‘Grimshaw’s work is rooted in a long-standing tradition of British engineering; a tradition which was born out of the industrial revolution, to which Iron Bridge, Paxton’s Crystal Palace and 19th-century stations and greenhouses belong’ L’Arca magazine, August 2012
In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks on New York City, Grimshaw opened a Manhattan office, embarking upon an impressive expansion of work in the United States and elsewhere. Among the many skills the architects brought with them, and further developed in this energetic partner office, were the ability to collaborate successfully; research and analytics applied to people, locations, materials, technology and techniques.
These were prompted by user needs as well as the history, climate, and resources of cities, campuses, hinterlands – wherever they build.
The architecture benefited from the firm’s growing practice of industrial design, which added functional and aesthetic value to its buildings through innovative architectural details, street furniture and interior furnishings. Most dramatically, however, it is Grimshaw’s ability to connect with the natural world, especially through the sun’s life-giving light, errant breezes and vegetation, that has led to some of its most memorable buildings. This work calls to mind the words of EO Wilson, the American naturalist and prolific author, who in his book, Biophilia, defined the word as humanity’s ‘innate tendency to focus on life and its processes’.
Before the current rush took hold to build clusters of high-rise international-style-on-steroids mega-developments for the wealthy, New York City’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC) under the Bloomberg administration was directed by architect David Burney – a transplanted Brit. He was fond of saying things like: ‘We do much better when we work not just individually but also collectively.’ His advocacy for design excellence helped shape some of the city’s most important buildings.
Via Verde, the Green Way, was completed in 2012. It’s a mixed-income, mixed-use development in the South Bronx, the long-suffering outer borough of New York City which gave an edge to the moniker ‘mean streets’ surrounded by hollowed out and crumbling buildings, where desperate denizens with guns roamed. This seemingly dead-end location was sought out for revival by a coalition made up of the DDC, the local American Institute of Architects (AIA), non-profits, community groups, banks and an enlightened developer. Their brief: to create a prototype for affordable housing adjacent to market-rate units within the city’s mixed income neighbourhoods.
The architecture is a product of a collaboration between Grimshaw and New York practice Dattner Architects. The result is a multi-storey complex with a central courtyard that contains four different gardens which cascade downward like a green carpet enlivened by an apple orchard, a vegetable patch, a flower garden and a mini pine forest. It has been designed to provoke residents’ interest in the outdoors, as well give them a taste of fresh produce – in the autumn, for instance, baskets of freshly picked apples appear outside residents’ doors.
Using New York City’s Healthy Design Guidelines, the building encourages exercise through the use of outdoor stairways to the highest levels and a rooftop gym, as well as a spacious and sunlit courtyard. With large interior windows in each unit, residents enjoy daylight and cross-ventilation; this design detail also helps cut back on air-conditioning use and expenses – as do the solar panels which substitute sun-power for fossil fuels. An intense system of insulation helps save energy as well as block out the harsh noise of planes landing at nearby LaGuardia.
Burney’s design excellence advocacy at the DDC added two other distinguished projects by Grimshaw to New York City: one in the borough of Queens, the other in Manhattan. In 2013 the renovated Queens Museum came on line. Visitors will say that this rebirth of the 1939 World’s Fair relic in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park feels like an extension of its once world-famous neighbourhood. Daylight, once more, plays a key role in the satisfying experience of the indoors while connecting the interiors to the outdoors. The view from inside of the 1965 World’s Fair signature sculpture, the Unisphere, reminds some older visitors of the fair’s theme: peace through understanding – an inspiring thought for our turbulent times. Gentle light from above and from the glass walls brightens up the once dark and unused spaces. And, of course, these architectural details save on electricity.
In downtown Manhattan, the Fulton Street subway station – once a collection of competing transit lines of old New York and a victim of the 9/11 explosions – came back in 2014 as the Fulton Center. Now it contains a collection of shops and food services, similar to neighbouring downtown street life. While the easy navigation system facilitates seamless connections to the trains, the transparent building envelope reveals surrounding landmarks that serve as wayfinding aids for those who set out to explore the neighbourhood on foot. The glorious central hall is graced by an oculus that pulls sunlight deep into the cavernous space. The sky’s light is enhanced by the work of glass artist James Carpenter.
All these design decisions have become a testament for a city working to renew itself, and the optimism it takes to look into the future – to look up into the sky. Perhaps the best endorsement of the design comes from the energetic greeter employed by the station, Chris Bennet, who, when asked to give his observation of the space by the Grimshaw film crew, said: ‘Seems like everybody is walking in a great park.’
Also, in 2014, on the other side of the world, in St Petersburg, Grimshaw’s Pulkovo Airport took its cues from that beautiful Russian city’s colourful religious buildings with their gold-plated domes, a highly decorated commercial building with its enormously tall windows on Nevsky Prospekt, as well as the bridges and islands on the Neva River. This research was an exercise to discover local colour, form and placement while paying attention to the atmospheric conditions. The light-reflecting quality of the onion domes shows up in the golden hue of the interior ceiling materials that warm up the cold, often grey, daylight coming through the skylights.
The generous views to the outside – inspired by the massive windows of a retail building on the Nevsky Prospekt – encourage people to watch planes landing, taxiing and taking flight. The areas that became the airport’s islands of rest and the bridges that lead to departures and arrivals came from observing the river. But it’s the structure of the roof, with its deep wedges, designed to capture and retain tons of snow throughout the long winter, that tells the familiar Grimshaw story, always spoken in local accents, everywhere: the deep roof channels hold on to the snow which, in turn, insulates the building, protecting the interior from the frigid temperatures.
Back in New York City, from 2007, Grimshaw’s industrial design department had started to install street furniture, such as bus shelters, newsstands, bike racks, benches. In England, the practice’s Suez Energy From Waste Facility in Suffolk, in 2014 earned the highest BREEAM rating ever, while in the same year the industrial design department’s Elements Table was shown at the Milan Furniture Fair.
In 2016, at Dulwich College in London, the practice inserted a 21st century laboratory building into a traditional campus setting – emphasising transparency and using algorithmic patterns on the facades; in total contrast, the same year, at the Shanghai Disney Resort Tomorrowland, Grimshaw was working with Disney Imagineers to test its daring design in artificial reality.
In 2017, the Philip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, Miami, was built. With uninterrupted views of the sea and downtown Miami, it takes advantage of tropical breezes from the ocean to create the buildings’ outdoor circulation – thus eliminating the need for the high-octane air conditioning that Florida architects tend to specify. And so Grimshaw’s list of technical, social, environmental and urban contributions continues to bring a better life for everyone who comes in contact with these architects’ works.
Susan S Szenasy, director of design innovation, former editor in chief of Metropolis
Grimshaw in the 2010s: a visual timeline