Architectural Alchemy

Brass, steel, aluminum, and copper combine in a physical expression of a union’s craft.

Essentially homeless since its 1954 inception, the apprentice program for Local 580, the Ornamental and Architectural Ironworkers union, has finally landed in its own building in the no-frills Queens neighborhood of Long Island City. Though comfortable among its squat brick neighbors, the AIA award-winning training facility—finished last fall by Manhattan-based firm Daniel Goldner Architects—has enough flair for Fifth Avenue. The program operated in space rented from vocational schools until the union bought a former warehouse and garage, and brought Goldner in to transform them into classrooms, offices, a workshop, and a welding shed—as well as a living example of the union’s craft.

“We sat down with Dan and said, ‘Listen, we want this to show our work,’” director of education Richard Falasca says. The architect, whose hire was based on his nearby training facility for two other ironworkers’ unions, took that brief to heart. He updated the facade by covering the lower half in a grid of rectangular matte steel panels and hanging a 27-foot-high stainless-steel mesh curtain above the second story, allowing a glimpse of the original brick structure. (With these flat treatments, Goldner was able to put plenty of metal on display while staying within the required 10-inch limit from the property line.) A pale brass column and blue corner vitrine flanking the stainless-steel doors resemble a De Stijl composition. “It’s all about inspiring the students,” Goldner says. “We wanted to put questions in their minds about how the materials relate to one another.”

That visual lesson continues on the inside with brass, steel, aluminum, and copper in 13 finishes appearing throughout the facility. Steel and copper lobby walls extend the facade grid, and the black sheen of an aluminum ceiling lends a sense of depth. A bench created from one rectangle of floating steel and the copper half wall above it seem almost weightless, bringing the planar arrangements on the other walls into three dimensions. Behind them an airy glass-and-steel staircase descends to the classrooms.

The effect is neither too snobbishly Modernist nor too heavily industrial. The training facility is a compelling illustration of the business—and not just visually. By its very nature the project entailed an unusually high level of client involvement. Falasca himself suggested steel mesh for the facade, and of course the metalwork subcontractors were union members, making for what Goldner calls a “symbiotic” relationship.

The result is a building that Falasca uses to enlighten prospective students about their future career. “Now when they come to take the entrance test, they have a better idea of what they’re getting into,” he explains. “They see it all firsthand: the panels, the stainless steel—everything in there is stuff we do.”

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