NYC Info Center: Kill the Brochure

Last month, the Architectural League presented New York Designs, an annual juried lecture series that provides a forum for the presentation of innovative and accomplished built work in New York City. The theme for 2009, “Public,” asked designers to think about and define “public” today, and how they would imagine buildings, landscapes, and urban places that aspire to be for the public. One of the projects featured in this year’s series is the NYC Information Center on 7th Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets.

WXY Architecture and Local Projects were commissioned by NYC and Company to create an entirely new idea of how an information center should work in New York City. What used to be a room filled with brochures, counter agents, and lines, is now a technologically-advanced visitor center that allows you to piece together your own itinerary through the city on one of three interactive map tables, creating custom maps and guidebooks which you can print out, email to yourself, or take with you on your mobile device. There are still FAQ stations for people looking for the top 10 attractions, or info on generally getting around. (There are also still a handful of – gasp! – humans ready to answer questions or help you out.) But for those who want to explore a bit more, these interactive maps are a fertile resource to help scout out a different path through the city.

Wayfinding and orientation are pervasive issues in a city like New York and, increasingly, in architectural theory and practice. The city can be daunting, and visitors stay in areas they already know about and feel at least slightly familiar with. Heck, locals fall into the same trap (even if not in the same areas). The stereotypical tourist takes a cab to his or her hotel, and from there visits the Empire State Building, Times Square, or Ground Zero, never realizing that they are right around the corner from the Morgan Library, Bryant Park, or Century 21. Map-based browsing allows people to uncover lesser-known gems that the typical tourist might not find by sticking to the guidebook. Visitors can experience another side of New York – the walking city, where one can wander endlessly, discovering new soon-to-be-favorite spots by chance – but with a guiding hand that helps make it a little friendlier, a little more approachable.

The space itself, while beautifully designed, intentionally takes a back seat to the information it is presenting. The focus is the city itself, and everything that goes into exploring it.  The team, in their own words, “killed the brochure.” They exploded it, really, and completely reimagined how information can be discovered, organized, and delivered. From the details (subway directions provide you with photographs of every train and station along your route, easing the anxieties of a newbie straphanger), to the spectacle (a wall-sized screen lets you take an aerial flyover of your custom itinerary via Google Earth), the information center sets visitors off on an entirely different foot. Throw this app into the mix and soon they’ll be getting around better than the rest of us.

To watch the complete podcast of Claire Weisz (WXY Architecture) and Jake Barton (Local Projects) presenting the project, click here.

Varick Shute served as a founding editor of Urban Omnibus from its inception to 2015.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.