Historic Preservation Faces Sustainability Hurdles

Event: Designs for Living: Historic Buildings — Back to the Future
Location: Center for Architecture, 07.14.08
Speakers: Samuel White, FAIA — Partner, Platt Byard Dovell White Architects; Michael Gabellini, FAIA — Partner, Gabellini Sheppard Associates; Caterina Roiatti, AIA — Principal, TRA Studio; Morris Adjmi, AIA — Founder & Principal, Morris Adjmi Architects
Moderator: Robert Tierney — Chair, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
Organizer: AIANY Historic Buildings Committee
Sponsors: Champion: Studio Daniel Libeskind; Supporters: Gensler; HumanScale; James McCullar & Associates; Friends: Benjamin Moore & Co.; Costas Kondylis & Partners; Forest City Ratner Companies; Frank Williams & Associates; Hugo S. Subotovsky Architects; Ingram Yuzek Gainen Carroll & Bertolotti; Mancini Duffy; Magnusson Architecture and Planning; Rawlings Architects; Ricci Greene Associates; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Syska & Hennessy; Trespa North America; Universal Contracting Group

(l-r): 16 West 21st Street; Poly Prep Lower School; Jil Sander Boutique and Showroom; 44 Mercer Street.

(l-r): Morris Adjmi Architects; Lester Ali, courtesy Platt Byard Dovell White Architects; ©Paul Warchol, courtesy Gabellini Sheppard Associates; TRA Studio

Historic preservation projects tend to take on one of two forms: mimicry and transformation. Architects on a recent panel agreed that successful projects are a result of the latter, and in each of their practices, they strive to reduce a building to its essence, relate it to its context, and preserve its remains yet develop practical uses for the future

For Caterina Roiatti, AIA, principal at TRA Studio, architecture does not exist without its context, yet, according to Morris Adjmi, AIA, principal of Morris Adjmi Architects, it is equally important for it to create a new interpretation of that context. At TRA Studio’s 8 Bond Street, for example, the future building is sited on the corner of quiet, residential Bond Street and highly trafficked, eclectic Lafayette Street. The Bond Street elevation is smaller in scale and the window patterns reference fire escapes prevalent in the neighborhood, while the Lafayette Street façade curves and kicks out with the site making its presence known to cars passing by. The 14-story residential 16 West 21st Street, designed by Morris Adjmi Architects, is located in the Ladies Mile historic district, an area influenced by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. In response, Adjmi wanted to make the building “whiter than white.” Its façade is comprised of frosted glass columns and with silver-colored aluminum-framed windows, yet the tri-parti proportions are similar to neighboring buildings.

“Preservation is burnishing history and channeling modernity,” stated Michael Gabellini, FAIA, principal of Gabellini Sheppard Associates. He attempts to create “harmonic tension” between old and new and interior and exterior, using minimal means. The Jil Sander Boutique and Showroom in Paris is located in a 19th-century French Beaux-Arts home in which the exterior masonry was preserved but the interior had been destroyed. Gabellini used this to juxtapose old and new through elements that are weighty and weightless, respectively. The vacant interior became a large atrium, and walls made with stark white Bath limestone relate to the exterior bearing walls in a reductive way. The existing walls are massive, but floating stone benches create a sense of weightlessness.

Platt Byard Dovell White Architects has been working with the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission since 1978, and partner Samuel White, FAIA, compares the relationship to that of “an old married couple.” He has found that the process of collaborating with clients, communities, and Landmarks improves the product… with a few exceptions (such as the infamous Wood Allen building on 91st Street and Madison Avenue, where public outcry led to a shrunken, stumpy, mediocre building, says White). When the firm was awarded Poly Prep Lower School in Park Slope, the project had already faced public rejection. Platt Byard Dovell White learned from criticism faced by the previous firm and designed an addition to the 1892 Hulbert Mansion that incorporates characteristics of the existing building as well as the local low-rise neighborhood in scale and material.

While Poly Prep is also the first NYC school to be awarded LEED Silver certification (See “NYC School Passes the LEED Test,” In the News, e-Oculus, 06.24.08), LEED for historic preservation projects are still rare. Panelists agreed it will become more common in the future, but going green is still too expensive and clients are slow to be convinced of its merits. However, Adjmi responded that sustainable materials are more available, increasing the possibility to go green. At Poly Prep, White was surprised that sustainability did not change the project’s design at all. What changed was the reduction in construction waste, and that alone is the best excuse to consider going green.