If you were to catalogue the quintessential New York architects of the boom years — those who did the most to turn ramshackle neighborhoods into gleaming enclaves of gentrification — you would have to start with Robert Scarano Jr. All through the fat years, he would burst onto a block like a makeover guru on a reality show, peddling a brazenly oversize glass-and-steel condo as the antidote for the urban blahs. Then, earlier this week, as if the end of that era needed an official seal, the city’s Buildings Department told the Dumbo-based Scarano he couldn’t file any more construction plans, which effectively means he is barred from working in New York. A long trail of complaints — Councilman Bill DeBlasio called Scarano “the worst example of an architect who continues to build in this city despite his long history of violating zoning and building codes and practicing unsafe construction” — led a judge to find that Scarano submitted false documents to make his buildings appear smaller than they are and therefore of legal size. Which got him in hot water with Buildings. His most egregious sin was hiding extra square footage in “mezzanine levels” that he didn’t count.
Flouting zoning regulations might seem like a minor infraction in the construction industry, more like double parking than a hit-and-run. But overbuilding is a form of theft. Zoning is not a set of capricious constraints or loose guidelines — it is a legal tool that the city uses to shape its own identity. Regulations affecting height, bulk, and square footage are neither perfect nor immutable, but they do represent a community’s hedge against chaos, or suffocation: The first zoning came about after the full-block Equitable Building choked off all the light and air around it downtown almost a century ago. Of course, that’s exactly why developers hired him, because he is adept at jamming more sellable space on a lot.
By dodging the rules, Scarano violates a commandment that architects don’t take, but should: first, do no harm. But his bigger sin is not just squeezing in slightly bigger buildings. It’s that he is fundamentally guilty of arrogant disdain for the city fabric, from the much-mocked “Finger Building” on North 8th Street in Williamsburg to the crassly insensitive gray splinter of a tower at 52 East 4th Street on the Bowery. New York has always grown upward, of course, but a tall building has to earn its height — to replace the light it blocks and the change it wreaks with a measure of brilliant design. Otherwise it becomes a double blot.
Scarano’s buildings are poseurs: cheap, flashy structures dressed up in metal sheeting and tinted glass. The greatest architecture embodies the ethos of its era, but mediocre architecture can do the same thing more transparently. Scarano’s designs perfectly capture today’s rapacious spirit: Glitter and be greedy, and try not to get caught.