Search results for "east"

Shocked, Shocked About Leaks

Officials from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) went to Boston’s Suffolk County Courthouse on October 31 to file a lawsuit against architect Frank Gehry and contractor Skanska. The claim: Gehry’s design for the Ray and Maria Stata Center—for which he was paid $15 million—was defective and caused the university considerable damage.

The building, which opened in the spring of 2004, featured Gehry’s characteristic flourishes and unconventional angles, and was meant to support interactions among faculty and students in computing, information science, artificial intelligence, linguistics, and philosophy. What critics called “daring” and “bold” at the time, MIT eventually found to be nothing short of problematic. The lawsuit alleges “persistent leaks at various locations throughout the building,” along with “masonry cracking, efflorescence, and poor drainage” in the amphitheater, and “mold growth” on the exterior elevations.

Calling the lawsuit a “great surprise and disappointment,” Gehry said, “I fully stand behind the center’s design and have no reason to believe that it contributed in any way to the problems, which are relatively minor and easily addressed.”

In a 2004 Architectural Record interview about the Stata Center’s budget, which ran approximately $85 million over its original $200 million estimate, Gehry said, “we value-engineered, cut things, bit bullets.” He is now suggesting that the “cut things” include devices that would have prevented leaking. The leaks—at least 38 of them—were first reported in the Boston Globe, just six months after the official opening on May 1.

In repairs done in 2006 and 2007, MIT ripped up the brick amphitheater to install a drainage mat at a cost of $1.5 million. The university is now seeking an unspecified amount for that procedure and for other necessary repairs.

Chicago-based Dennis Bolazina, who is licensed in both architecture and law, and who is a member of the AIA documents committee, which monitors these issues, said, “this is really not that unusual.”

“Frank Gehry does a lot of buildings, and a lot of them are successful,” he said. “The problem for architects,” he continued, “is that they have to rely on other people like structural engineers and construction managers, and with many projects, architects are relieved of their duties during construction.”

Bolazina stressed that “architects need to be very closely involved in the construction phase of the project, maintaining communication and attention throughout it.” He added that, “More than 90 percent of these cases will be settled before they go to court, since most building professionals would rather negotiate in arbitration, where they can deal with people who have knowledge of what the realities of construction are, and not a judge, who would have to determine a standard of care.”

This situation is by no means unique. No sooner had the opening festivities ended at Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum than construction crews were on its roof repairing the building’s many leaks. And Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy is famously subject to routine patchwork.

Signifying the issue’s longstanding importance, one of the earliest written legal documents, Hammurabi’s Code from ancient Babylon, specifically addresses the issue—but with higher stakes. It specifies that “if a builder build a house … and this house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder should be put to death.” It also says that if an architect “does not make its construction meet the requirements and a walls fall in, that builder shall strengthen that wall at his own expense.” Thirty-eight hundred years later, this is what MIT and Gehry must sort through.

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Wonder Wheels at Work
Courtesy Coney Island Development Corporation

There may be light at the end of the long dark ride for Coney Island after all. For Joseph Sitt, of developer Thor Equities, it's no tunnel of love, but at least he hasn't been ejected from the Cyclone at top speed.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's announcement of the new Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) rezoning plan on November 8 put to rest local residents' concerns that a high-priced private complex would turn Stillwell Avenue into Vegas East. Dividing a 19-block, 47-acre district into three differently zoned segments, the CIDC aims to foster new residential and retail development in two areas further removed from the current Astroland and other attractions, and, in the Mayor's words, "to preserve the world's most famous urban amusement park in perpetuity" by mapping it as city parkland managed by a single specialist developer. In return, by de-mapping a site officially identified as parkland—but currently used only by Cyclones baseball fans as a parking lot for Keyspan Park—the city would give developers incentives to create a thriving new mixed-use neighborhood with connections to the boardwalk and the beach.

The proposal is essentially a land swap, with the public sector offering the property near the ballpark plus a negotiated subsidy that Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff estimated at probably tens of millions of dollars to obtain the land owned by Thor as part of a projected $1.5 billion investment. Mapping the Coney East amusement area (West Eighth to West 19th streets between Surf Avenue and the boardwalk) as parkland makes it harder for Thor simply to warehouse its holdings, wait for a successor administration that might favor its scheme, and lobby for zoning changes that would allow Sitt's complex to go forward. Should Thor hold onto its parcels (or flip them) instead of taking the city's offer, zoning will remain at its current C7 level, offering little incentive for construction. "The value that he will be offered [in Coney West] will be substantially greater than that," said Doctoroff, asserting that this win-win scenario should obviate eminent-domain proceedings. "One assumes," commented the mayor, "that Mr. Sitt is rational."

