New York-based architect Eran Chen (b. 1970) was born and grew up in Be'er Sheva, Israel where his Polish-born grandparents, Holocaust survivors, settled right after World War Two. Early on the original long Polish surname was abbreviated to short Chen, which is pronounced “Khen.” In Hebrew, it stands for charm. After four years in the army, following high school, Chen studied architecture at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, the top architecture school in the country. Upon graduation in 1999, he ventured to New York to gain professional experience. He was hired by Perkins Eastman, a global New York-based giant of over 1,000 architects. In just a few years Chen was made the youngest principal in the company to oversee the design of his own diverse projects, including several competition-winning entries. By then he got married, became a father, a licensed architect, and settled in the city that he now calls home. In 2007, Chen decided to strike on his own. He focused on working with developers on residential projects, mainly in New York, as well as other major cities in the US and around the world. Many of Chen’s projects are situated in dense urban places. They are about reinventing the familiar living typology of buildings as extruded boxes. We met at the architect’s busy Manhattan office of over 100 young, ambitious architects helping Chen to make our cities more livable. We discussed his concept of vertical urban village and the truly democratic idea that every apartment, no matter where it is positioned in the building, can be turned into a penthouse.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Is it true that becoming an architect was your mother’s decision; if so, did you try to resist it?
Eran Chen: Correction – it was not really her decision. [Laughs]. But it is not uncommon for parents to recognize a certain talent in their kids. In my case, her desire was prompted by my perspective drawings that I liked to do as a child. It was unusual, and she always told everyone that I was going to be an architect. I grew up with that perception. Yet, I also entertained ideas of becoming a psychologist or a surgeon. I feel that an architect is somewhere in between – dealing with people and emotions on the one hand and producing designs that require technical knowledge and precision on the other.
VB: Speaking of New York and other major contemporary cities, what is it that you would want to change most?
EC: Perhaps being an immigrant, it is more apparent to me that the way our city has been growing is problematic. There is a disconnect between the community and the individual, not just in New York but in all major cities. We waver between isolation and anonymity. People are desperate to become part of a community. Architecture can be a solution to this crisis. So, with all my projects I try to design something that could bring real change to the way we live in cities.
VB: As you said, by trying to find a “breathing space within buildings to create new territories where we can expand our lives into.” Could you talk about your vertical village concept?
EC: Absolutely. Thresholds are the most exciting spaces in our built environments. But in recent years they are becoming thinner and thinner, to the point that just two-inch or less hermetically sealed curtain wall now separates the inside from outside. I want to introduce spaces where buildings would unfold within themselves at various heights to expand the threshold both between inside and out but also between intimate and common. I call these spaces "the breathing room.” Now so many buildings are defined by flat facades. I want to create many more opportunities for outdoor spaces and more sensory connections to turn buildings into something amorphic and free-flowing with the use of setbacks, cantilevers, and corners to transform the entire building into a series of penthouses.
I have a tendency to fragment a building mass into smaller, simpler pieces. And to articulate those individual pieces within the bigger puzzle, I like to frame them with architectural elements to define borders. A frame anticipates something that is about to happen within it. Frames provide perspectives, from which we can process the endless visual information around us. I like the idea that a building is an accumulation of scalable frames. They are both for those who are inside and those who perceive buildings from outside.
VB: Late British architect Will Alsop, used to say that if he were a politician he would make a law to require developers and architects to free up the land for people and gardens. He said he would lift all buildings up to the height of ten meters and higher. But you want to concentrate on the buildings’ roofs. You said, “Imagine if city zoning regulations encouraged to connect parks from one building rooftop to another.”
EC: Our unusual ideas are already taking form in places like Bushwick in Brooklyn and capturing the attention of developers who are asking us to do master plans. The idea is that the scale of this can stretch out, and you can utilize space on different planes in a way that is appealing to both developers and residents.
Historically, buildings are predominantly conceived around the streetscapes. In my childhood, my life was equally indoor and outdoor, it was seamless. But with the increase of urban scale, what is inside and outside has become two completely separate worlds. We are adjusting to higher and higher density, and the separation between inside and outside gets more and more pronounced. Already, the situation seems to be unbearable, but we continue to test the limits. We reluctantly accept greater and greater densification. It perpetually separates us from nature, which is unacceptable.
So, If the street can no longer satisfy our need as a mediator between private, communal, and public space we must find new territories. The roofs, which are often underused, are the natural place for that. I believe, we can find ways for buildings to talk to each other. We can create a more livable urban world and better-connected communities on top of buildings and at various heights along the facades, as well as within courtyards in addition to our existing streets.
Now we are being approached by other cities across the world that have to deal with complex urban situations. We are working in Washington DC, Atlanta, Detroit, Seattle, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and other cities that try to fight urban sprawl. We are working on high-density mixed-use projects that will bring life to their neighborhoods. In doing so, we don’t simply replicate building typologies, we are reimagining what is a tower, a mid-rise residential block, or an adaptive reuse intervention in our time.
VB: You said, “Architecture is not about things, it’s about the space between things.”
EC: The point is not to build an object but to create a meaningful and engaging space around that object. We need to design our cities more holistically and think of the space between the buildings as much as we think of the building itself. The three towers we designed on Kent Avenue in Brooklyn next to Williamsburg Bridge were conceived not as a series of objects but as an interplay between three towers and two gaps between them. These gaps are almost identical in size and profile of the buildings. These negative spaces create a very dynamic environment. If you are between the buildings and you look up, you would see an outline that evokes a section cut through one of these buildings. We want our buildings to be engaging, playful, interactive, social, with plenty of outdoor spaces, and allow a human connection to the environment. We want to dissolve facades. We want to have the appearance of no facades at all.
VB: Your design approach seems to be somewhat algorithmic. Does it worry you that your projects could be calculated and designed by computers or other architects without you? You said that you are not married to a particular form, geometry, or style. How do you intend to continue progressing from project to project?
EC: I encourage people to follow some of our own formulations. I think it is great. This will only improve our cities. Can computers do successfully what we do? I am sure they can, and I don’t see any problem with that. But I wouldn’t call our approach algorithmic, though. It is systematic. What cannot be replaced is our thinking and design process. Every time we are challenged with a new place or a new program we come up with new strategies and forms. We want to keep inventing new formulations and how buildings could improve our urban environment. The more open we are the more inventive we become collectively. Architects’ ideas instantly become accessible through social media and online publications. I think it is fine to share ideas. I’ll give you a small but significant example from New York. When we first proposed a so-called “flying dormer” solution, in other words, a way to redistribute projected rooms over the building’s setback, at our 15 Renwick ten years ago, it was the first time that the Department of Buildings saw a very particular rule interpreted in a novel way. We were told we would never get an approval, but we did. These days you can see flying dormers all around the city because we opened a new view on an existing typology and shared our finding and knowledge in our publications.
What’s important is for buildings to be rooted in their places and respond to their programs. We want our buildings to be very local. We want them to tell narratives that connect people with time and place. Being contextual is no longer only about materiality or form. Buildings that can tell their particular stories are by definition contextual. Every story is very specific, you can’t repeat it anywhere else. Architecture is our connection to the environment. Architecture frames our relationships with one another and it frames our relationship with nature.