Architecture in the diverse arrondissement
Photo: Rafael Herrin-Ferri, courtesy of Jovis
When Rafael Herrin-Ferri and his wife moved from Manhattan to Sunnyside about 12 years ago, he began to notice how eccentric the buildings were on his walks around his new neighborhood: a square apartment turned 45 degrees by Compared to the downstairs grocery store, Tudors laid out like candy-coated gingerbread houses and a sky-blue two-story house wedged between two brick warehouses. The more he saw, the more his curiosity grew, until he traded his iPhone camera for a point-and-shoot and methodically documented the houses that caught his eye. He traveled every street in the 108 square mile Borough, mostly by bike and skateboard, but occasionally using Google Street View. “My friends told me, ‘You are on an urban reconnaissance mission,’ but I don’t think it’s that militaristic,” Herrin-Ferri says. It is almost the opposite: an archive in love with the particular, banal, often completely enchanting houses of a district which are not sufficiently appreciated by the world of design.
Herrin-Ferri’s obsessed hobby is now a book, All the Queen’s Houses, which is available from the German publisher Jovis. Like a guide, it’s divided into neighborhoods, offering what Herrin-Ferri calls “an architectural snapshot of New York’s largest and most diverse neighborhood.”
Photo: courtesy of the publisher
What exactly, is The architecture of the queens? As Herrin-Ferri learned during his quest to find the most interesting homes in Queens, naming a “Queens vernacular” is a near impossible feat. These homes, often single-family homes and duplexes, display an eclecticism that is difficult to categorize. There is no equivalent in Queens to a Victorian from San Francisco, a Brownstone from Brooklyn, or a chicago gray stone. Part of this is because Queens has never been a single city like Brooklyn once was. As Joseph Heathcott, a New School professor, writes in the book’s introduction, his history of colonialism, immigration, and real estate development has shaped the housing stock in a unique way compared to the rest of New York City. .
When Queens merged with New York City in the late 19th century, it was mostly farmhouses and rural villages. Only 150,000 people lived there in 1900, compared to over a million in Kings County. Then the rise of the Robert Moses road network, along with the declaration by the Queens Chamber of Commerce in 1920 that it would become “the home district”, laid the foundation for its character today. While some housing reformers have built large-scale projects like Sunnyside Gardens and the Garden City-inspired co-ops in Jackson Heights, the borough is mostly made up of single-family homes. Developers who bought small plots of land for planned communities like Rego Park, or who quickly built a few houses on one block, really made the borough what it is. “It is this very characteristic of Queens – the modest home – that has been the key to its rapid growth and tremendous social diversity,” writes Heathcott.
Over time, the modesty of the Queens house has lent itself to adaptation, customization and even wholesale rebuilding. This is what charmed Herrin-Ferri the most about the houses he encountered. “You have to have an acquired taste,” he says. “I am a professional architect and have worked with design companies all my life. These houses are the flip side of all these aesthetic rules. You see the rules broken or reversed, but what is behind it is the basic instinct to animate a home that you are proud of and that suits your lifestyle. These are very honest expressions. He explained to us some of his favorite recurring typologies from the book.