November 10, 2009
by Lisa Delgado

Event: Roundtable Discussion on “Appropriateness”
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.04.09
Speakers: Harry Kendall, AIA — Partner, BKSK; Richard Cook, AIA — Partner, Cook+Fox Architects; Bill Higgins — Principal, Higgins Quasebarth & Partners; Margery Perlmutter, AIA — Partner, Bryan Cave & Member, Landmarks Preservation Commission
Moderator: Mark Silberman — General Counsel, Landmarks Preservation Commission
Organizer: AIANY Historic Buildings Committee
Sponsors: AIANY Historic Buildings Committee

FrontSt-PeckSlip

Historic Front Street (left) and 24 Peck Slip by Cook+Fox Architects.

© Karin Partin for Cook+Fox Architects (left); © Seong Kwon for Cook+Fox Architects (right)

What does it mean for architecture to be “appropriate?” It’s quite a nebulous, subjective term, yet the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has the tricky task of evaluating it before granting a Certificate of Appropriateness for new architecture in a historic district. Since the mid-1960s, the LPC has granted around 250 such approvals, said Mark Silberman, LPC general counsel, at a recent panel presented in conjunction with the exhibition ContextContrast: New Architecture in Historic Districts, 1967–2009.

Weighing those decisions can be “difficult and perplexing,” because while landmarks law provides some general guidelines, “it’s pretty broad,” Silberman remarked. “It doesn’t really guide us, the commission, as to this question of, well, what is that new building to be? Is it supposed to be a copy of an old building?” Or should it instead be boldly contemporary, “a landmark of the future?” While the law provides no exact formulas, the LPC has always been sympathetic to the notion of progress in historic districts, rather than seeking to freeze them in time, he said.

The issues really came alive through the presentations of Harry Kendall, AIA, of BKSK, and Richard Cook, AIA, of Cook+Fox Architects. Kendall and Cook discussed their firms’ approaches in various projects, including two that appear in the exhibition: 114-116 Hudson Street, a residential project in the Tribeca West Historic District; and Historic Front Street in the South Street Seaport Historic District, a large mixed-use project that involved restoring 11 buildings and designing three new ones.

In researching the history of the Front Street area, “We started to think that there were many things that were relevant to a discussion of appropriateness that weren’t necessarily tangible at all,” Cook said. “They weren’t about bricks and mortar.” Inspirations including Moby Dick by Herman Melville and a 1936 Berenice Abbott photograph showing a schooner at Pier 11 with city buildings in the background helped the architects understand the maritime history of a place filled with “ghosts of our past,” he added.

In the design of one new building at 24 Peck Slip, the glassiness of a façade has a contemporary feel, but “wood solar shades might allude to the wood sailing vessels,” and tension rods for canopies “crisscross in a crazy pattern and allude to rigging of a ship.” In a nearby building at 217 Front Street, a window design evokes the form of a whale’s tail, an homage to Melville. Using 10 geothermal wells for the project’s heating and cooling not only boosted sustainability, it also reduced noise and kept roofs uncluttered by cooling equipment, preserving the look of the roofscape.

BKSK’s project on Hudson Street involved restoring an existing building from the 1840s and creating a contemporary expansion in an adjacent vacant lot. The expansion’s glass-and-metal façade forms an abstract grid that subtly echoes the lines of the masonry buildings to either side. However, the new design is different enough that it didn’t look jarring to make the addition slightly taller than the existing building, Kendall said.

While the notion of appropriateness takes center stage in new architecture in historic districts, the issue is really commonplace, Kendall remarked. “What we realized was that we had just formed a continuum with something that always goes on in architecture: that when you build something next to something else, you don’t copy it, but you do things that knit it in. We just continued that tradition: context and contrast.”

Lisa Delgado is a freelance journalist who has written for OCULUS, The Architect’s Newspaper, I.D., Blueprint, and Wired, among other publications.

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