Urban Designer Rebecca Macklis on orchestrating the design of the city and how our environment should be built to show rather than tell
5 minute read / Text Rosanna Vitiello & Photography Vanessa Ahlsborn
Rebecca Macklis casts an all-seeing gaze over New York City's streets. As an urban designer and the Design & Special Projects Manager at the NYC Public Design Commission, she is part of a small team with a huge responsibility: to review the design of all City owned property, including buildings, parks, playgrounds, and plazas, the installation of lighting, signage and other streetscape elements, and the installation and conservation of artwork and memorials. Despite such an expansive task, it’s the details that Rebecca champions and the ‘ballet’ (to quote Jane Jacobs) of the city that the right mix can create. From the placement of a sidewalk tree to a perfectly poised bench, she’s interested in that play of experience on the ground, and how that feeds into larger ideas about development and community. As Rebecca notes “this city is built on the history of those little decisions.”
We take a walk with Rebecca down a single Manhattan block — Chelsea’s West 22nd Street — to pick up on such details and experience how New York City’s narrative is choreographed among its streets.
Rebecca, how did your background lead you into thinking about places and narrative?
It’s been a long and curious road. Originally, I went to architecture school because I was interested in using the built environment as a problem-solving tool. Yet I knew I wanted to pair architecture with something else.
There was a point where I thought I wanted to be an archaeologist, and I ended up on a dig in Peru. We were excavating a pre-Incan burial site that had taken over the entire soccer field of a local town, and part of their schoolyard. As payment, the university that was sponsoring the dig decided to build the school new bathrooms with running water and enclosed classrooms. While working on the dig, we got to know the community well; the locals worked with us on site, and children from the town would join us for lunch every day. As a worker on the dig, I grew to understand their wants and needs, but in building the bathrooms and classrooms, no one had asked what they wanted. It turned out that the community didn’t want those bathrooms; they wanted their soccer field. Not only that, but the open-air classrooms were integral to their community. I was shocked that no one had thought about asking them — to me it was common sense!
It was at that point that I confirmed my decision to study anthropology with architecture, to understand that context and narrative. Anthropology becomes the lens to understand the problems, and architecture is the way to insert the interventions — to problem solve with something tangible on the ground.
Does your training in anthropology also come into your urban design work?
Every day. At the Design Commission, we are a regulatory agency. We don't conceptualize the design, but we are the ones to bring all the questions together that help inform a project and work to propel it forward in a comprehensive way. I'm using both architecture and anthropology because I need to understand both the history and contemporary context of these proposals, and the details of how the problems are being solved.
Working in New York, you have a city that’s so full of history.
I learn so much more about that heritage every day. Every time an application is brought to us, we look back at the history of development. Why were these changes made? What is the community is requesting? You uncover facts that you would never otherwise have known. A lot of them are unseen and really special moments.
I don’t view things as ‘just a tree pit’, or ‘just a line in the sidewalk’. All of those things were active decisions made by someone at some point in time. A lot of the good decisions are so good you don’t notice them. Some of them are not so good – they stick out like sore thumbs.
But I think this city is built on the history of those little decisions.
New York is full of different cultures and communities too; have you found that the community in one part of the city reacts very differently from others?
Yes, and London is similar, because it’s a lot of small neighbourhoods strung together. In New York, it may not be as obvious, because there's not a predominant high street or side street, but I think the city really is a lot of neighbourhoods stitched with communities that have different wants, different needs, different histories.
Also, as we all know, our population is exploding, and the limits of the city are being pushed and tested. ‘Explanation’ is sometimes the key word, because we need to make sure we are investing in the city, but that the investment is accountable. Some communities are saying, "Why wasn't this money here before? Why are we re-doing a part of this area now? Why didn't you do it a few years ago?”
How does your work connect to the larger politics of planning, and to the work of other government departments?
In a way, we are the conductor of the orchestra.
Each agency is doing incredible things to better our city. And we review everything that is being built on City property, so we see who is working on the roads, the sidewalks, the parks, the new developments. We are the ones who understand how something fits in with everything else going on. A constant role we're faced with is helping these agencies partner with each other – making them aware of things that are going on right next door, or down the block, or on the same street. You’d be shocked to see how many amazing projects are going on with other projects directly next them that they don’t know about, or know about but have not worked to coordinate. It’s a really special moment when they start to work together.
