Framed drawings of Aldo Rossi’s Modena Cemetery line the hallway at Morris Adjmi Architects in New York’s financial district. “Working with him was the most important experience I had in my architectural education,” Adjmi told me. After ten years in Rossi’s office, he founded his own practice in 1997 and has since become known for contextual but contemporary buildings—often built in historic districts. It seems he learned his lessons well.
In L’architettura della città (The Architecture of the City), Rossi advocates for an architecture that shapes, and is shaped by, the collective memory of a city. “Aldo’s work was very specific to his experience,” Adjmi said. “It was important for me to take his attitudes and his approaches and reformulate them into something that was relevant for me and the place and the time I was practicing.” For the most part, the place is New York, and the time is a moment when the city is being terraformed with anonymous glass high-rises. The buildings designed by Morris Adjmi Architects offer a refreshing alternative. In scale, composition, and materiality, they just feel like New York. Buildings like 372 Lafayette bridge the present and the past without reverting to historicism or relying on nostalgia, even when they incorporate architectural artifacts, as with the Wythe Hotel, the High Line Building, and the Sterling Mason residential building.
Developers are keeping them busy and future projects will have an even greater sense of continuity as the firm expands its interiors department, completes an upcoming line of lighting fixtures, and plans to develop its own furniture. And with recently completed projects in Philadelphia and D.C., they’re taking their contextual approach to other cities. When asked if he ever feels restricted by his chosen milieu, Adjmi said he finds it liberating. “There are so many different ways you can interpret a city. There are so many different ways to make the context work.”
New York City
A patina of time, paint, and hasty renovation was stripped away from this former printing house to reveal a brick structure with a street level cast iron facade. Historic preservation consultants Higgins Quasebarth & Partners unearthed blurry photos showing a missing pediment, which, combined with drawings of similar structures by the original architect, helped complete the building. Inside, 20 condo units surround a courtyard designed by Ken Smith. But the most striking feature are the brick and terra-cotta vaulted ceilings, which were restored carefully, but not too carefully. “The first time the mason fixed a piece, it was perfect,” Adjmi said. “And I was like, this isn’t going to work. It’s too perfect. It has to look like it was always there.”
41-43 W 17th Street & 38-42 W 18th Street
New York City
These two buildings share a lot and both respond to the context of the Flatiron District without resorting to slavish imitation. On 18th Street, the building’s structure gets thinner as it rises, a move inspired by evolution of the buildings in the neighborhood, from small masonry structures to much larger glass buildings. The 17th Street structure is the ghost of a building that never existed. A metal mesh, woven to imitate the architectural elements of a typical New York building—brick, stone, cornices, windows, doors—floats less than a foot in front the building’s glass facade, creating a translucent screen that can be experienced from both sides of the wall.
New York City
There’s a reason Morris Adjmi Architects’s new office is also an art gallery; one never knows when inspiration might strike, or where it might come from. This rental building in one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods was initially inspired by New York’s cast iron buildings but when resolving its columns, Adjmi looked to one of the city’s great artists, Donald Judd. A Judd piece featuring a metal column partially embedded in a wood box inspired the combination of masonry and steel—a change from the original design made in response to the city’s Landmarks Conservancy, proving that, despite what many architects want to believe, sometimes elaborate bureaucratic processes can actually result in better buildings.
The Sterling Mason
New York City
Completed last year, this Tribeca condominium is two buildings—or, rather, one building twice. The original 1905 brick structure, a former coffee and tea warehouse, was restored and renovated while a dream-like metallic double was built next door using contrasting material. “I kept sketching buildings that look sort of like the building next door and then there was that moment when I realized, these are the exact same lots. And the building looked to me like it was cut.” So Adjmi completed building that never was. Perhaps more than any other project, The Sterling Mason recalls Rossi’s work: An ideal form drawn, quite literally, from the city around it, offering the opportunity to reexamine and reappraise the original architecture of the city and the effects of time.