City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Resuscitating Brownstones

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A recurring motif here at cityofsound is attempting to draw something modern and progressive from a perspective informed by cultural specificity, local context and history. Easier said than done (and it wasn’t that easy to say). News from James Sanders in New York – he of Celluloid Skyline fame – provides us with another example though, from an unlikely source in Architectural Digest magazine. A recent spread featured an East 95th Street townhouse that Sanders and team had recently ‘resuscitated’, balancing his modernist tendencies with a respect for the classic form of the New York Brownstone drawn from his work with the Landmarks Preservations Committee and the pages of Celluloid Skyline.

As AD put it, “though he reconfigured every floor, the architect kept the inherited organization of the house,” with the end result that “this Romanesque Revival house that looks so traditional in this historic district has a contemporary soul.” Other appealing elements of practice such as multidisciplinary design processes and teams are also invoked, working as he did with Gabriela Herzberg on the interior design from the start.

“In what seems an obvious idea but was, in fact, a leap out of conventional architectural practice into the taboo of decoration, Sanders decided to fold in decisions about materials, textures and patterns early into the design process … The furniture, colors and fabrics would not be an afterthought applied to a stripped white shell but integral to the concept. “We could take clean architectural treatment as a background for a richer, layered environment,” he says.”

The brownstone structure may be as adaptable for a densely-packed contemporary urban context as other late-Victorian building forms – cf. mills and low-industrial buildings in Manchester and beyond – and it’s good to see an architecture deeply informed by the best elements of the past, but reaching forward too …



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