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Olin to Roll?
Olin's masterplanning work for the Atlantic Yards megaproject is currently on hold.
Courtesy Olin

As the financial challenges to Bruce Ratner’s proposed development at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards site intensify, the landscape architect who helped glamorize the project in urban planning circles seems to be moving to the sidelines. Philadelphia-based Olin, which designed a masterplan and landscaping for the 22-acre site, has suspended work until the developer can secure financing, which is growing more difficult in today’s lending environment. 

The past few weeks have left Ratner’s proposal—which some neighborhood groups have depicted as a juggernaut—looking less and less inevitable. A judge refused Forest City Ratner’s motion to dismiss a longstanding lawsuit challenging the state’s use of eminent domain law to take land in the project footprint. That decision, said Forest City Ratner spokesperson Joe DePlasco, could delay construction by six months. “We had hoped to close in November and break ground in December,” DePlasco told AN. “Assuming the state wins the case, work on the arena and the first residential building starts then.” But even if he wins in court, the developer may not find a lender willing to support the controversial project. All of which leaves Olin’s future role difficult to pinpoint.

“Olin completed a masterplan for Atlantic Yards that we believe was a serious response to the great need for large amounts of affordable housing with adjacent well-designed, environmentally-responsive public landscape,” said the firm’s spokesperson Rick Mitchell. “The current economic turmoil points to the truth that plans of such scope almost inevitably are realized over several economic cycles and must both be able to endure as well as be flexible to change.”

Laurie Olin declined to comment further, but it’s possible that someone else will use his plan in developing future parcels. “Olin was contracted to do master planning for the entire development and schematic design for the Arena Block, both of which were successfully completed,” said Mitchell. The firm does not follow the current status of Ratner’s other proposed buildings, Mitchell added, “but assumes they will go ahead as the market allows.”

At the moment, then, Frank Gehry remains on the job designing the project’s centerpiece, the Barclays Arena and one residential tower, while Olin awaits a cue. “Laurie Olin will continue to work on the design of the public space,” DePlasco told AN. “The planned eight acres of public space have always been part of phase II. So the expectation is very much that he will continue to do that work.”

Even if Atlantic Yards does build a second phase with Olin on the design team, though, the project may represent another sort of coda. Another architect, who asked for anonymity, told AN that working with Gehry’s proprietary software and idiosyncratic methods has become financially difficult for the Olin office. “I heard that when Laurie was passing ownership of the firm to the other partners, and they wanted to make it more solvent and profitable, they basically had to stop working on Gehry projects,” he said.

Olin still expects to design eight acres of public space for phase II of the project.

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Street Wise
Rogers Marvel Architects' winning entry Streets for Everyone.
Courtesy Transportation Alternatives

New York’s quixotic quest to turn traffic-choked streets into pedestrian paradise took another step forward today, when Transportation Alternatives released the winning entries in its Designing the 21st Century Street competition.

The contest, which drew more than 100 entries from 13 countries, challenged designers to reimagine sidewalks and avenues that could safely accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists, transit, trucks, and cars on the same “complete street”—a notion gaining traction in other nations and cities, but one that has until very recently eluded New York's car-centric transportation planners.

Coming on the heels of the Design Trust for Public Space’s Grand Army Plaza competition, as well as the popular PARK(ing) Day, Transportation Alternatives’ competition focused on the intersection of 4th Avenue and 9th Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a wide-street crossroads plagued by speeding and reckless driving.

“We asked entrants to thread the needle of safety and mobility while designing world-class public space,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, in a statement. “Given that this intersection is one of the city’s most problematic crossings, each of the winning designs could serve as a template for countless streets across NYC.”

The jury—which included Danish planner-about-town Jan Gehl, New York City chief urban designer Alexandros Washburn, and architect Laurie Hawkinson—selected three winners. Rogers Marvel Architects was recognized for its entry Streets for Everyone, which focused on integrating infrastructure, turning 9th Street into an urban stormwater swale that filters runoff on its way to the Gowanus Canal. The design also places bike lanes in the middle of the street, offers “flex lanes” that can be claimed as neighborhood social space during times of low traffic, and revamps an adjacent overpass as a covered plaza with sheltered bike parking.

Somerville, Massachusetts-based Steven Nutter took honors for Shared Space, an entry that looked at fine-grained boundaries between different user groups. The plan widens 4th Avenue to allow for street trees on each side and a wider, mixed-use median with container-planted trees. Street life is focused on 9th Street, with widened sidewalks, bike paths, lighted bollards, and benches that create a more intimate scale.

Shared Space by Steven Nutter.
all Images courtesy transportation alternatives

Finally, Philadelphia-based team LEVON’s entry boldly resurrects the street as public domain, adding civic space, markets, gardens, leisure zones, and water areas. A heavy dose of green—in the form of street trees, gardens, and other organic elements—cuts down on the heat-island effect while providing new spaces for social use. In a nod to urban efficiency, all of the project’s elements are organized around a single, flexible module—one that is exactly the size of a parking space.

