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David Brussat: Rec center's 'third way' in Brooklyn - Gate House

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By David Brussat
May 21. 2014 6:07AM

David Brussat: Rec center's 'third way' in Brooklyn


A couple of years ago the world of classical architecture learned that an extraordinarily non-canonical building had won a Stanford White Award from the Institute of
Classical Architecture & Arts headquarters...

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SARATOGA MONOGRAPH

Rec center's entrance, with mahogany.

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A couple of years ago the world of classical architecture learned that an extraordinarily non-canonical building had won a Stanford White Award from the
Institute of Classical Architecture & Arts headquarters chapter in New York City.
Eyebrows arched. Was this another break with tradition like the ICAAs 2011 conference on postmodern architecture, of all things, or like Michael Graves, of
all people, getting another prestigious classical award, the Driehaus, in 2012? Heterodoxy! What was going on?
Then the talk died down and most classicists moved on to other issues.
But a flow of e-mails kept arriving from the New York architect who designed the building, the Saratoga Avenue Community Center, in Brooklyn. It turned out
that George Ranalli is also the dean of architecture at the City College of New York, had taught for 20 years at Yale and was a modernist in good standing.
Nevertheless, his community center was a gem of a building attached to a typically appalling housing block erected in the 1960s by the New York City Housing
Authority. The community center, in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, was completed in 2009 as part of a regrettably brief effort by the authority to
refine its designs for civic architecture.
What was unique about the Saratoga Avenue rec center was its beauty, arising from materials such as wood and techniques such as ornamental decoration,
both opposed by the authoritys architectural commissars, caught in the usual modernist time warp. But they relented in this case because Ranalli claimed he
could build it on budget and on time.
This he did, using, for example, mahogany for doors and window frames at a cost half that of stainless steel framing. Indeed, the building is so alluring that it
looks out of place in its setting. But recapturing civic architecture from modernisms worst habits among Ranallis stated goals must start somewhere. In
this case, fitting into context would merely continue the assault on beauty, which the poor deserve no less than the rest of society.
The Saratoga Avenue Community Center is not a traditional let alone a classical building. Yet it is not a modernist building, either, not really. It is something in
between.
Youll find little sympathy in my corner for a third way between traditional and modernist design. I promoted compromise for years in Providence with
zero traction. The cure for our built environment is to return to traditions interrupted by modernism. No third way is required, and when attempted the
resulting pastiche is often junk, satisfying no one. However, if compromise can weaken modernisms dominance in architecture, as a sort of third-party
candidate in the politics of design, then bring it on. Who better than George Ranalli to lead the Not Exactly a Modernist ticket?
During my recent visit to New York City, we chatted in his office on West 28th Street. He comes down hard on modern architecture, the banality of its novelty,
its professional sclerosis and its shoddy treatment, for example, of stone and brick masons, whom he says are castigated as villains. And yet for a potential
revolutionary, his Brooklyn rec center seems like an outlier in his firm's portfolio (georgeranalli.com), most of which falls solidly in the modernist camp.
Ranallis style features an aesthetic tic that might be called syncopated rectangularity. For example, almost any window frame in a Ranalli design has an odd
squarish bump-out, which might itself have another, smaller bump-out. By this means he introduces a classical reverence for scale and ornament into his
work.
Saratoga is a good example. So are the six condos he fit (jarringly, in my opinion) into the old Callender School, in Newport. There are strong hints of Frank
Lloyd Wright in Ranallis work. Although the rec center was ignored by the establishment architectural journals, critics such as Paul Goldberger, Michael

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9/16/15 1:22 PM

David Brussat: Rec center's 'third way' in Brooklyn - Gate House

http://www.providencejournal.com/article/20140521/OPINION...

Sorkin and the late Ada Louise Huxtable applauded it often in ways that can be turned against the modernism they normally admire.
[T]he architects insistence, wrote Huxtable in The Wall Street Journal in 2009, on mahogany for windows and doors instead of standard steel sash, the
elegant brickwork, the many thoughtful details carried out on a shoestring budget all explode the clich that these buildings must not only be built on the
cheap but look it as well. Huxtable meant architecture for the poor, but her critique could apply equally to most other modernist work.
I would be more comfortable with George Ranallis leading a revolt against modern architecture if folks like Huxtable, Sorkin and Goldberger were less pleased
with his work. But if he can soften the hardness of modernism with more Saratoga Avenue Community Centers, that would certainly be a big step in returning
beauty to the streets of the city.
David Brussat (dbrussat@providence- journal.com) is on The Journals editorial board.

http://www.providencejournal.com/article/20140521/OPINION/305219864

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9/16/15 1:22 PM