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Civic and Cultural Buildings Q&A with Sisto Martello

Civic and Cultural Buildings Q&A with Sisto Martello

Sisto Martello, CEO and President of Design 2147, answers commonly asked questions about civic and cultural buildings in New York City.

Q. How important are civic and cultural spaces to New York City?

I was born in New York City and studied architecture at City College in New York City. New York City is known for its culture, whether it’s arts, museums, religious facilities, and parks throughout the five boroughs.

Our zoos in the Bronx and Central Park are tremendous. In Brooklyn, our botanical gardens are some of the best in the in the world. I think all of these spaces, especially after COVID, when everyone just wanted to go somewhere and do something, play a really vital role in the fabric of our city. I think that today, more and more projects are being revisited to continue to support that.

Q. What are some of the considerations that go into developing and designing a civic or cultural space?

I think it’s all about experience. You know, if you wake up in the morning and you say, well, today I want to spend the day at the botanical garden, you’re going to drive there or you can take the train there and you’re going to walk through this incredible park. There’s buildings, there’s pathways, there’s so many different things, and while you’re going through it, it’s not just walking through it, but it’s enjoying the experience.

If you’re in a museum, what’s the experience like? If you’re in an outdoor park, what’s that experience like? If you’re at a Broadway theater, what’s that experience about? It’s really about the experience and how architects and designers and builders enhance that experience and design spaces that people want to come back to. The point of many of the spaces is to make people feel like they’re immersed, that it takes them out of New York City and brings them somewhere else.

Q.What are some of the code or design challenges that occur with civic and cultural spaces?

A lot of times in exhibit spaces or religious spaces, you have a lot of people in a small area. From a code standpoint, it’s understanding how many people can occupy that space, how they move about. We spoke with Via Collective Founder and Principal Katie Osborn on an episode of the Sisto Says podcast to talk about signage and wayfinding: how people know where and how to go because of visual signs.

Wayfinding is really important in civic and cultural design, because when you’re in this experience and you’re immersed in it, if there is an emergency, can you get out? Do you know where to go? And how easy is it to find your way around? It plays a vital part in the design every day.

Q, Tell us about some of the civic and cultural projects Design 2147 has worked on.

We have had the privilege to work on so many interesting civic and cultural institutions over the last 36 years. One example is working with the developer of the TSX Hotel to find a way to preserve a historically landmarked theater on Broadway as part of the hotel development. Ultimately the developer slid a hydraulic lift underneath the theater, raised it up three stories and reconnected it. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was able to understand how vital this piece of architecture was and to allow the team to literally move it two stories up in the air to preserve it.

I think that one of the great things about New York City is that they preserve a lot of the really great things that they have. We do a lot of work at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. It’s really a special place for me. I love the outdoors. As you know, I’m a big golfer. I love being outside.

For me to just go up to the Bronx and walk around at the Botanical Garden and get immersed in the beauty of the landscape, it’s just a magical place. The iconic Central Park is the same way, so I think that all of these spaces are a place for New Yorkers to get a different experience than being in a small apartment. And in five minutes you can be in Central Park and walk for hours and go to a pond and go to the zoo, go ice skating, go have lunch. It’s just magical and I think that the City and all of us New Yorkers have a responsibility to continue to maintain these spaces and continue that experience for generations to come.

Q. As a lifelong New Yorker, what are some of your favorite spaces in the city and why?

Visiting Italy quite often, I have a soft spot for religious facilities: churches, temples, mosques. I think that they offer a spiritual place for us to have a different experience, and I really enjoy the architecture. St. Patrick’s Cathedral is way up on the list. St. John the Divine is way up on the list.

If I had to pick one place, though, I would say it’s probably Rockefeller Center. The mass, the volume, all of it being in that center with the ice-skating rink – just everything about it. It’s just so well-coordinated that it draws people from around the world. So you go to St. Pat’s, then you walk down Fifth Avenue. It’s just an outdoor place, but there’s something magical about it for me. There are so many great iconic pieces of architecture in New York City that you could probably spend a good portion of your life each week picking one place to go to and saying, “Well, today I’m going to go to the Guggenheim and tomorrow I’m going to go to the Museum of Modern Art, and the next day I’m going to go to the Zoo, and the next day I’m going to go to the Queens Zoo, and the next day…” It just keeps going and going and going and going. Plus, there’s new projects that keep coming out. It’s just such a vibrant part of the fabric of New York City.

As an architect, I walk around New York City and things are different to my eye than maybe to someone else. Too many people are running through the City to go from the train to their job and they don’t appreciate Rockefeller Center or they don’t appreciate walking past a small little church on 59th street and you just stop in or you go past a temple and you just stop in and look and see how it draws people together and what it means.

I find that when I go to meetings, sometimes I get sidetracked because I’ll just get there early just to walk around and look at and stop in at some iconic places. I think sometimes you have to take those few seconds of mindfulness and just look around and really take in the beauty of these manmade buildings and churches, and the type of work that goes into them.

I also can’t forget to mention that I love the Empire State Building. It’s been one of my favorites, as is the Chrysler Building. But the Empire State Building now has on its second floor a Starbucks Reserve Roasterie and there’s only a few in the country. It’s really eclectic; they did a great job with the design. It’s kind of my go-to place before I go to meetings. Even after all these years, I still can’t believe how they built the Empire State Building. It’s just mind-boggling to me. It still has that iconic presence, and it is an experience when you go in it, even if it’s a Starbucks or you go to the 77th floor to a meeting.

It’s just an incredible place. So if anyone has a chance, stop there, grab a cup of coffee and just think about that. They built that thing in the speed of light without the technology we have today.

I think that we all have a responsibility to support all of these civic and cultural buildings financially. When you visit and they ask for a donation, you may only put $5 in it, but that $5 goes a long way. If everybody who stops at the Guggenheim and isn’t a mega-donor puts in $5, we feel like we’re part of preserving that cultural building or we’re part of that community. Donations help guarantee that these places will be there for our grandkids and then eventually for their grandkids.

Lastly, in this city, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and other organizations do a really great job of maintaining the appearance, the feel,  and the experience of these institutions. As a company, we truly find a passion and satisfaction when we complete those type of projects because we bring our families to them. We tell other people about them and they get to have these experiences as well.