Saving Chelsea Market

March 22nd, 2011 by admin

David Burns of STUDIOS Architecture presented his firm’s vision of an expanded Chelsea Market, above, to a meeting of Community Board 4 last night, attended by residents wearing “Save Chelsea Market” buttons. He promptly heard one viewer’s verdict of “ugly building” endorsed by a peal of applause. The view above looks northeast from the West Side Highway. The design tries to break down its oppressive mass by collage effects which could conceivably be said to take inspiration from the accretive vocabulary of the Chelsea Market complex, although Burns didn’t seem to have the heart to even bother trying this pitch. As for fitting in, it wouldn’t be much of an issue. Chelsea Market is part of the Gansevoort Market Historic District that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but this insures State Historic Preservation Office oversight only for public development.  Somehow, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, which would oversee private alterations such as those now proposed, neglected to include the Market in its version of the District. Read the rest of this entry »

Where is Michael Bolla’s Lawsuit?

March 1st, 2011 by admin

The doors of developer and real estate broker Michael Bolla’s 1835 rowhouse at 436 West 20th Street remain plastered with building notices over a year after a Daily News puff piece proclaimed it “one of the most perfectly restored homes in Manhattan.” On February 10, the Department of Buildings’ website indicated that the project was issued a Notice to Revoke its renovation permit.

In the year since this website began documenting his project’s problems, Bolla has succeeded in retaining new construction built without first obtaining required approvals, while pursuing a campaign of harassment and legal threat against ArchiTakes and of public disinformation in the press.

ArchiTakes’ experience highlights the risk run by legitimate neighborhood watchdogs: deep-pocketed plaintiffs can brandish groundless threats of lawsuits against them, aiming to buy silence through intimidation and the imposition of legal costs. Such plaintiffs run a risk of their own—that their targets will call their bluff and expose them for the bullies they are by publicly taunting them for failing to follow through on bogus lawsuits they have no hope or expectation of winning. Read the rest of this entry »

The Seamy Side of 436 West 20th Street

October 7th, 2010 by admin


436 West 20th Street has recently added a prominent steel I-beam above its roof ridge and a large skylight on its north slope as shown in this photo taken on September 15th.  A visit that day to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Department of Buildings found no evidence of applications or approvals for these additions to the 1835 rowhouse, which falls within the Chelsea Historic District.  The Landmarks Commission’s Rowhouse Manual specifically states that a permit is required for construction of a skylight within a historic district (although it doesn’t address big red I-beams).  One end of the new beam is supported by the building’s west gable wall, at right in the photo above.  The top of this wall was historically lower and almost flush with the roof plane.  It now extends above the roof, creating a parapet.  The wall’s profile has further been changed by the introduction of a level section at the bottom of its front slope.  The house’s brick chimneys were rebuilt to their current, and likely original, height as approved by the Landmarks Commission, but then extended by several feet with prominent sheet-metal turbine ventilators.  Even the rearmost of these is visible from the street.  ArchiTakes first posted photographic evidence of unapproved construction at 436 West 20th Street in March.  Within weeks, the Landmarks Commission issued violations and the Department of Buildings audited and failed the building’s job filing.  The building’s owner and developer, realtor-to-the-stars Michael Bolla, responded with threats of legal action aimed at silencing ArchiTakes. Read the rest of this entry »

Chelsea Mansion: The Art of Fiction

August 12th, 2010 by admin


In February, a Daily News article by Jason Sheftell described 436 West 20th Street as “one of the most perfectly restored homes in Manhattan.”  Cracked and displaced bricks and window lintels are now features of its façade, following restoration by its owner, the real estate broker Michael Bolla.  ArchiTakes first reported on the building in a March post, “436 West 20th Street Rises Above the Law.” Bolla is now marketing the 1835 rowhouse as “Chelsea Mansion.”   It stands within the Chelsea Historic District. Read the rest of this entry »

436 West 20th Street Rises Above the Law

March 18th, 2010 by admin

White stains of efflorescence mark new brickwork at 436 West 20th Street.  The gable end of the 1835 rowhouse has been raised several feet and given a gambrel profile.  The original peaked roofline is clearly legible in darker-looking brick, about four feet down from the new roofline.  “You have to pay attention to history,” the building’s new owner and co-developer, Michael Bolla was quoted in the Daily News last month.  “It tells you everything.  Here history told us to spare no expense to return the house to its original form.  This house has all kinds of history.”  The house in fact falls within the Chelsea Historic District, and its exterior is therefore the equivalent of a designated landmark.  In raising its roofline, Bolla has violated the permit his renovation was issued by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  With the raised gable end, Bolla appears to be setting the stage for a raised roof, and maximum exploitation of a penthouse he clearly views as a cash cow. Read the rest of this entry »

