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The Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema features a spacious two-story atrium that doubles as a community space and screening area. (Photo: Barbara Eldredge c/o Brownstoner)

Open House New York’s Monograph in Motion series was created earlier this year to celebrate the work of New York design firms that have made significant contributions to shaping the city’s built environment, and to consider how the work and ideas of those firms evolves over time and in different projects. This past fall, the second installment of Monograph in Motion explored the work of Dattner Architects. With more than a hundred design awards, Dattner Architects has shown a deep commitment to democratizing great design since its earliest days and tours of three projects provided an overview of the firm’s extraordinarily broad range: from the city’s first public graduate film school, to a new affordable and supportive housing project, to the first new stop added to the New York City subway in more than a quarter-century. Across all three projects, the team at Dattner demonstrated that it looks at constraints and complexities not as a hindrance to great design, but as the source for inspired solutions.

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The tour included a stop in the new set shop, where students will be able to build full-scale movie sets on-site.
(Photo: Barbara Eldredge c/o Brownstoner)

At Brooklyn College’s new Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema, for instance, the team had to fit “everything you need to make a movie, from concept to credits,” into one and a half floors of the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s historic Building One (aka Building 291), according to Dattner Architects principal Daniel Heuberger. As Heuberger explained, that included soundstages, set shops, classrooms, a motion-capture studio, screening rooms, and a host of other facilities, many of which required special flooring, insulation, and building systems to prevent sound vibrations from traveling between rooms—or even entering the building from the surrounding city.

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“Ours is an office of generalists,” Heuberger told the group during a post-tour presentation in one of the school’s sleek new screening rooms. (Photo: Barbara Eldredge c/o Brownstoner)

Once this was all accounted for, the team found themselves with considerably less space than they had originally anticipated, forcing them to get creative. The resulting space, however, feels anything but cramped. Entering the school from the elevator bank, one steps into a soaring, two-story atrium organized around an inviting staircase that enables the dramatic, airy lobby to double as a screening area. The entire facility is rendered in white, black, and cool grays, with supergraphics of blown-up film noir stills. “We took inspiration from old black and white films, for the color palette,” explained Dattner associate Maya Maxwell. “The color comes from people using the space.

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A model of the building illustrates the unique profile created by the wedge-shaped lot along the subway tracks.
(Photo: Open House New York)

At CAMBA Housing Ventures’ 97 Crooke Avenue development in Flatbush, the architects were presented with a very different, if equally challenging site. The wedge-shaped lot, formed by an uncovered subway trench for the B and Q trains that cuts diagonally through the neighborhood, required a more complex layout than a standard rectangular lot would have. The constant rumbling of the subway also presented challenges for this residential project, especially given CAMBA’s dedication to providing the highest quality housing for its tenants, a mix of low-income and formerly homeless individuals. As CAMBA’s President and CEO, Joanne Oplustil‬, told the tour group, “If I can’t live in the unit, nobody can live in the unit.”‬

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Countertops manufactured by Icestone in the Brooklyn Navy Yard were chosen for 97 Crooke’s communal computer room for the way that they reflect and distribute light, helping to brighten the basement room. (Photo: Open House New York)

Once again, significant constraints led to the building’s signature feature. The building’s elevator core was sited along the subway trench, allowing it to serve as a buffer between the bulk of the residential units and the trains. The resulting diagonal wall, a majority of the building’s street facade along Crooke Avenue, was transformed by Dattner principal Bill Stein and his team into a “tapestry,” drawing on the terra cotta and red, yellow, and cream toned bricks of the other apartment blocks in the surrounding neighborhood.

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Dattner’s Catherine Selby discusses how the building’s residential units were designed to maximize limited space.
(Photo: Vanni Archive Architectural Photography)

Of course, constraints aren’t always physical. “Our firm does a great deal of of public work, and [having a lot of stakeholders] is expected. Not just for infrastructure projects, but for housing now, too, since funding comes from so many different agencies,” explained Dattner principal Beth Greenberg. “Things that may look very simple have input from right, left, up down…everywhere! Any architecture in the public realm is very likely to have a lot of layers.”

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A brightly colored mosaic mural by artist Xenobia Bailey, commissioned by MTA Arts and Design, soars over the entrance to the 34th Street-Hudson Yards station. (Photo: Ben Helmer for Open House New York)

Greenberg was speaking not of 97 Crooke, but of the 34th Street-Hudson Yards subway station, the brand new terminus for the 7 train on Manhattan’s West Side. The physical limitations of working on a subterranean site are obvious; what was most impressive here was the way in which the architects had taken scores of rules and regulations from multiple agencies and crafted a space that felt light and airy, given the fact that it is located so deep beneath the city streets. Finishes and fixtures were chosen to amplify light, allowing the project to meet requirements for minimum brightness while also meeting energy efficiency standards. Striking architectural forms and public artworks made possible by the city’s Percent for Art program were deliberately placed to enable “intuitive wayfinding,” using design to minimize the need for signage by helping people to easily navigate the series of underground spaces.

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In the station, architectural elements are used to enable intuitive wayfinding, with minimal signage.
(Photo: Ben Helmer for Open House New York)

Greenberg and her colleagues were also working against the psychological limitations presented by the fact that most New Yorkers take the experience of using mass transit completely for granted. Normally, making your way to the train is hardly an experience worth paying attention to; this belies the subway’s status as one of the city’s most impressive technological innovations. At 34th Street, the Dattner team created a sequence of spaces, each of which—from the first escalator tube, to the fare collection area, to the subway platform itself—is visually distinct from the last, while still feeling like part of an integrated whole. Together, the progression through these spaces subtly highlights the complexity of the system, encouraging thoughtful commuters reason to consider and appreciate the modern marvel that is the New York City subway system.

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It may be more than a hundred feet below street level, but the station is brilliantly lit throughout.
(Photo: Ben Helmer for Open House New York)

It is estimated that each year over 150 million people pass through transportation projects by Dattner, and tens of thousands have lived in the more than 13,500 units of new and renovated housing that the firm has designed. Dattner Architects’ commitment to improving the civic realm through great design has been fundamental to the firm’s practice since founding principal Richard Dattner started in 1964, and New York is a transformed city as a result.