Even before COVID-19 upended the national economy and shifted our work and travel patterns, significant forces of change were influencing four dimensions of urban work: the work itself, who does the work, the location of work, and the design of workspaces. Traditional manufacturing that once provided jobs in cities like New York has relocated to suburban and exurban settings, and offshore, or been eliminated through automation. Small scale urban manufacturers remain, and innovative industrial and office uses in the “TAMI” sectors (technology, advertising, media, and information), as well as biotechnology, healthcare, arts, and cultural creation, hold significant promise for the future of urban economies, like New York’s. This shift in the profile of urban business has had a profound impact on individuals as well as cities. New York currently faces a large and growing disparity in economic opportunity for different segments of its population. Fueled by the booming technology sector, college-educated, professionally-trained individuals are thriving here, while many immigrants and those who lack college degrees, especially individuals of color, struggle to get by with more limited educational and economic opportunities.
THE ROLE OF THE “YARD”
The Brooklyn Navy Yard (“the Yard”), is evolving to mitigate the loss of manufacturing jobs from New York City. The Yard is a nationally recognized model of a successful urban industrial site transformation. Initially established in 1801, the Yard served as America’s premier shipbuilding facility for 165 years until 1966 when the U.S. Navy decommissioned the site and sold it to the City of New York. At its peak during World War II, the Yard generated more than 70,000 jobs and served as the economic heart of Brooklyn. Since then, the maritime uses that once occupied the Yard have closed or relocated elsewhere.
Under the stewardship of the non-profit Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (“BNYDC”), the Yard has transitioned from its maritime origins to a modern industrial park that is a leader in business incubation and middle-class job creation. Today, the 300-acre site is home to a network of more than 450 businesses that generate 10,000 jobs for New York City. The Yard’s goal is to grow, generating an additional 10,000 jobs by 2030, with a future total of 30,000 jobs at the Yard.
Real estate development plays a vital role in the Yard’s success. Partnering with developers, or developing on its own, the BNYDC has redeveloped or contracted for the private development of more than 40 buildings and 5 million square feet of workspace within the footprint of its 300-acre campus. Some of these projects, including New Lab and Steiner Studios represent state-of-the-art urban workplaces that set the standard for workplace design in their fields.
Today, the Yard’s supply of leasable space is fully occupied. In order to create 10,000 more jobs by 2030, new space must be developed. To guide its future growth, the Yard has set out an ambitious master plan that calls for the addition of a total of 5.1 million square feet of workspace divided among four (4) separate sites within the campus. This master plan, developed with WXY Architects, will be the starting point for students’ investigations into the Yard and its role as an economic driver for New York City.
THE INNOVATIVE URBAN WORKPLACE
With the onset of COVID-19 there is considerable uncertainty about the future of urban workplaces and the jobs they provide. Major companies like Facebook and Twitter have announced their intention to continue encouraging remote work, leaving landlords and developers wondering whether urban workplaces will be needed at all.
It is too early to tell how the pandemic and other market forces will impact modern urban work sectors, or how this will affect tenants’ future rental decisions. We know, though, that the needs and desires of prospective employers and tenants are critical in the design of commercial buildings. If these are changing (and they are), then the buildings we design to house these tenants must change too. But how? Consider this—the average American worker spends 90,000 hours or one-third of his/her lifetime at work. If we believe that work should enhance and support life, not punish us for being human, then the thoughtful design of our future workplaces is a crucial topic to consider.
The design of future workplaces will also have a significant impact on the health of our cities. According to the United Nations Environment Program, buildings and their construction together account for 36 percent of global energy use and 39 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions annually. High-density commercial buildings are often the worst offenders. Therefore, the location and design of future commercial and industrial spaces can either exacerbate or mitigate the challenges that cities face as they struggle with climate change, aging infrastructure, growing populations, and increasing social and economic inequities.
The design of workspaces, both industrial and office, continues to evolve in response to many factors. These include rapidly changing technologies, worker health and safety demands (both regulatory and voluntary), and the desire for lifestyle amenities and communal interaction (the “We Work” phenomenon). These spatial, cultural, technological, and systemic changes will continue to evolve post-COVID. The next generation of commercial developments must consider whether previous trends (such as open offices and lounge areas) will continue to be in demand. Beyond that, though, they must consider how design decisions can support the creation of safe, life-enhancing work experiences for all.