Windowflage, part 4

February 25th, 2010 by admin


Linked Hybrid, a Beijing complex designed by Steven Holl, was completed last year.  As with his Simmons Hall dormitory at MIT, Holl sets windows deeply into a uniform and pervasive grid, camouflaging them as dimples in an enveloping waffle texture that’s applied like shrink-wrap.  He so accentuates the window grid that it takes on the geometric purity of abstract sculpture.  Like many other architects today, Holl hides his windows in plain sight.  Unlike so many others, he does this by embracing the grid rather than fleeing it. Read the rest of this entry »

Windowflage, part 3

February 11th, 2010 by admin


“The Loneliest Job”, an unposed 1961 photo of JFK in the Oval Office by George Tames (The New York Times) shows how a window can express individual presence and uniqueness of outlook.  At a traditional domestic scale, even an empty window invokes human presence as surely as a Van Gogh painting of an empty chair or pair of shoes.  If the eyes are the window of the soul, windows are the eyes of the building. Read the rest of this entry »

Windowflage, part 2

January 28th, 2010 by admin



The architect Edward Durrell Stone built this Manhattan townhouse for himself at 13 East 64th Street in 1956.  Stone’s American Embassy in New Delhi was under construction at the time of its design.  He had given the embassy a similar screen to protect it from the sun, and here recycled the idea for privacy.  Stone would go on using screens to the point of being ridiculed for it.  Nonetheless, his house introduced a new and subtle effect to New York, and it holds a key position in the history of windowflage.  It looks back to Alexander Jackson Davis’s 1835 American Institute project, with its upper floor windows camouflaged into a unified element, and forward to our own time’s layering of building-scaled veils over windows.


Alternatives to the played out tinted-glass-box approach to windowflage have been explored with increasing frequency and variety since the 1990s.  One design stream has superimposed façade-like screens over windows that are visible or expressed from below.  The screens range from the uniform and static, like Edward Durrell Stone’s mid-century forerunners, to screens with window-like voids or openable sections of their own.   Read the rest of this entry »

Windowflage, part 1

January 14th, 2010 by admin



The Coney Island Elephantine Colossus is an object lesson in the need for windowflage, the camouflaging of windows in the service of a building’s overall sculptural effect.  The work of Philadelphia architect William Free, it was built in 1883-85 as a hotel and later became a brothel.  In 1896, it departed this world in true Coney Island style by burning down.  Resolution of the conflict it illustrates, between form and fenestration, is one of the driving forces behind much recent architectural innovation on view in New York.


In his 1930 book, Precisions, Le Corbusier presented a series of sketches illustrating ”the history of architecture by the history of windows throughout the ages,” culminating with his own horizontal ribbon window.  Much of the history of architecture since can be traced in the history of window camouflage.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Iron Triangle, part 2 / from Kowloon Walled City to Singapore

December 31st, 2009 by admin


No place in New York elicits such wonder at the retina’s capacity as the Iron Triangle.  Self-contained, densely packed and eye-boggling, it is an alternate reality recalling Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, demolished in 1993-4, below.

walled city triptych


Comparing the vibrancy of the Iron Triangle to the city’s canned and bland development plan for it brings to mind William Gibson’s 1993 Wired article on Singapore, “Disneyland with the Death Penalty.”  Gibson finds Singapore a sanitized theme park where the physical past “has almost entirely vanished” and “the fuzzier brands of creativity are in extremely short supply.”  “It’s boring here,” he writes, calling Singapore a habitable “version of convention-zone Atlanta,” at risk of becoming a “smug, neo-Swiss enclave of order and prosperity.”  Gibson ends the piece with his departure of Singapore by way of Hong Kong’s airport, where he finds a counterpoint:

In Hong Kong I’d seen huge matte black butterflies flapping around the customs hall, nobody paying them the least attention.  I’d caught a glimpse of the Walled City of Kowloon, too.  Maybe I could catch another, before the future comes to tear it down.

Traditionally the home of pork-butchers, unlicensed denturists, and dealers in heroin, The Walled City still stands at the foot of a runway, awaiting demolition.  Some kind of profound embarrassment to modern China, its clearance has long been made a condition of the looming change of hands.

Hive of dream.  Those mismatched, uncalculated windows.  How they seem to absorb all the frantic activity of Kai Tak airport, sucking in energy like a black hole.

I was ready for something like that. . . .

I loosened my tie, clearing Singapore airspace.”  Read the rest of this entry »

The Iron Triangle, part 1 / Wilson’s Garage

December 17th, 2009 by admin


Once a swamp and then an ash dump, the ground of the Iron Triangle in Willets Point, Queens, now feels like both.  Its businesses have an unacknowledged ancestor within one of the greatest works of American literature.

