In Conversation with Juan Porral and Gregory Haley

We sat down with Juan Porral, Partner, and Gregory Haley, Associate Principal  and Senior Urban Designer, from Grimshaw to discuss what Design for the People means to them and how this theme has manifested in their projects. In addition to addressing the project brief, the guiding question has been to them, how to create a space and a sense of place? It’s about “connection and delight.” We touch upon several well-known Grimshaw projects, some based here in New York City, including the Queens Museum, the JFK Master Plan, Fulton Center, and MTA Flood Mitigation.

Juan Porral

Juan joined Grimshaw in 1996 in London, helped open the New York office in 2001 and became a Partner in 2012. Juan is passionate about humane design that is both practical and lifts the spirit of its users and the wider community. He believes that such architecture is a result of the purposeful collaboration of architects, engineers, specialists and clients. He has experience across a wide range of building sectors and has demonstrated leadership in realizing creative solutions that exceed client expectations.

Gregory Haley

Gregory has been with Grimshaw for more than 12 years, working on a range of project types in North America and the Middle East, including transit planning, mixed-use urban development and cultural mapping. He is an accomplished designer, project manager and dedicated urbanist. Gregory is co-chair of the urban design committees of both AIA and APA NY chapters, a board president of the Harvard Architectural and Urban Society, a Fellow of the Urban Design Forum and a Design Resource Professional for the Mayors’ Institute on City Design.

Kat Chan, facade engineer and Future of Design Symposium committee member: Thanks so much for taking some time out to talk to us about the Future of Design Symposium theme Design for the People.

Juan Porral, Partner: Thank you for inviting us.

Kat: So, one of our first questions that we ask all of our interviewees is: what does the theme design for the people mean to you?

Juan: It’s about designing from first principles. So, you think about who are the users of the project and what do they want? Then, the question is can we deliver that and more? Can we deliver a project that works for the client that hired us, but also for the users and the wider community? Rather than only look at what we’ve done before, we’re really going back to first principles and finding opportunities to answer those questions differently, adding value by creating more exciting and unexpected experiences that maybe wouldn’t come to mind if you just jump straight in.

Gregory: I think for me, I would come at it with an urban design perspective. For me, what that brings to mind immediately is public interaction. It’s about convening, design that creates opportunities for people to interact. I think that’s what cities are about, but it has to have some flexibility and choice. You can’t force that — you just have to provide those opportunities and allow people to tune their environment, to interact when they want to and in different ways and at different scales. It needs to be accessible, flexible, and comfortable.

Kat: Both of you touched upon this idea of understanding who the end user is, while still also providing the flexibility for them to really take ownership of the experience with the design. In your opinion, how can we as engineers, designers or even built environment enthusiasts get the greater public engaged and talking about the built environment to really start honing down what we as users as well as designers really want from a space?

Juan: We have a bunch of projects where we’ve tried different ways of doing that to increase engagement. And, there are great stories of symbiotic benefit to the client and to the wider public. For example, the Queen’s Museum. The museum often felt that people were there in the park all around the museum, but they didn’t know the museum was open and maybe they weren’t the kind of people that might go to an art museum that frequently, if at all. The museum wanted to be clearly visible, as a bright and attractive space from the outside through their historic colonnade. But they decided that they would open up the museum more than just visually. You’re encouraged to step in and use the restroom facilities. And, lo and behold, you can also see some of the arts and you might decide to linger or have a coffee in the coffee shop. Making the building more accessible and attractive and multi-functional to different audiences might get them interested in the thing that you’re kind of trying to promote, which is art and local artists. So yeah, we’re thinking about engagement at a civic scale and a multifaceted scale.

Queens Museum
Queens Museum, Location: Queens NY, Architect: Grimshaw Architects

Gregory: I think it also plays into our process, right? With a lot of our public projects, particularly our master planning projects, there’s always a public process to them. An example of engagement, getting people excited, and building consensus early on in projects would be our work at  Union Station in LA. We reached out and worked with an artist to create these day-in-a-life scenarios of different people that would use the station in different ways as a means of engaging with people to understand what the proposals might mean, and to encourage people to develop a sense of ownership through understanding it early on and so that it becomes in a way their project.

I think beyond our design work, there’s also a  lot of public advocacy that can play into this. For Parking Day, we took over a parking spot nearby in our neighborhood here. We set up a map of the neighborhood and invited people to come by, pick a different color string, depending on whether they were a neighborhood resident,a  tourist, from another borough, and whether they were working or at leisure. And, then they would map out their routine through the neighborhood and this got people on the sidewalk talking about their neighborhood, where they go, and how it relates to other people’s paths. It gets people thinking about their neighborhood in a different way. Likewise a group I’m involved with at the AIA, on Earth Day closed a block of Broadway and reconfigured it to get people to really rethink the relationship between the street and public realm. There was a decision made to make our streets the way they are and they could be different. I think challenging people’s perspectives in this way is an important means of engagement. Lastly, I think we need to engage more with education. In Chicago, after the creation of the Chicago Plan of 1909, they had the Wacker Manual, which was a condensed version of the Plan that every public school student in Chicago had. You know, I think that speaks volumes about the importance of encouraging civic pride in where one lives. I think we need to do more of that.

Kat: Both of you have thought of the idea: you get people engaged by engaging your design with them.

To go back to the Queens Museum since it was part of the intent to open up the museum and encourage more people to take the initiative and circulate themselves into the museum, has the museum themselves seen a difference affecting of visitorship?

