There’s an adage that the greenest building is the one that’s already built, but just because we see the potential in existing structures today doesn’t mean adaptive reuse was always treated with respect. When New York architect George Ranalli began retrofitting buildings in the 1970s, remodeling was considered the “dowdy cousin” of new, modern architecture, as design historians Sally Stone and Graeme Brooker phrased it in Rereadings, their 2004 tome on the topic.
But that idea has changed, thanks to the visionary work of architects like Ranalli who have shown the opportunities that can come from giving a space a new lease on life.
“The more beautiful and memorable [something] is, the more you associate your personal memories and experiences with that—that’s what fuses together and becomes the lasting recollection and history of a place,” said Ranalli, who sees remodeling as more than just a sensible solution for sustainability and economics. For him, reuse is a way to tap into the human need to feel connected to the ebb and flow of history. “It’s why we go and take pictures in front of buildings,” he explains.
In the decades since his creation of the Ranalli Studio—a multifunctional, multilevel space within a 400-square-foot studio apartment—in 1976 and the groundbreaking Callender School conversion in 1979, Ranalli has created a new visual vocabulary for interior reinvention that has reshaped the very way we understand residential spaces. In many cases, like the recent renovation of two loft spaces in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood into a single custom-tailored home, that means inserting new forms into a “host space,” always with a membrane of the original architecture around it.
The result is a layering of public and private functions—all while preserving the qualities of light and openness that attracted people to these historic properties in the first place. For the Chelsea client, Ranalli introduced a “box” with a curved face that supports a lofted sleeping space while housing the bathroom, kitchen, and plenty of storage. That way, he explained, “there’s an in-front-of, a behind, and an on-top-of.”
The new structure leaves a light-filled double-height living and dining room, where the eye is brought back down to the human scale and “the finer grain of design” through the addition of plywood panels affixed to the wall with an ornamental pattern of stainless-steel screws. “The materials are a second and third layer of visual texture, so that space isn’t bland; it’s able to sustain a long period of inhabitation,” Ranalli said. To further heighten the visual interest and raise the simple material to the level of the items around it, Ranalli has the sheets of Russian birch plywood cut into interlocking panels, joined with a “counterpoint” of thin strips of walnut where they meet. “If it’s too simple, it gets boring after a number of years,” Ranalli said of the reasoning behind his detailed approach.
The firm arrives at such deeply personal results by starting with a research phase spearheaded by its social scientist, Dr. Anne Valentino, Ranalli’s creative partner and wife. Asking pointed questions about their clients’ earliest memories of home, the pair are able to create hyper-customized designs that reflect—and facilitate—clients’ lifestyles by linking back to the concept of “goodness of fit,” the idea that people are just naturally inclined to respond well to certain things. This collaboration has helped Ranalli understand what he described as “the psychological associations between everyday experience and memory, how the environment accumulates memory and ultimately its history over time.”
The firm’s individualized approach for the Chelsea client led her to discover a new appreciation of art and design—from the colorful Gaetano Pesce vessels that complement the apartment’s pared-down palette to the Plug-in City print by Archigram designer Peter Cook. The urbanist concept seems to have presaged the design philosophy of the apartment, only on a citywide scale. “In a way, her whole apartment is sort of plugged into itself,” Valentino said. “Spaces within spaces.”