How do you find free housing in New York? Answer: Pretend to be homeless, clean houses, turn tricks, or provide childcare.
For the principals of Fake Industries Architectural Agonism, questions like these have architectural implications, especially during the downturn. Such unconventional thinking has been an asset for younger firms as they have weathered the last two years.
The Great Recession has hit architecture harder than almost any other profession. Small firms with the least fat to trim are inevitably some of the most vulnerable. But as AN found out through interviews with young architects selected primarily from the roster of recent AIA New York New Practices winners and Architectural League Young Architects honorees, many emerging firms have been highly enterprising and nimble in adapting to the times. No one is sitting on his or her hands, waiting for the old economy to come roaring back to life.
Not surprisingly, many of these firms balance teaching with practice, and many principals have been spending more time at school to make ends meet. Some firms have had to reduce staffing, but most have maintained their already lean offices.
For DUMBO-based Manifold Architecture Studio, the shifting tastes of clients was an opportunity to rethink a classic New York building typology. Co-principal Philipp von Dalwig’s firm has seen many of its residential clients jump the East River to take advantage of the downturn and buy whole brownstones in Brooklyn. Formerly favoring downtown lofts, these clients didn’t want to trade sleek surfaces and open plans for narrow Victorian interiors. “It’s been a productive investigation,” the architect said. “How to import a loft into a brownstone, how to open it up.” Beyond custom work, Manifold has also created in Red Hook, Brooklyn, made from reclaimed barn lumber. In the same vein, through their connections to the fashion industry, Tacklebox launched a line of scarves and satchels under the name Box & Flea, working with fashion designer Andrew Woodrum. The accessories line has introduced them to store owners and fashion designers, some of whom are discussing new jobs with Tacklebox. “It works both ways. Box & Flea has the same sense of craft and timelessness as our architecture,” principal Jeremy Barbour said.
Easton+Combs is using their expertise in light structures—developed through competitions like MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program—to improve conditions for victims of the Haitian earthquake. “We wanted to be effective, not just make another proposal,” principal Lonn Combs told AN by phone from Haiti. Working with a group of architects including Haitian-born Rodney Leon who had local knowledge and access to a site, Combs and his collaborators began raising money to build a series of demonstration temporary structures called the Haiti SOFTHOUSE. Two will be built in the next couple of weeks, followed by 15 or 20 more during the summer. The simple structures, built by a Chicago-area awning and trade-show booth company, are covered in colored fabric that could be upgraded with hard panels for more permanent housing or community uses. “We call them trans-permanent structures. You have the option to build it out or combine multiple structures for different programs,” Combs said. “We’re always looking at economically efficient ways to work through our material research.”
If architects of previous generations used economic downturns to enrich theoretical discussions and develop new formal languages that were spoken primarily within the academy, today’s younger practitioners seem drawn to combining thinking with making, extending architecture into new disciplines and real-world applications. Many of these self-starters are working outside traditional architect/client relationships, stretching the role of the profession into new social, artistic, or entrepreneurial directions. In the digital age, it seems that image-making alone is not enough. “Today, paper architecture is seen as the more conservative stance. People are just less interested in that,” Zago said. “What one can get built is now the most radical investigation in architecture.”