Policing Aesthetics

The NYPD has had an affinity for the militaristic since its inception.

Public record/Courtesy BIG

Evidently, the cutting edge of New York police architecture is a pile of twelve concrete boxes by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). It is the 40th Precinct Station in the Bronx, now under construction. Does it matter that its slot openings and embrasures pointed toward the neighborhood beyond make it look like a military fortification in a hostile territory?

Policing expert Arthur Rizer has found that police officers using military equipment feel they can get away with more—the equipment makes them look scarier—and that they “don’t care” that this changes how the public feels about them. Not just the tactics and weapons but the aesthetics of policing play a role in their societal estrangement and “looks like” goes a long way toward “acts like.” So, yes.

The NYPD has had an affinity for the militaristic since its inception. While the Metropolitan Police Service of London chose blue uniforms to avoid matching the red of the British Army, when the NYPD was established in 1845 its blue matched American military uniforms of the time. This early aesthetic transgression carried into its buildings. While the oldest precinct—the 5th—was designed in a milquetoast Italianate style in 1881, other 19th century precincts evoke Renaissance and Romanesque fortresses.

The second wave of precinct construction followed Lyndon Johnson’s President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice in 1967. The commission reported that an officer’s feelings of social isolation from the communities they serve caused them to feel negatively toward those communities. They promoted a new role for the police officer as a “community liaison” and new precinct designs that would incorporate “command and control centers” to allow officers to patrol unencumbered while maintaining radio contact with base.

Critics cast off the idea of the beat cop as everybody’s friend as a romantic delusion and balked at the vague and under-defined use of the term “community,” emphasizing that order is best maintained by neighborhoods that police themselves. Absent from these conversations was a mandate for an aesthetics of reconciliation to match the policy. Precincts built in response to the commission modeled a Brutalist style that aligned policing with violence that—along with “community” rhetoric—still haunts us today.

The only new station built since the Brutalist wave is the 121st Precinct on Staten Island, by Rafael Viñoly (finished in 2013). It is a metal building with an imposing ribbon-windowed cantilever that overshadows a diminutive entrance vestibule. A parti that doesn’t appear to embrace the community so much as surveil and alienate it.

The BIG design follows a 2018 study by Studio Gang that again emphasized the police’s role in the community. So, while the 40th Precinct Station looks like a bunker, it includes a poorly resolved community room.

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, whose work reinforces Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s intrinsically positive view of human nature, asks, “What would our policies look like if we believed in the fundamental decency of people?” We should ask the same of our aesthetics. By making our institutions look less dominating we in turn make them less dominating.

Mark Talbot is an architect in New York. He is one-half of Talbot & Yoon.