by: AIA New York
Artfully weaving contemporary design with historic fabric for over two decades, Brendan Coburn, FAIA, NCARB, has demonstrated that reuse of America’s 19th-century buildings is a model for a thriving practice and continued stewardship of the built environment. Since founding CWB Architects in 1995, Coburn has grown the firm from a two-person shop that specialized in Brooklyn brownstone renovations into a multidisciplinary firm of 27 professionals designing multiple building types throughout the greater New York City metropolitan area. With an emphasis on adaptive re-use and working within Landmarks Districts, Coburn’s passion is grounded in building and renovating new and old structures to serve clients for the next 100 years. His expertise reimagining the 19th-century fabric of NYC for use in the modern world informs CWB’s renovations, new constructions, and thoughtful civic interventions.
The Jury of Fellows of the AIA elevated Coburn to the College of Fellows in the first category of Fellowship, which recognizes architects who have “Promoted the aesthetic, scientific, and practical efficiency of the profession,” according to the organization’s definition. Coburn will eventually be celebrated at AIA New York’s annual New Fellows Reception, once a new date is confirmed at the Center for Architecture in the wake of COVID-19.
Q: What has been particularly challenging in your recent work?
A: Trying to maintain a humanistic scale as our buildings grow in size. Currently, we are designing our second medium-sized apartment building; balancing all of the developers’ economic considerations against the imperative to design a well-proportioned and properly scaled building is a challenge. But I like the challenge of finding that balance. I also value the opportunity to be part of restoring a continuous and well-scaled street-wall on a single block in the city.
Q: What are some of your favorite recent projects that you’ve worked on?
A: We recently completed Schematic Design for a new Episcopal church, church hall, rectory building, and courtyard in Queens that is part of a two-building campus. The project will include the restoration of an existing historic church on the same parcel. We are also finishing up construction documents on five new townhouses in the Fort Greene Historic District that are contextual, but at the same time still quite modern. Finally, we finished schematic design on a combination yoga studio and library on a farm in Ghent, New York. The building is elevated over the ruins of an old barn and is cantilevered over a stream, which should be lovely.
Q: What do you see as an architect’s role—and responsibility—within our culture?
A: For me, the architect’s role is to teach people to be sensitive to the built environment, to help everyone understand the power buildings and landscapes have to provide comfort and repose in our frantic world. I also have become increasingly aware of the architect’s unique challenge of translating spatial ideas and three-dimensional problem-solving skills to the verbal world outside of the profession; it is hard and requires patience—and practice—but is essential to fulfilling one’s role as an architect.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges, or opportunities, facing cities?
A: Maintaining a humanistic scale as our cities grow up and out. I think that the current trend for expanding cities and drawing more humans back into urban environments is the best thing that can happen for the environmental health of the planet. I think that given this trend, quality urban planning, landscape design, and architecture become more and more essential to the viability of civilization.
Q: What are your greatest sources of inspiration?
- Imagining the experience of inhabiting and enjoying any given space (e.g., having a lovely dinner in one of the houses we design).
- The boundless reference library of historic buildings that is New York City. I am always discovering NEW details and design moves in buildings and neighborhoods that I have been walking past and looking at my whole life—and being amazed that I had not noticed them before.
- Watching the traffic of tugboats and barges on the East River from the window at my office desk.
Editors’ Note: This feature is part of a series celebrating the members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York Chapter who are elevated each year to the AIA College of Fellows, an honor awarded to members who have made significant contributions to both the profession and society. Learn more about Fellowship here.