LEVON's entry Streets Come Alive.
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The Sites Fantastic
Central Park was the only New York City site to make the Great Places list.
Courtesy APA

On October 8, the American Planning Association (APA) announced its list of 30 “Great Places in America.” Launched in 2007, APA Great Places is a national program that highlights locations of exemplary character, quality, and planning. Each year sites are selected that embody a distinctive sense of place, cultural and historical interest, community involvement, and a vision for the future. This year’s list is made up of neighborhoods, streets, and public spaces in 21 states and the District of Columbia, including New York and California.

Among the honored sites, Central Park was the only New York City destination to be represented, acknowledged as being “an exemplary public space that successfully maintains a large naturalistic landscape in the midst of one of the densest cities in the country,” according to an APA statement. Upstate, Syracuse was honored for its Greater University Hill area, which planners praised for its "memorable character" and role as an economic engine for central New York. (Last year, Harlem's 125th Street and Brooklyn's Park Slope district were honored, along with the Elmwood Village neighborhood in Buffalo.) 

Elsewhere in the region, Philadelphia scored double honors: Society Hill was recognized for the area’s “blend of historic charm, smart mid-century and modern-day planning, and social diversity,” while South Broad Street was noted for its “historical character, focus on the arts, and social vibrancy.”

Santa Monica beach was praised for its strong commitment to public access. 

The Los Angeles area also fared well, with the Echo Park neighborhood, known for its hilly terrain that sets it apart from other Los Angeles neighborhoods, chosen as one of the APA’s best. According to the release, planners admired its “varied topography, historic architecture, and engaged citizens who, over the years, have gone to great lengths to protect and preserve their historic arts community.” Another nod was given to Santa Monica Beach, because of its opportunities for recreation and social interaction, as well as its “commitment to accessibility, environmental stewardship and historic preservation, and maintaining its distinctive character.” Much-lauded San Francisco was shut out of the Great Places list this year, but its North Beach neighborhood was honored in 2007.

The APA’s selection guidelines are defined by many criteria, including architectural features, accessibility, functionality, and community involvement, as well as other important factors such as geography, population, demographics, and setting, be it urban, suburban, or rural.

It’s Planning Time

Creative Time, the renowned public art organization, has been hired to create a public art masterplan for Louisville, Kentucky, a first for the organization. Announced yesterday, the $50,000 commission will likely call for temporary and permanent installations, as well as bricks and mortar projects, such as pedestrian bridges for a new parks system currently being designed by Philadelphia-based firm WRT. “We’ve been called on to advise on public art projects around the country, so we recently decided to develop a consulting arm,” said Meredith Johnson, a curator and producer with Creative Time. “We think it will broaden our impact on the field.”

Based on the recommendations of the Mayor’s Committee on Public Art, the city of Louisville issued an RFQ for the masterplan. Creative Time prevailed over two other finalists, the names of which the city declined to release. “They were a perfect match. They didn’t want to recycle the plan of another city. They want to create something unique for Louisville,” said Jesse Levesque Bishop, a member of the committee. The yearlong study will identify sites, funding strategies, timelines, and partner organizations, and is expected to include regional, national, and international artists and designers.

The city’s art scene has attracted national attention in recent years due to projects like the 21C Museum Hotel, designed by Deborah Berke, and REX’s now delayed Museum Plaza skyscraper.

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Seats for Reflection
Amid the endless hand wringing about design and planning compromises and the pace of construction at the World Trade Center site, the dedication of the Pentagon Memorial on September 11 offered some solace. A simpler project by far, the Pentagon Memorial still took years longer to complete than expected. “When we got the commission, we took an 18 month lease in Alexandria, Virginia,” said Julie Beckman, one of the memorial’s designers, “but it ended up being a 66 month long project.” Fundraising for the memorial, all which came from private sources, proved challenging, but the architects believe the extra time improved project as built. “It was a blessing in disguise,” she said. Beckman and her partner Keith Kaseman, who together run the Philadelphia-based firm KBAS, used the extra time for research and development. They had initially planned to use a single piece of anodized aluminum for each bench, or “memorial unit,” as they call them. After consulting metallurgical experts at Virginia Tech who questioned the long-term durability of aluminum, they opted for stainless steel above grade and pre-cast concrete below grade. They also tinkered with the gravel base, adding a bit of cement to the mixture, while leaving a thin layer of loose gravel on top. Six concrete paths were added to improve accessibility. Though the project took longer to complete than expected, the end result looks almost identical to their competition-winning design. “I hope 9/11 families everywhere feel welcome to use the memorial for their thoughts and reflections,” Beckman said. For KBAS, the project has left an indelible mark on their practice. Said Beckman, “We want to keep working on projects that have a positive impact on their communities.”
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Crit: Raise High the Bar on Prefab

Kieran timberlake's Cellophane House was assembled on-site at MoMA.

There is something delightful about the Museum of Modern Art’s new prefabrication show Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling that opened on July 20. On an empty lot west of the museum, future home of Jean Nouvel’s Tour de Verre, five full-scale contemporary prefabricated houses have been built, creating, as curator Barry Bergdoll put it, “the world’s strangest subdivision.”

