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Arhitext Magazine
4. ARHITEXT

A magazine edited by Livio Dimitriu

Introductory Essay

Still Nature with Soul

By Livio Dimitriu

There is a need to make a clear distinction between architectural scale and the scale of ideas in architecture. To focus the argument on architectural objects of diminutive scale, such in Philip Tusa's "Migrating Elements", allows for the understanding of how singular small objects have the power to generate the configuration of spatial context and its meaning.

The same identical chairs, tables, storage units, and light fixtures of Philip Tusa, as they travel through three different interior spaces, form a migratory population of innate objects that construct a domestic landscape, a "still nature with soul", as the poet Doina Uricariu entitled her volume with the Eminescu Publishing House in 1982.The Latin etymology for a business' permanent quarters, for instance, "stabile" in Italian, suggest permanence, stability, and roots in place and context. Alternatively, furniture in Romance languages is stated as "mobile", implying impermanence, mobility, and up rooting. Tusa's position speculates on the architectural possibilities opened by such an argument.

On the polemical side of the argument, if architecture is to have a constant role of resisting the status quo, one ought to mention the implications of producing in the realm of industrial design and employing in interior architecture tables of marble or granite weighing almost a ton, as actually produced by Simon International in Bologna in the 1970's and 1980's. The sheer weight practically transforms the "mobile" into a "stabile".American culture produced informally a transformation of the "stabile" into the "mobile" when it comes to "mobile homes" or the technological ability of literally taking an entire wood frame house or even a church, place it on a flatbed truck and move it from one physical context to another. An America of migratory architecture or architectural objects today speaks of the perpetuation over time of the frugal pioneer mentality. The great American fascination with personal and architectural migration perhaps stands for a culture that despite its current wealth has still not escaped its modest beginnings.

Migrating Elements: Studio transformations: from a store, to a garage, then to a penthouse.

By Philip M. Tusa, AIA

Introduction

As with so many ideas, basic concepts are at their root. The components of any working interior design are chairs, tables, storage units, and light fixtures. These elements were created or selected for a small and oddly shaped space for my first studio and were subsequently adapted to a second and then to a third and current one. This diary tells the story of their travels through time and space.

Chronology and Description of the Studios

A store that once was an alleyway passage to a back building became my first studio. This office, awarded an IBD/Interior Design Magazine design award, is a renovated street-level storefront space in midtown Manhattan. The long, narrow front portion of the space served as a gallery for a series of fine-art exhibitions as well as design projects, while the more open back area was devoted to an office including a library and conference areas. A simple vocabulary of elements helped to define and unify the interior: white walls and ceiling, dark durable carpet, Formica furniture, and spotlights.

After a couple of smaller moves upstairs from the store, a more significant relocation to a garage adapted for a studio in Croton-on-Hudson followed. The Hudson River valley terrain, with its diagonal vistas, steep slopes, stone wall-subdivisions, and unobstructed sunlight from sunrise to sunset inspire and influence all the design decisions. The studio transformation is sensitive to the existing fine craftsmanship and unique elements such as heavily textured stucco and metal casement windows. In keeping with a respect for these elements, surgical alterations were employed. A series of openings, open-riser stairs, and removals open important vistas both inside and out. The plan interposed in this romantic shell is based on an orthogonal grid as a counterpoint to the pastoral plot of land that gradually slopes toward the Hudson River. The sweeping natural views add a note of poetry to the utilitarian considerations of construction. The plan is a synthesis of organizing the work zones for utility and recycled material to new configurations. The vertical bookshelves, lateral pin-up wall and linear railing, horizontal desks and catwalk, and diagonal stair, are interwoven to integrate the efficiency of a small volume with geometric shapes superimposed in the space. The palette is also intended to express contrast; gray for the walkway and black for desks and linear elements. A white translucent pleated shade controls solar glare for the large work surface.

Back in Manhattan, and after a temporary subleased studio, my current penthouse studio is in what was once a photographer's studio. It has been transformed to an architect's office and has as its centerpiece a large, cascading skylight to fill the open-trussed main space with natural light. In many cases a photographer's studio offers features that are unique; and if treated creatively, they can be transformed for other uses. The most prominent one here is the cyclorama; it has inside radius-corner curves to form a limitless horizon shell and is now treated as a sculptural shape. Floating in front are Homosote panels for display. These form a series of screens that subtly subdivide the main space. The passage from the elevator to the main space takes you through a variety of environments; you climb an ornate sky-lit stair to an entry vestibule which faces the Empire State Building, then into an entry hallway with a kitchen off one side and a private office on the other. These spaces are small (the office has a low ceiling and raised floor) and all overlook the large main space.

