Switch Plates

ARCHITECT Narchitects

TEXT Elsa Lam

PHOTOS Frank Oudeman, Unless Otherwise Noted

PROJECT Switch Building, New York, New York

While real estate is on the decline throughout the United States, housing values are booming in New York. However, it’s a tough market to break into, given the density of existing buildings and prohibitive development costs. Luxury condos are being designed by the likes of Bernard Tschumi and Jean Nouvel, while the majority of constructions built “on spec”–that is, to be sold post-completion–take a generic approach to ensure quick turnaround time and to secure access to financing. In most projects, the role of the architect is limited to providing an inexpensive surface gloss over a structure predefined within narrow parameters.

The recent opening of the aesthetically innovative, spec-built Switch building is thus a refreshing reminder that architecturally enlightened

development is still possible within the confines of Manhattan. The seven-storey apartment and art gallery is also a showpiece in the career of nARCHITECTS–the firm founded in 1999 by Montreal-born Eric Bunge and Saigon-born Mimi Hoang–as their first complete building.

nARCHITECTS came to the project through an almost chance encounter, the stuff of local legend. A first-time developer had just closed on the purchase of the Lower East Side site and walked off the street into the firm’s office, located around the corner at the time. He was impressed by their work, as the duo was by his vision. “He wanted to do a metal faade building, and create an art gallery,” recounts Bunge. “It was a dream commission.” Bunge and Hoang rose to the challenge of the fast-paced demands of the project, preparing a schematic design in just three weeks, with excavation scheduled to begin immediately after.

As the project progressed, a combination of “firsts”–a first building for nARCHITECTS, a first project for the developer, and a first-time job for the contractor–facilitated an open dialogue about the limits of what could be produced within the rigid zoning laws and financing requirements of a spec building.

Take, for instance, Switch’s primary gesture: a modulation of floors to open views up and down Norfolk Street, resulting in a faade that the contractor likened to a light switch. The angular outcroppings were creative reinterpretations of bay windows, which in zoning legislation allows for modest projections of the faade. On the inside, these projections provide deep window seats with bamboo surrounds.

On the back faade, the limits of the building code were similarly pushed. Balconies are built to the maximum size allowable, and shift from side to side to provide extra height, increase access to light, and encourage conversations between neighbours.

Also going beyond spec-building norms is the total aesthetic integration of air conditioning units–a move prompted by a client suggestion. “We were talking about the air conditioning grilles, and Dorit [one of the clients] said, ‘Why can’t you incorporate them into the design?'” recalls Bunge. “It was an idea similar to many that [Mimi and I have] had, so we jumped on it right away.” As a result, the building’s standard through-wall mechanical units are disguised with custom grilles, designed to be continuous with the cladding that spans between floors. The finely tuned grilles narrow and pivot outward as they pass over the ventilation units, allowing for proper air flow to be maintained and giving subtle modulation to the faade. This feature required approvals from the air conditioning manufacturer as well as custom metal work–efforts normally outside the scope of this project type.

Relating the building to its burgeoning artistic neighbourhood, the non-profit Switch Gallery on the ground and cellar floors is spurred by development criteria and articulated by site constraints. The inclusion of a community-oriented space allowed the team to occupy the entire lot on the ground floor. Inside, the plan works around the substantial obstacles of the residential core and lobby, using oblique angles to maximize spatial continuity and wall space for display. At the rear of the gallery, a generous double-height volume is lit from above. The large skylight had to be situated at a minimum of three feet from the building line–a requirement that prompted Bunge and Hoang to design a curved wall to catch the light in a smooth gradient.

Attention to the articulation of light, an ongoing concern in the firm’s previous interiors and installations, manifests throughout the building. Apartment windows are pushed to the edges of rooms in order to welcome a wash of light along adjacent walls. The back-and-forth switch action of the faade generates subtly different light conditions and views from floor to floor, giving individuality to each apartment. This results in a range of spaces with different qualities, even while the basic floor plan remains identical for ease of construction.

Taking advantage of their Chinese-Malaysian crew’s strong craft abilities, nARCHITECTS called for careful detailing using an economical palette of materials. Galvalume steel, a relatively inexpensive metal, is used for the custom-fabricated faade panels, a composition accented with modest amounts of stainless steel at the front canopy and on the rear balconies. Cold-rolled steel stairs and railings draw silvery metals into the ground floor interior. The gallery’s industrial aesthetic is continued with a polished concrete floor, and a ceiling made of Versaroc–a cementbonded particleboard usually hidden behind drywall. These ordinary materials are elevated by subtle detailing, like the underplayed cantilever of the stair, or the lapping of the ceiling panels over top beams, which opens the space in height and creates a visually inviting perspectival effect.

In the residential component of the building, the palette warms up. Ply strip flooring wraps through the common lobby, while bamboo is used to clad floors and window surrounds in individual apartments. Tequila lime green accents (“the only colour we could agree on,” comments Hoang) appear in back-painted glass mounted above the kitchen counters, and laminated as almost transparent vertical striping within balcony guard panels.

Through its careful design, Switch provides the services required to finance and market a condo building–balconies, air conditioners, bay windows–but provides much more than a checklist of features. “There isn’t enough architecture that does more than add amenities together onto a normative core and shell,” comments Bunge. In a market as tight as Manhattan, perhaps few chances exist to take on the standards of development. nARCHITECTS has succeeded in taking advantage of a rare opportunity–and in doing so, they challenge other architects and developers to switch their preconceptions, and dare to follow suit.CA

Else Lam is a freelance journalist and PhD candidate in architectural history at Columbia University in New York








AREA 14,500 FT2 (ART GALLERY 2,700 FT2; APARTMENTS 8,225 FT2)