In her book Parisian Views, critic Shelley Rice hauntingly evokes the dislocating effects that the near-complete reconstruction of Paris in the 19th century had on its population. Thanks to the most audacious urban redevelopment project in history, the city was thoroughly modernized and made new. Yet for those citizens whose histories had been completely erased, what Rice describes as “the demolition of the collective personal and public mythologies inherent in city spaces” had indirectly deprived Paris of its future. “There was no transformation possible,” Rice observes, “for in spite of all the hustle and bustle the city could no longer move in time—a movement that must go backward to go forward.”
The Parisians’ dilemma reminds us that progressive architecture is about not only new materials and feats of engineering, but reinventing our connection to the past. This is more than a matter of adaptive reuse or historic preservation. Rather, it involves the design of buildings that point us toward the future by invoking Rice’s “collective personal and public mythologies”—associations that create continuity with history, and without which there can be no true progress.
With their renovation of a turn-of-the-century Harlem townhouse for a couple with roots in the neighborhood’s past, and a commitment to its future, architects Laura Briggs and Jonathan Knowles have forged just such a connection. They’ve created a work that Briggs describes as “pretty radical,” yet one that remains entirely at home in, and indebted to, the community.
The townhouse, on West 112th Street, in the shadow of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, has been in the family since 1982. “My father loved the area, and he was exuberant about this property,” says Yvette Leeper-Bueno, who lives there with her husband and two children.
Talk about vision: Back then, the neighborhood was infested with crime, and the house itself—a single-room-occupancy residence, chopped up into tiny rooms—was purportedly inhabited by drug dealers and hard-luck cases. But, says Leeper-Bueno, “My father liked this street and the fact that it had the first row of townhouses as you set foot into Harlem’s west side.” He also appreciated its proximity to two parks, and so, with dreams of a better tomorrow, he took it on.
Ten years later, Franklin Leeper walked away. “He was calling the police constantly, he couldn’t collect rent, he couldn’t deal with the woes of the people,” Leeper-Bueno explains. In the ensuing decade, the structure deteriorated as pipes burst and fires were set. The violations and back taxes piled up—and then the heavens delivered the coup de grâce: During a violent storm, the facade was struck by lightning and partially collapsed.
Yet dreams die hard—which was why, in 1999, Adrian Bueno, Leeper-Bueno’s husband, found himself before a building he describes as “a complete shambles,” listening to a proposition. “Frank was asking me, ‘Why don’t you get involved?’ ” recalls Bueno, a Buenos Aires–born bond broker. “And I was thinking, This is the Wild West. The whole block was abandoned, burned buildings on the corners—there was nobody.” But the couple had their own dream of home ownership. And, Leeper-Bueno admits, “There was the sentimental value. My family had history here.” So, as Franklin had done a generation earlier, they took the plunge.
It cost nearly $200,000 to buy the house’s freedom, a bureaucratic and legal nightmare that ended, Bueno says with a weary smile, “yesterday.” Even more difficult was finding an architect brave enough to go into it. “It was completely collapsed,” says Knowles, recalling his first visit. “To get into the house, we had to open a trapdoor under the stoop and lower ourselves on a metal ladder into the cellar. The structural engineer we wanted wouldn’t even give us an estimate.”
Still, the architects were intrigued by what Briggs calls the “space puzzle” of creating an owner’s triplex apartment (including a new rooftop penthouse) and two rental apartments on an ultratight 16-foot-wide lot, and the challenge of improving the house’s quality and efficiency. They also responded to their clients’ enthusiasm for a rich and varied experience within the overall space. “I said to Jonathan, ‘I don’t care if I like it or not—I want it to be about something,’ ” Bueno declares.
He got his wish. The house is about many things, among them light, material, geometry, and perception. Above all, the couple’s remarkable three-level apartment presents a complex spatial narrative, as full of startling mood changes as the neighborhood itself.
This is particularly evident in the house’s most arresting new feature. To compensate for the narrowness of the lot, the architects decided to relocate the stair from the side to the rear. As the building sits at the block’s low end, Briggs and Knowles hit upon the idea of creating a 28-foot-high shaft, in which they hung a plate-steel stair to create a sense of buoyancy—widening the landing between the second and third floors into a floating mezzanine that seems to turn the entire construction into a habitable space. Finally, the architects replaced the brick rear elevation with a curtain wall of translucent panels, into which they inserted glass panes that reveal glimpses of the outdoors.
Equally dynamic is the building’s facade. “We were very conscious of making sure that the outside extended into the house,” Briggs says. Toward this end, the architects designed a two-story, galvanized-steel-clad bay window that angles toward nearby Morningside Park. Apart from drawing in light and views, the window’s perceptual legerdemain also vitalizes the streetscape: From one end of the block, only a narrow plane of apparently freestanding metal can be seen. Observed from the park, however, the window appears to be directly “looking at” the viewer and physically reaching out to the neighborhood.
Despite the relocation of the stair, the children’s suite and penthouse, on two levels suspended above the open-plan main floor, remain snug. Yet they borrow light and space from both front and back and from one another. This spatial fluidity peaks in the master suite, where the twin bathroom sinks sit in the dressing room, which is open to the overscaled shower, beyond which a semi-translucent door slides away to expose the hot tub to the bedroom, which in turn opens onto a terrace overlooking Morningside Park. In this, the most Latin-flavored of the house’s zones, its many motifs—the layering of colors and materials, the mixing of the engineered and handmade, most of all the simultaneous pleasures of public and private space—all reach their apotheosis.
Most gratifying is that the architecture’s interleaving of past and present, at once piquant and oddly haunting, has proven a hit with the community. “This guy rang the bell one day,” Bueno recalls, “and he said, ‘I live in the neighborhood, and I just want to tell you, I love your project. I know it’s modern, but it’s still respecting the jazz culture.’” Of course, as Briggs and Knowles acknowledge, that has much to do with their clients’ aspirations. “We felt really proud to be working for Adrian and Yvette, because they’re contributing to the neighborhood as individuals,” Briggs says. “Partially because Yvette has a relationship to the property that’s an old one, but also because they’re not holding on to what it used to be; they’re wanting to shape their lives within it in an interesting way.” Yet by responding to those desires with an aggressively forward-looking design that nonetheless seems to breathe in all of Harlem’s complexity, the architects have transcended both gentrification and preservation.
Rather than creating what Rice calls “a this is severed from its this has been,” Briggs and Knowles have combined the two and produced a “this will be.” “My father hoped that one day he would see this neighborhood change into something wonderful,” Leeper-Bueno says. On West 112th Street, change has produced a conceptual template for the future—not only of Harlem, but cities everywhere.