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“Civic Lessons: Recent New York Public Architecture”

“If you build it well, they won’t leave,” is the implicit message of this exhibit of recent civic architecture from New York City, site of some of the biggest urban-planning blunders in history. Amid quotes from the usual suspects (Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, Robert Moses), these plans, photographs, and models document 79 projects that (mostly) seem likely to make an improvement in their neighborhoods. The projects range from the prosaic—lots of schools, a restored neighborhood library, a sludge treatment plan—to the grand. They show modernism and postmodernism still jockeying for dominance, and the latter ranging from the dignified (the refurbished Grand Central Terminal) to the goofy (an Architectonica plan for Disneyizing a piece of Times Square). Major public buildings still seem to be the occasion for confusion: The neo-Greco International Terminal at Newark Airport looks like a post office (pictured), the anti-urban Bronx Police Academy looks like an airport, while the proposed new midtown Amtrak station actually is a post office. Still, the overall impression is that good design may be making a comeback in a sprawling region known more for energy and diversity than beauty. At the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. FREE. (202) 272-2448. (Mark Jenkins)