Frank Mruk is associate dean for the School of Architecture and Design at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), based in Manhattan and Old Westbury on Long Island. Mruk worked with the Long Island Index on the 2010 Build a Better Burb competition and the 2014 ParkingPLUS Design Challenge. In February 2014, I asked Mruk to reflect on both contests, as well as his perspective on the future of Long Island and the suburbs.
In your words, “Long Island has always been an incubator for the reinvention of this thing we call suburbia.” Can you elaborate on this concept, both in terms of the Long Island region’s historical role and the role we might play in the future?
Frank Mruk: From Levittown, this country’s first prêt-à-porter suburb, to the Houses at Sagaponac, to the Build a Better Burb competition, Long Islanders have never been afraid to innovate the way we live. The world has been focusing on cities for quite some time now, but many believe now is the time to explore the tremendous opportunities latent in our suburbs. Long Island has always been the archetype for the post-war suburbs throughout the country, and as more and more people become freed from the chains of going to work in a cubicle every day, the opportunities to reinvent suburbia are tremendous. Many are seeing that there is more room to innovate here. We are in a metropolitan area with the greatest concentration of designers and creative people in the country. Long Island is in the perfect position to leverage this talent.
Long Island Radically Rezoned (LIRR), an entry to the Long Island Index’s Build a Better Burb competition, was designed by a team from your institution, NYIT. LIRR won the competition’s People’s Choice Award. Why do you think the design resonated so much with the public?
Mruk: Ana Serra, Sven Peters, Tobias Holler, and Katelyn Mulry’s entry was big, brassy, and bold. It conceptually capitalized on visioning Long Island as a single urban system, while rebalancing Long Island’s relationship with the natural environment. It was a bird’s-eye, holistic view of what this country’s largest island could look like and aspire to. The natural environment on Long Island is the crème de la crème of what the East Coast has to offer. This solution took advantage of that environmental asset in a new way that had never been seen before.
You believe that the proposals from the Build a Better Burb competition have “the power to truly transform our communities.” Turning to ParkingPLUS, the Index’s most recent design challenge, do you feel that this is again true?
Mruk: The power to truly transform our communities often comes from conversion of an opportunity into an innovation. This conversion has the most potential and impact when creativity is allowed to probe in non-traditional, overlooked places and spaces. Focusing on ParkingPLUS is brilliant.
On a spectrum between pragmatic and visionary, where do you think the ParkingPLUS designs fall?
Mruk: I think this is an infinite iterative loop rather than a spectrum; the designs have elements of both.
You served as faculty advisor for NYIT’s Solar Decathlon team and co-founder of the Indo-U.S. Green Building Initiative. How can the suburbs be retrofitted to become more environmentally friendly? Are contests like the Solar Decathlon changing the way we build, and where we build?
Mruk: Environmental friendliness is earth-friendly, non-harmful to the environment, self-sufficient, healthy, and resilient. Environmental friendliness also pays economic dividends. The Solar Decathlon has taught our students and me that the world is changing at a greater pace than mankind has ever before witnessed. We must constantly question and rethink everything we are doing; by not doing so, we risk becoming irrelevant very fast.
LTL Architects’ ParkingPLUS proposal aims to reduce driving, foster a greater density of living and working in a downtown area, and also incorporates green building techniques. What do you think about the idea of a green parking structure?
Mruk: I think soon we will be at the point where we don’t have to talk about green buildings. That will just be the way we build.
You work with students every day in your role at NYIT. How do suburbs need to be change if they want to stay relevant to the next generation?
Mruk: Perhaps the creative class needs to rediscover the suburbs. These are the young people who set the trends, and infuse our social structures and traditions with new interest and energy.
Which of the ParkingPLUS designs do you find to be most innovative?
Mruk: I think Roger Sherman Architecture and Urban Design’s Parks and Rides proposal for Ronkonkoma was really bold. We have to think really bold for innovation.
Which is your favorite ParkingPLUS design? Why?
Mruk: I just love the dub Studios Main Street Brackets project in Patchogue. It was beyond architecture.
Perhaps the most important part of the ParkingPLUS Design Challenge was the PLUS piece—the emphasis on the other uses that parking structures can incorporate, beyond parking. Which PLUSes from the four design proposals appeal to you most? Why?
Mruk: The proposals with the most success in this realm were probably the Utile, Inc. Civic Arches project in Rockville Centre, and the LTL Architects Train Terraces project in Westbury. The richness and variety of functions they incorporated into the projects make these solutions extremely appealing.
In October 2013, you organized a TEDxNYIT event with the theme of Meta Resiliency, and you serve as an adviser for NYIT’s Operation Resilient Long Island group. What ideas do you think hold the greatest promise for mitigating climate impacts on coastal areas like Long Island? How can architects design a more resilient future?
Mruk: Sustainability and resiliency go hand in hand toward a healthier society and planet. These are overarching systemic societal issues, and not just about buildings. Young people instinctively know this. Get architects and designers involved in everything. Design is design is design; it doesn’t matter if it’s a building, website, or political or economic system. Some of these things are over 200 years old. They need new generative thinking. It’s time to rethink everything.
This month, you are in India representing the U.S. at an international Interdesign Workshop, Humanizing Mumbai. Are the solutions under consideration to address developmental challenges in this growing Asian metropolis relevant to Long Island and to other suburbs in the U.S.?
Mruk: With 22 million people in the Mumbai metropolitan area, Mumbai is a laboratory for thinking about density and society. The teams are focusing on seven subthemes: living with rain, the zero waste household, social spaces, redefining the outdoor experiences for citizens, the great Indian bazaar, visualizing an educational township, and health on the go. On the one hand, the world has similar problems; on the other hand, we can still learn much from the outsider perspective.