly large number of entrances that were set in severe hardscaped plazas. But, today, most of those entrances are kept locked – leaving only two doors to for security staff to police.



US Food and Drug Administration Northeast Regional Laboratory, Jamaica Queens

I suppose the idea at the time was to protect the people and activities inside these buildings from the imagined ravages of the contemporary urban environment. The goal was to create islands of solid, concrete calm in seas of municipal unrest. The family court has two doors (one on each side) and first floor windows high above the street. The FDA was built on the York campus off the main traffic street, with only one public entrance leading to a parking lot surrounded by a fence. The massive SSA building was set in the center of the Downtown on one of the busiest corners. While it was designed with multiple doors and street level retail, only one door is used and the retail was never rented. These are not positive attributes.


diana center

The Diana Center, Barnard College

A lot of this discussion is about the problems created by “starchitects” – and there is a memorable video of a “lively discussion” between Fred Kent and a shockingly arrogant Frank Gehry ( There is no architect that I know of that says they are out to ignore a building’s context. When I was working at Barnard College the designer we engaged to create a new campus building made a great point in her competition presentation about how her firm was all about contextual design – and she designed a structure with one door (on the interior of the campus); with the back of the building, facing the street, made up of mostly opaque panels. What she meant by context is that her building made reference to other nearby structures in terms of form and color and she succeeded in that. But the building was a solo composition set apart from pedestrians.



Queens Family Court, Jamaica, Queens

From a pedestrian and a placemaking perspective the number of doors on the sidewalk and the materials and permeability to light of the first three floors are what are crucial. What happens to the design beyond the bottom three floors isn’t all that important to how the public spaces around the building are experienced. The folks at STIPO in Holland have given as much thought to this as anyone I know ( The more doors you have leading to the sidewalk, the more activity the building creates. Large structures with only one or two entrances kill the street more than anything else I can imagine. Similarly, the more glazing there is at eye-level and just above, the more the building contributes to the liveliness of the pedestrian experience. Blank walls are also death to the public space experience.



The plaza at the Centre Pompidou, Paris

I’m not arguing that there is no place for high design structures that are entirely expressions of an architect’s artistry. What I am saying is that city streets and downtowns are generally not good places for such structures. I’m also saying that high design structures that are next to streets and sidewalks need to observe some basic principles as described by STIPO (and others) about contributing to the pedestrian experience. And, that’s not to say that there aren’t brilliant exceptions. The plaza in front of the Beaubourg in Paris certainly hops. But an architect ignores the basic principles of doors, windows and the permeability of the first three floors at his or her peril of killing the public spaces adjacent to their structure.



Vancouver, B.C. Town houses at the base of high rise residential towers.

I noticed on my recent trip to Vancouver that city planners and designers there were paying attention to the pedestrian experience in this way. New large high-rise residential structures without ground floor retail appeared to generally have maisonettes or professional offices on the street level with their own doors to the sidewalk. That animates the street – much like the beloved townhouse blocks of New York City.



SSA Building, Jamaica Queens with bollards

Going back to Jamaica, Queens, improving the public spaces in the Downtown around these large government buildings continues to be a challenge. The government agencies that run these buildings haven’t really (despite the Federal General Services Administration’s “good neighbor” initiative) gotten with the program of placemaking. At the SSA building, contractors showed up one day without notice and started building hulking bollards around the building, presumably for security purposes. In one place, they built out the sidewalk into a city-designated bus lane, in order to create space for the bollards – and made the bus lane non-functional. Supposed security concerns (that may not be based on actual research and facts) are a great threat to placemaking (which may increase the security of public spaces, with good uses driving out bad). Of course, all of this requires balancing of the various interests affected.


York College, Jamaica, Queens

But, taking down the fence around York College and opening more of its doors would make the spaces around the campus more active and inviting. Creating sidewalk uses around public buildings, like chairs and tables, might activate those spaces. The leaders of the Queens Public Library have shown some sensitivity to these issues in their recent renovations of the central library branch (which itself is of a mostly functional design) in Downtown Jamaica.

Architects working in an urban context need to pay attention to the way their designs relate to the street. The lower floors of their structures need to be active and permeable. They need to push back (politely) against security concerns that are not evidence-based. They have the power to do a lot of good in enabling activation of the public spaces around their buildings (and a good deal of harm if they ignore the pedestrian experience).

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