Artistic Pursuits

Architecture | Aug 2017 | BY Stephen Wallis

One of the things you hear from people describing architect Basil Walter is that he’s a terrific collaborator, and a really “nice guy.” For those in the profession whose profiles fall somewhere below the starchitect stratosphere—which is to say, most everybody—that counts for a lot.

It also helps to explain the fact that Walter has been the go-to architect for Vanity Fair Editor-in-Chief Graydon Carter for 25 years, a gig that has brought its own kind of celebrity. In addition to working on Carter’s multiple homes and clubby, nostalgia-tinged restaurants (the Monkey Bar, the Waverly Inn, the Beatrice Inn), Walter also designs all of the magazine’s events—most notably its Oscars party, for two decades running. “The thing about Basil,” says Carter, “is that more than most architects, he works to make your ideas better, rather than just pushing his own. It’s at the core of his business and of his personality.”

But Carter is not the only high-profile repeat client of BW Architects, the New York–based, 16- person practice Walter heads with partner Brenda Bello. For more than 15 years, Walter and Bello have been working with Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, renovating his residences, assisting him with various art projects (including his mosaics for Manhattan’s new Second Avenue subway), and, recently, teaming up with him to create an experimental school in a Rio de Janeiro favela.

Vik Muniz

Vik Muniz installation at 72nd St Station. Courtesy of the artist.

“It’s always dicey when you start working with a new architect, but with Brenda and Basil, I felt I had a working dynamic with them right away, and it just got better,” says Muniz, who first connected with the duo in 2000, when he enlisted them to revamp a Brooklyn warehouse as a live-work space. Bello, then just beginning her career, headed up the project, and as the artist’s life changed (a marriage to artist Janaina Tschäpe, a daughter, a divorce) she oversaw additional renovations.

This past winter, shortly after Muniz got remarried to Malu Barreto, BW Architects put the finishing touches on the couple’s new Paris pied-à- terre. A full floor in a Haussmann-era building, the apartment marries old-world touches, such as wide-plank herringbone floors and a neoclassical mantelpiece, with modern furniture and lighting. Muniz, who loves to cook and entertain, pushed for the large open kitchen and dining area that now serves as the home’s central hub,but he left plenty of decisions in the hands of the architects. “It’s hard to work with artists—we’re opinionated and we already have a picture in our head,” he says. “But Brenda is very good at telling me what to do, and now that we know each other very well she and Basil have a lot more authority over me.”

While the relationship Bello and Walter have with Muniz is a special one, it’s also reflective of the kind of rapport they try to cultivate with all of their clients. “Part of our process and the way we do things is entirely dependent on creating a positive feeling,” says Walter. “We really see ourselves as a vehicle for bringing clients and builders into a creative partnership.”

When Muniz came up with the idea for a school that would teach visual and technological literacy to children in Rio’s Vidigal favela, he knew he wanted Bello and Walter as collaborators. The project was a leap for everyone involved, not least because there were no precedents for creating a private, nonprofit school in the middle of the densely packed, steeply sloped favela—one that happens to be blessed with spectacular ocean views. From the outset, a great deal of effort went into making sure the school “has a sense of belonging—that people would feel it is a part of their life, that it’s theirs,” says Muniz, who came from a poor family in São Paulo.

Basil Walter

View of Escola Vidigal. Courtesy of Basil Walter.

To that end, the school’s exterior is terra-cotta brick, a material widely used in the favela, but its exposed structure is steel, which allowed the architects to create a lighter, stronger building than is normally found there. But that also created challenges. “Because there aren’t roads throughout the favela, all of the material had to be carried in by hand,” says Bello. “Building with steel was pretty much unheard of, so we had to limit the size the beams for the carry, and then everything was welded on site.”

Already, favela residents have begun adopting building techniques used for the school—not only using structural steel but inserting a layer of lightweight styrofoam into floors, even utilizing rainwater recycling systems. “People come by all the time asking for tips,” says Muniz, who notes that there are plans to add solar panels to the school to provide electricity. They want to find a setup that could feasibly be used as a model for people in the community.

Escola Vidigal officially opened last year, providing activities for preschoolers in the morning and after-school classes for kids between first and fifth grade. The curriculum is still evolving, but classes have ranged from drawing to computer programming to rooftop gardening. In addition to the classroom, the building features a residential wing, with two rooms for visiting artists and educators who will come for brief stays and work with the children. “We’re still learning,” says Muniz, “and we’re still figuring out the potential of the place.”

Consciously eschewing any kind of defining look in their work, Walter says he and Bello “like to think of style as being like language,” noting that “you can learn to speak more than one language well.” Ultimately, the thread that runs through all of their firm’s diverse work— whether creating a Modernist country house, renovating a historic townhouse, or designing events—is the level of sophistication and care for details. And for that, no translation is needed.

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