The Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker on Renovating a Landmark
Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, radiates a propulsive, purposeful optimism. This seems appropriate for a man who has, since taking over in 2013, tried to steer the organization toward a social justice mission. A gay man of color, Walker is in the midst of not just remaking the organization, but also overseeing the renovation of the Ford Foundation’s landmark building in New York City. Last month the foundation moved out of its headquarters, in anticipation of a $200-million renovation that’s expected to be completed by September 2018. The building—a 12-story cube, with the interior spaces of the structure surrounded by a lush Dan Kiley-designed garden—was created by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates and completed in 1968. It received the AIA’s prestigious Twenty-Five Year Award in 1996. On Friday I talked to Walker about the renovation, aligning the building with the foundation’s emerging mission, and letting the public in.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
DW: Darren Walker
This is a building that’s close to my heart. I happen to think it’s a overlooked masterpiece.
It’s close to my heart as well. I love this building!
Tell us about the renovation? Exactly what are you doing?
We’re renovating, first of all, because the building is not compliant with New York City building code. It does not have a sprinkler system. It does not have an emergency fire system in the atrium garden. The city had given us until 2019 to address those issues. And so we took the opportunity to reimagine the interior of the building, leaving of course the landmark gardens, with some modifications to make it more ADA compliant. It’s fair to say that the building will be transformed, but the building’s core vocabulary and heritage will remain intact. But it will be modernized, and more suitable for a social justice foundation in the 21st century.
I’ve heard you talk about how certain aspects of the building didn’t completely align with the current mission of the foundation. How so?
I talked to Kevin Roche about this a lot. We spent countless hours in consultation about the Ford building, and he would remind me that it was in many ways a 1960s corporate structure. The client was Henry Ford II, who epitomized the corporate man of the 1960s. The building was intended to serve Ford Foundation staff only. It was never meant to serve the public, or to be a public-facing facility. The large auditorium was a gathering place for staff, not outside visitors. What’s currently a large reception room was originally an executive dining room, for the officers of the foundation. We’ll transform the building into a center for social justice, serving nonprofit organizations and social justice NGOs.
What will be different about the building are four primary features. First: the building will have a visitor’s center, for groups and individuals to learn about philanthropy, the Ford Foundation, and what social justice organizations do in the world. Because we believe we have to communicate our mission and communicate a value proposition for the nonprofit sector.
Second: our staff will have a reduced footprint. We currently have eight floors of offices. We will have six floors. The two vacant floors will be turned over to other nonprofits and foundations. The third thing that we’re doing is taking our top two floors, which is where the executive dining room and the president’s office—an entire floor, by the way—and turning that into conference space for grantees.
Darren, you didn’t want an office the size of an entire floor?
My “suite” included three very large rooms, plus a kitchen, pantry and bathroom, and a conference room that seated forty people. That was just for the president and his staff. So, a little over the top and excessive, I would say, for 2016. The fourth thing is, we will take what was the staff auditorium and make that a state of the art facility for showing documentary films and staging public events.
I remember certain custom aspects of that auditorium. It had original furniture by Warren Platner, the Sheila Hicks tapestries.
Exactly. The Sheila Hicks tapestries, the originals, were in such poor condition, when I became president in 2013. I reached out to Sheila and we commissioned a replication of the original pieces. Sadly, the foundation had not cared for the originals and they had badly deteriorated. It was a tragedy what happened to those. But if you go in and take a photograph of them now, they’re beautiful and stunning, because last year Sheila finished them and installed them in the building. They’re amazing.
I love all of the Platner and Florence Knoll. In the auditorium, we’re keeping all of it. We’re reconditioning everything and keeping the chairs, with the built-in ashtrays. We’re upgrading the technology and the stage. The other thing we’re doing, in terms of the vocabulary of Platner, is repurposing more than 100 of those wonderful brass lighting fixtures. Those will be reconditioned and fitted with LEDs.
The one aspect that will be very different, however, is the building will not have offices. It was a very hierarchical building, with the “best” real estate being around the garden. Only ten percent of the staff had those offices. Instead we will have open workstations. They’ll be very consistent with the Platner wood and the leather, although we’re not using real leather, because that’s too expensive.
What’s so exciting from an architectural standpoint—and is a metaphor in my mind—is that the building will be a glass cube. When you look into the Ford building today, what you see are a lot of offices. What you will see in the renovated building will be a transparent box. The metaphor here for me is, when Henry Ford left the foundation, he criticized the foundation for spending too much time looking inward. Looking at themselves across the garden. Now, we’ll be looking out.
Gensler is doing the renovation. Did you guys consider hiring the original architects, Roche Dinkeloo?
Yes. I’ve had many, many conversations with Kevin about the building. Kevin decided himself—he sent me a letter saying, “You know what, I think you’re right: I really shouldn’t do this project.” Kevin and I are on great terms. He’s somebody that I love, admire and adore. He’s 93. And my goal is to get him back in that building, at 95, to have this wonderful photograph. I just love that man.
Talk about the building as public building. It is publicly accessible, but it’s located near Tudor City, on a sort on a sleepy part of 42nd Street.
And our front door is on 43rd Street. Here’s another thing that we’re exploring (and we have to do it in a way that in no way detracts from the integrity of the architecture). Do you know how Lincoln Center put up those totems in front, which call attention to what’s going on inside the building? We’re thinking about putting up totems, which will be consistent and compliant with landmark regulations, to call attention to the building. The thing I forgot to mention. There’s also going to be a public art gallery inside the new building, curated by New York City museums. So, we will have programming for the public. There will be a film program, an arts program, and there will be programming done by our grantees.
You’re right about the location of the building. It is a little tucked away. So we want to call more attention to the building. Part of the idea in the past was, it was intended to be a discreet building. Because you only went to the Ford Foundation building if you were invited. Yes, it’s true, we had the garden and it has always been open to the public, but we never did any outreach, or did much to encourage the public to join. We’re going to do that now. So if we put those totems there, we will be calling them into the building.
The last thing I’ll say about what’s changing, is the ADA piece. If you try to enter the garden on 42nd Street, and you’re in a wheelchair, you’re out of luck. You have to go all the way around the block to the 43rd Street entrance. So we have received Landmarks approval to modify the garden path, in a way that allows a person in a wheelchair entering on 42nd Street, to have the same experience as an able-bodied person. For me that’s hugely important, because we can’t be a social justice foundation, committed to reducing inequality in the world, and not take on the issue of disability.
At your front door.
Literally at our front door.
All photos courtesy of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates.