While reactions from the public and commissioners were warm on the whole, commissioners debated whether the building, which has sat vacant for more than a decade, is a ruin or “armature” as Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU) claimed, or whether the structure could—or should—be treated like an adaptable building.
Essentially, PAU intended to use the facade as a mask for a glass office building. Instead of sitting right up against the old brick, the new building would be set back ten feet from the old, and workers could get outside and up close to the original walls via metal latticework terraces poking through the glass envelope. The approach, explained founding principal Vishaan Chakrabarti, would preserve the bricks by equalizing the temperature and humidity on both sides while allowing the architects flexibility within a challenging original structure. A round arched glass roof would dialogue with the American Round Arch windows that define the facade, while on the ground floor, the designers proposed a through-access from the Kent Avenue smokestack to the park and water that would would be open to the public.
“We are guardians of the future of the past, and our central question is whether, through the restoration, the old can give new identity to the new,” he said.
PAU’s approach is similar to a Beyer Blinder Belle proposal the LPC approved in 2014, a fact that Chakrabarti and developer Two Trees underscored in cross-comparisons throughout the presentation (PDF). The firm also drew inspiration from Norman Foster’s renovation of the Reichstag, in Berlin, and to St. Ann’s Warehouse, Marvel Architects’ theater complex in an industrial ruin on the DUMBO waterfront.
Purpose-built 19th century factories are often difficult to adapt for non-manufacturing uses, and the Domino refinery is no different. The part of the refinery under consideration today accommodated massive machines that boiled, filtered, and reconstituted sugar; the windows give the structure monumental panache from the outside but bear no relationship to the interior program. Consequently, the architects decided to give the new, 400,000-square-foot building within the old the same floor-to-floor heights throughout, allowing access to windows of uneven height on the terraces. From the outside, the mullion pattern on the barrel-vaulted glass roof would reflect the gradation of the bricks on the weathered smokestack, a nod to the old within the new. (The bricks, a project engineer confirmed, are in “generally good” condition.)
Though PAU hasn’t selected the glass yet, Chakrabarti indicated it would be as “clear as possible,” noting that the firm is considering electrochromic glass for the roof.
When he broke the news of the Domino plans last month, New York Magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson called the 19th-century structure a ruin. PAU maintains the factory is a “donut awaiting filling.” But Landmarks wasn’t so sure.
“As an architect, I really like the aesthetic,” said Commissioner Michael Goldblum. “To my recollection, this is the first time a building that is and was understood as an occupied volume is being transformed into an unoccupied ruin or ‘armature,’ to be read as an independent object from the [proposed] structure.”
“I’m not saying it’s inappropriate, but I’m struggling,” he added.
On the public side, two neighborhood nonprofits supported the design, while the Municipal Arts Society (MAS) asked the commission to work with PAU and Two Trees on the specifics of the proposal, particularly the windows and desired patina. It suggested a public exhibition on the refinery to prevent the building from being understood as “just a ruin.” Preservation advocacy group the Historic Districts Council, however, was not on board with the proposal at all. “[To] strip the building down to a shell would represent a significant removal of historic fabric and would destroy the 19th century industrial construction methods still exhibited inside—and both are important reasons for the complex’s designation in the first place,” said HDC’s Patrick Waldo.
In light of the “ruin or building?” discussion, the LPC took no action on Tuesday, and as of now, there’s no date set for PAU to present its revised proposal.
Although today was the first time PAU’s plans landed before the LPC, the renderings were revealed in early October. Back in 2014, Two Trees tapped SHoP and James Corner Field Operations to master plan the site. SHoP also designed 325 Kent Avenue, the square donut copper-and-tin–clad building adjacent to the sugar factory, a residential building that began leasing earlier this year. James Corner Field Operations’ park on the waterfront is slated to open this spring.