Interview with EI-Space Fellows, Quilian Riano, Leni Schwendinger, and Tricia Martin

By NYCxDesign

El-Space Lighting Fellow Leni Schwendinger is leading a lighting workshop discussing the nighttime experience in Sunset Park and beneath the Gowanus Expressway. Photo: Liz Ligon. Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

El-Space Urban Design Fellow Quilian Riano at the community pop-up workshop, which featured samples of proposed pedestrian safety improvements, swatches showing potential paint colors for the highway structure, samples of new lighting fixtures, a new planter, sample gravel colors, deck tiles, and mock-ups of other elements. Photo: Anita Ng. Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

El-Space Architecture Fellow Tricia Martin at the community pop-up workshop, which featured samples of proposed pedestrian safety improvements, swatches showing potential paint colors for the highway structure, samples of new lighting fixtures, a new planter, sample gravel colors, deck tiles, and mock-ups of other elements. Photo: Anita Ng. Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

The Design Trust for Public Space’s Under the Elevated Phase II looks to reimagine and reclaim the neglected spaces under New York City’s elevated lines through pilot projects. This pilot phase, which began in 2015, is being facilitated by three Design Trust fellows: urban designer, Quilian Riano; lighting designer, Leni Schwendinger; and landscape architect, Tricia Martin.

We spoke with Riano, Schwendinger, and Martin about their roles in the project and working with the Design Trust.

Interview conducted by Molly Woodward, SVA MA Design Research, 2017 MA Candidate.


Molly Woodward: Can you introduce yourselves and tell us how you got involved in the Under the Elevated project?

Leni Schwendinger: I’m an urban lighting designer. I got involved because underpasses and neglected spaces are pretty much my favorite project type and I’m a firm believer in pilots. Having a real pilot project and an organization who also understands the importance of pilots was part of it for me.

Tricia Martin: I am a licensed landscape architect and urban designer. I was very excited about this pilot project because it allowed me to think about how to integrate green infrastructure into a tight, constrained urban site.

Quilian Riano: I’m an architectural and urban designer. I applied for the Urban Design Fellowship because I’ve been working for a while to better understand public spaces–both how their design and the process by which they come about can create long-term use by community engagement.

MW: Phase I of Under the Elevated focused on researching these unused urban spaces. Can you tell us about Phase II—El-Space? How do these pilots reconnect neighborhoods through public space?

TM: We are running out of space in our cities. The spaces that are left are the tough, constrained left-over and residual spaces of our cities. These types of spaces are primarily located along the edges of our cities, not at the centers. As the edges of our cities continue to be reimagined, the leftover spaces under highways become critical for connecting the center with the edge.

LS: The point that I’ve felt since I started working on underpasses and overpasses back in the late ’90s is that they’re really seen as dividers. That’s the natural response by inhabitants and professionals. They’re also seen as residual or neglected spaces. They’re seen as dividers that are dark and that are “the other side of the railroad tracks.”

It especially interested me to view these kinds of conditions as a connector. How can we create them as a seam? As a connector? As a way to actually stitch places together rather than divide them and work counterintuitively to turn this unloved and difficult space into an asset?

QR: I think Leni just put it beautifully. This idea of a connector and a stitch is an important one, especially given the history of the way big scale infrastructure has been used to divide communities. One of the things that’s most interesting is figuring out how we bring community members into the process of this pilot, and thinking about the process by which you can create a new kind of public space in a city.

Following Phase I, which was mostly research, Phase II—El-Space really tried to think about how to turn this into something that the Department of Transportation (DOT) can begin to use in many other places–everything from how to find the right partner, how to create the design guidelines, and how to talk to people about whatever project is happening.

MW: The design+ city blog is interested in highlighting the collaborative and cross-disciplinary nature of design projects. How do you meld your visions for the future of the city coming from such varied disciplines?

LS: It’s really the integration that makes it work. I have to say that for our team, the three of us, it’s been astounding how easy and exciting and imaginative and challenging it’s been.

QR: It’s been great to work with two very respected professionals in their fields. Leni is legend in lighting. There’s a lot of respect, number one. Number two, it’s been really seamless. Instead of an approach in which each of us just sticks to what we know how to do, we did a lot of collaborating. The same way that we try to engage and talk to the community surrounding the pilot, we use processes within ourselves. We all were contributing to the design and we all were involved in its development. Then our technical expertise was used to make those larger design ideas come to life.

LS: I think one of the reasons we were selected was not just for our professional expertise and our experience, but because each of us includes this community outreach in our work. We’re special that way, in the sense that in each of our disciplines we have chosen to include the space users, the inhabitants, the local residents and workers. I think it’s pretty cool that we all overlap in the community outreach part, and we have just taken it on as natural part of this project.

TM: Although this pilot project is small, its complexity is emblematic of urban work today. Nearly all of our projects are collaborative. We are demanding more from our public spaces. We want them to activate communities, provide respite from the bustle of the city, be sustainable and resilient, to make energy, to capture rain water, provide habitat, etc. Designing for these needs is exciting and inspiring. It is also humbling, as many skills and expert knowledge is required to pull off such complex works. Working with Quilian and Leni is a great example of how various professions have come together to create a unified vision that does so much in such as small space. Leni’s poetic approach to lighting was so inspiring to me. Every time I wait for a traffic light to turn green I will think of the traffic lights as the “jewels of the night”–Leni’s words!

MW: Why are these pilots so essential right now?

QR: The city is changing. A lot of older spaces need to be updated. Even the way we’re thinking about infrastructure is changing. We need to get trucks around the city, but we want that infrastructure to be more human, to have a more human city. The engagement is important because many communities don’t always feel like they’ve been part of that planning and design process.

MW: Have there been any highlights or unexpected outcomes of the project so far?

LS: For part of my outreach I did a workshop with DOT employees as well as others from the neighborhood. It was really rewarding to work with DOT, the agency, on an equal level. In other words, my “clients” were sitting at the table. We had an opportunity to do a workshop, to engage together as workshoppers, coming up with ideas. That was actually among the favorite experiences.

QR: I think one of the more interesting experiences has been in attending meetings where the state DOT, city DOT, different agencies, and groups within DOT all were involved in talking to each other, trying to create the processes and policies by which this kind of project can continue, not only on this site but many others. That was exciting. It was one of those moments in which you begin to feel like design–both as an act that creates physical products but also as a process–can change the very process by which it happens.

LS: There was all sorts of great outreach. Tricia did a lot with the high school students, where the evolutionary process of collaboration was really wonderful. I think it’s interesting that Quilian and I have found the relationship with the agencies to be unique and special. It’s just a public realm experience that we don’t usually have.

MW: Do you have a favorite undiscovered or underused public space in New York?

QR: One of my entry points for thinking about public space in New York City was Corona Plaza in north Corona. Ever since then, I’ve been interested in Roosevelt Avenue generally, and specifically Roosevelt Avenue and Interstate 278. It just seems to me that it’s right for some interesting thinking about three systems: the pedestrians walking over Roosevelt Avenue, the 7 subway line that’s an elevated structure, and the highway nearby. That is an area that I’ve always thought needed a little bit of extra space.

LS: Charles Lane. It’s a tiny one-block cobblestone lane between two white Richard Meier modern buildings on West Street. It’s narrow, maybe one car can go through it. Time and time again I go to Charles Lane because it is wonderfully uneven, and you really have to watch your step and exercise your feet. The shadows and light are just incredible. It’s a beautiful nighttime and daytime space. I think everyone should exercise their feet on those cobblestones.

Read more about Under the Elevated.