Through the Roof

Client: Anonymous
Design Firm: Messana O’Rorke Architects
Location: Greenwich Village
Space: 125 square feet
With the exception of Rachel Whiteread—the London artist who made a see-through resin cast of a Soho water tower a few years ago—few people have fully grasped the aesthetic possibilities of these utilitarian structures. But the owner of a downtown penthouse loft saw the old, disused one on his roof as a great opportunity. What he envisioned, says his architect Toby O’Rorke, of Messana O’Rorke Architects, was “a very simple, Zen-like space, a quiet zone to go and sit”: a room of his own, up in the sky. The only problem was that it didn’t belong to him.

Co-op-Board Disapproval: Sitting atop a twelve-story former industrial building, the tower—a cylindrical, twelve-by-seventeen-foot house encasing a nine-by-fifteen-foot cast-iron water tank—once fed a sprinkler system. Though the structure was owned by the co-op, it could be accessed only from the client’s private garden. But when he tried to buy it, the co-op refused.

Water Rights: “There was this petty jealousy,” says O’Rorke. “The reasonable people said, ‘Sure,’ and then there were these others saying, ‘I don’t see why he should have it.’ ”

The Compromise: A 30-year lease.

Trick House: The next problem was how to get the tank out of its house—made of terracotta bricks—without causing the whole thing to come tumbling down. “When you took the tank out, you’d have the weight of the roof going to the outside walls, and they couldn’t be carrying more weight than they’d always held,” O’Rorke explains.

The Solution: Structural engineer Kathy Dunne proposed reinforcing the shell with scaffolding during the elaborate—and precarious—de-tanking procedure (See “Emptying the Tank” for a full account of how this was accomplished).

Raw vs. Finished: After the tank had been successfully removed, “we questioned whether we should stop at that point and have this very industrial space inside,” says O’Rorke. “But the client wanted a year-round room, and you didn’t want it to be damp in winter and really hot in summer.” So the architects insulated and Sheetrocked the interior of the shell and put in an oak floor, with a four-foot-deep space beneath for storage and heating and air-conditioning equipment.

Homage to Turrell: The room has one skylight in the roof—and then another just below—to make the light more diffuse. Suspended from the ceiling is a disc with a hole to admit daylight. Tucked above the disc are dimmer-controlled fluorescents for night. The result recalls one of James Turrell’s “light rooms.”

And This All Cost: About $100,000.

The Biggest Expense: The fifteen-foot-tall window and door were custom-built—for $24,000—from cold-rolled steel. “The material just lent itself to the whole aesthetic,” says O’Rorke, a soft-spoken Scot, adding that the client “wasn’t afraid to spend his dollar for something he wanted.” Then he smiles. “They’re about a quarter of the budget. But then it’s just a room with a door and a window, so it’s two thirds of the project if you look at it like that.”

The Major Rejection: The architects had intended to keep a small catwalk, accessible by ladder, that had been used to do maintenance atop the tank. “We felt it would be a nice place to go and read,” O’Rorke says. “And then we decided it was an eyesore.” The client didn’t care. “I’m never going up there,” he told them. “I like what I’ve got down here.”

Photos of the renovation >>>

The Architects’ Education

Big Break: Brian Messana used to work for the architect Richard Meier, and the receptionist there later became an assistant to the creative director at Donna Karan. “She called me up one day in 1996 and said, ‘Would you be interested in working on a store?’ ” The first DKNY they designed, in Geneva, led to eighteen more.

Biggest Challenge: How to develop new business while completing current projects—“If you’re doing the job, you’re not networking and getting the work,” says O’Rorke.

Biggest Frustration: If prospective clients “don’t see a restaurant in your portfolio, they assume you can’t do one.”

One Survival Tactic: “Great credit.”

Another: Like many firms, Messana O’Rorke expands and contracts regularly. Currently they’re a two-man operation (down from a high of eight). At a particularly low moment, Messana recalls, “I went to see Richard Meier, and the first thing he did when I walked in was make this motion with his hand, like a roller coaster. And I said, ‘Yeah—how did you know?’ And he said, ‘That’s the way it is. Even for me.’ ”

Through the Roof