The Practice of Large Scale Architecture

By Stan Eckstut, FAIA

In my experience, Large Scale Architecture can be both a boldly inspiring and a humbling kind of practice. Practicing Large Scale demands that we think like visionaries, but that we know how to fit in and accommodate others.

Let’s start with the bold and visionary part. Our job is to think big, broad, and long-term about how to make great cities. We seek to contribute to the public realm of the city above all – the shared places that welcome everyone – rather than just responding to the particular and changing needs of individual users. Long after individual programs, even buildings, have come and gone, we want the “places” we’ve designed – the total urban assemblage of buildings and surrounding spaces – to thrive and remain in constant use.

What do we mean by a “great place”? Take SoHo, a powerful illustration of how a great place (in this case, the place is a district) can outlive its original intended uses. Built as a single-use manufacturing district in the nineteenth century, SoHo’s cast-iron loft buildings and narrow streets now support a premier retail and residential destination – and who knows how it will evolve in the next 50 years. Or another local example: Rockefeller Center, a brilliant marriage of open space, buildings, and streets – that has become a beloved and iconic place in Midtown Manhattan, though its individual tenants come and go.

We tend to get involved much earlier than most architects, often at the very beginning of the process when major stakeholders are trying to define what they want. Our task is to help define the larger urban context and the distinctive places for buildings to fit into. At Battery Park City, we designed the initial, overarching concept for the new downtown neighborhood, and then went on to design several of the site’s key places and buildings; the neighborhood’s last two buildings, both our designs, are going up right now. This was also our role at the World Trade Center site after 9/11 and at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor East, to name just a few.

Of course, we did not invent the practice of Large Scale architecture – getting involved at the beginning of the process is what architects used to do. A century ago, architects played a bigger and more meaningful role in the evolution of cities – just think of McKim, Meade and White. Our work refers back to this bold tradition.