Instead of Thor's plan—visionary in its way, but unpopular with local business owners, community groups, and city officials alike—the CIDC plan preserves what planning chair Amanda Burden called the essence of Coney Island: "It has to be open, accessible, and affordable." Under the new plan, Coney would feature year-round, all-weather attractions such as water rides and a modern ice rink; an open-air performance space; a high-speed roller coaster winding through the district (echoing early designs executed for Thor by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn and Thinkwell); and some 4,500 new apartments, 20 percent of them affordable. High-rises will be allowed outside Coney East, with height limits respecting the Parachute Jump. Changing what Bloomberg repeatedly called "outdated zoning" will allow 100,000 square feet of new retail space in Coney North (bounded by West 20th Street and Stillwell, Mermaid, and Surf avenues) and 360,000 square feet in Coney West (south of Surf to the boardwalk, between West 19th and West 24th). Upzoning along Surf will create an additional million square feet of new entertainment-related retail, including hotels and restaurants. Noting that C7 zoning bans sit-down dining in Coney East, Bloomberg commented that after all these years, "Nathan's would like some company." Parking for Keyspan Park will be integrated and a new street network will replace superblocks, enhancing sightlines and beach access. Overall, Bloomberg projects $2.5 billion in private investment in Coney over the next decade, creating 3,000 permanent jobs and 20,000 construction jobs over 30 years.

The mayor's projections for Coney East remained cautiously hypothetical. Along with Doctoroff, Burden, and assorted commentators, he acknowledges the need for substantial work before new features begin to appear. The city needs to consult with the community about details of the RFP; select a master developer with amusement expertise; negotiate terms with Thor and other landowners, possibly integrating some existing attractions into the park; undergo ULURP; obtain state approval to demap Coney West; and explore mass transit options to handle the residential influx. Not surprisingly, Bloomberg stressed the value of his congestion pricing plan as a feasible funding source. DCP's timetable sets an initial public scoping meeting for January 2008 and projects a complete ULURP by summer 2009. Bloomberg expressed a wish to have developers begin work before he leaves office in 2009 and estimated an end date ten years away.

Community Board 13's Chuck Reichenthal says the plan is "pretty damn close to what we initially had worked out with the [2005] Strategic Plan. It's open; it's still a people's playground." Phil DePaolo, however, a community organizer working with the Save Coney Island group, expressed concern over just how affordable the district will remain, both in the amusements and in residential areas. Affordable housing may be little help to many, he says, if it is based on citywide rather than local Area Median Income. The new Coney is likely to spur displacement in as-of-right areas just outside the new zones. "Three blocks over, there are no rules, so that's where [gentrifying developers] are going to go," DePaolo observed. "Once you put density in an area, the city tends to allow the density to expand. The city grants variances like water. These are all the trickle-down mechanisms that people don't look at; they just say, 'Oh, good, no towers on the boardwalk.'"

Meanwhile, Coney Island USA's Dick Zigun, the seersucker-suited "Mayor of Coney Island," is still feeling optimistic these days, calling the plan brave and visionary.

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I, Robot
The German-made robot at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has even mastered the art of bricklaying.
Courtesy ETH Zurich

N estled high in the Swiss Alps, the tiny commune of Évolène is an unlikely place to find futuristic architecture. But there, amid rustic chalets and snow-capped mountains, is the unfolding saga of François Roche and his competition-winning scheme for a museum of ice.

The brief called for an exhibition space-cum-shrine to commemorate the region’s retreating glacial landscape. Roche, with his Paris-based firm R&Sie(n), proposed a structure of bladderlike forms evoking ice cavities. Like most architects today, Roche could order up a scale model of this swooping confection on a computer numerically controlled (CNC) milling machine or a three-dimensional printer. But to actually build this beast? Thus began Roche’s adventure into the future of digital architectural fabrication.

The future, as it happened, was not far away. Roche turned to a large-scale CNC facility run by the company Ducret-Orges, near Lausanne. Here, he found a five-axis machine originally developed to create components to restore the region’s medieval buildings. With a working area measuring 40 meters long and 5 meters wide, the machine could fabricate not just a model of the building, or small parts of it, but full-scale structural slices. “We discovered that we could produce an enormous piece,” Roche said. Moreover, the five-axis router allowed him to realize the computer-modeled design in its full ganglionic glory. “The jump to five-axis makes it all possible,” he added. “Three-axis machines simplified the shape. Now with five-axis you get the original shape itself.”

To build the museum, which is currently in design development, Roche plans to take 1,000 locally harvested trees, turn them into plywood, and mill them into fragments 2.5 meters wide by 7 meters long. These vertical “slices,” each 90 centimeters deep, will serve as the structural system, holding mechanical services within their depth. Assembled like a loaf of bread on site, the slices will be glued together with a resin system and wooden dowels (code-required concrete is used only in the elevator core). And it’s all generated directly from Roche’s computer model, which in turn drives the milling machine.

While Roche’s vision materializes, elsewhere in Switzerland researchers are working on even bolder fabrication plans. Architects Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler, both professors at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), have devised what they call the world’s first flexible construction installation featuring an industrial robot. Mounted on a seven-meter-long linear track, and with a reach of three meters, the machine is designed to produce large building parts on a one-to-one scale.

The robot, a German-made KUKA model used in the automotive industry, works on an eight-axis system (including a turning table) that enables it to go beyond subtractive processes (like milling) to additive procedures, such as building up porous concrete modules or foaming polyurethane. The robot has even mastered the art of brick-laying. In a seamless process controlled by design data, the machine will grab a brick, deposit glue, lay it in a custom pattern, and change tools to glue the bricks together. The results can be seen in the robot’s first built project using digitally designed and fabricated brick walls. Collaborating with architects Bearth & Deplazes, Gramazio and Kohler designed an undulating facade for the Gantenbein Winery in the Swiss town of Fläsch. Completed in 2006, the structure serves as a climatic buffer for the facility while filtering daylight through the subtly rotated bricks.