It’s a rare sight to see single-family houses in Midtown Manhattan and rarer still to see something as small as the silvery micro compact house (an approximately 2.6-meter cube, fitted out like a boat with bathroom, kitchen, sunken dinette, and bunks) looking like a studio apartment left out in the rain. The double-takes of passers-by on 53rd and 54th streets are amusement enough.

That strangeness is historic, a point the excellent and thorough exhibition inside makes abundantly clear. There’s a sixth house up in the gallery, a return of the suppressed for MoMA: a Lustron Westchester Two Bedroom (1948–50)—an all-steel, 32 feet square house with powder-coated exterior panels in pastel colors and factory-made cabinets, closets, and vanities designed to be put together in eight days. It was the hugely popular Lustron demonstration model in Midtown that was the impetus for MoMA’s first house in the garden, Marcel Breuer’s 1949 butterfly-roof structure, meant as an elite corrective to the multiplying postwar Cape Cod cottages that even the technically accomplished Lustron aped. Today, the Lustron is welcome inside the museum, one of a number of nice high-low admixtures, though the architects outside might still shake their heads over its traditional plan. The exhibit places Quonset huts next to Frank Lloyd Wright Usonians, and shows Ford Motor Company’s filmed dream of happy workers constructing a house as quickly as a car alongside Buster Keaton’s spoof of the same, One Week.

Then as now, the gable beat the butterfly in the war of the rooflines, and the exhibit acknowledges that fact both in the text and on the lot. Next to the four flat tops sits Lawrence Sass’ House for New Orleans, a shotgun house made in the most contemporary way. The house, a prototype intended for Katrina refugees, is made of laser-cut plywood panels with cut-outs and tabs that allow it to fit together without nails or hinges, only a rubber mallet. As a contextual grace note, the porch is decorated with two-dimensional Victorian-style gingerbread (one of a number of styles that could be produced). All this ornament makes the modernist nervous—it is literally a “decorated shed”—but we are clearly in an age where computers make old patterns new again and mass customization is sexier than mass production. The porch ends up looking fussy, but the unintentional gridded pattern inside, created by all those I- and X- and T-shaped slots, is beautiful. However alien to the MoMA enterprise, it is important to have an example of (perhaps) more popular taste, as well as one of refugee housing. Sass says this prototype, if mass produced, would cost $40,000.

All five houses are meant to be objects of study, not products, but in fact, they are all for sale: The architects, from as far away as Austria and as near as Philadelphia, retain rights to the buildings and surely don’t want to have to ship them back home. One can’t help but try to place them, matchmaking Kieran Timberlake Architects’ Cellophane House—four stories, recyclable, transparent, made of snap-tight aluminium frames filled with panels of photovoltaics, polycarbonate, and Corian—with a Brooklyn brownstone neighborhood in need of new blood. Or Oskar Leo Kaufmann and Albert Rüf’s System 3—a long, blonde wood box, shipped as core and flat-packed walls, that fits inside a container and can be stacked into multiple stories—as a slender thorn in the side of a Connecticut suburb. The micro compact house, installed in two hours, seems like the ultimate luxury item—a room of your own that the super-rich could literally drop wherever they go.


Courtesy Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

LAWRENCE SASS' HOUSE FOR NEW ORLEANS (top) was one of the few projects to shed the veneer of the expensive modernist dream. Richard and Su Rogers' Zip Up Enclosures No. 1 and 2 (1968-71, above) was designed so that users could continually add to it via standardized components.

That ability to drop a house into whatever wilderness or city you desire has long been part of the prefab dream, from Archigram’s Plug-In City (1962–64) to the realized but never reconfigured Nagakin Capsule Tower (1968–72) in Tokyo. Now that the houses are complete, much of that drama and difference dissipates. The action happened in the weeks and days before the opening, and can still be seen on the exhibition website. The indoor exhibition also integrates film much more successfully than most contemporary architecture shows: cranes with pods, trucks with stacks, and the magic of making play over and over. For anyone who has suffered through home construction, it is like the beautiful amnesia that sets in after completion, a mental time-lapse film of the process.

At Home Delivery, there is much to learn about flat-packing, laser cutting, tool-free assembly, and integral photovoltaics. But what will this change about architecture? The exhibition makes clear that the yearning for prefabrication, which caused every major modernist architect to design at least a prototype, was born of a combination of utopian and taste-making fervor. At different points in the 20th century, we needed housing, quick and cheap. Buckminster Fuller’s Wichita House (1944–46) was intended to provide jobs and homes simultaneously for returning servicemen, turning Midwestern factories from bombers to home production. The Eames House (1945–49) was intended as an aesthetic corrective to Levittowns, and showed how much space one could enclose for the least amount of money using existing parts from industrial manufacturers. These were modernist prophets, but they also had a sense of economy. They turned to prefab out of exigency, with the desire to streamline housing as the production of cars and refrigerators had been.

