Everything Olds is New Again - Design Bureau


Chelsea Loft

Chelsea Loft

Chelsea Loft

Chelsea Loft

Everything Olds is New Again

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Spaces with a story behind them are nothing new for a city like New York. They can feel like undiscovered treasures for homeowners looking to inhabit a place unlike any other. But they can also present quite the array of challenges for an architect commissioned to refurbish and repurpose them. This was was the case for a young couple looking for a one-of-a-kind apartment in bustling Manhattan.

The two had combed the city for both a property and an architect that would allow for an exercise in creative architectural design. They realized they had hit the jackpot after touring an old loft space in Chelsea that had formerly existed as an Oldsmobile showroom and factory. Before the efficiency of the assembly line introduced by Henry Ford, each piece of the American automobiles was manufactured on a different floor within the building. The couple snatched up the space right away, and, upon closing on the loft, struck gold with architect Matthew Baird, principal of his namesake Manhattan-based firm.

The new owners had fallen in love with the poured concrete in the industrial space, and were keen to avoid ruining it with sheetrock—the culprit in the white-box epidemic so common in other Manhattan loft developments. So together, Baird and his clients made a series of design decisions that would ensure the integrity of the original structure was not only preserved, but also expressed. “The project really became [about] how to hold onto that integrity,” says Baird. “It’s a very honest approach to laying in new materials against an existing datum. The intersections become the real design opportunities, where the new laminations meet the existing structure.”

The intersections become the real design opportunities, where the new laminations meet the existing structure.

Across the board, New York-based architects have to be fastidious in the detailing of their projects, with less opportunity for volumetric expression in a highly congested, vertical city. However, the Chelsea loft afforded Baird more space to play with, as the floorplan was effectively a perfect rectangle of 5,000 square-feet, high enough to have windows and unobstructed views on all four sides. Baird used an organizing principle he describes as a “pinwheeling relationship of spaces”: each room’s focus changes one’s direction and flows into another comparatively expansive space. Although the loft has an entirely open floor plan, Baird cleverly set a series of  thresholds  to prevent a clean line of vision directly across the space in every direction.

Further setting this project apart from the standard New York loft formula is Baird’s addition of a greenhouse. The greenhouse was not something the clients had originally requested, but rather an idea Baird and his team engineered after listening closely to their clients’ wishes during the design phase. Hoping to pounce on the vintage loft, the couple initially chose to sacrifice the outdoor space so commonly paired with other apartments they had toured. But Baird brought their  shelved dream to life by carving out an area for a greenhouse between the dining and living room, creating a fully waterproof, drainable room with built-in watering systems. “The idea was to make it really feel [that] when it’s finally grown in, it’ll be overgrown with lots of humidity, and in the winter you can open that door and allow that [air] into the apartment,” he says.

“It’s a rewarding process,” he says of meeting challenges. “Design is essentially a problem-solving exercise, and at another level, it’s inspired creativity. When those two things meet and everyone knows it and feels it, it’s an incredibly rewarding feeling to be responsible for the genesis for those ideas.”

Baird’s work on the Chelsea Loft and his partnership with his clients is a testament to the fact that there is always a way to not only meet needs and preserve character, but to exceed expectations and reinvent tired methods. “That’s what drives me as a designer,” Baird explains. “That kind of connection you make with people when you link them well to a place, and that sense of accomplishment when the link is successful and they are happy. It’s not so much a linking, perhaps, as a fitting, really, of people to a place or a place to people. When the two fit well, there’s a great ‘Ah-ha’ moment. And that’s really what I aspire to achieve.”

Text by Caitlin M. Ryan
Photos by Francesca Giovanelli


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