Like proud parents, the architects see the project as a vindication of sorts for the robot’s aesthetic savvy. “Stacking bricks was our ‘proof of concept’ that the digitally fabricated aggregation of materials offers architecturally expressive potential,” Kohler said in an email. The architects, who also run an architectural practice, Gramazio & Kohler, are now developing a mobile fabrication unit, housed in a shipping container, whose software allows their industry partner to create custom brick walls for clients.

Whether robots or five-axis CNC milling, some digital pioneers caution that one-to-one scale fabrication doesn’t always add up. “Just blowing up the machines bigger and bigger doesn’t really help in terms of scaling up from a model scale to the real-world scale,” said Fabian Scheurer of the Zurich-based practice, designtoproduction, whose projects have included parametric modeling for UN Studio’s Mercedes-Benz Museum and fabrication strategies for Zaha Hadid’s Hungerburg funicular in Innsbruck. “All the machines that use homogeneous materials like 3D printers or routers,” he said, “very soon come to their limits if you try to scale up.”

Instead, Scheurer and colleagues break down structures into thousands of parts using the principles of mass customization. The Hadid project, for instance, called for double-curved glass panels held in place by 2,500 individually shaped polyethylene profiles. The engineering partner provided the geometry in the form of spline curves in a CAD model, and designtoproduction automated the segmentation of the profiles, the placement of drillings, the nesting on boards, and the generation of code for the five-axis CNC router.

The firm is now working on the new Centre Pompidou branch in Metz. Designed by Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines, the project features a sweeping roof made of glue-laminated timber hexagons, covered by a fiberglass and Teflon membrane. The double-curved beams are fabricated on a five-axis mill, but first, the firm had to tweak the structure’s geometry, since breaking down a structure into parts depends largely on the machines that will create those parts—their dimensions, tools, and scope of movement.

And that’s a principle architects don’t always grasp, Scheurer said: “All this top-notch modeling software out there effectively hides the complexity of the geometry. But the complexity is back as soon as you try to break it down into segments and manufacture it.”

He added, a bit ruefully, “It’s quite a challenge to find the geometry in the designs of the architect sometimes.”

Hoist Me Up

At the Engineering Transparency conference at Columbia University in September, Laurie Hawkinson, of Smith-Miller+Hawkinson Architects, quipped that with all the glass we are using these days, how will we ever clean it? Her discussion of window washing began and ended there, but the comment revealed an issue that is a growing concern for architects around the world. As buildings use more glazing and become more complex in form, the systems for accessing their facades—not just for cleaning, but also for repair—have had to keep pace. Not that there have been any major revolutions in access technologies, but architects, one hopes, are taking facade access into consideration much earlier in the design process: If you can build that bravely curved or drastically angled envelope, you had better know how to get up there to keep it looking handsome (in an economically feasible way) throughout the life of the building.

Facade access technology has remained basically the same for the past 40 or 50 years. As was done in the time of the Seagram Building, you still hang a basket over the edge of the parapet, drop it down on ropes, and haul it back up. But two things have changed. For one, never-before-seen building profiles and rooftops crowded with mechanical systems have challenged facade access engineers to fit their machines within tighter spaces while pushing them to attain spans of over 100 feet and drops in excess of 1,000 feet. And secondly, this pushing of the envelope (along with code changes) has brought about a convergence of the systems used in the United States and those employed in other countries.

As with many aspects of the building industry, facade access technology developed along different lines in the United States than it did in Europe. This divergence in approach centered on one essential point: Where to put the hoist that raises and lowers the basket? In Europe they favored mounting the hoist on the roof of the building and powering descent and lift from there, whereas here, with our love of individualism and need to be in control, we decided to put the hoist right in the basket.

Both methods have their virtues, of course, and are suitable for a variety of applications. The machinery for self-powered baskets, for example, is quite a bit cheaper than its roof-mounted counterpart. But roof-mounted systems have become more sophisticated and versatile—employing cranes with telescoping booms and articulating heads—capable of reaching 100 percent of a building’s envelope no matter how curvaceous it may be. This factor alone has made these systems a necessity for much of today’s architecture. A quick glance around the recently completed high-profile buildings in New York, including the Hearst Tower, InterActive Corp’s headquarters, and The New York Times Building, will reveal a spate of these European devices. The roof-mounted systems are also more suitable for tall buildings since they store all excess rope, wire, or other necessary tools on the roof. Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) code states that rope cannot dangle beneath the window cleaning platform, meaning that self-powered systems must hold all excess rope on the basket. And when an elevation is very high, the amount of rope it will take to reach all the way down can begin to outweigh the lifting capacity of standard hoists.

