What’s the difference between a school, a library, and a police precinct? They’re all civic institutions designed to communicate their contribution to a well-functioning society. And the buildings are similar in appearance. The products of several waves of municipal construction, their locations track a growing urban population on an expanding metropolitan footprint, from dense center to leafy edges. The primary distinction might be the sea of cars parked in front of and around the police precinct, often on the sidewalk, perpendicular to the curb. The cars are the clearest sign of the exceptional powers of the building’s inhabitants, who can defy the parking dictates everyone else must live by. Beyond parking privileges, they alone can arrest people, detain them, surveil them, physically constrain them, or shoot them. For all the comparisons of schools to jails, or the myth of the oppressive silence of the library, the power of the police is unique in the city.
The majority of the cars were cleared away when Kris Graves photographed every one of New York City’s 77 precinct station houses for Urban Omnibus. The blue and white car, the badge, and the uniform all communicate “police” on city streets, but the building, the police’s permanent home in the neighborhood, conveys a particular message. What does it say? Whether the precinct is a reassuring beacon of safety or a bunker of malfeasance may depend more on individual or collective associations than on the architecture. To evaluate public perceptions of police station exteriors, a pair of environmental psychologists recently used a troika of authority, professionalism, and approachability. Analogous to the NYPD’s motto of courtesy, professionalism, and respect (compassion is in the mission statement, but not on the cars), the terms are not in perfect alignment. Is respect based on fear, or trust? Ideally, the precinct building will communicate the highest aspirations to the protection of public safety. In reality, actions and associations layer on the buildings like exhaust on the concrete and bricks. Police find missing children, stop terrorists, solve murders, stop and frisk, falsely accuse, and physically abuse. They’re friendly problem solvers and professional enforcers of race and class hierarchies, and their houses are beacons and bunkers.
The city’s precincts span the history of its metropolitan police force, established in 1844. The oldest — the Fifth — dates to 1881, designed by official police architect Nathaniel Bush. The 121st precinct in Staten Island, designed by Rafael Viñoly, is the most recent, completed in 2013. In the nineteenth century, new precincts were built in the style of renaissance and Romanesque palaces and fortresses to convey the dignity of their civic function. But, like the very first police station above Franklin Market, many were housed in rented and retrofitted buildings across the city. The indignity of these antiquated and inadequate spaces led to an explosion of construction in the late 1960s. Since then, few new precincts have been built.
The relationship between the precinct and the neighborhood is continually recalibrated through the building. Until the end of the nineteenth century, precincts had not only jails to hold alleged criminals, but dorms for “vagrants”; no other city agency was tasked with responsibility for the poor and homeless. Later, in the 1960s, new precinct designs would emphasize the “police-public partnership,” designating space for Auxiliary Police, Civil Defense volunteers, the Police Athletic League, and visitors. Today, Studio Gang has explored strategies to improve police-community relations by activating “police stations as civic assets.” They have been consulting for the city, which is planning retrofits to precinct lobbies and public spaces. A new 40th precinct designed by BIG promises the first community meeting room inside a precinct, which will “encourage civic engagement” there. Currently under construction in the Melrose neighborhood of the Bronx, it nonetheless has been interpreted by many as a $50 million bunker. The status of police in the life of the neighborhood remains unresolved by design.
— Mariana Mogilevich
All photographs copyright Kris Graves.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.