Less Really Is More

In the first decade of the 21st century, technology helped architecture become flamboyant, immodest, and wildly expensive. Leaner times need lither designs, preserving spectacle but banishing self-indulgence. The essential firm of the post-binge era is shaping up to be SHoP, headed not by a celebrity but by a half-dozen fortysomething New Yorkers who share a messianic high-tech pragmatism. Having spent a dozen years leapfrogging from youthful novelty to boutique eminence, SHoP is staking its name on the world’s tallest prefab tower.

The 32-story building with the vitamin name, B2, will rise at Atlantic Yards, that troubled monster where every new move courts fresh opprobrium. Half of B2’s 350 units are designated for low- and middle-income families, which means the developer, Forest City Ratner, needs to allay suspicions that it’s grinding out gimcrack pods for the poor—even as the apartments are made in factories and the whole process is designed to shave as much as 20 percent off construction costs. SHoP’s partners, though, consider prefabrication a designer’s godsend, the key to making housing awesome yet affordable. “Modular construction could radically change what living in New York is like,” says Gregg Pasquarelli, the most voluble of the five original founders.

Pasquarelli is the P in the firm’s acronym; the S belongs to twins Christopher and William Sharples and William’s wife, Coren, and the H to Kimberly Holden, who is married to Pasquarelli. They all met at Columbia in the early nineties. “We liked each other from the beginning,” says Holden. “We still vacation together.” The sixth principal, Jonathan Mallie, who in 1999 became the firm’s first hire, launched the spinoff SHoP Construction in 2007.

This genial handful has gathered in the Pasquarelli-Holden apartment in the Porter House, a zinc-paneled diadem they designed for the meatpacking district a decade ago. They’re still young for architects, and their work combines edginess and maturity. “We have the tool kit to pull it off at the highest level in this pressure cooker of New York, and to export it to the rest of the world,” Pasquarelli says, punctuating the self-assessment with a cocky grin: I may be arrogant, but I’m right.

He has to be both. He and his partners have spent years honing a virtuosity aimed at convincing skeptics that a fantastical design is feasible. Consider a high-tech innovation center they’re designing for Bots­wana, which will be assembled from parts designed in SHoP’s Park Place office, fabricated in South Africa and Botswana, and hauled to a field outside the capital, Gaborone. When it’s done, a range of low artificial ridges with glass walls will nestle in a gentle depression, wrap around existing trees, and lift above the grassland, supplementing the scarce shade. The complex’s contours are seductively wavy, but the real innovation has been the process that made them cheap enough to build.

Their first foray into digital fabrication came in the late nineties, with a small project on the waterfront of Greenport, Long Island. The structure housed a late-model version of the old “camera obscura,” a closed chamber in which to see a projected 360-degree view of the world outside. To build it, the architects developed a 3-D digital model, exploded it into thousands of components, and sent the specifications to a computer-controlled milling machine that could cut curves, slices, and angles with superhuman finesse. That kit was shipped to the site and clipped together into a tiny, liquid-looking shed, a wooden teardrop that no carpenter could ever fashion by hand. Like B2, it was prefab, affordable, and forward-looking.

Many “advanced” architects treat their buildings as oversize snowglobes to be admired from afar; SHoP designs for the sensual experience of being there. At their East River Waterfront Esplanade, a small but triumphant strip of high-­decibel park under the FDR Drive that just opened this summer, you can sit on a bar stool at the ipe-wood railing and contemplate the waves beneath the harp and altar of the Brooklyn Bridge. Nearby is the just-completed double-decker Pier 15, whose upper slab rests on a pair of glass pavilions and is topped with a patch of aerial lawn. Ramps and stairs give it the feeling of a hilly landscape, and its highest point nearly lifts you into the rigging of the tall ship moored alongside. The jetty unfurls its glamour at twilight, when a reddish glow emerges from the slats in the second story’s undulating underside. This is high-level public architecture—a beautiful object, but also a viewing platform for the urban spectacular.

Eventually SHoP may redesign the entire eastern lip of lower Manhattan, from the Battery Maritime Building to the Brooklyn Bridge. A plan to overhaul the South Street Seaport died from wounds inflicted by neighborhood opposition, the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s hostility to a 40-story tower, and, finally, the client’s bankruptcy. Now, though, the firm is reworking its designs for a new owner, the Howard Hughes Corporation. The project will inevitably be controversial, but SHoP seems to savor a good fight.

