Sense and the City—Active Design and Slowness: An Interview with Rick Bell

By NYCxDesign

By Molly Woodward

Rick Bell is the executive director of design and construction excellence at the Department of Design and Construction for the City of New York. Together with semiologist Gwenaëlle de Kerret, Bell has been exploring how signs and symbols convey meaning in urban environments and the benefits of incorporating “active design and slowness” in the design of public spaces

We spoke with Bell about Sense and the City and how he folds these ideas into his work at the DDC.

Molly Woodward: Can you tell us about your background and what you do at the Department of Design and Construction?

Rick Bell: I was born in Brooklyn and have lived or worked in all five boroughs. I became an architect almost by accident, having been influenced by travel and living abroad. (I had intended to be a writer.) My career has been in public service, designing or commissioning public buildings. My role at DDC—as part of a talented and energetic team—is to connect design and construction excellence to principles of social equity and public health.

MW: You recently gave a talk at the AIA Conference on Architecture with semiologist Gwenaëlle de Kerret called Sense and the City: Active Design and Slowness. Can you tell us about the ideas behind Sense and the City?

RB: For a decade I was a staunch proponent of active design—the idea that design can help prevent obesity and related chronic diseases.Thanks, in part, to the dozen Fit City conferences and the City’s Active Design Guidelines, we are seeing much more stair and bike use. What is increasingly evident is that architects, interior architects, urban designers, landscape architects and graphic designers need to take the lead in concurrently creating places of repose, spaces that help to overcome the stress of urban life. Sense and the City was an effort at framing the discussion about how some civic infrastructure and public building projects could be both active and passive at the same time.

MW: How did you begin working with Gwenaëlle? Should every design firm or city agency have an in-house semiologist?

RB: I met Gwenaëlle at the Center for Architecture when she was in New York doing research about the cultural identity of museums. Her topic was interesting to me partly because of some of the controversies surrounding proposed museum expansions (and demolitions) in New York and Paris. We found ourselves comparing notes, starting from different vantage points but often arriving at similar conclusions. I came to believe that someone who could think about signifiers and semiotics and address the impact on specific design projects, could be an essential team-member for design firms and multi-faceted client entities.

Gwenaëlle de Kerret comparing continuity and discontinuity during the Sense and the City seminar. Image courtesy of Rick Bell.

MW: How does having recognizable signs and symbols built into the city increase meaning and shape the experience of public space?

RB: Cities bring together people from diverse backgrounds and different degrees of familiarity with how things work and where they might be welcome and safe. Architecture does not always have the ability to indicate those attributes to people either unfamiliar or unaware of the function of a space or the services provided. Signs and symbols from the obvious (pictograms), to the subtle (color and material selection), assist straightforward graphics in conveying invitation.

MW: How does design (or adaptive redesign) in these spaces reflect cultural identity and ethnography? Why are those connections so important to make?

RB: At the Flushing (Queens) Library, an art project cast the names of each East Asian national saga or epic into the concrete of the entry stair risers. People going to the library, possibly for an English as a Second Language class, feel more at home. Why are these gestures important? One definition of an equitable building is one that is equally welcoming for all. Design, broadly defined, reflects and refracts cultural identity.

MW: Why are moments of calm so essential in New York City and why now?

RB: Stress is exponential. In New York, the cost of housing is too high, and job satisfaction is sometimes too low. It costs a lot to get to work, and it costs a lot for a cup of coffee. Apartments are small, bars are expensive, and alternatives to “get away” are few. Moments of calm, whether in a reading area, garden of a branch library, or near the burbling fountain of a public plaza are few, but increasingly valued. Even a subway ride can allow for safely zoning out, especially when abetted by a Poetry in Motion verse. Calmness keeps us all civil and sane.

MW: As the executive director of design and construction excellence for New York City’s Department of Design and Construction, how do you fold these concepts into projects for the city?    

RB: Talented architects and designers craft DDC project objectives. There are four overarching Guiding Principles (equity, sustainability, resiliency, and healthy living) referred to as “mayoral lenses.” Speaking personally, the case for design excellence involves a combination of logic, cajoling and an appeal to (and the appeal of) a higher authority, such as the Guiding Principles.

MW: Are the ideas of Sense and the City related to one (or several) of those principles?     

RB: As Gwen and I described the attributes of public spaces in Paris and New York, from Place de la République and Zuccotti Park to Buttes de Chaumont and Central Park, there were clear correspondences to many of the objectives of the Guiding Principles. The primary linkage was to aim for healthy living, suggestions such as “create therapeutic environments” and “promote perceptions of safety.”

MW: Is there a public space in New York that has particular meaning to you or perhaps a meaning most New Yorkers might not know about?

RB: I have been extolling the virtues of the RBA-designed Plaza de las Americas at 175th Street and Broadway in Washington Heights. It is home to the second oldest greenmarket in New York City but also hosts a street-cart-style market of household products. The stele-like functional sculpture by artist Ester Partegàs allows those purchasing fruits and vegetables to wash and eat their produce at the plaza. Bordered by a theater-turned-church and a vibrant supermarket, the plaza also hosts musical performances and provides a respite from the tumult of the active neighborhood streetscape. Coincidentally (or not), my two daughters were born a few blocks away.

At Sense and the City, we made reference to DDC public plaza projects including Times Square and Plaza de las Americas. Image courtesy of Rick Bell.

At the intake pavilion of the refugee center near the Porte de la Chapelle in Paris, pictograms help overcome language barriers. Image courtesy of Rick Bell.

Yves Bozelec, an architect in the Mayor’s Office in Paris (responsible for street furniture and public plazas), looking at the DDC work at the Plaza de las Americas. Image courtesy of Rick Bell.