Harlem Housing and Performance


Layers are indices of complexity and time. They can conceal a truth or elicit multitudinous responses. The project, a performing arts center with low-income and artist housing above, attempts to reckon with layers of typological, topographical, programmatic, contextual, and architectonic references to develop a complex whole. Topography provides constraints and establishes points of departure; mixed programs create implicit relationships and hierarchies for users; thresholds and colonnades examine how tenants and passersby engage with the project; embodied material and formal associations offer touchstones for understanding its social and temporal context; visual and experiential information provide embedded understanding of the origin of forms and the inner life of the building.

A peristyle along the eastern edge of the site opens onto two distinct public plazas and offers public entrance into the performance facilities. Below, practice and training spaces are linked to dedicated venues for performances by a series of promenades and observation points for the public to engage with all parts of a performance artist’s process. The housing block recalls the courtyard complex typology such as the nearby Dunbar Apartments, as well as the porches and row houses seen along Astor Row. A private entrance off Hamilton Terrace takes residents to a verdant courtyard with direct unit access. The project presents many faces to its users and occupants. Its formal and experiential character subdues hierarchy in favor of a dignified presence that fosters democracy, idiosyncrasy, and appropriation.


What prompted the project?

The projected was completed for Hilary Sample’s Advanced Design studio at the University of Texas at Austin, for which the prompt was to design a housing and performance space on a sprawling lot, located on 145th St. and St. Nicholas Ave. in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. There were several factors to initially consider. First was the mixing of disparate program types: performance, public and spectacle driven, combined with housing, the backdrop of private, day-to-day events. The site’s shape and surroundings also posed interesting challenges. The lot was long, narrow, angled, with a drastic topographic change. The front aligned with a busy commercial street, while the back bordered smaller private apartments.

How important was research within the initial phase? How and to what extent did you record conditions on site as the Dunbar apartments?

Research was important in the initial phase of the project as we oriented ourselves with an unfamiliar site. We began by examining quantitative data such as demographics, zoning, etc, considering the proximity of local colleges, dance leagues, and the variety of users and inhabitants the spaces could expect to support. Later we looked more at the qualitative aspects– odd details and nuances that informed the character of the area. We studied the Dunbar apartments primarily with respect to how they dealt with a courtyard in a city where such space is scarce; or in the case of Astor Row how the row houses seemed to afford each unit a front yard, a definite oddity in Manhattan, through the use of clever setbacks. Adjacent apartment buildings, although architecturally less significant, were also considered with respect the light court typology. We were interested in small moves that could make the living space feel more generous and humane.

How important was the sketch as medium through which to explore and test ideas?

Sketching was the principle language in our collaboration. Given an option, all three of us tend to prefer handwork — drawing by hand, modeling, sketching, collage, etc… analog methods. A sketch can layer ideas in an instant; pentimenti provide coincidences or relationships unavailable to a purely digital workspace. Sketching often provided the initial thrust of an idea, which was then tested with digital modeling and drawing. For this, trace paper was indispensable.

What defined the different drawings through which you choose to reveal the final project?

The drawings tell a story through a breakdown in scale. The axonometric drawings provide a contextual overview and show the building as it fits with its site at an urban scale. A series of sections reveals how layers of program relate to each other and to surrounding site conditions, and how light filters through spatial layers. The series of perspectives provides a narrative sequence, often focusing on the atmospheric quality of individual spaces but typically hinting at a peripheral space beyond.

Did you ever think of playing with the notion of layers within the actual representation of the project itself?

Layering is not so much a concept as it is a lens. As artifacts, the drawings could have had physical layers of materials like vellum to act as bricolage, which in some sense would have been commensurate with our understanding of the site, but the life of this project will always be primarily negotiated through a screen. Just as photoshop organizes its files into layers, so we thought of these drawings. For us, the relationship of layers to this project is manifold and it does not stop at the representation. Layering textures, colors, linework and fills point to something beyond the content of the drawing itself – the representation of the project is a lens through which we see the site and the problem of our building. The project itself sought to undermine hierarchy by layering several strategies on top of each other without overt priority. Flatness/depth, solid/void, formal/informal, history/modernity etc… all coexist without conflict. It is not the contradiction of Venturi, but it is a simultaneity of conditions that provide the different users of the building with a nuanced relationship to their neighborhood and the city. The aggregate of the drawings – even the manner of representation – should speak to this sort of layering.

How important is the plan in reading and revealing the building?

The plan is critical. The story of this building may be told more clearly or coherently through section, but the plan is still the motive force. Often we worked immediately next to one another, thinking in section but drawing in plan. Due to the topographical difficulty of the site, we had to come to grips with the various levels of plan through a section diagram, but plan work was never neglected. The plan was essential to convey the layering of thresholds from the street to the interior and understanding sectional relationships as they relate to program on each level. As for the drawing style, the plans have a kind of poché language that is distinct from the other drawings. Black is both solid and void – they are inverted inverted drawings. Plans of cathedrals and temples have a wonderful character in which the colonnades and peristyles develop a rhythm and external presence not possible if the columns were merely outlined. Yet, the interior of this building has its own presence, somewhat irrespective of what the outside world sees. The hinge point of this discrepancy is the conditioned envelope. Grit and visual texture correspond to moments in the plan with a particular spatial quality. The building is cave-like, but it is also classical. It is difficult, but in the end it is still a unity.

What tools did you use throughout?

Sketching by hand–primarily on trace, Autocad, Photoshop, Illustrator, Rhino, V-Ray, Revit, Sketch Up.

What is for you the architects most important tool?

The dialogue between digital tools and analog methods. The computer is essential for effectively iterating, but editing through sketching allows for a different kind of directness and intuition. For a three-person collaboration we didn’t want to delimit which tools we needed to effectively work together. The dialogue was constant.