That sense of exigency seems absent from 54th Street. These houses show economies of time, material, and energy, but they still look (except for the House for New Orleans) like expensive modernist dreams. It could still be the 1940s, with architects trying to persuade manufacturers there’s a market for modernism, but the market really existing only at the high end and for the very Dwell audience the exhibition claims it wants to move beyond. Good taste as mandated by MoMA still hasn’t become mass taste, and so these houses may be doomed to the same failure as prototypes by Le Corbusier, Gropius, Rudolph, and Rogers. The “cultural divide” to which Bergdoll directly refers in the show’s catalog, between those “exploring new relations between architecture and production and the steady, almost reflexive, success of manufactured housing” is not bridged here. Maybe a manufacturer will take up the Cellophane House or System 3. But is that going to solve any housing problems? The promise of prefab still seems unfulfilled.

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Profiles in Courage: Building in Uncertain Times

It may not involve taking unpopular stances on the floor of the Senate, but building in New York right now is not for the squeamish, requiring a whole lot of confidence. The city has not proven to be entirely immune from the fallout of the mortgage crisis battering much of the country, and there is an air of caution that has been absent for years. That said, the developers we’ve spoken to in the last few months have faith that the local market is fundamentally solid. For our annual look at development in the city, we spoke to six developers whose work we have been following. They operate at radically different scales, and often in different market sectors. Each of the six has a bold take on the changes in the economy, and each will continue to build. Photography by Yoko Inoue 

Clockwise from top, left:

David Von Spreckelsen
Senior Vice President
Toll Brothers City Living
363-365 Bond Street, Brooklyn
2011 (est.)

Dawanna Williams
Founder and Principal
Dabar Development Partners

603-617 North American Street, Philadelphia
em Architecture

Jonathan Rose
President and Founder
Jonathan Rose Companies

Cooper Union,
New Academic Building, New York

Alf Naman
Principal and Founder
Alf Naman Real Estate Advisors

100 Eleventh
100 11th Avenue, New York
Ateliers Jean Nouvel

Vishaan Chakrabarti
Executive Vice President of
Design and Planning
The Related Companies

Moynihan Station
Centered on 8th Avenue and 34th Street, New York
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and others
2010 (est.)

Jed Walentas
Director of Daily Operations
Two Trees Management

Dock Street Building & Middle School, Brooklyn, New York
Beyer Blinder Belle Architects

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Profile: Dawanna Williams

Yoko Inoue

Dawanna Williams
Founder and Principal
Dabar Development Properties

From the perspective of an airship or an urban planner’s PowerPoint, the city may look like swathes of unified development along major avenues and big-acre sites like Rockefeller Center, Stuy Town, and Battery Park City. But on the street, urban dwellers experience the city block by block, building to building. It’s that smaller scale that appealed to Dawanna Williams, so much so that she left off lawyering to become a developer in what she calls “signature neighborhoods,” including Harlem, Fort Greene, and Bushwick.

In a field dominated by extensive family clans and an apprentice-eat-apprentice ethos, Williams, 38, comes from an atypical background. Raised in Atlanta by a single working mother, she went on to study economics and government at Smith College. She came to New York in 1997 and started working for law firms with a hand in corporate real estate. That led her to get involved in deals like the sale of the 1921 skyscraper 30 Wall Street and financing the rehabilitation of the Starrett-Lehigh in Chelsea. “I liked the idea of putting together projects that people would later enjoy,” said Williams and so, while still working as a lawyer, she started buying up townhouses in her own Clinton Hill neighborhood, renovating them into rental apartments and using the assets to make more purchases. “One of her strong qualities is Dawanna’s ability to address and resolve gracefully unforeseen issues,” said Hilary Weinstein, a vice president at the Community Preservation Corporation that financed Williams’ first Harlem project. “She has a great temperament for dealing with things, and that’s rare in developers.”

In 2003, Williams founded Dabar Development Partners and set out to work on small and medium-scale developments in emerging communities. The name Dabar comes from the Hebrew for “words from God,” which Williams came across while reading Deuteronomy in the Torah. “In the late 90s, I had seen how the big developers went for older buildings and vacant sites, and I thought I could apply that same approach in signature communities with undervalued assets.” Williams started scouting properties marked by what she calls “tangible and intangible hallmarks,” including historic resonance, architectural distinction, thriving churches, intellectuals, and artists. She found those qualities in Fort Greene and Bedford Stuyvesant where, while still a lawyer, she started working on townhouse deals with four to six units. It grew quickly into something she hadn’t really expected: a niche in high-quality housing in historic but undervalued communities.

The first significant project on her own was the $6.2 million Marshall building in Harlem. Taking two 1920s townhouses that had been vacant for some 40 years, Williams gutted them, added 34 feet to the back, and transformed them into ten one-, two- and three-bedroom condos with 11-foot ceilings, granite kitchens, and fireplaces. With the most expensive unit going for $872,600, the project sold out quickly.

Up until then, Williams worked for the most part with contractors, but then she met Paola Antonelli, a senior design curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and Thelma Goldin, director of the Studio Museum Harlem. Both encouraged her to take it up a notch and engage with more adventuresome architecture and emerging architects. Antonelli wrote in an email that Williams has “a deep understanding of the context where she is operating and on pushing herself always a bit beyond her own comfort zone in order to deliver not simply buildings, but meaningful additions to the urban and social landscape.”

