At a fabrication studio in Brooklyn late last month, New York City’s Department of Buildings unveiled to reporters what looked like a pool pavilion or maybe a beach umbrella destined for the shores of a swank resort in Cabo. Gazing up at the structure — at the tall, lacy canopy and all that cheery white paint — you’d never guess it was actually designed for the go-go streets of New York, let alone what it’s designed to do: catch bricks.
The structure, called Urban Umbrella, won a recent design competition to revamp the city’s cruddy sidewalk sheds. Sidewalk sheds are as ubiquitous in New York as rats on the subway platform. They’re temporary, covered wood-and-steel structures thrown up in front of buildings to shield pedestrians from falling construction debris. But they’re unsightly and dark and, as a result, they can feel terribly unsafe. Plus, they ruin business for the street-level storefronts they cover up. The bright, airy prototype the Department of Buildings showed off last month — designed by UPenn grad Young-Hwan Choi and the NYC architecture firm Agencie Group — was a first taste of what many hope will replace the existing design and, in turn, improve street life for everyone, from pedestrians to shop owners to aesthetes (like us!) tired of looking at all that ugly scaffolding.
“You want it to be stiff but to look really, really light.”
You’ve got to wonder, though: Can something that resembles the architectural equivalent of a lace doily actually safeguard against flying bricks? “We worked very hard to make it light,” Agencie Group’s Andrés Cortés says. “When really, it’s doing the work of a highway bridge.” To wit: A regular office building has to be able to sustain a 30-pound load per square foot. A sidewalk shed, on the other hand, has to be able to withstand a whopping 300 pounds per square foot. “It’s totally over-designed for that one circumstance when something falls from a skyscraper and kills someone,” Cortés says. “So you have these two diametrically opposite conditions: You want it to be stiff but to look really, really light.”
As it happens, the umbrella form is great at absorbing loads. Line a bunch of them up side by side, as Urban Umbrella does, and you end up with the structural stability of set of arches. (And if you’ve ever visited a cathedral you know how sturdy those are.) It doesn’t hurt matters that the whole thing is made out of steel, with a clear, high-density polycarbonate roof to prevent the aforementioned bricks from sneaking in between the umbrella spokes.
The trick, then, was to optimize the shape. In the original design, the umbrella’s radiating members reached all the way down to the ground. The designers worked to lift them up, improving sightlines to shops behind the scaffolding and removing extraneous building materials from the sidewalk so pedestrians can move about freely.
As for illumination and safety: Cortés says the design offers 24-hour-a-day lighting. Natural light filters in during the day and built-in LED lamps keep the umbrellas lit after hours.
Price-wise, Cortés say the goal is to match existing sheds. To that end, he and the other designers formed a company dedicated to manufacturing Urban Umbrellas. Building owners will be able to purchase the new sheds as a kit of parts — what Cortés calls “Ikea for the street” — to make installation as easy as, if not easier than, it is now. Mind you, owners won’t be required to adopt the umbrella design, but if all goes according to plan, they’d be pretty foolish not to. “It just feels self-evident,” Cortés says. “When sheds go up, they affect pedestrians and every first-floor tenant’s ability to promote their wares. Now you have something that instantly improves the quality of the outdoor space.”
A final version of the Urban Umbrella will be installed at a job site in Lower Manhattan (maybe at the new WTC?) this fall. Stay tuned for updates.
[Images by Samantha Modell]