Places that Matter

Van Alen Books

Van Alen Books is a bookstore dedicated to the sale of architecture and design books. It is also used as a public reading room and event space.
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By Juliet Ingber


Van Alen Institute was founded in 1894; however, at that time it was named the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects. It was founded with the intent of perpetuating the style and pedagogy of Beaux-Arts architecture through competitions that would award excellence in Beaux-Arts design.  Whitney Warren, an architect who would later go on to design Grand Central Station, won the first competition. Historically, Van Alen Institute has relied heavily on philanthropist support for its projects. In 1906, John Pierpont Morgan donated funding for one of its competitions. The Beaux-Arts ball was also a creation of the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects and became popular among high society outside of architecture. For many years, the Society of Beaux-Arts retained its initial style but in 1936 there was a distinct change towards modernism in a design competition for concession stands. In the 1940s, Marcel Breuer and Minoru Yamasaki both wrote problems for classes at the institute. Near that time, the society began to accept corporate partners who would use competition projects as a way to market their own products. For example, The Western Electric Co. held a competition called for a “1000 Watt Broadcaster Station.” In the early 1950s, the tradition of modern architects teaching classes continued.[1] In 1956, it was renamed the National Institute for Architectural Education. At that time, the institute stopped being affiliated with a particular architectural style and instead was affiliated with a number of prizes and design competitions. In 1995, Van Alen Institute received its current name, for the architect William Van Alen, and changed its purpose. William Van Alen was not only a recipient of one of its prizes as a student, he was also a prominent benefactor.  The institute is now dedicated to the relationship between architecture and the public sphere. [2]
Olympia Kazi joined the Van Alen Institute as Executive Director in January 2010. Trained as an architect and having experience with the Institute of Urban Design and as an editor and curator, she made the Van Alen Books storefront and its accompanying lecture series her personal mission. The bookstore opened in May 2011 [in the storefront of the institute’s building] and Kazi resigned from the Van Alen Institute in May 2012.[3]
Kazi hired the firm Lot-ek to design the new store interior. Its mission statement is to “scan the environment in search of manmade objects and systems, exploit objects as raw material for architecture, upcycle objects to create remarkable buildings.”[4]  The firm is noted for implementing these strategies in order to create socially responsible and evolutionary buildings. Its most common solution, the shipping container, is sustainable because it is a recycled but it also causes the user to begin to question the materials we see everyday and how they can be reused. The idea is that to truly create a sustainable world we must use architecture as an art that not only is responsibly made, but also communicates something to the user.
The owners and founders of Lot-ek, Ada Tolla and Giusseppe Lignano, emigrated from Italy in the early 1990s.  The architects have noted that they were inspired in America by a change from the Italian landscape that is inescapably preserved and very difficult to create something new. The firm was founded in 1993 and focused mainly on small art projects and installations. 
Site and Context
Van Alen Books is located on West 22nd Street in the Flatiron District in New York City. The Flatiron District is a small neighborhood composed of 18 blocks. The main crosstown street in this district is 23rd Street, which runs through the center of the neighborhood. The district includes Union Square Park and a number of historic buildings including the Flatiron building, Met Life Tower, Woolworth building. The neighborhood is dominated by vernacular low-rise buildings outside of 23rd street, with 23rd street housing a number of larger scale buildings.
Historically, this neighborhood was known as “Ladies’ Mile.” The name was coined in 1892 and described the high-end shops, theater and restaurants that attracted upper class women.  This included the original Tiffany’s store.[6] The neighborhood was also the site of numerous noteworthy Beaux-Arts buildings and department stores including the Siegel-Cooper building, which was built to be a “city within a building,” based on precedents at the Chicago’s world fair. However, with the Great Depression, the neighborhood was fully abandoned as a retail center in favor of neighborhoods further uptown. The area was not as occupied again until the 1980s when small offices and retail stores began to occupy it again. Ladies’ Mile reached historic preservation status in 1989.[7]
Today the neighborhood serves a number of technology small businesses as well as design businesses. Although the neighborhood was a struggling only 10 years ago, it has experienced increasing gentrification and now boasts a number of high-end retail and restaurant properties. [8]
The street in the site is a very important part of what makes the particular project work. The streets in this neighborhood are dominated by ground level retail storefronts. The scale of the street and sidewalks reinforces the experience of public space as being framed by these retail storefronts. This tenuous relationship between private space and public space at the ground level is what causes the Van Alen Books design to work. The use of the retail store as public space, disrupts the current pattern and at the same time disrupts the paradigm that has constructed this pattern. New York is founded on profits and retails spaces dominate public spaces across Manhattan. In 1961, a zoning resolution called incentive zoning was passed that allowed developments to bypass zoning codes if they provided public space. This led to the ubiquitous phenomenon of privately owned public space. These spaces are public but owned and cared for by a private entity. They often problematic in that owners can set their own rules for such spaces, they are exploited for an profitable opportunities and the public is not aware of their existence (in some cases). The popularity of these spaces exemplifies the difficult and often symbiotic relationship between public and private space in New York. While public spaces are good for the city, capitalist enterprise is more profitable for the city and thus, the two have been combined.[9] Not only are most
public spaces framed by private interests, some public spaces are also owned by these interests. By inverting this relationship – giving up space for retail to the public without any profit incentives – Van Alen Books effectively plays on the site spatial politics to create a truly unique and groundbreaking space.
Form and Use
The form and use of Van Alen Books speaks to the mission of the bookstore, which is to contain “architecture and design bookstore, event space and public reading room.”[10] The bookstore contains little more than 500sf[11] and within that holds a number of design-related books and an amphitheater style stair for holding discussions and lectures. The form makes the use work by limiting the amount of retail related paraphernalia. There are no checkout counters, cash registers, displays, prices or sales to be seen in the bookstore. Instead all of the books are displayed on the two parallel walls, which contain 8-foot tall bookshelves. The rest of the space is taken up by the large-scale stair, which is made up of upcycled industrial doors hung from the ceiling with grey wire. The suspended stair not only makes better use of the small square footage, but the stacked doors which create seating on one side, also create more storage space for books on the other side.  In addition, this otherwise ordinary storefront space is almost completely painted in bright yellow with the sole exception of the poured concrete floor.
The entire composition of the design intervention is created to make the best use of the space while also supporting the institutional ideals of Van Alen Books. The bookstore is meant to be a public space for designers to discuss both formal and theoretical ideas about design. However, the space is noteworthy for the way that it expresses the radicalism of Van Alen Books. The idea of a bookstore in a storefront in the one of the most expensive cities in the world, which donates almost all of its precious square footage to public space, is surely a righteous idea but also it is an idea that would bring design-minded individuals together. From the exterior of the space you can read this “call to arms” style mentality. The exterior elements of the building are historic and blend with the existing styles (this is determined by its location in a landmarked district in New York) but the bright yellow and the dominance of the stair behind the storefront instead of the typical retail displays makes the bookstore’s agenda instantly clear even before entering the space.  The bookstore is not intended as a space to draw a profit. In addition, fluorescent lights located under each stair and above the bookshelves serve to highlight the extreme geometry and the unusual proportion of public to retail space.  The bookstore is thus, not only a bookstore, but also an expression of rebellion by the radical designer: the user the bookstore aims to serve.
It is also worth noting that while the space is dedicated to the public, the Van Alen Bookstore is made possible with funds from the Van Alen Institute which is funded largely with donations and membership fees. Thus, private interests are also involved in the feasibility of this project. 
Materials and Methods of Construction
The social advocacy of the space also exists in the simplicity of its materials and methods of construction. The main construction is in the staircase. The materials for the stair are recycled wood doors, paint, and hardware to securely stack doors and cables. The doors probably followed a similar construction process of other Lot-ek projects. The doors were sanded down, stacked 5 high, and attached to form stairs offsite. Then, the stairs were constructed on site by both attaching them to each other with the stringer and hanging them with tension cables from the buildings structure.[12]
Significance with respect to space
The significance of this project relies heavily on the dialogue currently surrounding divisions of public and private space and the implications of public life and democracy. The model of the amphitheater style seating where architects can attend talks and discussions about important contemporary themes in architecture advocates for the importance of community participation and thoughtful work in design culture. The current climate of competition in architecture breeds a non-stop working environment and inhibits the time designers can spend thinking about how design effects social change. The space is a retail store, a symbol of the capitalist structure, but here is arguing for social consciousness in design. The critical nature of the design nurtures this dialogue.  In addition, the privilege of the forum over selling books, places a premium on social interaction over consumer culture. Designers need the space and its significance is more than activism for a specific cause but a place where architects can find community and organize for social action.

