Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Letter to the Mayor

"New York Mayor," Google Image Search

On April 29, Storefront for Art and Architecture in Manhattan opened the exhibition Letters to the Mayor. I was pleased to be one of 50 international architects asked to write a letter to the mayor of her/his city about “the collective aspirations of society, and specifically of those not able to sit at the decision-making tables.” Congratulations to Lee Dykxhoorn, whose team won the Competition of Competitions, announced last night.

Dear Mayor de Blasio:

When you introduced your new transportation commissioner you spoke of safety. When you introduced your new planning commissioner you spoke of affordable housing. When you introduced your new parks commissioner, you spoke of equity. When you introduced your new cultural affairs commissioner you spoke of art for everybody. There was one word you didn’t mention: design.

Design can make New York’s intersections safer for everyone, by slowing traffic with bump-outs, creating divided lanes for bikes and cars, by staggering lights so pedestrians do not have to cross turning cars. Design can fit more apartments, sized for the families of today rather than 1950, in a broader array of neighborhoods. Design can make the parks we have safer and more functional, and the parks we need more diverse and easier to maintain. Design is art for everybody, the art, as Ada Louise Huxtable wrote, “we cannot afford to ignore (but do).”

Perhaps you think design is too Manhattan, too international superstar, too Museum of Modern Art to bring the two cities together? But I don’t see how you can get reelected without it. Design is not the icing on the cake, or the tourist attraction, but the solving of problems. The Queens Public Library is using design to make its branches better, and we’d rather see Foster + Partners at work there than on Fifth Avenue. The Edible Schoolyard is using design to teach public school students in Brooklyn and Harlem about food, and make their blacktop playgrounds more enticing in the process. Design might tear down the Sheridan Expressway, and make room in the Bronx for a lot more affordable housing and a lot more open space. Design could squeeze a real BRT line down the length of Atlantic Avenue, providing (among other things) a one-seat ride for Brooklyn and Queens to JFK Airport.

Design does not need to be big. You’ve already shown concern for the education of the city’s smallest. Those children also need better parks in which to play, libraries in which to read, lanes in which to ride. Schools exist as part of a network of spaces that teach and strengthen. The people doing the teaching matter a great deal, but the floors, walls, and backstops do too. A city for the smallest will be a city better for all, a city easier to work in, to move through, to stay in. Older students, too, need spaces to link them to skills, to jobs, to ideas. Take a look at the plans for Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island, and consider how what’s getting built connects to Queens, to high schools, to the other end of the F train. The Silicon Subway runs both ways.

I’m a few months away from 20 years in Brooklyn. I have seen tremendous physical change in the borough during that time, activating the waterfront, opening former industrial sites, and connecting the gaps. The best of those changes came by design. Yours should too.

Alexandra Lange, Critic