Which explains why it’s working for Bruce Ratner. When the chairman of Forest City Ratner asked SHoP to rescue his Barclays Center arena at Atlantic Yards in 2009, his credibility was, to put it mildly, shaky. Ratner had obtained huge subsidies and then tried to wheedle more; he demolished homes, then delayed much of the project when the economy tanked; he dropped Frank Gehry as architect and turned the arena over to the workaday firm Ellerbe Becket. He caught a lot of flak for that, and hiring SHoP to then gussy up Ellerbe’s characterless shoe box with a fancy façade looked like superficial damage control. (“SHoP has hocked its reputation for the sake of a PR stratagem,” I wrote at the time.) “We thought long and hard about accepting,” Pasquarelli says. “But we believed we could make the best civic neighbor possible.”

Whereas Gehry’s explosive design for the arena and accompanying high-rises was full of jaunty squiggles and boxes knocked askew, all meant to wow and rattle Brooklyn, SHoP has tried to weave the Nets’ hulking new home (which will open next fall and has suddenly become a visible part of the cityscape) into the urban fabric. The structure is wrapped in a basket weave of weathered steel, giving it a rusty cool. A canopy whose inner rim will display scrolling video and digital signs reaches over the plaza. Is it a huge basketball hoop? For Christopher Sharples, it echoes the embracing colonnades of St. Peter’s in Rome. “That oculus, 35 feet overhead and the size of a basketball court, is like the arms of Bernini: It comes out and greets you.”

“In a very Brooklyn way,” Pasquarelli interjects, and crosses his arms away from his body, hip-hop style.

For the Nets arena, SHoP’s archi-geeks spat out specifications for 12,000 panels and 940 composite megapanels—every one slightly different. “Our first reaction was to say we couldn’t do that,” says Jeff Fisher, the project executive for Hunt Construction Group. In traditional construction, the process of “value engineering” whittles out frills—straightening curved walls, substituting standard cabinets for custom. SHoP claims it can cut costs far more by controlling the process from brainstorming session to final rivet. “It’s all about using technology and entrepreneurship to further the art,” says Pasquarelli. “Otherwise, these buildings would be dumbed down into really mediocre stuff.”

Atlantic Yards offers the ultimate test of that philosophy: the chance to construct a whole apartment building—and eventually, more—in a nearby factory, pack it up in chunks with wiring, toilets, and flooring pre-installed, and truck it to the site, where two or three pieces per apartment will fit together. The goal is to make simple elements cohere into a complex result. The design has a Lego-like feel: Hunks of various hues and sizes interlock in a rhythmic assemblage, so that a huge structure feels like a collection of smaller ones.

That’s the hope, anyway. Factory-made housing has a venerable but erratic pedigree. In 1906, Thomas Edison proposed one-piece concrete houses that could be poured in a few hours. More recently, architects have experimented with flat-pack single-family homes and live-in shipping containers. But an unforgiving market and the abiding stigma of “prefab” have usually scuttled those dreams. The great advantage of Atlantic Yards is that it’s huge enough to create its own demand. “With fifteen buildings, we can feed a factory,” notes MaryAnne Gilmartin, the Forest City Ratner executive in charge of the project. Proposing a forest of modular high-rises might seem at first like a bargain hunter’s strategy to get something—anything—built at a troubled site. Unions are already upset at the prospect of shifting traditional construction jobs to lower-paying factory work. In the end, though, the move could help alleviate the city’s perpetual shortage of reasonably priced housing—and bring back some manufacturing as well.

SHoP’s founders argue that the synthesis of digital technology, prefabrication, and design is a perfect New York endeavor. “We’re all under pressure here,” Pasquarelli says. “We’re banging heads every day. Only on this island do finance and art crash into each other so constantly.”

SHoP’s Pier 15, at the South Street Seaport, opens this week.Photo: Danny Kim

FIT’s C2 building (proposed) Photo: Courtesy of SHoP

Porter HousePhoto: Seong Kwon/Courtesy of SHoP

Botswana Innovation Hub (in design phase)Photo: Courtesy of SHoP

Less Really Is More