She started working with Galia Solomonoff, an architect who designed, as part of OpenOffice, the Dia:Beacon museum and has also done time in such prestigious firms as OMA in The Netherlands and Bernard Tschumi and Rafael Viñoly in New York. For Dabar Development, Solomonoff is currently designing an unusual $26.5 million project on an enviable site smack in the middle of Central Park North. It’s a joint venture with the New York United Sabbath Day Adventists to rebuild a church on the site with a 15-story setback condominium tower. “Dawanna’s dual talent is her patience in bringing together seemingly opposite stakeholders—bankers, community, church—and her ability to seize on rewarding yet underestimated urban situations,” said Solomonoff. “She’s a dealmaker extraordinaire.”

Williams has also tapped Danois Architects, a firm with a background in sustainable design, including the completion of Melrose Commons in the South Bronx that won a top award for affordable green housing from the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association in 2003. Williams turned to David Danois in 2006 when Dabar was selected as one of 25 teams to participate in Mayor Bloomberg’s New Foundations Initiative for developing 236 city-owned abandoned or vacant lots. Dabar will build 22 town- and multifamily buildings on 17 sites in Bushwick and East New York, one-third of which will be affordable and all LEED-certified.

Casting an eye beyond the city, Williams discovered the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia, a kind of sixth-borough Dumbo that has drawn artists to its warehouse conversions and new construction. With rapper/ producer Jay-Z as an investor, she is well underway constructing a 24-loft, eight-story condominium designed by the Philadelphia firm EM Architecture on a site with views of Ben Franklin Bridge and a block over from the 11-story American Lofts building designed by Winka Dubbeldam.

So far, Williams said that the biggest challenge she has had to face as a developer of projects over 15,000 but under 60,000 square feet is financing. “New York is loaded with tenement developers and visionary project developers,” she said, “but there’s not a whole lot in between. The banks are better set up for those extremes, while midsized developers tend to be undefined and have to structure deals case by case.”

One by one suits Williams just fine, and she is even sanguine about the current economic downturn. “I believe in, I am even thankful for, corrections because I believe that in the end, the most qualified will remain in play.”

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Profile: David Von Spreckelsen

Yoko Inoue

David Von Spreckelsen
Senior Vice President
Toll Brothers City Living

The Gowanus Canal is as far as you can get from a greenfield in this country, and the last place you’d expect to find a development by Toll Brothers, the suburban luxury home-builder better known for sprawling tracts of neo-Georgians built on fast-receding farmland.

But that’s where David Von Spreckelsen, senior vice president for the company’s City Living division, unflinchingly mapped out a 450-unit development—the first contract he signed in New York four years ago—that points to Toll Brothers’ future even as it has caused consternation back at the home office in Horsham, Pennsylvania. Company chairman Robert Toll vetoed the plan for the as-yet untitled project at 363-365 Bond Street when it was first pitched, said Von Spreckelsen, but he added, “Now it’s one of Bob’s favorite projects, because there’s so much potential.”

With nearly $1 billion in development and 1,200 units in New York, Toll Brothers is making the city a major part of its push into urban areas. Amid a longer-term trend to conquer new markets—and cushion the broader housing bust—Toll has diversified geographically (it’s in 21 states) and demographically with the launch of Toll Brothers City Living, the division that’s taken the company well beyond the ‘burbs.

“City Living really came out of Toll Brothers looking at who their customer was and where their customer was going,” said Von Spreckelsen, sitting in his notably unstuffy office near Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. “And they were seeing a trend toward people moving to more urban areas.” Young buyers and empty-nesters brought the company to Philadelphia, and from there the division hit Jersey City and Hoboken, where developments include Hudson Tea, a 1,200-unit condominium project. Success on Jersey’s waterfront whetted Toll’s appetite for the far shore of the Hudson.

Enter Von Spreckelsen, 45, a former director of real estate development for Silvercup Studios (he worked on the Queens rezoning that led to Silvercup’s Richard Rogers–designed expansion plans) who previously served at the New York City Economic Development Corporation. When he launched Toll’s local office in 2004, he figured cracking the Manhattan market would take a while. But through a broker he knew, Von Spreckelsen acquired a site near 14th Street, and soon built a 21-story glass tower designed by GreenbergFarrow. The project swiftly sold out, and this year the firm broke ground on a second tower by Perkins Eastman at 303 East 33rd Street.

But Brooklyn is where Toll has found the biggest upsides. Beyond Gowanus, the company led the wave of development along the rezoned Williamsburg waterfront with Northside Piers, a three- tower, FXFowle-designed project that is a joint venture with L&M Equity and RD Management. A few blocks away is a more modest Toll outpost, North8. (Another local project is 5th Street Lofts in Long Island City.)

New York hasn’t been without its challenges. While the hugely capitalized company rarely needs project-specific loans, cash flow can still be tight, since Toll builds suburban homes only after pocketing a down payment. “For single-family, you literally sell a house, and then you build it,” Von Spreckelsen said. “In New York City, you’re buying a piece of land, and then you’re putting up a multi-family building. It’s really building on spec.” And projects can get bogged down by the land-use process, as at Gowanus, where the team expects to finally be certified for public review in August. “When you’re still trying to get certified, there are basically no milestones at all,” said Von Spreckelsen. “That’s been a real challenge to convey back to the home office.”

