When large-scale work tapered off during the recession, architect Eran Chen continued to pore over New York City’s zoning codes and regulations, which can have a lot of sway over the shape of architecture in the Big Apple. Chen’s firm, ODA Architecture, has become the darling of New York’s development community with its ability to work within these constraints, maximizing salable square footage while sweetening the pot with distinct and sometimes surprising massing schemes.
Before the recession, Chen said, architecture was dominated by high-profile architects that gave a project cachet. “What was lacking was a deep understanding of local rules and regulations. We brought value not just branding. As things started to come back up we had very specific ideas of what we wanted to do.” That could not be more clear than in the firm’s takeover of Tribeca’s beleaguered 5 Franklin Place tower. Originally designed by Dutch firm UN Studio as a stack of sleek metal and glass bands, the 20-story project stalled and developers rebounded with an unexciting apartment box. Chen’s firm refined the building’s design and efficient use of space on a deep lot. “We brought the idea of Tribeca’s masonry into a modern expression. The frames on the facade use handmade curved brick,” said Chen. “The building’s design found its place between the over-exuberance of the previous UN Studio design and the cookie-cutter plan.”
“Talking about architecture and design is very sexy, but when you talk zoning, regulations, and landmarks, it doesn’t sound as sexy,” said Chen. His designs, however, are challenging that notion. ODA exploits the nuances and logic of zoning—how to design with setbacks and street walls to create variety and visual interest. “To be contextual, you must have a deep understanding of the rules. We’ve found many opportunities to be playful,” said Chen.
“It starts with the view that an apartment building is made of single apartments,” said Chen. “That sounds obvious, but a lot of New York apartment buildings are not built that way. For us, the apartment unit is the basis of the design, not the facade.”
Chen is also designing 1800 Park Avenue, a 32-story apartment tower that’s expected to become the tallest in Harlem. Here, Chen said he is using the building’s massing to help it fit into the neighborhood. “When you build a large tower in a low height neighborhood, how can you humanize it?” He eroded the building’s corners to create a pixelated grid that maximizes views and creates outdoor space for residents. “How great would it be if we had apartments in New York where everyone had a terrace?” said Chen. “We want to provide outdoor spaces for all the units, not just the penthouses.”
In the Lower East Side, Chen’s 12-story 100 Norfolk Street explores how new developments design with air rights. “It’s a very interesting subject as buildings occupy or invade the airspace of other buildings,” said Chen. “We wanted to explore the extent of that idea.” He tipped traditional massing on its head, pushing the building’s bulk high above a slim, unoccupied base. Using a mega-truss expressed on the building facade, Chen cantilevered 38 apartments in a way that pushes the developers’ mechanism as a design tool.
Last year, the firm beat out the likes of SHoP Architects and the Bjarke Ingels Group to claim a waterfront scheme for Hunters Point South. The massive project is creating a new city on the Queens waterfront. “The challenge was, how do you deal with such a huge project in an urban scale and create a sense of community?” said Chen. His plan scraps the city’s traditional massing strategy of base, upper base, and tower, instead merging the horizontal massing and slicing the scheme into 25-foot-wide vertical elements, the width of a single a unit, that take on the scale of townhouses and, Chen said, create a more dynamic streetscape. The project’s 1,200 mostly affordable units rise like foothills to twin corner towers, creating an inverted arch between two towers.
ODA’s work on infill mid-scale apartment buildings is what is bringing design to often overlooked neighborhoods throughout the city. At 22-22 Jackson Avenue in Queens, another under-construction apartment building might resemble a giant game of Tetris, but the pixelated facade is a carefully thought out application of ODA’s principles of designing with regulations in mind—the concrete facade represents a modulation of apartment sizes. For instance, a studio apartment is contained within one long 13-foot-wide module protruding from the face, while a one-bedroom unit is built from two short modules. This creates multiple planes along the facade, provides outdoor spaces, and makes room for three windows in bedrooms instead of one.