The Great Gatsby was going to be called Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires until the great Scribners editor Max Perkins persuaded F. Scott Fitzgerald otherwise.  Bad as it was, Fitzgerald’s working title serves to tell how much importance he placed on the novel’s “valley of ashes,”  the setting for George Wilson’s garage in the novel.  The valley of ashes was based on the sprawling Corona dump which would be regraded and buried - under the 1939 World’s Fair site, now Corona Flushing Meadows Park, and Shea stadium - except for the corner of it at the tip of Willets Point that was left to its own devices and just maniacally proliferated car repair shops until it came to be known as the Iron Triangle.  ArchiTakes’ search for Wilson’s Garage finds that it was almost certainly located within the Iron Triangle, a unique district whose days are numbered in the path of a city initiated development plan.   Read the rest of this entry »

Architecture Meets Science Fiction at 41 Cooper Square

December 4th, 2009 by admin


Thom Mayne’s new academic building for Cooper Union, 41 Cooper Square, is the Pritzker Prize winning architect’s first building in New York. Sensual, jarring and willfully strange, it’s unlike anything else in the city. New Yorkers won’t find a meaningful introduction to Mayne or his building anywhere in the popular press

Fifteen years ago, a Progressive Architecture editorial by Thomas Fisher titled “A House Divided” lamented the state of writing about architecture. Fisher saw a choice between “unquestioning description” by architectural journalists and “obscure, jargon-filled analysis” by academic critics. “What is rare, on either side,” Fisher wrote, “are critics who can address the underlying ideas and larger meanings of architecture and who can convey them clearly and concisely to the public and the profession.” What’s been written so far about Thom Mayne’s new academic building for Cooper Union shows how true this remains.  Read the rest of this entry »

5 Folding Bikes for the City

November 20th, 2009 by admin


Brompton World Championship racers in obligatory jacket and tie depart from Blenheim Palace.  The dress code suggests both the folding bike’s roots in English quirkiness and its usefulness for urban commuting.


There’s no better way to take possession of a city than on a compact folding bike.  Neighborhoods that would be discouragingly distant on foot become only minutes away.  Distant communities that might otherwise go unexplored become riding destinations with the option of making part of the trip on a bus or train next to one’s unobtrusively folded mount.  A folder can be carried into shops and restaurants, avoiding the inconvenience and unreliability of chaining up outdoors.  Owning a truly compact folder is like having a bike in your back pocket.  It can shrink an entire city.  Not only does such a bike take you to fresh places in town, it does so without compromising the spatial immediacy of walking.  Philippe Starck has said, “frankly, it isn’t Manhattan that interests me.  The center of Manhattan is very civilized, a nice international city.  I am more interested in the passion of New York, and that’s why I go with my motorcycle or bicycle to the Bronx, Queens and Harlem.  There, you are like a spectator in front of the most beautiful drama in the world. Every corner of the street seems like an opera stage, a stage for drama.  The vibrations there are very strong.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Harding Park

November 5th, 2009 by admin


Glimpses of the Manhattan skyline flavor Harding Park’s ramshackle romance.

At the end of a peninsula in the Bronx there’s a place where the sidewalks end, the street grid releases its grip, and the world seems to have been improvised by residents happily left to their own devices.  Harding Park sits on the west side of Clason (pronounced Clawson) Point, a tooth in the Bronx’s jagged waterfront where the East River broadens out into Long Island Sound.     Read the rest of this entry »

The Farnsworth House, part 3 / the progeny

October 29th, 2009 by admin



When it was completed in 1951, the Farnsworth House was a window into the future.  Still inspiring new interpretations, it has the open-endedness of great art. 

The economy with which the Farnsworth House elicits its richness of response is one proof of “less is more.”  With minimalism and technology the tines of its tuning fork, the house’s reverberations are as strong today as ever.  While it has inspired countless glass houses, a handful may provide a rough outline of its still widening influence.   Read the rest of this entry »

The Farnsworth House, part 2 / from the hearth to the field

October 22nd, 2009 by admin
Mies van der Rohe prepared renderings of two early versions of the Farnsworth House, one on the ground and the other raised above it.  The choice to elevate its floor five feet responded to potential flooding of the nearby Fox River, but also exalted the house, made it appear to float, and gave it the character of a discrete machined object in the landscape, an effect heightened by its abstract whiteness.  Raising the house also allowed the equally expressed floor and roof planes to suggest infinite extension of its interior into surrounding space, emphasized by their projection beyond the glass envelope into the open air of the porch.  While the house was technologically remarkable for its time, the arresting design mastery at work in such effects have made it an enduring touchstone.   Read the rest of this entry »