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Innovation By Design

The 27 Most Innovative Spaces And Places Of The Year

From hospitals and houses to subway signs and parks, these projects are reshaping the world around us.

The 27 Most Innovative Spaces And Places Of The Year

How can cities build infrastructure today to support tomorrow's rapidly increasing urban population, which the UN says will only increase in the coming decades? Over the past year, we saw designers, architects, and urban planners hard at work finding new ways to think about housing and improve public spaces. They range from new construction—micro homes and prefab houses—to various forms of adaptive reuse, with derelict urban spaces finding second lives as environmentally friendly parks and arts centers.

The winners and finalists in the Spaces, Places, and Cities category of Co.Design's Innovation by Design Awards exemplify the move toward focused, thoughtful design for communities. Here are the 27 best projects of the year.


Carmel Place

Carmel Place is New York City's first micro-unit building, where modular units averaging 300 square feet were prefabricated off-site and then stacked to create a tower of compact, tiny living spaces. So life doesn't feel quite so cramped for those inside, the building devotes more space to communal amenities, like a gym and public roof terrace. It's one alternative to the housing shortages gripping many expensive cities, New York included.

Hunts Point Landing
Firm: Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects

Meet the micro-park. This 100-foot-wide park and pier in the South Bronx brought new life to a tiny sliver of land located in an industrial zone and polluted shoreline as part of the South Bronx Greenway Master Plan. Mathew Neilsen Landscape Architects transformed a dead-end street into 1.5 acres of vibrant, community-minded green space, taking on the New York City bureaucracy to make it happen.


"Laying The Groundwork" Design Guidelines
Firm: Design Trust For Public Space

Published by the Design Trust for Public Space in partnership with the N.Y.C. Department of Housing Preservation and Development, this design bible acts as a guide to the intricacies of urban design. Its nine core commandments focus on the ground floor of buildings in particular, exploring how retail and community spaces can be integral parts of every community. The guide gives architects and developers a set of best practices on how details like bench placement and electrical service can make them more usable and even more social.

1.8 London
Firm: Studio Echelman

This web-like sculpture suspended over London's Oxford Circus is actually a visualization of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. At night, visitors can use their smartphones to influence the patterns of light projected onto the dynamic sculpture, which is named for the number of microseconds the day was shortened when the earthquake hit.

Biodesign Studio
Firm: Local Projects

This permanent exhibition at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California, allows visitors to gain a deeper understanding of synthetic biology, bioengineering, and biological design. How? Hands-on, interactive labs let visitors do things like hack live bacteria's DNA to make it change color or "create" their own digital creatures. It takes an incredibly complex emerging field of science, and makes it tangible through space and exhibition design.

Firm: Bestor Architecture

This cluster of 18 homes in the Los Angeles hills could be an answer to the future of urban housing. The homes were designed to maximize the number of single-family homes in a given area. The two- or three-bedroom homes fit together to look like a single house, complete with a courtyard and shared outdoor spaces, increasing density without appearing to do so.

Brooklyn Boulders Urban Design And Architecture Strategy
Firm: Brooklyn Boulders

Rock climbing gyms are on the up-and-up—but could they also serve as community hubs? One New York-based mainstay, Brooklyn Boulders, builds its gyms in neglected places, providing colorful, art-covered climbing walls in old factories and unused churches. But these are more than exercise spaces—the company also uses its facilities for community events and concerts.

Chicago Riverwalk
Firm: Ross Barney Architects, Sasaki

This open pedestrian walkway along the Chicago lakefront has been in the works since 2001, and the latest major addition adds three distinct sections of public space. There's the Marina, where pedestrians can watch boats come and go while they dine or stroll. The Cove, with boating and kayak rentals. And the River Theater—a public amphitheater right on the water. It's a car-free pedestrian environment, designed to handle the Windy City's annual flooding while still providing a beautiful place to walk along the water.

Firm: Mathieu Lehanneur

This design for Paris's streetlights is a refreshing update to the city's classic art nouveau posts, with digitally manufactured wooden bases made of different grains that represent cities across the country, and efficient LEDs that are partially powered by a solar dome on top of the entire structure. Très chic!

Havemeyer Building
Firm: Common Living

Common is in the middle of the coliving craze, providing housing for young urban professionals who want maximum flexibility and minimum hassle. You can apply online for one of the Havemeyer Building's 51 private bedrooms (stocked with Casper mattresses), and management keeps all the shared spaces clean and stocked with necessities. Say good-bye to buying toilet paper or fighting over who takes out the trash.

Connected Worlds
Firm: Design I/O

This immersive installation inside the New York Hall of Science’s Great Hall Building is like a giant, virtual world (complete with a 45-foot waterfall) built out of projectors and Kinect cameras that visitors can manipulate. Connected Worlds is designed to help kids understand the trade-offs and advantages of sustainability as they explore a wildly complex, abstracted environment much like our own.

"Forest Of Light"
Firm: Sou Fujimoto

Created for the fashion label COS, this installation from architect Sou Fujimoto uses a bare minimum of materials to create an immersive spatial experience. Architectural beams of light paired with sound, fog, and mirrored walls converge as a mystical environment that reacts to visitors.

Forest Of Light, The Asia Culture Center
Firm: Kyu Sung Woo Architects

This park in the city of Gwangju, South Korea, has exhibition spaces, libraries, performance halls, and a children's museum—not to mention gardens, playgrounds, a tree park, and a grand lawn. It's all in service of revitalizing the city's identity and providing it with a cultural centerpiece. But the complex also serves as a memorial and monument to the Gwangju Uprising, when hundreds of people died revolting against the dictator Chun Doo-hwan in 1980.

