Building a Concept of Architectural Tolerance

Rick Bell, executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, says he doesn’t claim ‘architectural tolerance” as a doctrine. But his evocation of a diverse and tolerant streetscape caught my attention. It sounds like something Jane Jacobs articulated 50 years ago. It’s certainly the kind of street this flaneur would walk down. I want to think that such architecture naturally would accommodate the accessibility needs of people with disabilities.

Bell was talking about possible design concepts for the controversial Islamic community center that’s been proposed for the neighborhood near Ground Zero in Manhattan. He was interviewed this morning by Steve Inskeep on NPR:

INSKEEP: So, if you were the architect that they came to to design this building, you’d be looking for something that was somehow open to the community, but at the same time allowed a certain amount of privacy and contemplation once you got inside.

Mr. BELL: That says it very well. An opening to the community, I think, also has to address the rancor, the controversy that has grown up about this building, fears that some in the community have that need to be addressed – and no better place than here.

INSKEEP: Do you think it’s likely that no matter how its designed, no matter how its built – that if it ever does come to pass, if the Islamic center is constructed – that the vast majority of people who come to Lower Manhattan or even who walk on that particular street a couple blocks from the World Trade Center site, will never even notice it?

Mr. BELL: People see what they want to see. And there will be people who will stop at this building after it’s done and say, you see, I told you so. Look how different and alienating this is. So different from our experience, how different from my synagogue, how different from my church, ho different from the place I work or the place I live. That won’t be bad. You know, it’ll cause people to maybe think about why it’s different and in what ways it might also be similar.

As an architect, I dont think I would claim a doctrine of architectural tolerance, but if you look at the streetscape of New York in terms of its great variety of styles, its great historical variety of when buildings were built, it’s an active and vibrant mix of architecture that talks about how, on this world, we have to live together.

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