The Year’s Most Optimistic Architecture

From tackling climate change to revolutionizing healthcare, these seven projects illustrate architecture’s power.

The Year’s Most Optimistic Architecture

All is not well in the world of architecture and urbanism. Trump picked Ben Carson–who once called the 1968 Fair Housing Act a “mandated social-engineering scheme”–to lead the department of Housing and Urban Development. For Transportation Secretary–the post responsible for a lot of the nation’s infrastructure–the President-elect nominated Elaine Chao, a vocal supporter of privatization. Experts Co.Design interviewed are understandably concerned about what the incoming Trump administration could mean for the built environment with regard to climate change, surveillance, immigration, and the role of private corporations in the public realm.


Still, there are a number of projects from 2016 that show the power of architecture to affect social change–from combatting climate change and recasting aging infrastructure to creating entirely new models for public space and nurturing and healing users. These seven projects serve as a grounding reminder that in some cases, we can build our way out of challenging situations.

[Photo: Timothy Schenck]

Governors Island Hills by West 8 and Mathews Nielsen
Governors Island is a short ferry ride away from Manhattan, but while you’re walking through its new, undulating hills, it feels like you’re miles away from the bustling city. The hills are a sight to behold thanks to thoughtful sculpting by Dutch landscape architecture firm West 8 and planting design by Mathews Nielsen, but they’re also doing double duty as a way to protect the rest of the island from storm surges. It’s a beautiful marriage of public space and resiliency infrastructure–both badly needed in a coastal city like New York.

[Photo: Robert Benson Photography/courtesy Svigals + Partners]

Sandy Hook School by Svigals+Partners
The mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was one of the most despicable moments in American history. When the architects at Svigals+Partners were presented with a brief to design a new school after the old Sandy Hook School was demolished, they approached the project with remarkable sensitivity, creating a new structure that serves a symbolic homage to the community. “This is a school to nurture and grow young members of our society,” Jay Brotman, an architect and managing partner at Svigals + Partners, told Co.Design. “As architects, we aspire for opportunities like this, to build a meaningful symbol that serves a community as well as a global emblem.” The design–which was informed by community workshops–shows how architecture can help heal trauma and become a positive force.

[Photo: Michael Moran/via AIA]

Planned Parenthood’s Diane L. Max Health Center by Stephen Yablon Architecture
Healthcare design has stepped up its game in recent years, and it’s nice to see that trend extend to Planned Parenthood, which treats patients from a wide socio-economic spectrum. The Diane L. Max Health Center, in Queens, is one example of how design can vastly improve patient experience. Stephen Yablon Architecture created a sophisticated, well-appointed space with ample daylight, vibrant colors, and modern touches that come together to make patients feel cared for.

[Photo: F.Oudeman]

Imagination Playground at Betsy Head Park by Rockwell Group
The name of the game is free play at Rockwell Group’s Imagination Playgrounds, one of which opened this year in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a historically underserved neighborhood. The firm noticed that most playgrounds have fixed equipment, which essentially tells kids how something should be used, rather than encouraging creativity or left-brain thinking. The designers remedied that by making a system of squishy foam blocks in different shapes and sizes that kids can use as they wish.

[Photo: Laurent de Carniere/courtesy Bjarke Ingels Group]

Urban Rigger Floating Dorms by Bjarke Ingels Group
Affordable housing is a problem in many of the most desirable cities. Yet even when there isn’t enough land to go around, there’s often plenty of water. The architects at Bjarke Ingels Group noticed that particularly in European cities, many of which are currently gripped by a huge student housing crisis, waterways and harbors are plentiful. Why not build there? To that end, BIG designed Urban Rigger, a development of prefabricated floating dorms built using shipping containers insulated with NASA-developed foam. The first model recently opened in Copenhagen, but student housing isn’t the only application. The same model could be used for any housing development, and linked together to form entire floating neighborhoods. It’s no accident that BIG is using shipping containers and built the first Urban Rigger near Copenhagen’s port–the firm sees this type of construction as a way to repurpose port infrastructure, which is often underutilized in post-industrial cities.

[Photo: via NBBJ]

VA Hospital, New Orleans, by NBBJ
As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, designing for resiliency will become increasingly important. Hurricane Katrina illustrated why: Flood waters knocked out power in New Orleans hospitals–the places that need to remain up and running during natural disasters. The city’s VA hospital was demolished after the storm, and when it was rebuilt, it challenged the status quo for healthcare design by adopting an upside down approach to infrastructure. That meant putting essential services–like power, heating, cooling, and ventilation–on higher floors, well above flood lines. Moreover, the architects at NBBJ used human-centered design principals to tailor the space for the specific needs of veterans, which are more nuanced than those of the general population. The finished building is a case study in site- and context-sensitive architecture.

[Photo: via Smith Group JJR]

The Brock Environmental Center by SmithGroup
Buildings normally work against the environment; in the United States, they account for nearly 40% of CO2 emissions. The Living Building Challenge, a set of strict construction guidelines, was created with the aim of making buildings a positive contribution to natural ecosystems rather than a consumptive force. This year, the Brock Environmental Center became the 11th structure in the United States to be certified as a Living Building. Designed by SmithGroup and located in Virginia Beach, the structure was made from reclaimed materials and features on-site waste treatment–it also generates its own power. As a whole, the project shows how the building industry could adopt more environmentally-sensitive materials and techniques for new construction–and how, slowly but surely, those ideas are taking hold in the U.S.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Brock Environmental Center was the first structure in the United States to achieve full Living Building Challenge certification.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.


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