Someone very recently noticed this problem and, despite the grumblings of the penny-pinching American building market, decided to do something about it. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) A120.1-2006 Revised Standard demands that buildings in excess of 490 feet use a system where the hoist is anchored on the rooftop. Of course, the vast majority of buildings going up across the country are well under 490 feet, and the codes that govern facade access, like most codes in the building industry, are self-enforcing and loosely policed. Furthermore, where there is one code that demands you do the utmost, there is another that allows you to put forth the least amount of effort, not to mention upfront capital cost. The International Window Cleaning Association (IWCA) I-14 Safety Standard allows buildings under 300 feet tall to employ boatswain’s, or bosun’s, chairs—basically a plank dangling from a rope on which a window washer sits.

In fairness, the IWCA standard was targeted at building owners who were not equipping their roofs with any system, an all too common phenomenon that led to workers tying off to vent pipes and then falling to their deaths. Liability concerns aside, facade access consultants, as a rule, do not recommend bosun’s chairs. “Facade access isn’t just about window washing, but about building maintenance,” said Keenan Potter of Lerch Bates, one of the country’s largest facade access consulting firms. “In bosun’s chairs you can’t replace glass, just wash windows.” His point is an important one for those who think about the life cycle of buildings. While expensive, the price of sophisticated facade access systems is nominal when compared to overall building costs. And they get even cheaper when you consider that in 15 to 20 years, when your mullions begin to leak, you won’t have to cover your building in scaffolding just to patch it up.

Eavesdrop: Anne Guiney

We are mere footmen in the hallowed halls where architecture criticism is practiced, but this has never stopped us from grumbling about the generally ho-hum nature of so much of what we read. Where’s the fire, the brimstone? To the ramparts, mes amis! Épatez les blowhards! We were thus delighted to see that the magic circle has opened just enough to admit none other than David Byrne, he of the Talking Heads and King of Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade. Welcome, dear sir! On the very day that the New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff gave readers an ambivalent walk-through of his employer’s shiny new tower, Byrne did the same on his blog, but from the flaneur’s street-level view. His entry shows that the citizen-critic is off to a roaring start, and is underwhelmed, to say the least: “The Gray Lady gets a punk haircut, is how I would characterize it.” He proceeds to ponder the changing nature of news (hurrah, Wikipedia!) and writes, “I can’t help but look at this new skyscraper and think, ‘They sure are optimistic ‘bout print journalism.’” Meanwhile in Midtown…

As we idled our way through the Sunday paper a few weeks ago, we stumbled on a 16-page advertorial section devoted to the glories of, you guessed it, the New York Times building! As we read storylets with snazzy titles like “West Side Story,” “Taking Care of Business,” and “The Media is the Message,” we grew ever more puzzled. We’re all for tooting our own horn, but who was this supposed to convince? And what, exactly, were they selling? Newspapers are great? The Times is forward-thinking? Midtown is cool? Overwhelmed by these questions, we quickly took refuge in the Sunday Styles section, where all was right in the world: Ivy Leaguers still marry Ivy Leaguers, and expensive handbags are still really, really important.

In other non-news, our dearly departed, always self-satisfied, and often impolitic ally in innuendo, the Gutter, made a brief return! Readers of the real estate blog Curbed were treated to a rambling walk through Red Hook, complete with a garden of flowery language. Very little in the way of gossip, but a sight for sore eyes nonetheless. Aaah, Gutter, we are lonely without you.

Send blogs, bloviating notes, and scandal to

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Naval Battle Along East River
Courtesy SHOP Architects

When SHoP Architects unveiled schematic plans for the East River Esplanade at a meeting of the waterfront committee of Community Board 1 on October 22, the designs became the latest component of the battle over the future of the city’s waterfront. After years of dereliction and neglect, the city has finally cleaned up its rivers, and both people and fish are returning, thanks in part to a string of parks that now ring the city. While most people seem pleased with this, the city’s maritime community is not. For them, SHoP’s plans are just the latest slight in an ongoing fight over the soul of the city’s rivers.

It would be hard for anyone to deny that SHoP’s proposal is a vast improvement over what it will replace. Running for two miles underneath FDR Drive from the Battery north to East River Park, the East River Esplanade will replace a wasteland of worn-down bricks and asphalt strewn with broken glass. It will provide restored views of the waterfront and pavilions for public space. The question for the city’s mariners, though, is whether or not it will be inviting for boats.

“You probably mentioned planters 60 times, boats never, and ships twice,” Lee Gruzen, chair of SeaportSpeaks, told SHoP’s Gregg Pasquarelli at the committee meeting. “For 350 years there has been a kind of excitement on the waterfront. This makes us couch potatoes. I want to do something new you can’t do anywhere else.” The biggest concern is a rebuilt Pier 15, which has two levels, one for watercraft and one for recreation. SHoP sought to carve out pieces of the pier to expose its foundational structure. The pier in part resembles a fractured hill, covered in jagged slopes and topped with trees that will no doubt startle those driving by on the FDR. Julie Nadel, chair of the waterfront committee and a member of the Hudson River Park, called the designs more of the same. “They forgot to do the part where the boats dock,” she told AN. “It’s a very good, fanciful design, but it doesn’t do what it was asked to do, which is provide a place to dock a boat. Until it does, the plan is a failure.”

Pasquarelli insists these fears are unfounded. “They’re just staking out their position,” he said. “It’s a schematic design, and you can’t make judgments based on that. Just because I haven’t specified the cleats yet doesn’t mean there won’t be sufficient access.”