The type of workplaces we create will influence the types of jobs that are available in the future. While there is no looking back to the age of traditional urban manufacturing as the panacea it never was, new workplace development can contribute to a more equitable and greener society. Architects and developers have an important role in considering the environmental and employment impacts, as well as the educational and technological linkages that are inherent in the buildings they propose to create.
The site of the 2020 Bass Studio is identified in the Yard’s master plan as the Kent Avenue “A” site (the “Site”). This triangularly shaped parcel is situated on the East River, at the northern edge of the Yard. It contains approximately 220,000 square feet of land on which a 770,620 square foot mixed-use industrial and office building and publicly accessible waterfront open space are proposed.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard’s overarching goal is “… to fuel New York City’s economic vitality by creating and preserving quality jobs, growing the City’s modern industrial sector and its businesses, and connecting the local community with the economic opportunity and resources of the Yard.” This objective frames the program and purpose of development of the Kent Avenue site; however, it does not address the complex and often competing physical challenges of the site and its surrounds—its location at the edge of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the surrounding neighborhood, and its location at the water’s edge along the East River, as well as requirements for access and circulation. It also does not address the seemingly contradictory demands of development in the Yard—to be mission-driven and subsidized, but economically feasible.
The 2020 Bass Studio will confront these topics and will culminate in the design of a project for a developer on the Kent Avenue site.
The studio will follow a process similar to that of an architectural and development project and will be organized into 3 related and overlapping phases:
- Research, Analysis and Case Studies
- Project Presentation
Through a series of research and analysis exercises, case studies, and panel discussions with experts, the first few weeks of the 2020 Bass Studio will immerse students in the many issues, both physical and economic, that frame development of the Site. Students will have the opportunity to discuss these issues not only with the leadership and master-planners of the Yard, but with local officials, city planners, and technical experts in the fields of urban design and sustainable building technology. Working in teams, students will research and present case studies of precedents and comparable projects, studying different types of urban workplaces and urban waterfront development.
Students will analyze and respond to the Brooklyn Navy Yard master plan and its proposed program for Kent “A.” Presenting possible alternatives, they will work toward reconciling the competing demands of the Yard’s mission, the site conditions and context, and a feasible economic outcome as they investigate how to create an optimal development program that responds to the site’s unique conditions, while still meeting the Yard’s objectives.
By midterm, each student will describe their individual project concept, supported by analysis, diagrams, and initial design drawings, and including a detailed space program, for review and feedback. Students will then focus on the detailed development of their design proposal, carrying it to a high level of architectural resolution, with desk crits and pin-ups providing individual and group opportunities for discussion and feedback.
In realizing an architectural project, representation and presentation of the design can have a significant impact, and developing a narrative and a presentation strategy can be seen as part of the design process. Especially given the constraints of remote presentation of the studio work, exploration of alternate forms of architectural study, representation and storytelling will be encouraged.
Throughout the semester students will partner with Abby Hamlin (the developer) to develop their concepts and designs and then present them as part of a fictional “open ideas competition” at a final jury that will include jurors representing the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The Bass Studio offers students the opportunity to interact with and learn from a developer. This year’s Bass Fellow, Abby Hamlin, is committed to be an active participant throughout the semester. She will moderate and guide panel discussions on real estate and planning topics relevant to design decision-making and will review work with the students while it is in progress, offering ideas about project feasibility and design efficiency. In this way, students in the 2020 Bass Studio will gain a direct understanding of development decision making as it would be carried out in the work environment.
“As a nexus of technology, community, and the locus of our livelihood, the workplace is a topic of perpetual interest in architecture and interior design.”
—Architect, May 2020
For all of us, work is a necessity. For some of us, it is also a privilege. Can those of us in the public and private sectors who create workplaces, do a better job of developing access to work opportunities for others? Certainly. Can those architects who design workplaces provoke ways to enhance the user’s work experience? Absolutely. Can everyone involved in the development of buildings contribute to new construction technologies that mitigate climate change? We must.
The Bass 2020 Studio will be a place for students to investigate their ideas about how to improve urban workplaces and generate urban jobs. Taken in the context of a worldwide pandemic, a societal call for greater economic equity and inclusion, and a rapidly changing urban business environment, your speculations and provocations for the Brooklyn Navy Yard can prompt real development ideas that lead to meaningful change.