Apartment for Space-Age Lovers

September 22, 2011

Housed inside a classic I. M. Pei complex in New York, Dash Marshall’s futuristic apartment project is a minimalistic yet highly personal residence.

In most urban capitals, high-rise apartment living is the norm. In the big cities, we seek skyward accommodation, learn to compartmentalise our everyday lives and often entertain a lifestyle that keeps us out of our homes and drives us into the nucleus of the city’s commotion. When architect Dash Marshall was asked to design a stylised dwelling that would be both ‘artistic and utilitarian’ in the starkest sense, you would have expected him to gravitate to ideas around functionality and the mechanics of simple living. Yet, Marshall has thrown us for a euphoric loop in presenting this recent project, entitled the ‘Apartment for Space-Age Lovers’. It’s an architectural renovation that took as inspiration a couple’s love, and in some way redefines the capacity of dense, modern living within the urban context of New York City.

First comes the love in this case, which brews between an arts-centric New York-based couple in their early 40s, who both lead an international lifestyle, well-travelled (by habit and trade) and are constantly self-employed as a photographer and author. They remain pixelated for their privacy and have chosen to be left unnamed in the press surrounding the project. We will refer to them as ‘the Lovers’ – as Marshall himself is inclined to call them.

The Lovers presented Marshall with their own mood board and aesthetic requests. They wanted smooth surfaces for easy cleaning, have a penchant for white box austerity and value minimalist art. In the finished apartment, we see these translated into high beam luminescence, gloss cabinetry and an overall pod-like ambience, where whiteness contains order. It is both Space Odyssey and a nod to the musical aesthetics of the band Air. Marshall best describes this vision as the ‘curved glass visor of a space suit’.

This love den, at 70 square metres, is a smallish apartment historically lodged in a 1960s I.M. Pei residential complex on the east side of New York City. Marshall believes architecture should enable people to live their lifestyle and thinks about lifestyle as its own design task. ‘It doesn’t have to do with an open kitchen or what kind of bathtub, but more about the rituals of the every day,’ he says.

In considering these rituals, comes the marriage of function and form in design. Marshall accepted that the couple, though very much in love, also needed flexibility in the physical configuration of the apartment. Moving partitions enable them to dramatically change the boundaries of what is public and what is private. Through conversations with the Lovers, Marshall noted how the couple intended to interact within the space. The Lovers meditate and have pillows for its practice. They also work from their kitchen table in the mornings before heading off to their office space across town. The space, says Marshall, needed to be transforming, simplifying and enabling on a daily basis.

What challenged the Lovers most, however, was their over-abundance of and attachment to personal possessions. They wanted to clear their physical and mental clutter by hiding their things in various forms of storage. Early on in the design process, Marshall says, ‘we measured the volume of the dresser, bookshelves and level of fullness of their kitchen cabinets.’ It is a painstaking and methodical approach to organisation, but this anthropological analysis allowed the architect to understand the Lovers’ values and specify renovations to their exact personal needs. The apartment was gutted and rooms and closets were reconfigured to allow for a more fluid layout.

At the heart of the apartment is what Marshall describes as the ‘transformer’, a thick, modular closet door that folds. The ‘black hole’ space, as they call it, is a squared-off segment of the apartment where the transformer is housed. It can also be used as an emergency clutter room.

The transformer magically contains everything that the couple wants to store, including books, clothes and laundry in a pivoting closet door that can be manipulated depending on the couple’s desires. The ‘black hole’ space is a flexible use area that can conceal, reveal or create additional space. It is, literally, at the centre of the apartment and the most important design decision for Marshall. ‘Everything in the apartment had to serve two functions,’ he says. ‘In the worst case scenario, it could be a closet, but in the best case scenario be a part of your living room or part of your bedroom.’

Marshall explains this approach to architecture and design as being ‘to address the people who live in buildings, not the people who make buildings.’ As an architectural practice, Dash Marshall is interested in how individuals interact and personify a space.

And speaking of space, let us step back and admire the shell of the I.M. Pei development. Marshall reflects, ‘For young architects, the opportunity to work in the context of a Pei project is a great honour… We are very interested in the extreme rigour and order of the Kips Bay construction itself.’ It is worth recognising the similarities between Pei and Marshall’s architectural sensibilities.

The Kips Bay Towers are a set of large apartment buildings completed in 1963 during Pei’s Brutalist period. Brutalist architecture is characterised by repetitive, almost obsessive angularity and the pervasive use of concrete. In a nod to cubist themes and geometry, Pei’s apartment buildings are aligned in a clean grid with recessed windows. From the interior, the apartments contain floor-to-ceiling windows that take advantage of the tree-lined promenade and city views. There are a total of 1,118 units between the two buildings. Marshall notes that Pei was once quoted as saying: ‘The important thing, really, is the community. How does it affect life?’ This approach echoes Marshall’s own architectural values. When renovating the apartment for the Lovers, Marshall and team spent a great deal of time considering Pei’s early intentions.

‘There is this dominating rhythm that is consistent and monotone,’ says Marshall of Pei’s design. ‘It is smartly drawn out, but there is no wiggle room. For us to try to work in that context was really nice. We could build a dialogue with the space, respecting the orientation.’ The original layout was oriented along two strips from the windows to the back, creating one private space and one public space. Marshall maintained the Pei-like quality, but enhanced it with cross-wise circulation. He devised three possible floor plans to give the Lovers a clear, defined order – with the ability to shift the apartment from loft-like and open to closed down in corralled spaces, depending on their whims.

Marshall says much of the layout was developed so that the couple could stay connected in every corner of the house: one of them can be cooking and one of them can be lying in bed and they can still see each other. He says, ‘When the house is at its most private, all of the partitions are open. There is a kind of tenderness that is possible.’

It is this possible narrative that Marshall is keen on maintaining, a dedication to telling the clients’ story. In the context of New York City, the story of the Space-Age Lovers sounds like a fairytale, but you start to get the design decisions when Marshall explains the driving focus for the design of the apartment is the windows, which allow the natural light to pour in. ‘With the trees just outside, especially in the summertime, you could almost live without curtains as a nudist.’

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