True Grit

Architecture | May 2016 | BY Ted Loos

Think of Morris Adjmi as the Pied Piper of gentrifying industrial hipness. The New York City–based architect has an eye for transforming the warehouses and work rooms of decades and centuries past into striking contemporary buildings, as evidenced in the Meatpacking District in particular—the twisting, torquing Samsung Building being his signature project—but also Williamsburg, TriBeCa and SoHo.

Morris Adjmi Architects recently moved to new offices in the Financial District and has been rapidly growing of late. Adjmi, 56, currently employs some 55 people, spread over more than 40 projects. Most recently he has extended his reach to an 800,000-square-foot mixed-use condo project called Atlantic Plumbing in an up-and-coming part of the Northwest section of Washington, D.C., that just opened this fall. It employs dramatic X-shaped Corten steel girders that add panache—X marks the spot—as well as structural support.

“I’m certainly a modernist,” says Adjmi, a West Village resident who often cycles downtown to work. He is the voluble and friendly sort when you get him talking about design. “I’m fascinated by industrial architecture—I tend to like things in transition,” he says.

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The Schumacher is a 20 condominium and mansion residences located in NoHo.

So far, Adjmi has a knack for turning high-end developer work into meaningful design. He attributes much of his approach to growing up in New Orleans, where the old and new intersect in odd and wonderful ways. “I was sketching the French Quarter as a kid,” he recalls. “I knew what an Ionic column was by the third grade and I was fascinated by the fabric of the city.”

Adjmi has directly translated that experience into his work. “It’s rooted in context and history, but it’s not historic,” he says. And that is certainly true of the structure that made his name, SoHo’s Scholastic Building from 2001. He started the building with his great mentor, the Pritzker-winning Italian architect Aldo Rossi (1931–1997), whose office he worked in for a decade.

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The Schumacher retains original building features such as barrel-vaulted brick ceilings and broken-arched windows.

The building nimbly riffs on a classical façade on one side—complete with a stripped-down arrangement of columns—and then on the area’s cast-iron past on the other, with anchor ties holding up a version of the ubiquitous commercial-style awning. “SoHo was between the classical world and the industrial world in the 19th century,” says Adjmi. “Steel was new.”

His first ground-up building was the Theory store and company headquarters in the Meatpacking District in 2008, the first Landmarks Preservation Commission-approved construction in the area—and needless to say, the first of many. It smartly interpreted the working past of the area, and the hand-laid, rounded column of brick forming the building’s corner is a subtle highlight.

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An interior view of an apartment at 36 Bleecker Street, designed by Morris Adjmi Architects.

He quickly put his stamp on the neighborhood, moving on to the restrained High Line Building in 2011 just a couple of blocks away. Last year’s Samsung Building, also a stone’s throw away, gets at the heart of Adjmi’s art. One developer was shot down for trying to build a huge tower on top of the low-slung, tumbledown meat market façade, so Adjmi took a crack at it.

“The original structure had to have its own presence and breathing room,” he recalls. “Instead of an addition, it was sharing space.” So he cleaned up the base, set his volume back and then thought: “What if it moved?” His aha moment came when his mind drifted to the odd street plan of Greenwich Village, where Manhattan’s rigid grid suddenly goes off kilter. The torquing volume was born, and its steel girders help relate it to the nearby High Line.

For the 2012 Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, which now hosts one of New York’s most crowded rooftop bar scenes, Adjmi sheared off an entire side of a dilapidated warehouse so that light could penetrate the rooms. He also added a fairly minimal box on top, with a grid of square windows.

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The inside of Morris Adjmi Architects’ office.

Condominium projects are bread and butter for any ambitious architect, but few of them would attempt something as ingeniously simple as the “Warholian doubling” Adjmi pulled off for the just-opened Sterling Mason in TriBeCa. He simply twinned the existing 19th-century coffee and tea warehouse, doubling the size by repeating the form on the lot next door but in a completely different material. The gray metallic finish—an aluminum panel skin with a plasma finish and rendered with every detail of the historic masonry façade—contrasts with the venerable old red brick, and makes the viewer appreciate both the original and the doppelgänger all the more.

Adjmi is now hard at work on a spate of new projects, including two residential buildings in West Chelsea that will further his reputation of being particularly savvy with context, but never sacrificing the contemporary lines that are the order of the day. “It stands out by fitting in,” is how Adjmi sums up the Scholastic Building’s legacy. “That’s a good way to think about all our work.”

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