“Boating is one of our top priorities,” he added. “They’ve got 50 percent of the site, they just don’t realize it yet.”

While nautical access may still be in dispute, there is no question the plan vastly improves connections to the water from the land. This begins with the “calming of South Street,” Pasquarelli said. “It will become a typical New York City side street.” There will be one-lane in each direction with the remaining pavement given over to a 12-foot bicycle lane separated from the street by a planted berm.

Cyclists are set apart from the promenade by the FDR’s concrete pylons. Beneath the overpass stand glassed-in pavilions that serve a range of potential public uses, from shops and cafes to dojos and galleries. Beyond that is a 60- to 120-foot boardwalk edged by 30 to 40 feet of landscaping and a final 20 feet of boardwalk. A sinuous railing provides protection and, at its widest points, a table complete with bar stools. At night, these features are illuminated by light reflected off the FDR’s girders.

Most of these features disappear at the cross streets, where SHoP has devised what Pasquarelli called “get downs.” Part step, part aquatic amphitheater, their true purpose is to provide unblocked views of the water down the area’s historic slips. “It reminds you that this is a place where ships used to come right up into the city,” he said.

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Goodbye, Dolly!
Courtesy No Land Grab

On October 5, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz announced that he would not reappoint Dolly Williams, a developer who has served, at times controversially, as his representative on the City Planning Commission. “When there are many voices to be heard on land use matters, it would be best for a new appointee to assume the planning commission position,” Markowitz said in a statement. Many of those voices, it turns out, belonged to local bloggers.

Brooklyn bloggers, especially No Land Grab, which formed in opposition to Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards plan, have been tracking Williams’ every move since August 2004, when The Brooklyn Paper revealed that she was a partial investor with Bruce Ratner in the New Jersey Nets. It was not yet known whether the project would go before the commission—it went to the state instead—but it was seen as a major conflict of interest. Bloggers picked up that story, and others, so when they covered Markowitz’s announcement, it was with an air of self-congratulation.

Though there was a mix of old and new media reporting on Williams and her activities, the latter emphasized her work on the commission. After all, many of the stories, like the aforementioned Nets investment, ran in the papers first, but it was the additional attention they received from the blogs that gave voice to frustrations.

“The outrage in the comments surely was noticed by someone in Markowitz’s office,” Norman Oder, of the Atlantic Yards Report, told AN in an email. (Williams and Markowitz’s office declined to comment.)

For the commission itself, the issue is more complex. “These are commissioners who have an expertise in a particular field,” Department of City Planning spokesperson Rachaele Raynoff said. “Some projects will come up that they have a connection to and that will require them to recuse themselves. There is nothing inappropriate about that.”

Commission chair Amanda Burden agreed that there was no reason developers should not have a role on the commission. “Being a commissioner is about being smart, knowing the city, and doing your homework,” she said. “There are both citywide and neighborhood perspectives you have to consider. Beyond that, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

For Oder and his fellow bloggers, the commission may finally take them seriously. “I do think that the media, and perhaps especially the blogs, may at least cause the next commissioner to recognize that his or her activities will be scrutinized,” he wrote.

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Subcompact Hybrids
Designed by Openshop|Studio, this compact structure contains the family bedrooms and a futon that can slide out the side for guests.
craig mccormick

Architect Adam Hayes often refers to one recent project as “the thing.” Indeed, it’s hard to put a name to the faceted structure he and his firm, Openshop|Studio, designed as part of an extensive interior renovation of a Brooklyn loft. A sculptural-looking, perforated form, it resembles some sort of alien pod or perhaps a rough gemstone.

It may look wild, but the structure is intensely practical. CNC-milled plywood ribs provide structural support for the orientedstrand-board-clad facets, which contain a tight configuration of rooms, including a study, kid’s room, master bedroom, bathroom, and myriad storage nooks. Outside the pod lies a conventional loft space, its airy quality and sight lines only minimally disturbed by the blobby form in the corner. (Hayes compares the overall effect to a blimp in a hangar.) The efficient use of space and inexpensive materials helped them meet a budget of $109 per square foot in the 1,200-square-foot space.

The renovation is just one of a number of New York residential projects making creative use of limited resources. In this expensive, overcrowded city, many clients are asking architects to be ever more ingenious in planning living spaces; in effect, they want something out of nothing, or at least not much. Openshop|Studio and several other young firms are helping their clients tackle both problems by designing unconventional but highly efficient, flexible hybrid spaces.

Not long ago, John Hartmann of Freecell Architecture did some design work for a client who isn’t much of a cook and loathes clutter. As a result, the client decided he’d be just as happy with a part-time kitchen in his 450-square-foot Manhattan studio. Freecell designed a giant, piano-hinged door-cum-cabinet that swings closed when that kitchen area isn’t in use. Though Hartmann says the unit rolls easily enough, even he is still a bit incredulous at the concept. “Most people would say, ‘What is this? I have to roll a 200-pound door to get to my refrigerator? This is insane!’“ he says.