Our jurisdiction is limited to aesthetics. But that conversation goes very much deeper than aesthetics. Beyond understanding what material is being used, and what the windows look like, you need to understand who is using the building, how it connects to the street and the sidewalk, what’s going on inside, and what people are trying to get out of it.
Thinking about the ingredients that make up the character of a place, you have architecture – but what else is there that we should consider?
A word we use a lot is ‘activation’: what’s actually happening there?
Who’s using that bench? Are they sitting and waiting for someone, or are they just people watching? Is there a café or school across the street, and is that spilling over into the sidewalk? All of those elements, all those actions and activities, are really what make the character of a place. The built environment just allows that activity to happen.
And who is on your team? What kinds of viewpoints do you need to bring to your work?
First off, not everyone on the team is an urban designer. We all come from different backgrounds, but we are looking and working towards the same goal, a common thread. As part of the city charter established in 1898, the Public Design Commission, legally the Art Commission, is made up of 11 commissioners who serve pro bono. These commissioners include an architect, landscape architect, painter, sculptor, and three lay members, as well as representatives of the Brooklyn Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Public Library, and the Mayor.
All of the commissioners together, looking at any given project we review, is really fruitful, because they look at it with different lenses. I think it’s important to have voices there in the review who do not have a design background.
One of the issues with architecture generally is that we tend to speak our own language. It’s really important that people bring up ideas that have come from another language of study.
Underneath the commission, we have a staff of six people, who review the projects and essentially vet the information and general design direction before the commission gives official feedback. We’re quite small. We all wear many hats, but among us, we have backgrounds in urban design and city planning, architecture, art conservation and public art, landscape architecture, and environmental engineering. We also have an archivist, and a tour manager who knows absolutely everything about the history of New York City and City Hall. We all ask questions of each project that maybe the others wouldn’t have necessarily asked. It leads to better understanding of projects and better feedback.
How important is the way in which you communicate your projects to other people?
I think it’s important in two ways. Firstly, we’re looking at community feedback, our first question is, “Well, the community may have said they wanted this, but what were they offered?” You can only know what you want if something is presented in a certain way. That’s the ground zero of communication: making sure that you’re laying out the game table. A community that’s about to receive investment needs to understand the possibilities, not just three things that a team presented to them.
Secondly, I think architects tend to look at specific details and use certain verbiage when they’re presenting. A lot of the times, the drawings are very clear and the narrative is quite clear, but the presentation does not really tell the story.
We are constantly working as translators to try to uncover both the full story and the issues that need to be solved.
We have to make sure that it was described to the community in the right way, and translate it to the public, to the design team, to our commissioners and to ourselves.
Have you seen any really effective or unusual forms of communication?
Recently, a group came to our office to do a demo for this new technology they're developing, where the design team can build a model of their project in virtual reality. They can then get data from how people experience the developing proposal in VR. Are people looking at the ground floor level? Are people walking through the doors? Are people going around the building? These types of user feedback data points could be really interesting and really a tangible thing to insert back into the design process.
One last question – if you were to give a piece of advice for better narrative placemaking, what would it be?
If a place is successful, I think it will show it, not tell it.
A lot of times you walk around a place and there's a historical plaque here and there. Those are really helpful, but there are other instances where you don't need to drill that plaque onto an important rock. That rock should be able to speak for itself. The way you build things around that rock or around that tree, or building, should be able to carry the weight of the history that it holds.
On that note, Rebecca takes us on a walk down West 22nd Street, to tread the sidewalk with an urban designers eye.
Rebecca, tell us why you’ve chosen this street.
New York is fascinating in the differences between streets and avenues. People think of a city neighbourhood based on its avenues, but to me streets are much more the markers of an area and a community. From neighbourhood to neighbourhood, the streets are very different. The smaller moves give them character, and the spaces in between give you an understanding of the city.
On this street, it’s interesting to see the Citibike stations and the view of the Empire State right before turning the corner. Yet the middle of the street has remained relatively untouched for years.
What is it about the experience of each street that’s distinctive?
I believe the details make all the difference. Just here, for instance, you can see the tree pit, and then here there’s one tree up against the curb — why are they different? These are things that, before I started working at the Design Commission, I never noticed. But these decisions are important to your experience on the street.
