Morris Adjmi on Landmarks, Historic Districts, and Sustainable Architecture

Morris Adjmi knew from an early age that architecture would be his calling. At age five, he designed his first masterpiece: a pyramid of coffee tables and chairs covered with blankets. Just as his mother arrived for the unveiling, the pyramid fell to the floor and injured young Morris, striking him above the eye. Despite the initial setback, he was hooked. A native of New Orleans, he found an abundance of architecture, especially in the French Quarter, to stimulate his new found passion.

After attaining a master’s degree in architecture from Tulane University, Adjmi made his way to New York City, where he partnered with renowned architect Aldo Rossi to open Studio di Architettura. He opened his own firm in 1993, and ever since, has contributed to the architecture of the city he has come to love. From the zinc-paneled 254 Front Street in the Seaport Historic District to 40 Gansevoort Street, the first building to gain Landmarks’ approval in the Meatpacking District, Adjmi has designed a number of well-received buildings in historic districts throughout the City. He recently sat down with CityLand to discuss the Landmarks Preservation Commission process, historic districts, and the rise of sustainable design.

Landmarks elevates design. Adjmi strongly believes that Landmarks’ process is a “healthy one” because it creates a dialogue between the Commissioners, the community, and the architect, which ultimately leads to a better building. All one has to do, Adjmi says, is compare the architecture in historic districts to non-designated areas, and its clear that the quality of design in the historic districts is, by far, superior. To Adjmi, the main objective of both Landmarks and architects “boils down to the appropriateness question, which comprises scale, massing, materials, and articulation.” In order to provide an answer, Adjmi studies the designation report and the characteristics of the historic district as a whole as well as the immediate context, be it corner or midblock. Adjmi admits that the process can sometimes be trying, especially when those in the community raise issues that are not relevant to architecture, such as the owner’s business plans or projected tenants. Still, he finds the process, in its entirety, makes for a better project because it “serves as a check” and fosters creative design.

Adjmi notes that working in historic districts allows him to design projects that “speak to us today yet also relate to the history” of the neighborhood. Adjmi believes that “it’s important to have continuity; not to copy what has already been built but rather to make a building that understands continuity and makes a response.” When pressed about whether working within a historic district hinders the design process, Adjmi responded with just the opposite, noting that architects should look at each historic district as a “fertile place for ideas, not as a limitation,” and that “we should embrace the architecture of the surrounding area” in order to improve the immediate design.

More is better. In recent years, under the Bloomberg Administration, there has been a significant increase in historic districts, which Adjmi views as “tremendously positive” for the City. He notes that since projects in historic districts are scrutinized by many, the quality of design must be outstanding, and so ultimately, the increase in historic districts leads to better designs and improves the stock of buildings in the City as a whole. Adjmi finds that, now more than ever, developers recognize the importance of design and realize that good design helps them sell buildings. This has led developers to increasingly attach “name architects” to their projects.

Adjmi also believes that historic districts can be a safe haven for developers in uncertain economic times. He notes that “whether it’s Tribeca, SoHo, the West Village…everyone wants to live in historic districts, and developers realize this.” Adjmi concludes that once a developer sees a historic district project through to completion, there is less risk moving forward because the demand for these locations is simply unmatched.

LEED leads. One of Adjmi’s current projects is 450 West 14th Street, a ten-story tower that sits atop an existing three-story masonry building that will apply for certification under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Core and Shell rating system. Adjmi believes that the amount of attention that people give to sustainable design is positive for the City, and argues that LEED, though by no means the perfect way to achieve sustainability, is the “best we have for now.” He notes that, architects need to keep “raising the bar” in order to design buildings that are “more energy efficient, less wasteful, and at the same time enhance the experience for those who occupy the space.”

Adjmi reflects that the building environment has changed dramatically in recent years. “A year ago,” he notes, “developers didn’t want to hear about LEED or sustainable design.” Now, Adjmi finds that most developers have embraced sustainable design and require their projects to be LEED certified. Adjmi also points out that building material manufacturers are more aware of sustainable building as well, noting the recent wide-spread availability and use of bricks made from one-hundred percent recycled material. Adjmi predicts that LEED certifications will become “like air conditioning,” noting that one will be hard pressed to find new, large-scale projects without some level of certification. — Frank Berlen

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