Movable parts were also the name of the game in a more ambitious project by workshop/apd. Within the spacious confines of a 2,400-square-foot Midtown loft, the firm designed a smaller cube in which all of the living functions interlock. It contains a study; two bathrooms; and a kitchen, which features a sliding door that offers division from the adjacent living area as needed, as well as a table that can slide out from a slot under the countertop to create an informal breakfast nook. Nearby, two bedrooms can be easily converted to three, by pulling apart a central pair of wheeled doors in opposite directions. The entire effect could be described as “a kind of an interactive box,” says principal Matt Berman. “You’re pushing and pulling on this thing from each side and interacting with it in different ways.” Designing such a flexible space was strategic, since the architects designed the space for a developer on spec, without knowing who the eventual inhabitants would be. The strategy paid off, since the loft sold quickly, says Andrew Kotchen, another principal at the firm.

“A lot of our projects deal with this idea with collapsing activity programming into more efficient spaces, and it’s clearly stemmed from doing a lot of New York interior renovations, because space is so finite,” Kotchen says. “The more efficient we can be in the way we use and configure our space, the more sustainable that environment will be,” he adds. “It’s more compact, uses fewer materials, costs less, and so on.”

For architecture- and furniture-design firm 4-pli, one innovative project stemmed from a client’s complaints about her husband’s clutter taking over their open loft. “She wanted to literally contain his mess; to give him a space where she didn’t have to see it so they didn’t have to fight about it,” says partner Jeffrey Taras.

Using Baltic birch plywood to help keep within a $20,000 budget, the firm crafted dividers that double as storage spaces for books and other materials. The husband’s office pod has a striking curve that’s smooth on the outside but lined with shelves to help contain his clutter. The 1⁄8-inch-thick plywood doesn’t provide much sound insulation, but it did let the architects bend the wood into graceful, organic-looking shapes. A ladder leads up the outside of the office to a guests’ sleeping berth on top, which doubles as the wife’s writing area. Another wavy divider features shelves on the living room side and a smooth surface on the master bedroom side. A matching wardrobe in the bedroom offers yet more storage space. Naturally, highly customized projects such as this one and Openshop|Studio’s carry their share of headaches. Openshop|Studio’s faceted form required more than one hundred individually cut pieces for the geometrically irregular surfaces. Likewise, the varying forms of the structural ribs had to be custom milled on a CNC cutter. 4-pli’s design was an experiment in how much 1⁄8-inch thick plywood can bend. In the end, the design for one of the panels in the office pod had to be redone because the wood wasn’t pliant enough for the original design’s double curvature, says Bill Mowat, another of 4-pli’s four partners.

“I think, in a way, this project was our most intensely experimental project,” says Taras. “For the most part, it worked out…but we learned a lesson; we wouldn’t experiment this much in a single project now.” The project was a learning experience that led them to launch a fabrication branch, Associated Fabrication. For their Odd Couple clients, it was a step toward peace and quiet.

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40/40 Vision

With star-powered, high-stakes condos sprouting up as quickly as bank branches in this city, it is ultimately the details that will inform the way the owners will live in them. After the hype has ebbed, residents will continue to come home tired, pad around the living room in their socks, and appreciate that the electrical outlets are strategically placed.

On paper, 40 Mercer and 40 Bond seem to share one common idea—a modern take on the loft buildings indigenous to the neighborhoods in which they are both located. Those original cast-iron structures may have been rugged, but they provided unprecedented open spaces with abundant natural light, qualities the two 40s deliver in spades. The hoteliers-turned-developers Ian Schrager and André Balazs both know the ropes when it comes to luxury product with flair, but each provides markedly different notions about the downtown living experience: Mercer delivers simplified luxury; Bond, idealized simplicity. Both visions cost more than $3,300 per square foot to realize.

40 Bond, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, is in some ways surprisingly traditional for the Swiss duo. The luminous, cast bottle-green glass grid (fitted to the structure with bolts concealed under an enamel frit behind the glass) that orders its large windows feels organic, as if utilizing some age-old technique that was related to cast iron but fell out of favor. The apartments themselves feel like, well, lofts—the floor-to-ceiling windows, the wide plank floors, white kitchen cabinets and countertops. But here the simplicity is idealized, the materials top-notch. Flooring is smoked Austrian oak, the windows cleverly operative (they tilt inward with a crank mechanism), the cabinets high-gloss lacquer, the counters intricately wrought Corian. Even the door handles are polished chrome designed by Konstantin Grcic for Colombo.

In the master baths, there is a sauna vibe with more smoked oak covering the walls and floors and double vanity sinks in an arched niche (more Corian) with theatrical, globe-shaped fixtures. The seamless “wet room,” a combination tub/shower area is a marvel of fabrication. The tub alone is made of 40 pieces of precisely cut Corian, and some of the shower surfaces feature a computer-routed graffiti pattern reiterating a main theme in the lobby. The bathrooms took nine months to fabricate, according to Chris Whitelaw, the senior engineer for Evans and Paul, the Queens-based company that did the work.

The lobby could easily exist in one of Schrager’s hip hotels. Twenty-foot high, graffiti-etched undulating panels of white Corian line a narrow corridor (under a gleaming punched steel ceiling) linking the reception area (an Alpine oak box, also graffiti-carved) with a back garden. The effect is a bit planet Krypton (or, if your Haldol dosage needs adjusting, a scene from The Shining). The walls are made up of more than 280 pieces of Corian, which was first etched, then heat curved, a process that can (and did) expand the panels slightly, causing problems with pattern matching. To compensate, pieces were made slightly larger than needed and later trimmed to make the designs realign; even then, hand shaping was sometimes necessary to create the seemingly seamless fit. “The lobby is awe-inspiring,” says Whitelaw, whose crew spent about three weeks gluing and polishing the seams on-site following two months building parts in the workshop.

