John Hill, celebrating New York one building at a time

John Hill. ()
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Ian Volner

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John Hill was on a roll.

It’s a John Hill roll, which is to say it rolls fairly quietly, and very smoothly. The 38-year-old architect, blogger, and author was in the McNally-Jackson bookstore in Soho on Monday night, treating a small audience to a voyage around the five boroughs by way of a slideshow based on his just-released Guide To Contemporary New York City Architecture (W.W. Norton). The crowd, a good mix of old and young, was predominantly local (as evidenced  by the accents during the Q & A session) and distinctly not design-worldy-looking (viz., dressed normally), and as the slides flipped past each new-built, glass-enclosed edifice, Hill gave each a capsule-length assessment while listeners nodded and issued satisfied little noises of recognition.

The Hearst Building: “Hmph.” 497 Greenwich: “Ahmpf.”

This is John Hill’s element, and these are his people. Hill has begun to emerge, in the past five years or so, as one of New York’s great architectural communicators, an exquisitely informed tour guide for the layman design enthusiast. His main platform has been his website, A Daily Dose of Architecture, which, if it does not quite stand astride the world of design blogs, nevertheless lords over a small sub-fiefdom of largely unstaffed, noncommercial sites. There are countless architecture fan-boy blogs out there, dozens in New York alone, and most are lucky to get a couple thousand hits a month. Hill’s routinely gets 32,000.

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“I try to add just a bit of critical perspective to it,” said Hill, retiring post-slideshow to the cozy confines of Fanelli’s Café. Most architecture sites are, to a greater or lesser degree, just Tumblrs for architectural pornography. But from its inception, Daily Dose has always been more thoughtful than that.

“The Web stuff goes back to ’99, when I was working at a firm in Chicago," Hill said. "I wasn’t getting to look at the things I wanted to look at. So I started a webpage.”

Daily Dose launched as a sounding board for Hill’s “[almost] daily architectural musings” (as the site’s motto puts it), but a sounding board that always seemed a little more discriminating than most, and that never forgot whom it was talking to. Links to background information on the projects accompany the eye candy; book reviews, event listings, and personal accounts of visits to architectural sites round out the content. And the images that Hill tends to feature aren’t just of swoopy blockbuster buildings by international starchitects, but smaller projects by sometimes unknown firms in obscure corners of the world--a little residential project here, a schoolhouse there.

Hill moved to New York in 2006 to pursue a Master’s in Urban Design from City College. Settling in Astoria, he and his wife were joined two years later by a daughter, Clare. For a time, Hill supported the family working in an architecture office; he also began drawing some income from advertisements on the webpage, though “not enough to live on.” His blogging duties have expanded along with the site, which now incorporates a roundup called the Weekly Dose, as well as the ambitiously conceived Archi-Tourist, “a Wiki-based travel guide to contemporary architecture.” He’s even gone global with his straight-shooting, blog-'em-like-I-see-'em approach, hunting down American firms and signing them up for transnational networking-and-info site World-Architects, of which he is U.S. editor.

The Daily site is still the cornerstone of his burgeoning popularity, though, and it was also the launching point for Hill’s new book. The guide’s measured, approachable tone is the same one you encounter on the Dose, as is the sense of the entries having been assiduously curated, with a personal connection to the buildings featured— “Part of bookmaking was actually going out with my wife and daughter and borrowing a friend’s car to go certain places,” the author says. Ever the honest Midwesterner (Chicagoan by birth, college at Kansas State), Hill wrote brand new entries for the book, even on buildings he’d discussed dozens of times on the site, though he will admit some “overlap.”

“I had my own methods to select things,” says Hill, “and I wasn’t swayed by others.” The guidebook marketplace is a relatively crowded one (the AIA’s city architecture guide being a perennial biggie), yet Hill’s contemporary-focused volume occupies a niche that’s gone unfilled for several years. Architecture firms are always eager to have their works featured, but Hill’s standard for a admission, while not exactly rigid, was entirely his own, and the 200-odd buildings that ended up in these pages are notable mostly for their the variety and surprise they’ve added to the streetscape. Many are fast becoming landmarks—Neil Denari’s HL23 in Chelsea, Renzo Piano’s Times building—while many others deserve to be—the Williamsburg Community Center by PKSB Architects, or Marble Fairbank’s Stabile Student Center at Columbia University.

“I decided that [the buildings] should be accessible to the public in some way, that either you can go inside or that the façade should be especially public in character,” Hill explained. He added, modestly: “There was also some basic subjective criteria.”

Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture organizes the city by neighborhood, as any guidebook does. But as Hill’s bookstore presentation made clear, it also adduces a rough scheme of the architectural trends that have been at work in the city for the past decade: Exotic varieties of glass; chrome finishes; ecologically-sensitive designs; diagonal structural systems; patterned facades. This group portrait of the city maps out not just where the new buildings are, but how they spell out a contemporary language for the urban environment, creating a composite image of 21st-century New York that is by turns familiar and challenging.

That’s what makes the book, and Hill, such an excellent explainer for a specific type of design-minded tourist, and not just the type visiting from Dubuque.

“I don’t have a smartphone,” Hill said—and that seems fitting, since his book is perfect for New Yorkers of a certain earnest inquisitiveness: The kind eager to see the city for themselves, not through GoogleStreetView, and who want a personable and knowledgeable companion to interpret the built environment for them.