[1] "Timeline." Van Alen Institute - Projects in Public Architecture. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 May 2013.
[2] "Van Alen Institute - History." Van Alen Institute - History. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.
[3] "A/N Blog . Kazi Leaving Van Alen." AN Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2013
[4] Lot-ek. Lot-ek, n.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.
[5] Viladas, Pilar. "THE ARCHITECTURE ISSUE; A Lot-Ek Solution." The New York Times. The New York Times, 08 June 2008. Web. 06 Mar. 2013.
[6] "Ladies' Mile Home Page." Ladies' Mile Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2013.
[7] "Ladies' Mile Historic District." The New York Preservation Archive Project |. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2013.
[8] Cheslow, Jerry. "If You're Thinking of Living In/The Flatiron District; A Neighborhood Bulging at the Edges." The New York Times. The New York Times, 04 Sept. 1994. Web. 06 Mar. 2013
[9] Kayden, Jerold S. Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience. New York: John Wiley, 2000. Print.
[10] "VAN ALEN BOOKS." Van Alen Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.
[11] “Van Alen Books.” Lot-ek, Web. Mar. 2013.
[12] Pagnotta, Brian. "The Pros and Cons of Cargo Container Architecture." ArchDaily. N.p., 29 Aug. 2011. Web. 01 May 2013.
[13] Butler, Melanie. "Occupy Wall Street Holds First Feminist General Assembly." Ms Magazine Blog. N.p., 18 May 2012. Web. 01 May 2013.
[14] "VAN ALEN BOOKS." Van Alen Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2013.