The now-famous gate/fence, a graffiti-inspired, Gaudí-esque, cast-aluminum semibarrier between the gritty outside world and pristine white lobby within, will also guard private entrances to the five townhouses on the ground floor. The theme is repeated (and repeated) in the concrete out front, on embossed aluminum that wraps the entranceway, and even the interior walls of the elevators in oak.

Designed by Jean Nouvel, 40 Mercer is, from the outside at least, a simpler affair. From Mercer Street, the building reads like a discreet medium-scale residence or hotel. Upon rounding the corner, it takes on the look of a massive office with a large expanse of glass and steel. But the block-long structure has a mirrored alley or “cut” in the facade (ingeniously reflecting the brick building across the street) dividing the building into two less massive parts—one of its many, subtler charms. Some corner windows on the Mercer side are bright red; some larger ones on the Broadway side are blue. Not quite Boogie Woogie, but definitely Mondrian.

The lobby, lined on the downtown side with a double wall of glass printed with black trees, is at once moody and elegant. It is dark and night-crawler cool, punctuated here and there with red or blue armchairs. (It takes your eyes a moment to adjust before the trees emerge from the forest.) “It’s a nighttime building by design,” Balazs says. “Night is Jean Nouvel’s time of day.”

Upstairs, the apartment landings are signature Nouvel—perforated black steel grates suspended beneath dim lighting reflecting off welcome mats made of steel floor tiles. One half expects the apartments to be industrial minimal chic, but they are in fact rich, nuanced, and warm. The use of wood is exceptional—the kitchens alone feature custom Molteni cabinetry in wenge, Italian walnut, and tanganika. Countertops and shelves are laminated mixes of these woods, which warm the brushed stainless countertops, sinks, and backsplashes, lit with halogen lights hidden beneath the cabinets. Throughout the apartment, door handles are Nouvel-designed, wood-clad Valli & Valli.

Flooring is 3-inch-wide white oak with a clear finish, save the master bedroom (and some secondary bedrooms) where walnut is used. Giant moving walls, also walnut and with steel and cable shelving units, can close off a section of the main space creating an office or guest room. But these are child’s play compared to 12 units that have 17- or 20-foot-wide windows that, with a touch of a remote, can slide open, turning the living room into a virtual outdoor space.

Bathrooms are decidedly swank and busy with more wood (walnut, white oak, and mahogany) cabinets, plus floors and showers in Calacatta Gold marble, painstakingly matched with mirror grain patterns to form Rorschach-like effects. Counters are back-painted glass, in white; flattering lighting is vertical, wall-mounted fluorescent tubes. “People spend an inordinate amount of time in bathrooms,” says Balazs.

Asked about the overall attention to detail at 40 Mercer, Balazs’ response could just as well apply to his arch-rival’s 40 Bond: “You can’t take the hotelier out of our company’s psyche. A typical developer builds it, sells it, and gets out of there. When we build something, we have to live with it forever and sell it over and over, every night.”

Eavesdrop: Alissa Walker

Just two months after LA Architect relaunched as FORM, it’s losing its editor, Jennifer Caterino. “At this point it seems like the right time to take the plunge and find a new challenge,” she told us. Reformatting an AIA publication as a national magazine seems like quite a challenge, actually. We can’t imagine it came with a raise.

For over a week in September, Los Angeles drivers were treated to the ultimate symbol of the crumbling housing market when a house—yes, a house—was abandoned on the Hollywood Freeway. Patrick Richardson ignored CalTrans instructions when told to take his Santa Clarita-bound mobile home up the 405, and instead smashed the roof into an overpass on the 101, temporarily installing the prefab in heavy traffic. The house endured torrential rains, excessive tagging, and was even graced with a “For Rent” sign near the end. 

Eight wine glasses shattered on the cement floor during the much-anticipated Moss Los Angeles opening in August. Each time we cringed and looked to Murray Moss, who was cringing along with us. Or perhaps it was at the handful of children who had not only infiltrated his no-kids policy, but were seated at the Maarten Baas set of table and chairs (to be fair, it does look like it’s made for kids). Moss partner Franklin Getchell scurried around with extra “Please do not touch” signs, which he placed on the pieces which were fondled, sat upon, or otherwise violated, most notably a Tord Boontje sofa. At the end of the evening Baas sat down to play the 1938 Steinway Baby Grand he had fire-sculpted and, almost as if in response, droplets of condensation dripped from the air conditioning duct above, sprinkling guests in line for white wine. But architect Clive Wilkinson said: “Hey, at least you can keep cool at Moss this summer.”

