Architects Say, “I’ll Do It My Way”

Event: Emerging Voices Lecture Series
Location: Urban Center, 03.22.07
Speakers: An Te Liu — artist, associate professor & director, Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, University of Toronto; Jared Della Valle, AIA, Andrew Bernheimer, AIA — Principals, Della Valle Bernheimer
Organizers: The Architectural League of New York

245 Tenth Avenue

The steel-and-glass cladding of 245 10th Avenue was designed to reflect light in patterns that vary by day and by season.

qubdesign, courtesy Della Valle Bernheimer

“I hate it and I’ve almost rid my life of it,” proclaimed An Te Liu about IKEA furniture. Jared Della Valle, AIA, and Andrew Bernheimer, AIA, have no fondness for the mass-market designs either. For them, buying from IKEA and scavenging from the trash were equally distasteful methods for furnishing their office in their early days.

But Liu confessed to liking the designs better with a few not-so-minor alternations. Ignoring IKEA’s arcane instruction sheets, he assembled the parts for a desk into an angular hanging sculpture; he also reconstituted table panels to form a striped wall mural.

Like Andy Warhol, Liu, an artist and director of the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto, is known for using mundane objects as building blocks for new, unexpected forms. Drawn to the cheery colors of 3M sponges, he used them to create walls and pillars in his Soft series. In another project, he constructed totemic pillars out of air purifiers. He appropriated a photo of Levittown as source material for endlessly repeating ornamental wallpaper — an ironic critique of the myth of individual autonomy within a vast built network of sameness, he explained.

Bernheimer and Della Valle, principals of Della Valle Bernheimer, also delight in reinventing familiar forms, but with a highly utilitarian bent. When their firm needed new office furniture, they decided to sidestep stores like IKEA and buy a CNC milling machine to make their own ultra-customizable modular table. The duo’s love of individual variation characterizes their condominium at 245 10th Avenue, whose textured, reflective façade resembles an ever-shifting steam cloud, and a residence in Connecticut that appears to float in the treetops that surround it.

Perhaps the perfect complement to Liu’s Levittown wallpaper was Della Valle Bernheimer’s recent affordable housing project in East New York. The firm strove to break the mold of cookie-cutter design in the collaborative project, built for a mere $108 per square foot but offering a high level of architectural variation. Instead of “I live in the third house down the block on the left,” the owner can say, “I live there,” Bernheimer said.

Though a cynical police officer once challenged him, claiming the houses were “too nice for this neighborhood,” he holds on to the hope that the development may have a regenerative effect on the area. Certainly it’s been a positive step for the first-time homeowners who are beginning to move in, a group of people whose houses are as diverse as they are.