Still, the company is adapting to the urban arena. In the suburbs, Toll has stakes in nearly the entire supply chain, with its own architecture, engineering, and marketing divisions. By contrast, New York’s 15-person staff outsources most services, but that will be changing. Halstead Property is the broker for projects currently in sales, for instance, but the second tower at Northside Piers will be sold in-house.

While grizzled urbanites might cringe at the thought of Toll tackling New York, the company’s reputation has already helped it grow. The brand resonates with buyers, said Von Spreckelsen: The company calls them Toll Groupies—a clan with friends or relatives who are Toll owners and eager to buy into new projects. Whether or not such loyalists will be enticed to Brooklyn’s Lavender Lake, of course, is a question taking Toll Brothers into uncharted territory.

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Can Prefab Deliver?
courtesy KAA Design

KAA Design is teaming with a major builder to produce its HOM prefab homes (top and above). 

There’s nothing new about prefab—in fact, it’s often referred to as modern architecture’s “oldest new idea.” But in its current trendiness—widespread glitzy press coverage and the benedicton of a major new exhibit scheduled to open at MoMA in New York on July 20—a handful of architects, investors, large firms, and real estate brokers are still trying to prove that the concept can live up to its hype.


Historically, the idea of prefabricated building systems has always seemed fresh and of-the-moment. In 1892, Ernest Franklin Hodgson developed a prefabricated building system to sell chicken coops, doghouses, tool sheds, and small summer cottages. Eventually, he introduced larger homes and garages, a concept met with intense excitement. Later, in 1906, Aladdin Readi-Cut Houses produced a kit house of pre-cut pieces. But the real hit came in 1908, when Sears & Roebuck developed the wildly popular “House By Mail” program that took the nation by storm. By 1940, when the program ended, the company had sold over 100,000 units. The fervor for prefab was captured in One Week, starring Buster Keaton in 1923, in which a newlywed couple builds their own prefab home with comic results.


Marmol Radziner Prefab’s new standardized Rincon units can complement a home.
courtesy marmol radziner Prefab


Today there is once again a sense of excitement and curiosity as modern prefab architecture returns to the mainstream, rescued from its stigma as cheap or even mobile housing by a new wave of well-designed units. Innovative new ideas have popped up in large numbers, ranging from Ecoshack’s prefab yurts and the Katrina Cottages for Gulf Coast hurricane victims to prefab homes by the furniture company Design Within Reach. But there’s also intense scrutiny and skepticism surrounding prefab, or modular or factory housing, as it’s otherwise called. Some argue that while prefab is touted for its ability to be mass-produced, it’s delivered to relatively few. Others note that while it promises affordability, modern prefab is often expensive (for example, California developer Steve Glenn’s much-publicized Living Homes, with designs by Ray Kappe and Kieran Timberlake, generally average well over $200 per square foot). More question marks surround such issues as durability, comfort, and variety. For the architect entrepreneur looking to sell prefab as a business, it remains unclear if it’s possible to turn a profit. For the time being, as prefab units rise in cost, dividends remain small because few houses have been widespread sellers.


Office of Mobile Design has ventured into prefab school production with its Country School in Valley Village, California.
Marmol Radziner Prefab’s Desert House prototype (2005) is an example of how upscale the movement has gone.
courtesy marmol radziner Prefab

“I just think the whole thing is a false promise,” said Los Angeles realtor Brian Linder. “They’re very difficult to sell. There’s nothing low-cost about them. Until someone like Honda or Toyota gets involved, I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”


Allison Arieff, author of Prefab (2003), said that people designing 7,000-square-foot prefabs might as well do stick-built. “Prefab for the sake of prefab isn’t going anywhere; that would just continue what some have called ‘the curse of the prototype,’ whereby a great one-off house is built, but no others follow.”


Still, Arieff predicts that architects who can master the practical side of prefab—factories, mass production, shipping, and, of course, marketing—will thrive in the future. And architects, while committed to proving critics wrong about prefab, are also trying their hardest to make the system worth their while, design-wise. One California firm that stands out in the quest to effectively exploit the rise in consumer interest toward prefab is Marmol Radziner Prefab, a division of Los Angeles-based Marmol Radziner Associates. The firm has a local factory to manufacture and package high-end, modern steel-frame houses and has even established a blog on prefab. The advantage, said firm principal Leo Marmol, is that prefab allows the firm to “tackle the inefficiencies involved with site-built construction, including weather and subcontractor delays, runaway costs, and excessive material waste.”


After the success of their first prototype, the 2005 Desert House, and having built over 20 custom prefab homes in all possible configurations and sitings, the firm has now taken their work to the “next level” with standardized models: the multi-module Skyline and single module Rincon series, both of which begin at about $180,000 (although Marmol notes that all prefab homes are notoriously hard to price accurately because of the varied costs involved). All have large decks to maximize outdoor living (although these can be enclosed for colder climates), and use natural cooling, solar panels, and steel frame construction. Extra materials, say the firm, are recycled in their factory. The firm is also hoping to take on the next frontier of prefab: mass production. Marmol, who calls mass-produced prefab “the holy grail of prefab,” claimed that it would offer similar benefits to developers and homebuilders as it does to consumers, like the ability to fix the price of the construction process and deliver homes with shorter schedules, reducing carrying costs.