This is one of my favorite trees because it's literally in the middle of the sidewalk — that changes your experience. It reinstates its presence. What does it feel like walking past? Two people can't go through it together; you have to sashay to move through. You will never look at tree pits the same way again!
And then, as we near the end of the street, you're immediately out again in the sun and the noise of the avenue.
The shift is dramatic actually: you take for granted the fact that something as simple as zooming in and out creates different experiences when walking down the avenues and the streets. How important is it to understand that shift in perspective?
Something I loved about studying at The Bartlett in London was that the faculty were focused on principles being applied to a variety of scales in a truly substantial way. One of the professors had been trained as a cabinet maker in Germany, but is now creating masterplans and architectural follies along the same principles. That's what spoke to me. The same level of detail in a plan as the level of detail which is applied to an element of the street is really what I think makes the fabric of the city.
Do you think, then, that there's value in walking the streets as opposed to just looking at the plan?
Yes. I think that's why I have a strong and quite irrational but adverse reaction to a lot of rendering programs. People are being taught the tools but not the principles. Because we have so much technology now, your first instinct is to design in a new software rather than using the software as a tool to help you design. You'd probably cut half of your design time if you just went to the place, felt it and understood it.
We're working on a project now which is a great example of that. It’s an interagency collaboration on a redevelopment. The site is crazy. There's something like a 50-foot grade change across half the block. When reviewing the plans we couldn't make head or tail of some of these sections and elevations. So we decided, "let's go out on site together with the architects to understand it” — we all had our jaws on the ground. We were saying, "oh my God, is that really another wall? How far down does that go?” All and all a much better proposal resulted from us all visiting the site together.
How do layers of history and these design decisions play a part in the character of the street and shape a story?
I’m interested in the intersection of these histories, the interplay of the various eras of programming and decision making in New York. This building (St. Paul's German Evangelical Lutheran Church) houses the Chelsea Symphony now; it was once (and still is) a German church. It’s silently there in the middle of the block there for someone to discover. That sense of discovery in New York allows you to build up layers and layers of experience and keep you on your toes.
The hotel that we’ll walk through later also tells a story: in the 1700s, apparently there was an apple orchard there. Then the land was given over to the church in the 1800s to build one of the first functioning seminaries in the city. It was restored in 2012 into the High Line Hotel, which is a quite high end place that very much speaks to the current identity of the neighborhood. I would bet that very few users of the space in its current program are aware of this rich history.
This neighbourhood has always had an undercurrent of glamour about it — but it used to have more of a sense of rock and roll. There are still traces of that – like this lamé window curtain!
I think this adds to the narrative and the story. Looking up and seeing how people have treated their window builds the place, and tells you who’s in the building. That’s their expression, their front porch.
The interesting thing is where these different histories collide. When someone who came in who has no knowledge of what that neighbourhood was, is now next to someone who lived and breathed and created that identity.
Even the trash cans say something about the city — New York trash cans are almost icons, thinking even of something like Sesame Street and Oscar the Grouch!
I’m obsessed with trash in New York. It is a dirty city, but that’s because of a decision someone made so people have to put their trash on the sidewalk. We don’t have alleyways. It wasn’t planned for. So for better or worse one of the identifying features of New York is trash on the sidewalk.
Thinking about the value of streets and what makes neighbourhoods, are you seeing any changes now in how developers are approaching projects?
They are finding that knowing your neighbours is integral to successful housing. I've seen a couple of projects in California in particular, where the design has been for apartments around a courtyard, so that the main circulation was in the centre. Walking up to your apartment, you see everyone in front of the stairs, and you know who is there. I think that's such a different sense of community than the ‘long hallway’ model.
I think, especially in the States and I guess globally, the way we communicate with each other is changing. We are increasingly solitary and silent. We are speaking our own language to each other in these sub-niches. And then we use law, which was written to be a kind of ‘void’ of language, to hold each other accountable.
Because of this, maintaining connections within the small daily interactions, like entering your front door, become really important.
Going back to my experience on archaeology projects in Peru, those schools and those communities didn't want first-world sterile bathrooms and closed classrooms. They wanted open air classrooms and more communal areas. It was these social areas that were part of their community identity.