Generator Amsterdam
Firm: DesignAgency

Do all hostels have to be dingy? Not according to Generator Amsterdam. Located in the Dutch capital's hip Oost neighborhood, this hostel is full of lounges, bars, and designer wallpaper—with no lumpy mattresses or bedbugs in sight.

Hudson Yards Public Square And Gardens
Firm: Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

This elevated public park, which will be situated over New York City's new Hudson Yards neighborhood, is being built on a steel platform on top of old railroad tracks. In short, it's a park that floats. And to support the growth of 30,000 plants and 200 mature trees, it will use jet engines for ventilation, a 60,000-gallon irrigation system, and "smart" soil that will allow trees to grow in just four feet of dirt.

Firm: Intersection

New York City is in the process of replacing its 7,500 antiquated booths with new kiosks that offer free Wi-Fi, phone calls, and device charging, all powered by digital advertisements on the sides of the kiosks. Even though they've been controversial since their rollout, LinkNYC offers a vision for the future of connectivity in cities.

Maggie's Centre Barts
Firm: Steven Holl Architects

Hospitals rarely feel like healing spaces. The U.K.-based Maggie's Centres provide comfortable environments for cancer patients to heal, without the clinical coldness for which hospitals are so often known. The latest location in London takes that dedication to warmth and recovery to the next level, with a public roof garden that features space for yoga and tai chi and a beautiful translucent facade inspired by musical notes. It's a new vision for how hospital architecture should look and function.

Firm: GM

Car-sharing services have their perks, but they can't ensure that your next car will already be tuned to your favorite radio station or the chair set to the position that most suits you. This experimental program from GM allows car-sharers to set up their preferred settings via an app, which can communicate with the OnStar system inside the next car they'll be driving. The app also allows the user to control the interior settings on their smartphone while inside the car, regardless of what make or model they're sitting in.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Firm: HOK

The new home stadium for the Atlanta Falcons has a semi-transparent retractable roof that resembles a camera's aperture, a striking departure from most stadiums' roofs, which mimic the design of a convertible car. When closed, the roof hosts a large screen to envelop fans in 360-degree video. The finished stadium will receive LEED certification—a first for professional sports arenas.

Muji Hut
Firm: Muji

The Japanese lifestyle company's first prefabricated house follows its broader design ethos. It's highly functional, with just enough design to be beautiful as well. The three houses are simply adorned but aesthetically pleasing, their compact design revealing how the company envisions its products, both small and large, augmenting urban lifestyles.

Rockaway Beach Boardwalk
Firm: Pentagram, WXY

After Hurricane Sandy took out a chunk of Rockaway Beach's boardwalk in Queens, Pentagram stepped in to help rebuild the walkway. The agency was in charge of signage, which it built right into the new boardwalk, with massive 150-by-50 foot letters that can even be read by planes in the air. To beachgoers, the words "Rockaway," composed of a subtle blue hue, blend into the walkway, a striking combination of signage and environmental design.

Square, Inc. Headquarters
Firm: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

The mobile payment company's San Francisco headquarters are housed in what was once a windowless data center for supercomputers—but you'd never know it. The company's four floors are grounded by a central staircase that takes the city boulevard as its inspiration, with Square-enabled vendors selling coffee and sandwiches along the edges of these "streets."

Starter Home*
Firm: Office Of Jonathan Tate

Cities and suburbs are littered with wasted spaces that are too small for conventional homes. That's where Starter Home* comes in, with a strategy to transform these vacant lots into micro homes that a wider range of people can afford. A 195-square-foot proof-of-concept settles between a duplex and an industrial warehouse in New Orleans, and there are more Starter Homes on the way in New Orleans, Austin, Houston, Pittsburgh, and Oakland.

The Kathleen Grimm School For Leadership And Sustainability At Sandy Ground
Firm: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

New York's first net-zero-energy school uses 50% less energy than your average New York City public school to serve nearly 450 elementary schoolers. How? It's all about efficiency and lighting. The building uses photovoltaic solar panels to collect energy, and is oriented along a strategic "L" shaped plan to increase daylighting. Plenty of skylights and reflective ceiling panels take advantage of every last drop of natural light, too.

The Smithsonian National Museum Of African American History & Culture
Firm: Adjaye Associates

British starchitect David Adjaye designed Washington's latest addition to the National Mall—a museum dedicated to the history and culture of African-Americans in the United States. The multilayered facade resembles an inverted ziggurat, covered in detailed ironwork made by African-American artists that's designed to allow light into the museum's interiors.

The Strand, American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.)
Firm: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

The Strand is a former 725-seat abandoned movie theater that was given new life as the home for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. It's a perfect example of preserving a building's history and character while repurposing it to a new purpose: The renovations preserved the building's facade and some of the original decorations, marquee letters, and even graffiti, but the interior is decidedly modern, with a giant LED screen dominating the lobby.

[Photo: Craig Dugan Photography]

University Of Minnesota Health, Clinics & Surgery Center
Firm: CannonDesign

This University of Minnesota's health center reimagines what a hospital can be, with no private offices or front desk. Instead, patients are checked in via iPad by staff members who come to them—and rooms are available by reservation. It's a new way of thinking about how space can be effectively used to promote healing. No one likes going to the hospital, but details like these can go a long way to improving the experience.

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