Philadelphia architects Kieran Timberlake Associates joined with Santa Monica-based LivingHomes to create prefab multi-housing units (top) and a single family residence that can expand from 900 to 2,000 square feet (below).
courtesy kieran timberlake associates

Only time will tell whether Marmol’s pitch to the homebuilder industry works. One architect, Oakland-based Michelle Kaufmann, is already having success in prefab mass production. Her firm Michelle Kaufmann Design (MKD), which had established itself with individual prefab models like the mkLoft and mkSolaire, is now working with home builders to create prefab communities like SolTerra, a 24-unit multifamily project in San Leandro, California, set to be completed this fall; and Denver Townhomes, an 80-unit townhouse development outside of Denver with a mix of two- and three-bedroom, multi-story homes that will be completed next year. The project features contemporary-style units built with eco-friendly materials, and includes shared parks and green systems like geothermal energy. Prices for these homes, which Kaufmann describes as “healthy, beautiful, and cost-effective,” range from about $100 to $200 per square foot.


Architects and designers are also coming up with ways to make the prefab building process more seamless. Brian Adolph, an architect with the LA-based KAA Design Group, said his company looked to combine unique design with not-so- unique prefab production methods in developing its HOM units, which are simple, high-quality units meant to merge indoor and outdoor living. Instead of developing its own factory, KAA teamed with a long-established prefab building company (KAA is in final negotiations with the company, so they would not reveal its name) that already has outlets across the country. Their models average about $200 per square foot. “We wanted to come up with a system that could truly deliver in mass. To marry these two industries (architecture and manufacturing) and get over the stigma of the manufactured model,” he said.


Other prefab architects are venturing into new building types to try to find their own “holy grail.” Jennifer Siegal, principal at Office of Mobile Design (OMD), has worked on numerous modern prefab homes, including a project that she parked along Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, California that she uses as her showroom. Siegel recently shifted gears and started working on modern prefab schools, which she thinks might be another wave of the future. She was awarded a grant from Southern California Edison in 1998 to help rethink the portable classrooms built in LA. Working with her students at Woodbury University, she developed Sustainable Portables, classrooms based on prefab modules that used less energy, were built with more sustainable materials, and had a more contemporary aesthetic. Since then, her firm has completed its own school projects including the Country School Prefab Expansion in Valley Village, California; the mobile ECOLAB; and the Portable Construction Training Center in Venice. Like all of her projects, the classrooms are designed to “be easily described visually and intellectually to new clients,” Siegal said, and to “help clients make choices more quickly, since we’ve limited their options due to the building systems and pre-selected material finishes.”


Yet limited options are not a plus for all clients. If prefab really does reach its factory-model potential, the balance between standardization and customization is destined to become an important issue. Empyrean International, which manufactured Dwell Homes, a collection of ultra-modern prefab units in 2005, is now working on a 50-unit prefab project in the U.K. along with a program to collaborate with specific architects to create customized prefab homes. The company’s CEO, Patrick Gilhane, said the firm offers nine standard plans with the potential of 32 different outcomes. “The homeowner wants something more unique and specialized,” he said. “The most promising thing I’m seeing in prefab is the sheer number of new projects that bring new and innovative ideas to the table. That’s why I think this is going to be a long-term trend.”


Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s architecture and design curator, chose the subject of prefabricated design as his first show, called Home Delivery. In the empty lot next to the museum, five houses by architects including Kieran Timberlake; Douglas Gauthier and Jeremy Edminston; and Horden Cherry Lee Architects will be built and ready to tour. “I am most interested in the people that are pushing the design envelope,” he said. But he admitted to thinking that the firms taking a more pragmatic approach to prefab and going with the tried-and-true technology will probably succeed more quickly. One of his favorite designs in the show is Kieran Timberlake’s aluminum-framed Cellophane House, which is being constructed from reusable materials. “They span the pragmatic, but are also theorizing the entire framework of prefab design,” he said. And that combination of the prosaic and the poetic may well be the ultimate promise of prefab.  


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Hidden in Plain Sight
The studio building is surrounded on all sides by houses and commercial buildings. The complexxs largest streetfrontage is given to a parking garage (behind studio).

For every college town that is idyllic, another is fraught with town/gown tension. Yale University’s complicated relationship with New Haven has, for decades, been a textbook example of the latter. In recent years, however, the university has spent considerable resources sprucing up its surroundings and seems to acknowledge that in the ever-competitive sport of attracting top faculty and students, as New Haven goes, so goes Yale. Still, at an institution as traditionbound as Yale, habits are slow to change.

Such was the environment in which Philadelphiabased KieranTimberlake Associates found themselves when they were asked to design a new building for the School of Art’s sculpture students. (The building first served as swing space for the School of Architecture while Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building was being restoredandexpanded by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates.) The Sculpture Building, which also includes a detached gallery and a public parking garage, is the latest and last planned piece of the university’s arts district, which extends from Old Campus into the Dwight Street neighborhood, and includes Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art, the A&A Building, the Yale Theatre Department, the Yale Cabaret, the Yale Repertory Theatre, and Deborah Berke’s thoughtful renovation and addition for the School of Art.

