Stolen Space

Two young New York architects turn a gritty East Village rooftop into a tranquil urban idyll.

The shortage of living space in New York City is a subject that has spawned several thousand square feet of billboard ads for storage facilities, not to mention sitcom episodes and a thriving market for modular furniture. It has also inspired an entire history of ingenious space conversions: breakfast nooks transformed into home offices, closets under the stairs that become kids’ rooms, duplexes created under 14-foot ceilings. A recent project by Pulltab Design, a young New York architecture firm, continues this tradition of inch-wise innovation with the transformation of a grubby East Village zinc rooftop into a salubrious mudroom meets writer’s aerie.

Pulltab had been working on a series of renovations to a fifth-floor apartment in a walk-up building when its client Scot Armstrong, a writer, and his wife, Ker­ry, a dog trainer, let slip that they had been thinking about improving the roof space above them. “To be honest, the first instruction was to fix the leak on the roof,” Armstrong says. “It eventually turned into this.” He adds, “There used to be a deck up there that was faulty. We were planning to demolish that and start over, which was when Pulltab showed us the possibilities. They lured us in.”

An opportunity to build a space for space’s sake in Manhattan was enough to motivate Pulltab’s partners, Jon Handley and Melissa Baker, to work up a detailed design for a 225-square-foot “indoor-outdoor” room and an adjacent 275-square-foot roof garden. “It was such an amazing commission for New York City,” Baker says, “to design a structure on top of a roof but without constraints like a kitchen counter or accommodating a refrigerator.” The Armstrongs approved the design without any changes. The total design and construction costs came to about $300,000.

New York rooftops can offer dramatic relief from the density and heat of the city, and vantage points that seem almost otherworldly. Yet a maze of building regulations, insurance issues, and roof-rights negotiations keeps many residents from even venturing up there. Pull­tab’s solution was, in this respect, particularly canny. Their phrase “indoor-outdoor” not only characterized the flavor of the space—which mimics boatbuilding techniques with materials designed to weather and outdoor-grade fixtures—but also presented a creative solution to city stipulations on what could actually be erected on the roof. Teak screens on three sides of the struc­ture form a brise-soleil, which is lined with removable glass panels and windows. In warmer months the glass can be taken out completely to allow the flow of breezes, making it technically a breezeway—the category under which the project was filed with the city.

Handley and Baker received architecture degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and, having spent the ensuing years working mostly on interiors projects, approached their first outdoor commission with the energy and attention of eager first-timers. The project is most successful in its role as a protected and permeable lookout point. At the north end, an asymmetrical double glass door draws the eye to two verdigris cupolas of a neighboring church; in the foreground is the teak deck and the filigree of planted beds of tall grasses. The teak slats frame the dramatic valleylike drop between buildings to the west—which Pulltab accentuated by removing a parapet—and offer a shield from the elements: sunlight is sliced into horizontal bars, and the westerly orientation reduces direct solar heat in the summer.

If the project suffers a little from overdesign, this is the result of its being the architects’ vessel for ideas that have been latent since school. Pulltab envisioned the teak-and-glass structure “floating” from the existing bulkhead, achieved with a visible “spine”—a hefty steel tube that runs the length of the roof and juts out over the north end, on top of which is welded a trough for collecting and depositing rainwater. The spine turns into a sculptural feature as rainwater pours down the outside of a steel post mounted over a drain, splashing off zinc rings that can be moved up and down the post to adjust the spray. “It’s an architect’s take on structure,” Handley says. In fact much of the structural rigidity is derived from hidden elements: the spine is supported on steel at each end, and steel reinforcement was required inside the wood columns between windows to prevent any possibility of the structure “racking” in high winds, according to Dan Cuoco, a structural engineer at Robert Silman Associates, which consulted on the project.

Pulltab’s insistence on maximizing window and door width, and minimiz­ing support columns—which inside seem oddly disproportionate to the steel spine in the roof—necessitated custom millwork and even door hardware. Lighting effects throw in more complexity: a hidden fluorescent source is sup­ported by bulbous incandescent lights (by Brooklyn-based Fabulux) mounted between each rafter. For a simple rooftop breezeway there might be just a little too much going on.

But the architects’ deployment of active metal finishes to register the effects of the seasons is a bold and appropriate move that reflects one of Pulltab’s core ideas; at Penn, Baker and Handley studied under David Leatherbarrow, coauthor of the book On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time. “Often things that are amazing on the drawing board fall short because of a lack of love of the tactile,” says Handley, who hopes their project will be able to weather and age over decades. The array of “tactile” visual effects caused by wind, rain, and sun are already in evidence: Cor-Ten steel planters are gradually turning a bright-orange rust hue, blackened-steel patinas have a perceptible difference in tone inside from out, and a Carlo Scarpa–inspired rusting steel ring that lines a porthole in the east wall is leaving a creeping red stain in the concrete. The project’s finishing touch is the inclusion of furniture by Jens Risom, the 91-year-old legend who recently launched with Ralph Pucci a line of chairs, sofas, and tables based on his midcentury Modern designs. With their 1950s-era forms, modest sizes, exposed wood, and thick (dog-resistant) upholstery, the Risom pieces nestle comfortably in the space, adding to the sense of its belonging to a more leisurely era than the frenetic modern city.

Although the Armstrongs have used the space for entertaining guests and even a dog’s birthday party, Scot enjoys sitting in the space in a more contemplative state: “When the sun comes over the top of the buildings, if you’re spending time up there, you do have this subconscious sense of time as the shadows move across the room. It kind of keeps you in the moment.”

Just when we thought timelessness was a claim designers had consigned to history, it comes back with a nuance. Handley confesses that he and Baker enjoy placing anachronistic elements in photo shoots of their interiors to play with the viewer’s sense of the time period. “So if someone were to look at a black-and-white photo, they might have a little trouble dating it,” he says. Though it would be hard to convince an old New Yorker that this well-crafted, weather-beaten rooftop reading room had been erected in the 1950s, it does have—in that hyperreal shorthand way we visualize historical periods—a cinematic sense of the 1950s. All the more appropriate, then, that the owner is a screenwriter.

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