There is something terribly sad about an architecture project when it is completed. Typical design processes generate considerable potential energy, but this energy is meant to be doled out slowly over dozens of years, if not longer. (The same goes for carbon energy.) But in rare cases, it’s possible to witness a design and construction process that does not attempt to “start” the occupancy of a building, but instead blends into the long life of a place. The new Greenwich Village home for the Center for Art, Research and Alliances (CARA), a renovated building designed by London-based 6a architects, does just this.
New York is defined by its institutions, and not merely cultural institutions like the Met, but places about which New Yorkers may find themselves exclaiming, “Park Slope Food Coop? It’s an institution!” The designation typically refers to something that has been there a long time, so it’s a curious problem to start a new actual institution from scratch. To be an institution in New York is to exist on the precipice between the past and the future, so stakeholders become mere tenants of their time; there has to be something of value to pass forward. New construction efforts for institutions often rely on their newness to achieve goals like fundraising or notoriety, but inciting spectacle can be a contradiction to the aims of building community. CARA’s union of thoughtful architecture and programming presents a compelling example of the latter.
By disregarding the temptation for a new-car smell, 6a’s renovation for CARA, its first built project in the country, uses time as a design method. Using existing conditions as its primary design elements and focusing on small interventions within an existing space, 6a connects with history and the future of the building, locating the “current” space as one suspended between them. This rare sensibility of slow emergence is usually accessible only within institutions buttressed by long histories. As 6a’s founding director Tom Emerson told AN, the hope is that “the place will sort of assimilate itself within the neighborhood and within New York rather than announce itself.”
Conversing with CARA’s founder Jane Hait and executive director and chief curator Manuela Moscoso makes it clear that they are playing the long game. Hait is deliberate and critical of almost every practice they do as an institution, from the programming to the contracts. Her selection of the building in the West Village neighborhood was one of the first key decisions for the overall project. Originally built in 1899 as a playing card factory, it was previously the recording studio for LCD Soundsystem and the related DFA Records.
Hait selected 6a owing to the office’s work at Raven Row and Juergen Teller’s studio, both projects that graciously deal with existing conditions and institutional character. On an early visit, an engineer said the structure was robust enough that you could take the facades off the building and it would remain standing. Instead, Hait, Moscoso, and Emerson all elaborated on the theme of how to “let the building speak.”
To do so, 6a preserved the building envelope and character despite significant interventions. The building is designed with the interior in mind, but glimpses of the neighborhood are framed throughout the project. In the backyard, a new gardening program was introduced, and a full-width glass window to the garden puts the “backside” of New York on display, in Emerson’s words. New, smaller windows were inserted throughout the interiors. They appeared incidental but were intentionally placed to select strange views of adjacent buildings.
The interior spaces, anchored by one large double-height room wrapped in paintable walls on the second floor, are easily connected and porous. Conceptually, the oversize public staircase is a “CMU tube” inserted into the building with a frameless glass skylight so that it appears uncapped to the sky. The rest of the spaces are straightforwardly connected by stair or elevator but are intentionally underdesigned, which leaves room for CARA’s team to imagine different forms of action in its space.
The existing construction of the building is visible as exposed concrete beams and floors, while new walls are realized in CMU blocks. A single row of CMUs was cut to match existing floor heights, but 6a chose to locate these cut rows at eye level, emphasizing the feeling that the walls may have existed for a previous or future function. Blocks of flecked granite, reclaimed from the previous entryway, are scattered throughout the project, lightly notating public areas.
What stands out most is the project’s incredibly well-coordinated utilities, as the ducting and conduit are beautifully organized. “Just by attending to practical things, the new building speaks,” Emerson said. Notable moments include the red fire extinguishers that float in front of curved galvanized plates, a reclaimed water fountain with a sinuous character, and radiators that pair symmetrically at corners, like those in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s home. One gets the sense that there is a must-see maintenance closet somewhere.
Good details, an aspect of architecture that architects regularly obsess over, are variably considered one component of a fully designed Gesamkunstwerk or, like Mies’s corners, an element that reproduces the concept of the building in its smallest resolution. While CARA is full of clever details, 6a favored a clumsier approach that rejects the crippling hierarchy between the whole and its parts. This approach is in line with the changes in art leadership that deny modernism’s heroism in lieu of actions, relationships, and archival histories.
Renovations often do not achieve the flashy architectural objecthood that institutions sometimes desire, but increasingly, new arts organization are taking cues from MoMA PS1 or The Kitchen rather than from the Guggenheim. An architect’s role varies widely along this spectrum from, respectively, constructive bricoleur to visionary genius. And, as valid critiques of new construction pile up, it’s worthwhile to applaud institutions that avoid the carbon-intensive expenditure that architecture prefigures.
At times, new construction is so precise that the completed architecture is an untouchable, perfect entity that often overwhelms its contents. Renovation, a longtime second-class citizen in architecture, offers a gentler approach. As seen at CARA, the opposite of spectacle is not necessarily banality, but instead learned confidence.
CARA engages not only with objects made in artists’ studios but in relationships between people, artists, communities, and places. It’s notable that the word alliance appears in the center’s name; Hait said that joining together with the building was its first alliance. This attitude was already on display during a series of summertime conjurings. These three weekend-long programming sessions combined wall-hung art, media work, and performances. Rather than an art show, the conjurings had the atmosphere of an event. As exhibitions and gatherings take place this fall and beyond, the excitement will continue.