Description of the Original Elements

Basic shapes, sizes, colors, and materials characterize the nature of the elements. The work surfaces (desks) are plywood covered in black plastic laminate. One is a four-foot square, two inches thick. Another one, round, is four-foot in diameter and the largest (room for two people), a double-width rectangle, four by twelve feet. They are supported on black-metal pedestal bases and in the case of the large rectangle, built-in architectural supports. Storage units (shelves and drawers) are combined in mixed configurations. The shelves are plywood covered in white plastic laminate and the drawers are white metal. Columbo taborets (cabinets on casters with sliding trays), Eames and Hans Kriek chairs, and Luxo lamps (desk lamps as task lighting) are black industrial products. General lighting is provided by Lightolear spotlights and connected along a suspended track.

Migration of Elements

The exigency of my first move to an upstairs office from the store studio provided a physical map of the possibilities to take these generic elements and reconstitute them in different configurations and in effect have new objects. I now saw these as fragments ready to be made anew. The adaptation of these fragments into new and varied contexts became a way for me to integrate my past with the present renovation and the future mélange.

Positions in Space

The positions of the original elements in the store studio were situated in a way to maximize formal clarity and create sightlines to invite passersby to see in. Untypical for American standards, space in New York City is at a premium, and consequently the tiny space needed to appear uncluttered to communicate my design sensibility. The aforementioned elements were arranged to enhance a sense of spaciousness without sacrificing the needed utility. Upstairs the space was equally limited; however, minus the requirement to relate to the streetscape, it allowed the large desk for two to face the street windows. The other elements were placed in close relation as in the store.The garage in Croton posed a more challenging proposition. Once again the dimensions were diminutive; however, the deep roof gable allowed the elements to scale to a second-story height. The careful leveraging of allowable clearances allowed the inclusion of stair to a catwalk leading to a desk situated above the large desk for two. Both desks faced the front windows; only in Croton, they faced a view of the Hudson River instead of Manhattan's 53rd Street. The white bookshelves that faced each other in Manhattan are now piggybacked to a height of sixteen feet. Recycled metal casement windows to match the existing windows glazed the garage door and a new side opening.

The decision to relocate back in Manhattan started gradually. New elements were used within an interim subleased studio on 11th Street. They're positioned to incorporate the existing context inside and out, such as the view of a series of water towers and the Empire State Building, Metropolitan Life and New York Life Towers. The basic idea was to insert several utilitarian elements such as desks, cabinets, table and pin-up surfaces to form an ensemble of planes configured so as to create a forced perspective toward the window with its archetypal NYC view. With interesting patina, an existing duct had remained in its original unpainted galvanized metal finish, and with thematic intent, new materials echo the context of raw unfinished surfaces such as the unpainted Homosote pin-up board. To provide a counterpoint, the loft shell is pristine white. The unfinished surfaces of the water towers outside are echoed in the unfinished surfaces inside. Finally, a permanent move to a combined studio in the Flatiron District photographer's studio culminated in the integration of elements from the 53rd Street store, the Croton studio, the 11th Street studio as well as some new ones (including some recycled elements from the existing photographer's studio). Here, the positions of all these elements take on a decidedly familiar pattern that echo the previous studios; however, the unique existing space with dramatic skylight and sculptural cyclorama brings the hybrid collection of fragments to a unified tour de force.

Operations

The use of generic shapes, dimensions, materials, and colors allow these elements to form and reform as interchangeable parts in an ongoing metamorphosis. In each new context, different zones and uses determine how the elements reconfigure themselves to accommodate the intended operations. Of particular usefulness, is the ability of many of these elements to move about on casters; a kinetic dimension. This kinetic sphere includes objects that glide, roll, retract, swing, rise, and generally allow an object to take multiple positions in space and thereby extend the usability of an element as part of a recycled object. So, as you navigate the space, the readapted elements seem to fit together seamlessly and provide all the needed accoutrements for a working interior design.

Conclusion

Through experimentation over the years, this continuum has provided me a laboratory the see firsthand how this approach to interior renovation of existing structures can be applied. This process affords an opportunity to reclaim some of the existing fabric with successive layers of detail in an interior and to interrelate and correlate them with the new elements brought in. Often, a dialectic form as simple as two juxtaposed textures that contrast with each other will create an interesting collage. That continuous and evolving process inevitably leads to a richer architecture and helps to negate the all-to-easy tendency to design in a too pristine, a too antiseptic, and a too insipid manner.

Copyright 2004 Philip M. Tusa