The Dwell on Design conference transformed San Francisco’s Concourse and Exhibition Center into a neat pastiche of prefabs and post-consumer recycled furniture in mid-September. Alice Waters reigned as the crowd-pleasing organic queen after detailing her inspiring work for the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley. Craig Hartman used his stage time to stump for SOM’s Transbay proposal, and Gwynne Pugh managed to make pejorative comments about Irvine twice (what, no love for The OC?). San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom made a surprise end-of-day appearance on Friday, touting his city’s green building agenda and commitment to architectural excellence. In fact, San Fran’s architecture scene is so hot, said Newsom, that even Frank Gehry, who swore he’d never design a building there, is considering it. 

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Spaceport Blasts Off
Foster's hangar evokes the shape of a nearby rock formation
Courtesy Foster + Partners

In early September, a competition-winning plan by UK-based Foster + Partners and design and engineering company URS was cleared for lift-off, as details were finalized on the hangar and terminal facilities for Spaceport America, the first purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world. The 100,000-square-foot complex located in Las Cruces, New Mexico, is expected to be fully operational by 2010, with two or three suborbital flights daily, five days a week.

The $31 million hangar by Foster is a small portion of the $200 million spaceport complex, funded by New Mexico and a 0.25 cent gross receipt tax adopted by local counties. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will serve as the spaceport’s anchor tenant, occupying training facilities, pre- and post-flight lounges and two maintenance hangars.

The competition included two other finalists: Dallas-based HKS working with Antoine Predock of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a San Francisco-based Gensler team in association with Rohde May Keller McNamara Architecture, also of Albuquerque.

URS Spaceport
The hangar is bermed into the earth.

A major requirement of the design was that it could not disturb the uses or views of nearby El Camino Real, a historic trade route that traverses the valley. Completely concealed from the west, the spaceport will be bermed in earth materials sculpted into low-rising berms. An undulating roof will mimic the rise of a formation called Point of Rocks located in the valley.

The shape of the structure is meant to evoke the dimensions of a spacecraft, with the double-height hangar rising along the linear axis, administration offices to the west, and areas for preparation and viewing in the larger eastern flank. Passengers will enter the building through a deep channel cut into the ground, walking along retaining walls housing exhibitions by the region’s residents and about the history of space travel. Views of the main “superhangar” will also be revealed before passengers reach the terminal, building drama with glimpses of the spacecraft and simulation area. A similar technique will be used for the terminal, where the control room will be visible but not open to the public. 

The facility hopes for a LEED Platinum certification, with passive energy solutions, consolidating glazing to the eastern elevation to minimize heat gain, and using the building’s massive size to draw ventilation into cooling subterranean chambers. Photovoltaic panels will supplement power production.

Acknowledging the element of spectacle certain to be associated with the structure’s novel use, while playing upon New Mexico’s rich space travel history, resulted in “flowing, dramatic spaces, and a form using natural materials that are essential, and awe-inspiring,” says Antoinette Nassopoulos, a partner at Foster + Partners. Viewing platforms are incorporated as large windows into the concrete shell, designed to best deliver the experience to both space-bound astronauts and the general public. “Visibility of mission control and take-off and landings from the spaceport add to the drama,” Nassopoulos added. Groundbreaking is set for next year. 

Extending the Finger

The excavation and foundation work for the so-called Finger Building at 144 North 8th Street in Williamsburg began in fall 2004, a few months after the passage of the rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint in May. It was a significant ground breaking: if the developers could complete their foundation by the following May, it could be vested under the old zoning. This would allow the building to rise to 16 stories, as opposed to the five stories set out by the new regulations. And once the new zoning took effect, nothing could rise to match it, and the community couldn’t oppose it because it was built as-of-right.

Three years into the embattled project’s top-and-start construction (“Stubbed Finger,” AN 08_05.09.2007), a number of vested buildings in the neighborhood, including the Finger Building, have come before the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) to have their construction permits extended, and Community Board 1 (CB1), which covers Williamsburg and Greenpoint, has been given a chance to speak out. Ward Dennis, chair of the CB1 Universal Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) committee, said “It’s the only time we’ve had our opinions heard.”

The only problem is, the BSA may not be listening very closely. In addition to having only a one-year window in which to lay their foundations, developers only receive two-year building permits under which they can complete the rest of their buildings, after which time the BSA must agree to extend them. To receive an extension, developers must show they have, as per the zoning regulations, completed “significant construction” and made “significant expenditures.” But the regulations are no more specific than that, leaving the board to decide what qualifies as significant.

Dennis and his fellow committee members said at a September 25 meeting that they have a hard time seeing how the two buildings before them could be considered significant construction. Though the Finger Building has reached ten stories, it is currently bound up in litigation to add an additional six, taking it from 125 feet to 210 feet. “It’s years from completion and half done at best,” Dennis said. The other building, 55 Eckford Street, was even further behind, comprising eight stories of superstructure and little else because of financing issues.

When asked what would qualify, Jeff Mulligan, executive director of the BSA, admitted that it doesn’t take much. “Historically, at least some superstructure suits the board,” he told AN. He also acknowledged that the community board was playing more of an advisory role than anything else.

Mulligan said he would not address specific buildings, but given a theoretical one—ten stories with some walls and interiors completed and an expenditure of $13 million out of $22 million, with more stories to be built—he said it stood a very good chance of passing. When Dennis was told this, he was bothered. “As far as I can tell, this only rewards bad behavior, not discourages it,” he said. The only way to know for sure is when the BSA rules on October 16.