The Little Backstage House

LittleHouses

12 Charles Lane (left); Penthouse on Charles Street.

Fran Leadon

The fifth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City includes hundreds of new projects built since the last edition in 2000. Among them are the large-scale projects and some big-name, obvious choices: Michael Van Valkenburgh’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Polshek Partnership’s Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, Gehry Partners’ IAC Center, Atelier Jean Nouvel’s 40 Mercer Street, and Peter Gluck & Partners’ Bronx Prep Charter School. The late Norval White, FAIA, and I compiled lengthy lists of buildings and parks. I would then visit them, take photos and notes, and we would write and edit each other’s text for the new Guide. Those lists of projects were generated mostly from studying Architectural Record, the New York Times, The Architect’s Newspaper, Curbed.com, and Metropolis. But some of the most interesting, new projects are the ones that didn’t get much publicity and were happened upon by chance.

Take, for instance, a tiny jewel of a project in the West Village I discovered, quite by accident, during the summer of 2008. Designed by the firm Christoff:Finio and completed just prior to my visit, the project is a mod version of the traditional carriage house, incorporating fragments of a burned-out 150-year-old masonry shed. Facing narrow, shady, often muddy, cobble-stoned Charles Lane, it is wedged among projects that have received more than their share of press: Asymptote’s 166 Perry Street, Richard Meier & Partners Architects’ triplet towers (165, 173, and 176 Perry Street), and one block north, the Hotel California-like Palazzo Chupi by artist Julian Schnabel (described in the new Guide as “an eruption of competing balconies and faux-Venetian details”). Christoff:Finio’s carriage house is a taut, icy, bluish grey cube sheathed in glass at the second floor and beautifully crafted bent steel louvers at the ground floor. It is an inconspicuous project, backstage amid its more theatrical, look-at-me neighbors.

I snapped some photos, noted the address, and moved on (I was on my way to photograph the multi-leveled wonders of Schnabel). But I was curious enough to write the project a letter, addressed simply to “12 Charles Lane.” I asked the owner for some necessary details so I could include it in the new Guide: who, what, why, and when? I didn’t hear anything in reply, and eventually my letter came back to me in the mail, marked “no such address.” No such address? Talk about inconspicuous!

Then last fall the project won an AIA award, and only then did I finally know the name of the designers: the 10-year-old partnership of Martin Finio, AIA, and Taryn Christoff. Finio, who teaches at Yale, worked for years in the office of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, and the influence is obvious in his treatment of slick materials and surfaces. The same firm, it turns out, had designed the boxy penthouse addition to a mid-19th-century neo-Greco row house fronting Charles Street; the carriage house was the backyard. I had noticed the penthouse many times before (it was finished in 2004) and didn’t think it fit very comfortably onto its masonry rooftop. But their carriage house fits beautifully into its backstage context and doesn’t brag about it. I wonder what it’s like on the inside?

Note: The AIA Guide to New York City, Fifth Edition, will be released on 06.07.10 by Oxford University Press, and can be pre-ordered at amazon.com. There will also be a launch party at the Center for Architecture 06.02.10 to celebrate the publication. To RSVP, click here.