Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

This year, the Van Alen Institute in New York celebrates its 120th anniversary. It’s hard to believe that an organization that was founded in 1894 as the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects would find itself in 2014 with a taxi-yellow bookshop on West 22nd Street, the drive to keep reinventing itself, and a new leader with a global vision.

David van der Leer was appointed in March 2013 as the executive director of the Van Alen Institute (VAI), a nonprofit that researches and shapes discussions about how design influences the public realm. He grew up in the suburbs of Rotterdam, Netherland, and he is soft spoken while boasting an impressive résumé. Previously an associate curator of architecture and urban studies at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, he was the co-curator of both the mobile BMW Guggenheim Lab, an urban design think tank that traveled to New York, Berlin, and Mumbai, as well as the 2012 American Pavilion of the Venice Architecture Biennale, where he served as a curator of the U.S. Pavilion, alongside Cathy Lang Ho and ARCHITECT editor-in-chief Ned Cramer.

He inherits an organization that, like many of its counterparts, has supported a host of public programming: exhibitions, competitions, and symposia. Which means that even as the VAI has embarked on high-profile public ventures—such as serving as a collaborative partner on Rebuild by Design, the regional initiative established as part of President Barack Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force—it has also hosted intimate panel discussions to celebrate the releases of relatively obscure scholarly journals.

Still, the VAI has struggled to differentiate itself from other New York architecture organizations. It’s a crowded field, with heavyweights such as the Architectural League of New York and the American Institute of Architects’ Center for Architecture, and rowdier outposts that include the Storefront for Art and Architecture and Columbia University’s Studio-X.

Enter van der Leer, whose multinational and multidisciplinary approach is behind his ambitious plans to rethink the mission of the VAI. “How do we operate within a national and international context, while not forgetting about New York City?” he asks. “It’s also important to think about the places where there aren’t 15 organizations looking at spatial relationships in the city.”

In January, the VAI named Kai-Uwe Bergmann, a partner at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), which is based in New York and Copenhagen, as chair of the board’s International Committee—one of three new board appointments. And while the expansion of the VAI’s scope is clearly a strategic move to increase its influence in a larger dialogue about urbanism, it may also reflect a restlessness with architecture’s default insularity and the tendency to keep speculative conversations within the academic realm of the discipline.

While at the Guggenheim, van der Leer quietly jostled boundaries when he curated “stillspotting nyc,” a series of multidisciplinary programs in each of the five boroughs that explored how residents find reprieve from the constant urban buzz. The series included architects, sure, but also sound and performance artists, composers, and writers.

This past November, the VAI launched “Elsewhere,” a two-year-long programming and research initiative. Subtitled “Escape and the Urban Landscape,” “Elsewhere” extends van der Leer’s “stillspotting nyc” explorations. Off-site events (a stargazing walk to discuss light pollution, for instance) will bring together diverse group of practitioners, and workshops (such as Debt, Design, and Displacement in the City, which was held in November) will tackle social justice, economics, and policy issues, including topics such as urban mobility and housing inequity.

“Poetic, big themes give you access to other disciplines and other publics,” van der Leer says. “The two-year timeline allows us to keep things open so that we can keep plugging in new ideas and developing stakeholders.” Additionally, he hopes that the longer timeframe will allow for a more articulated approach to research and will help jumpstart the VAI’s fellowship program, which has been dormant since the beginning of 2011.

Van der Leer also has ambitious plans for new design competitions, which the VAI has long sponsored. In 1999, the organization’s “TKTS2K” competition helped spark the remaking of Times Square. And in 2011, the VAI partnered with the U.S. National Park Service and the National Parks Conservation Association to launch “Parks for the People: A Student Competition to Reimagine America’s National Parks.”

In late 2013, van der Leer added to the list by unveiling “Changing Course,” a competition geared to reimagining a sustainable infrastructure for the lower Mississippi River Delta. With partners that include local leaders, a former oil company exec, scientists, engineers, and even the State of Louisiana and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the competition aims to present proposals for the 2017 version of Louisiana’s master plan. It is as complex and geographically ambitious as any project that the VAI has taken on to date.

“ ‘Changing Course’ is similar in scope to ‘Rebuild by Design.’ It’s the logical next step,” says board chair Stephen Cassell, AIA, who is principal of the New York City–based firm Architecture Research Office and a member of the competition leadership team. “Certain ideas can only be engaged at the larger scale through design and engineering.”

Perhaps the most visible change to the VAI will happen closer to home. This spring, the institute will begin construction on the redesign of its 22nd Street headquarters, located in an especially narrow, six-story office building. Collective-LOK—a collaboration between Jon Lott of Brooklyn, N.Y.–based PARA-Project; William O’Brien Jr. of Cambridge, Mass.; and Michael Kubo of Boston-based Over Under—won the competition, titled Ground/Work, that the VAI held to choose the project architects.

Collective-LOK’s scheme reinvents the entire 1,620-square-foot ground-floor space, currently occupied by Van Alen Books, which opened in 2011 and was designed by LOT-EK, a firm based in New York and Naples, Italy. The redesign features a slightly curving wall of polycarbonate panels, behind which will be an array of offices (which are currently located on the fourth floor of the building), meeting rooms, and storage. The remaining space will be flexible, with lightweight translucent scrims at the ready to divide up the space for workshops, lectures, or exhibitions.

Collective-LOK’s proposal includes a street seat—a mobile bench located in the parking spot in front of the building. Featuring mirrored panels, the seat plays with concepts of reflection and visibility; it simultaneously pushes programming onto the sidewalk as it conceals the storefront from passing traffic.

Van der Leer jokes that in the old space, the dominant experience for visitors was waiting for the elevator. He’s optimistic that the new offices and programming spaces—the bookstore has also been folded into the redesign—will help the institution better connect to its audience at street level.

Because, ultimately, what’s the point of studying the global city if you are detached from your own urban environment?