Juan: The museum more than doubled the facilities, and they now have one of the largest galleries in New York. They’re also a neighborhood and community centered museum, and they very much cater to the local schools. And a lot of school kids come in and do workshops there. They like to highlight local artists, hyper local to the neighborhood. But, the new space, in bringing light into the center of the museum, which is unusual and then filtering the light with our glass chandelier, has created this beautiful event space for them. As an institution, having the space to rent out for banquets, events, weddings, has really transformed the museum’s finances and the attractiveness of the museum to the community.

Kat: That’s great to hear. I personally have not had the chance to go but I heard how the space has changed. So, I’m glad to hear that you guys on the design team were able to also get that positive feedback. How’s that affected your work process? For the JFK Masterplan in any way?

Juan: Well, at JFK, it’s not a dissimilar thing in the sense that you have a very old facility. And, how do you work with legacy structure, which include the reactive changes completed through its history as the need arose. But, maybe there was no big master plan or an idea for the future. And with JFK, the Port Authority and the Governor’s Office wanted to really take a step back and think about how they’re going to need to cater from the current number of 60 million passengers. It’s going to be 100 million by 2050, and I think it will keep on growing. So, how do you think about that in a much longer term and plan for it in a way that all the interventions you need to do now to grow capacity year on year are building towards a bigger vision?

JFK Airport
JFK Master Plan, Location: Queens NY, Architect: Grimshaw Architects

Juan: So, it’s about taking the best of what’s there, such as the TWA that’s opening as a hotel this month. It’s looking at the existing assets and looking how they can be made better for the passengers and which ones are now obsolete. The obsolete are going to be replaced with brand new facilities. And, how do you tie in the brand new to the existing, to the historic in a way that’s holistic and is going to dramatically change the passenger experience at JFK? So, when you arrive there, you think, “Ah, I’m in New York, I’m in the US, this is a world city, the airport, it fits that condition.” Rather than the current situation, which is not quite like that!

Kat: Yes, I’m glad that improvements are underway indeed. Haha.

To go back to Gregory’s point about civic engagement — one topic that we talked about for a moment beforehand was with regards to this Flood Mitigation Project. I had seen these bike racks and benches that had popped up around the city above the subway grades, but I never made the connection between the raised edge of the grill on the sidewalk was helping mitigate the flood by preventing rainwater from going into the subway. Could you touch a little bit upon what successes and what challenges you guys faced when developing the scheme?

NYC Street Furniture 3
Flood Mitigation, Location: Various Locations in NY, Architect: Grimshaw Architects

Juan: I mean I think it’s brilliant that you didn’t know what it was doing in terms of flood mitigation. That’s when you know it’s been successful. The idea was, oh we have to lift up the grates, you know, six inches or nine inches above the sidewalks, and now they are just a trip hazard. Right? So how do you sign something that will do that and be seen as urban furniture that’s successfully integrated into the streetscape? Adding the bike rack functionality and then the seating functionality, something that you might’ve ordered just as a bike rack and a seat rather than a flood mitigation piece. So, the fact that you didn’t notice it is good news!

Gregory: I think it’s also simply an attitude towards infrastructure, that infrastructural needs are satisfied in as way that is scaled and tuned to the human being and everyday life. I think it shows a certain level of respect for the general public.

Juan: Definitely, that it’s an opportunity — in a funny way, that project encapsulates much of the Grimshaw ethos because you take an infrastructure problem and you turned it into an opportunity where the infrastructure instead of being this ugly thing in the city is completely transformed into a humanistic piece that is about everyday life.

Gregory: Yeah.

Juan: And I think whether you look at that or the street furniture around New York, the bus stops, the 3000 bus stops and the kiosks, that whole part of the integrated furniture we designed or you look at Fulton Center, right? And you go from what used to be, you know, these dowdy shops with small entrances down to the subway as a sort of rabbit warren of a maze and of confusing passageways to now having the same amount of retail in the facility. But you have clear wayfinding, you have this amazing piece of art, using daylight and sunlight before you go through the turnstile. You can understand where the subway is when you’re on the street level on Broadway. Inside you’re seeing Broadway above and the subway below in a way that was never possible before!

Gregory: Absolutely, I mean you can meet someone at Fulton Center now. You would never meet anyone at Broadway Nassau! So I think it is civic at its heart  — in a way that locates it in one’s mental map of the city, which is I think one of the great successes of that project.

Fulton Center
Fulton Center, Location: Manhattan, NY, Architect: Grimshaw Architects

Kat: Yeah. I think it’s a really good example, and I’m really glad we came to that project because one thing is for certain: it’s an example of good design in its anticipation and study of the folks who move through the space, and addressing those needs by providing that space and sense of place. And I think that’s a really good project to end on because it touches upon all of the items that we’ve talked about to date in the scope of the symposium. Personally, I’m grateful for it. I go through it everyday. Haha.

Juan: Well, we both worked on it for many years.

Gregory: Yep.

Kat: That’s awesome. Well, I see that our time is winding down. To end, what word or phase come to your mind when you hear the phase “design for the people”?

Juan: What comes to mind is what are people doing? What do they want to do and what do they want to do at this place in this building? What can I provide that can uplift the soul? So one of the words I love is delight. You always get as engineers and as architects to solve the problem within the budget and all that — can we do all those things and give delight? So, designing for the people, ideally would mean somebody seeing or using the design would get delight, in my mind.

Gregory: Yeah. I think I would agree. It’s that sense of the everyday — improving everyday life. I think that means thinking about design and architecture and objects, and generally the way we form our environment as something that connects us with our surroundings, whether it’s Fulton and the connection through daylight to a sense of nature around us, or in how it connects us with other people. So, it’s designing the table that sits between and connects us with other people.

Juan: Connection and delight. Yeah.

Kat: Connection and delight. I like that a lot a lot. Great. Well, thanks so much again for taking your time!

Juan: Thanks! I look forward to your article.

Gregory: Thank you!


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