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Talking with Selldorf Architects – Annabelle Selldorf

CORE Talks // Sep 01, 2008

The question we would all love to have the answer to is “where is the next hot neighborhood?” And, of course, I always hear my clients complaints that, “if only I had bought that site in Soho…or Tribeca… or the UWS… or Harlem… or Lower 5th… or the East Village…(you get the idea) before it got hot”. Over the past 15 years I have witnessed Manhattan’s luxury market shrink from many segmented luxury neighborhoods into almost one large luxury neighborhood. The Upper West Side has expanded to Midtown (thanks in large part to the Time Warner buildings). The delineation between Midtown and the Village (East and West) has been smudged, and everyone is watching to see how much luxury residential property can be absorbed in The Financial District. (I’ll discuss more of that in a future SO interview.)

What makes a neighborhood change? Something defining: a new Landmark… a slow expansion of a good neighborhood into a lesser neighborhood… a huge investment by a city agency… a new park… a change in zoning!

West Chelsea has a number of these elements.

In June, 2005, the City Council approved the Department of City Planning’s proposals for a zoning amendment affecting the West Chelsea area. This affected West 16th St to 30th St between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues. The Special West Chelsea District was created and provided opportunities for new residential and commercial development. Some of which is well underway. The high line park has started construction, after much deliberation, and will create a magnificent linear open park on the previous elevated rail line.

The bad news for a developer is… most of the developable land is already taken (Add West Chelsea to your list of complaints about where you should have bought.)

The good news for a condo buyer is… the neighborhood is in its infancy and is neighbored by prime Chelsea, the trendy meatpacking District, the Hudson River, and the High Line Park. Some of the most renowned architects in the world have started to help West Chelsea emerge as one of Manhattan’s most promising and desirable residential neighborhoods.

I was fortunate to talk with two of them: Annabelle Selldorf and Sara Lopergolo of Selldorf Architects.


Shaun: What inspired you to become an architect?

Annabelle: Do you really want to know? (laughing) – My father is an architect and I thought I’d do anything but that! I thought it would be a hellish amount of work and never ending. I didn’t know what else to do and I thought I could always do something else if I didn’t like it…so then I started Architectural School and the rest is history. This is sort of the short version.

Shaun: So, when you accept a project and a client hires you, where do you start? You have a blank palette. Where do you get your inspiration?

Annabelle: That’s not a universal process because I think it really depends very much on the circumstance. It can’t be entirely inspired by the client. It could be very much about the sight and sometimes there is a content. A museum is all about proportion and light and then you let that guide you. You let the function guide you. We’re not formalist so it’s just about never that you start with a shape or a material or something like that. It’s always generated in one way or the other through function.

Shaun: So when start with a site that has a height restriction and sky plan exposure restrictions and limited F.A.R., will you let that drive design more than other functions?

Annabelle: I think in a case you are describing it’s more about the context. You’re obviously going to want to max out that volume because that’s what your client/developer wants. I think it’s really about where/how the building sits and fits and where it works. There is a degree of analysis that goes into something. You get the lay of the land and start with the beginning. Find out what can you do…what’s there… why it’s there…. what it looks like…do you like it?…do you not like it? You pick up everything that’s around you and then from there it’s a selective process that’s subjective in nature and you test it. Like it or not.

Shaun: The location of some current projects that you are designing would be considered fringe or pioneering – like the Hudson Square area and West Chelsea. How much does that influence what’s ultimately going to be built there, and the vision of what you create architecturally?

Annabelle: I think is that it’s not so much a consideration of whether its fringe. We always feel that context matters. We try to create a sense of place that you find value in. If you do go to West Chelsea, what makes West Chelsea great? It’s some of the original warehouses. It’s some of the quality in the masonry that you find in buildings around, and you know, as you well remember on 19th Street, that’s what inspired us to start working with terracotta.

Shaun: Do you find it challenging to sit down in a room with the marketing people and the developer who are trying to tell you what the market is dictating? And if so, what is the most challenging part of it?

Annabelle: It’s challenging alright – everybody has ideas. The marketing people and the developers by necessity have to have a position and success in mind. And success means something different to them by necessity than what it means to us. To me obviously a happy client is a good thing, but we want to make great architecture. We are excellent designers and architecture is the thing that we do that we promote.

Shaun: If you give 3 or 4 architects the same zoning restrictions and site, you (Selldorf Architects) would clearly have a defined style and signature that’s unique…..

Sara: What I think from what we do that’s different from what other people do is that we respond to context more than is currently often times the fashion – is this building in Miami or is it New York? And if you can’t tell, then there is something wrong. So I think that’s how we approach that – it belongs to where it lives.

Shaun: You have worked on a lot of single family residences and now you are working on multi-family residences. What would you say the fundamental differences or different challenges are between the two?

Annabelle: It’s a good question whether they are actually challenges. With the multiple residences/projects the client is a totally different one. The client is the developer and the marketing person, and they in a sense become the same as the private client except they have another interest at heart, right? So we have to paint the picture of a phantom client in there, and for me what’s really interesting is that what we are doing is housing. I’m thinking about it with a larger picture in mind. I want to know what makes houses apartments different in 2007 then they were in 1987 or in 1957 and we can define those things.

Shaun: What does make it different?

Annabelle: Well, people have more stuff to begin with, and surprisingly I think you’ll see that people require more space. It’s much more standard to have a 5 fixture bathroom in the master bathroom then it was the case in the 1980’s. And that costs more money. People have bigger apartments, they have more closets, they have bigger bathrooms, they have more luxurious kitchens, and that has come a part of where society is and that’s really different.

Shaun: I look at West Chelsea, and I look at 19th Street, and I feel it’s going to be one of the most architecturally distinguished blocks in Manhattan. You have Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and you have the building you designed at 520…

Annabelle: That block is going to change West Chelsea all together because it’s really interesting. I think it will be really beautiful, and things will follow. The neighborhood will come there and around the peripheral. It will all start to feed with many people living and working there.

Shaun: What is your favorite piece of architecture in the world?

Sara: In the world? Ronchamp.

Annabelle: I would say the Parthenon is pretty much it for me. What’s your favorite piece of architecture…that’s so hard.

Shaun: Yes it is.

Annabelle: I think it’s nice that we have the spectrum from the two of us (Sara and Annabelle) like the Parthenon being and a piece of architecture with no architect and to Ronchamp. It’s not contemporary but modern and that kind of represents how it’s heroic. It’s unique to know that you’re in the presence of architecture when you are. And that’s undeniable.

Shaun: If you were not a well known architect, but a developer, and were building a building on 19th Street with Selldorf, Nouvel and Gehry, who would you hire to do the fourth sight?

Annabelle: Oh that’s a great question. I love that. I think I would hire Peter Zumthor.

Sara: What about Renzo Piano…or Sejima. There are some great architects out there. I think the housing part is the challenge.

Annabelle: I think what Sara said is true. I think we look at floor plans as much as we look at what the building looks like

Shaun: I think that’s true. I firmly believe in building a building from the inside out, because at the end of the day – coming from a marketing stand point, it’s important that the buyer sees how they can live in the space.

Annabelle: Right. I actually think at this point the marketing side bares some accolades. You really have to know your market, and that is the great contribution you (marketing people) make.