Examples of modern architecture in historic districts are not unique. But is there such a thing as too modern?
This question was in the air at the Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting on March 9, where a proposal for 176 Washington Park, an 1860s Italianate at the corner of Willoughby Avenue across from Fort Greene Park, came in front of the commissioners. The architect behind the restoration, Ted Kane, said the prominent corner townhouse had been “in decline for many decades.” The plan is to restore the exterior and convert the house from a three-family into five condos. In addition, the developers want to remove a structurally damaged garage behind the townhouse and erect a modern carriage house in its place.
That carriage house, though, doesn’t look like a normal carriage house. It was designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning, Los Angeles-based architect Thom Mayne (the owner of 176 Washington is his son, Sam Mayne, who intends to live in the single-family structure). As principal of the firm Morphosis, he has designed a number of prominent buildings including 41 Cooper Square, the wavy-fronted building that is part of Cooper Union’s campus in Manhattan. He is as well known for his experimental designs as what was referred to in a Metropolis Magazine profile from 2003 as his “explosive temper” and propensity to “scream at clients.”
At the meeting, Mayne, who appeared midway through the presentation, said he “didn’t want something special” for the site. The site “didn’t want an icon,” he added.
A few disagreed. Local resident Joshua Smith said he was “concerned” about the carriage house, claiming it looked too bulky. “The facade overwhelms this historic street corner,” he said. “It doesn’t look like any carriage house I’ve ever seen.”
Commissioner Michael Devonshire backed him up. “It’s not an addition; it’s a new building,” he said. After talking about his current interest in World War II, Devonshire added that Mayne’s design “leaves me with the impression of a demolished building.” Commissioner Jeanne Lufty added that she felt the proposed addition looked “institutional” and resembled “entering a college campus.” She felt the design was a little too forceful. “I think this is a terrific project on many levels but I think it needs a little refining.”
The main suggestion was for the screen wall at the front of the addition to either be lowered or pushed back from the street wall, so as not to compete with the neighboring townhouses and call too much attention to itself.
Others not only were fine with the design but used the opportunity to fawn over Mayne. “This is why you hire good architects,” Commissioner Michael Goldblum said, before adding that he thought Mayne’s design “is going to be really cool.” Fred Bland exclaimed that he was excited that New York will now be able to boast about two carriage houses from famous architects (the other being David Adjaye). “I’m a great fan of what Mayne has done here,” Bland said.
Architects Steven Holl and Henry-Smith Miller each joined the meeting to speak favorably of Mayne and the project. They were part of a group of three people who approved the entire project, in addition to five others who approved the restoration of the townhouse but not the modern addition. Commissioners also fell into the same camps: those who approved the whole thing and others who were fine with the restoration but suggested more tinkering needed to be done with the carriage house. In the end, LPC Chair Sarah Carroll asked the developers to refine their proposal and return.
[Renderings by Kane Aud via NY Landmarks Preservation Commission]
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