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In a League of Their Own

By Natalie Bauer

The best designers understand that they’re much more than that.

Historians, modernists and futurists all rolled into one, able designers envision a structure as an embodiment of a fluid timeline of past, present and future.

The founders of New York-based Pasanella + Klein Stolzman + Berg (PKSB) have realized this ideal since they opened the firm nearly 20 years ago.

“One style is always a reaction to the next,” says Partner Henry Stolzman. “We like to think of every project as a reaction to the past. We openly question what the goals of the structure were at the time it was conceived. The approach is to question on the broad scale what the aesthetic principles are and ask whether they are working here.”

This attitude helped put the firm’s design for the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Williamsburg Community Center at the forefront of the 2003 IIDA Interior Design Competition, where it was named Best of Competition.

IN EVERY CORNER

Certainly, in the case of the Williamsburg Community Center, the designers had a lot of historical substance to build on — it seemed to emanate from every corner. Standing amid a large 1930s modernist urban housing project, the precedent was a solid, boxy, exclusive design.

To satisfy its modernist and forward-thinking motivations, the designers had to find a way to infuse this historical building with an urban, contemporary style. One of the design’s touchstones was a series of WPA-commissioned murals that were restored to recall the center’s early days. “They’re ingrained in the history of the site and the context,” says Associate Lawrence Zeroth. “We looked at them and thought that they were a great point to start with the old and the new. There’s a sense of tying the structure back to its roots and yet looking toward the future.”

But this is not history just for history’s sake, both Zeroth and Stolzman stress. “We’re a firm that very happily always avoided post-modernism,” Stolzman says. “Not because we don’t believe in history, obviously, but because we look for more significant ways of [evoking history] than just tacking it on. These murals were so appropriate for the community center, and using them was so natural, because there’s nothing forced about it.”

GET WITH THE PROGRAM

Historical sensitivity is only part of the approach, though. PKSB partners and associates strive to honor a structure’s veritable nature, one that defies yet considers time and space at any point. “We take a very honest attitude,” Stolzman says. “We’re very much interested in the integrity of design, materials, and following what the program is asking for — the higher program of what we’re really trying to create, what the real vision of the structure is.”

In the case of the Williamsburg Community Center, the higher program demanded an amalgamation of security and community, a space that allowed participants to feel safe yet connected. “That became the whole notion of the building,” Zeroth says. “All the materials and the floor plan came from that idea. There’s no separation of spaces from one to the next — inside and outside become one.”

The partition between the center’s basketball court and the walkway from the kitchen to the entryway exemplified this integration, creating an interplay between participants and onlookers. “There’s a scrim — made of vinyl weave — that’s open enough to see through, but you feel protected,” Zeroth says. “You can actually feel like you’ve walked across the basketball court.”

Stolzman says this aspect of the design plays up one of the firm’s biggest strengths. “We’ve always been very cognizant of what makes social spaces. We’ve done lots of school [designs] where the corridors are more than just a passageway,” he says. “We compare them to city streets, give them more meaning and make them much larger than simply for circulation — a place to see and be see — because socialization occurs in the sort of water cooler. The casual intercourse, the unplanned, is much more meaningful.”

The vinyl weave partition was one of many metallic and glass materials that Zeroth used to play off the building’s history and integrate the structure’s many uses, from sports center to dance and art studio to movie theater. At the start, he was inspired by a photograph taken during initial surveys that showed children playing in the center’s yard, enclosed by chain-link fence. The material aptly reinforced the secure yet transparent look that Zeroth and his team were aiming for. “We wanted to preserve [the chain-link fence and its notion],” Zeroth says. “It existed in the old beat-up playground, but it was the positive part. When you’re inside, you know you’re inside. You know the boundaries exist, but natural lighting provides that open feeling.”

The flow of similar materials from inside out also adds to the center’s feeling of what judges called “a true example of seamless integration.” “We almost eroded the disconnect between interior and exterior,” Stolzman says. “We made as much integration as possible. In every sense, it is a public space, it is a community center. Whoever comes here feels like they’re a participant.”

TABULA RASA

These recurring themes of participation and preservation in the community center reflect a core tenet of PKSB itself. Partners and associates alike strive to maintain the firm’s original emphasis on integral participation. “We have a long history of being very much the same firm today as we were 20 years ago. We’re a mid-size firm of about 20 people. That size allows us to be the atelier,” Stolzman says. “That has always been our goal — to maintain our size and approach small and big projects in the same way. Our goal has never been to do a huge project or to be a huge firm, but to be able to really practice architecture. Admittedly, that limits the projects we can do.”

But Stolzman reasons the limitations in projects are in size, not style. Other key drivers for the firm are diversification and the continual search for challenge. Recently the firm has been doing a lot of design for synagogues. “There’s a real challenge as to how you, in a modern way, evoke the past and create the romance that the congregation is looking for in a comfortable way appropriate to today’s building and audience,” Stolzman says. “It’s not an easy task.”

Although more difficult than focusing on a particular genre or design realm, PKSB’s architects and designers say, starting out with a clean slate on each project proffers great results that lend to the firm’s continual success over the years. “In a sense, it’s not surprising that when you really start at the beginning, that’s when you come up with the best designs,” Stolzman says. “It’s very important that we be as diverse as possible so that we can always be questioning design so we don’t fall into a sort of recipe, which is our greatest fear.”