Though the arts district is scattered over several blocks and well-integrated into the fabric of the city, the campus as a whole is largely characterized by James Gamble Rogers’ Collegiate Gothic and Georgian Revival residential colleges. These enclosed, self-contained courtyard buildings famously offer students intimate and highly atmospheric environments in which to study, dine, and live, creating a small-college feeling within a large university. With housing, dining, small libraries, and other communal spaces, these super-dorms provide undergraduates, and some graduate students, with everything they need on a day-to-day basis. With their high walls, locked gates, and inward-looking plans, however, they offer little to the street or the New Haven community.

The studio building is tucked behind the street-facing parking garage (top). The rear of the gallery building (center) frames a small courtyard. The main entrance to the complex is off a quiet side street (above).

In a lecture at the School of Architecture in 2006, the architects explained that they wanted to orient the building toward campus so that students using the building would be integrated into campus life (Yale and KieranTimberlake declined to speak to AN for this article, citing the building’s formal reopening for sculpture students in the fall). Located in the center of the block bounded by Park, Chapel, and Howe streets and Edgewood Avenue, the site has frontage on Howe and Edgewood, with finger-like paths reaching to Chapel and Park. They argued that by creating a series of paths behind the buildings on the street and carving out a courtyard from the backyards of the Yale-owned houses and apartment buildings, they were reinterpreting the university’s signature enclosed academic courtyards.

The Sculpture Building complex’s most successful piece is the gallery building on Edgewood Avenue, which sits comfortably on the short residential block. Clad in handsome wood sheathing, the contemporary building harmonizes with its neighbors, which range from Greek Revival houses and weighty piles of Victorian masonry to nondescript four-story apartment buildings from the 1920s and ‘30s. Behind the gallery building, there is a pleasant, shaded courtyard framed by the studio building and the rear of the surrounding houses and apartment buildings. The architects preserved a massive oak tree, which is reflected in the studio building’s crystalline curtain wall. While this space generates a well-liked and well-used outdoor space for students, again, it comes at some cost to the city’s public realm. The architects and the university decided to place the studio building behind the gallery building, with its main entrance facing a path toward quiet Edgewood Avenue, pushing the parking garage onto Howe Street, a far busier residential and commercial corridor. This effectively hides the studio building from public view.

Though the parking garage does have ground floor retail spaces, currently used as offices for Yale Security and as temporary classrooms and offices for the architecture school, the structure is conventional, thinly disguised with drab matte gray panels that do little to enliven the building. (New Haven is home to a number of remarkable parking structures, such as Paul Rudolph’s Temple Street parking garage, so this structure suffers even by comparison to local examples.) The message seems clear enough: Students deserve tastefully detailed, modern architecture with tranquil outdoor spaces, while the city only deserves ordinary construction that fulfills basic requirements.

The studio building itself suffers from its location on the site. One side faces the rear of the gallery building and the large oak, while the other overlooks the asphalt parking lots of the low-rise commercial buildings that line the corner of Chapel and Howe streets. The latter side is shaded in a dark brown metal bris soleil, which will help mitigate some of the full sun exposure. The studio building joins the parking garage somewhat awkwardly with an inset, covered area that serves as the building’s rather unimpressive entrance.

This year, Yale’s sculpture complex ably fulfilled the needs of its primary users, the architecture students,and demonstrated KieranTimberlake’s ability to carve amiable enclaves out of marginal spaces. And yet these strengths also illustrate how aloof the university seems to have been toward the city, not in terms of dollars spent— for the parking garage no doubt fulfills a public need—but symbolically. 

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Park Problem
Historic Sutter's Fort in Sacramento
Robert English

Although it’s charged with protecting monuments like historic Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento (pictured), the entire California state park system has been listed as one of 11 endangered sites by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The annual list, which has brought attention to over 200 locations since 1988, names places known for their architectural, historical or cultural significance that are in danger of destruction or damage.

Chronic underfunding currently plagues the parks system with only 40% of annual operating costs covered. Extreme budget cuts, including a $13.3 million slash by Governor Schwarzenegger earlier this year ($11.8 million of which was restored in May) have resulted in over $1.2 million in maintenance deferment, which not only ignores proper care of historic buildings, but also structures like campground facilities, many of which have yet to be modernized. California’s is the largest state park system in the country with 278 parks covering 1.5 million acres and 295 miles of oceanfront.

The 2008 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places (in
alphabetical order):

Boyd Theatre, Philadelphia, Pa.

California's State Parks

Charity Hospital and the adjacent neighborhood, New Orleans, La.

Great Falls Portage, Great Falls, Mont.

Hangar One, Moffett Field, Santa Clara County, Calif.

The Lower East Side, New York City

Michigan Avenue Streetwall, Chicago, Ill.

Peace Bridge Neighborhood, Buffalo, N.Y.

The Statler Hilton Hotel, Dallas, Tx.

Sumner Elementary School, Topeka, Kan.

Vizcaya and the Bonnet House, Fla.