By Chitika Vasudeva
New York City’s outdoor space is underutilized argues Eran Chen, founder and executive director of the Manhattan-based Office for Design and Architecture (ODA), and he wants to change that.
On Monday 29 January 2018, ODA’s Israeli-born founder and executive director Eran Chen kicked off Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture’s 2018 Spring Lecture Series and explained his firm’s approach to maximizing living space in New York City in his lecture titled “Unboxing New York: Living, Zoning, Developing, Marketing, Building.” Established by Chen in 2007, ODA has expanded rapidly, and already begun “unboxing” the New York City skyline through over 40 projects. As it asserts in its mission statement, the firm is known for its commitment to “putting people first,” and has built its reputation around projects that attempt to navigate the conflict between the priorities of real estate development and architectural agendas.
In conjunction with the lectures, SoA hosts Back2Front, a series of student-faculty discussions related to the lecture series topics. Last week’s conversation opened questions into the challenges of positioning oneself in the heart of capitalism while trying to promote an intricate public urban pattern, and of sustaining the rhetoric that such a pattern is necessary. Market-focused real estate development is typically generic in appearance but, as the discussants agreed, Chen clearly knows how to sell his work if he can successfully see projects like Hunter’s Point Library and Merchant’s Wharf through. Back2Front participant Harshvardhan Kedia (B.A. ‘19) asked a series of questions about Chen’s work to try to understand how he works with developers for whom an architectural agenda is arguably unimportant. Should architecture even be in a position where it is adding value to development?
Such questions regarding the role of architects in real estate development came up in Chen’s lecture on Monday, as he argued that architects should extend their influence beyond the drawing board. He enumerated four key motivations that exist at the core of ODA’s work and operate in tandem with the desires of their clientele: to see far and beyond, to be shielded and protected, to live both inside and outside, and to be connected with others.
Chen noted in his lecture that “if the reality is that our environment is shaped by the private sector, we need to accept that and figure out a way to work with it.” A notable example he presented that demonstrates this sentiment is the firm’s 100 Norfolk Street project. The 12-story residential building flips the real estate development model on its head to “create a stepping volume that cantilevers over the adjacent low-rise buildings like an upside-down ‘wedding cake’,” as described on its website.
In another project he presented, Chen touched on the challenges of building a public image around a non-visual design agenda. He admitted that what ends up being communicated to the public about the work of architects is often very different from what they expect. He recounted a story of speaking to a reporter for hours about the “terraced, cascading form” of 251 First Condominium, only to find that the project was published under the lackluster headline: “Stroller Valet Service at a Park Slope Condo.” (Interestingly, similar headlines appeared in the Daily News, Curbed New York, and LLNYC). Amusing as it may be, such coverage begs the question: how does one share work with the general public when it is consciously driven by a non-visual, process-centric agenda, rather than stylistic or formal inclinations?
While some questions still need answers, the bottom line is that most buildings in New York City are extruded boxes constrained by complex zoning laws; Eran Chen and ODA seek more ways to break them.
Chitika Vasudeva is a third-year Bachelor of Architecture student in the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture.