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Morris Adjmi believes 'understanding a city from different vantage points is critical'

Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Morris Adjmi, an architect who built his career on a romance with the New York City street grid.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Jun 16, 2023

Unlike in most other areas in New York, buildings in the Meatpacking District, as also is the case in the nearby SoHo, bear a strong distinctive character that cannot be confused with any other. These predominantly 19th century brick buildings that were once used as slaughterhouses, warehouses, packing plants, garages, as well as townhouses and tenements, have long been converted into premier offices, upscale condominiums, high-end restaurants and bars, culinary shops, fashion boutiques, and tiny art galleries. A range of stripped-down red-brick facades, street-level awnings, structural brackets, exposed brick and steel structure interiors, and cobbled streets make up an overall austere character, an appealing backdrop to a sophisticated contemporary urban culture. Attracting both tourists and locals, the neighbourhood, which since 2003 is home to the Gansevoort Market Historic District, is going through a dynamic expansion. Recent additions highlight the neighbourhood’s authentic spirit and all in all fit in quite genuinely. They are decisively modern. Yet, they are put together out of essentially the same ingredients as the original structures. Some of these newcomers are designed by Morris Adjmi, the founder of Morris Adjmi Architects or simply MA.

550 Clinton Avenue is a 29-story residential building located along Brooklyn's rapidly evolving Atlantic Avenue corridor | Morris Adjmi | STIRworld
550 Clinton Avenue is a 29-story residential building located along Brooklyn's rapidly evolving Atlantic Avenue corridor Image: Courtesy of Aerograph

Born in 1959 in New Orleans, Adjmi grew up in a family of a housewife mother and a businessman father who owned and run several stores selling records, cameras, jeans, and the like. Adjmi’s passion for architecture was ignited by history and architecture in his hometown starting from a field trip with his school to the French Quarter when he was eight. His attention to balconies and grillwork prompted his teacher to point out a whole language of architectural forms, which led to the discovery of classical orders and started his interest in seeing how buildings were similar but also different—French colonial houses, Creole cottages, shotgun homes, townhouses, and so on. Eventually, he applied to architecture school at Tulane University. 

Morris Adjmi-designed 119-121 2nd Avenue, East Village, New York | Morris Adjmi | STIRworld
Morris Adjmi-designed 119-121 2nd Avenue, East Village, New York Image: Jimi Billingsley

He took his fourth year off at Tulane to study at the advanced design workshop at the New York Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies and then spent an additional year working at Aldo Rossi’s office in Milan. The extended absence from the university was approved by the dean, contingent on Rossi’s lecture at Tulane, which the master delivered to the delight of the school. After Adjmi’s graduation in 1982, he resumed working with Rossi. In 1986 Rossi was asked to design a building for the University of Miami. The project never went ahead but it prompted him to open his branch studio in New York. Adjmi became its leading architect and remained there until Rossi’s sudden death in Milan in 1997, the year Adjmi renamed the practice Morris Adjmi Architects. It now numbers 85 people in New York and 16 in New Orleans. The multidisciplinary practice provides a comprehensive approach to urban planning, architecture, interior design, and art services. It has built projects in at least 20 cities across the United States—residential and office buildings, hotels, restaurants, interiors, adaptive reuse, and public art. At least half of all buildings are built in New York, many in historical neighbourhoods. In the following interview with Morris Adjmi, we discussed the architect’s collaboration with Aldo Rossi, learning from history, his romance with the New York City street grid, developing custom-designed materials, the challenges of building here, and how to create environments that are modern and enjoyable.

Front and York by Morris Adjmi features factory-style divided light windows that provide panoramic views of Lower Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn| Morris Adjmi | STIRworld
Front and York by Morris Adjmi features factory-style divided light windows that provide panoramic views of Lower Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn Image: Will Femia

Vladimir Belogolovsky: How was your experience at Tulane?

Morris Adjmi: Already in my second year I discovered the work of Aldo Rossi. His Teatro del Mondo built for the 1979 Venice Biennale, which also sailed across the Adriatic to Dubrovnik and other port cities, was then on the covers of many magazines, and it became very appealing to me. I particularly liked his idea that a style and a type could inform architects' design. His floating theatre showed that a modern building could fit even into the context of such a historical city as Venice. That resonated with me. The idea that a modern building could, in a way, speak to a historical city was a revelation to me. I still use it as a foundation for how we approach design projects.

Theory Buidling takes inspiration from classical cast-iron buildings in the neighborhood | Theory Building | Morris Adjmi | STIRworld
The Theory Buidling takes inspiration from classical cast-iron buildings in the neighbourhood Image: David Sundberg

VB: You worked with Rossi for more than a decade. What were some of the key lessons you learned from him?

MA: In terms of architecture, I learned to pay attention to the city and its organisation, buildings' proportions, and the rationale behind the traditional design. My way of thinking crystallised completely at the time of working at his office. That helped to build our foundation. His work was a lot more personal and influenced by Milan where he was born and lived all his life. I also learned how to run an office like a collaborative studio.

The project 16 West 21st Street is a 15-storey residential building in New York City || Morris Adjmi | STIRworld
The project 16 West 21st Street is a 15-storey residential building in New York City Image: Jimi Billingsley

VB: You started your own practice in 1997. How did you set it up?

MA: It was really the fading of my collaboration with Aldo and the starting up of my own office. He died tragically in a car accident in 1997 in Milan. At the time, I was in charge of the office; we worked on four projects—in Florida, California, Nara in Japan, and the Scholastic Building here in SoHo, which had just been approved by New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. I told Aldo about it right before he died. At the time we had about 12 people and I decided that I was going to finish those projects and, in parallel, start building my own practice. The big decision was made not to continue my projects under the name of Aldo Rossi. That office was very much tied to his persona. So, we couldn’t simply keep going. Aldo and I worked very closely and I felt ownership of those projects, but I did not want to pretend to be him. As we transitioned to MA, I wanted to honour his legacy and build on it, which I feel I have done. 

For the first few years, we worked on interior projects for advertising agencies. In 2004, I was asked to do my first architecture project, the Theory Building in the Meatpacking District. It was influenced a lot by the Scholastic Building, which was completed in 2001 and set the tone for a research-based design approach informed by an understanding of context, place, and history, particularly of the cast iron buildings in the area.

Scholastic Building in SoHo designed by Morris Adjmi Architects | Scholastic Building | Morris Adjmi | STIRworld
Scholastic Building in SoHo designed by Morris Adjmi Architects with Aldo Rossi Image: Paul Warchol; Courtesy of Morris Adjmi Architects

Cast iron buildings today look like historical buildings but at the time they were built, their design was quite radical and modern. These buildings opened up their structural systems to admit much more natural light and it really started a modular construction when columns and beams could be ordered from a catalogue. We looked at that and distilled it down to a design approach for the Theory Building, embracing the organisation of the classical cast-iron buildings in the neighbourhood with facades that address their specific streets. The project informed the MA way of working, which is all about creating contemporary architecture that fits into its context but also reflects our own time, and it is how we have approached every project since. This strategy reverberates throughout all our work in different neighbourhoods in New York and in other cities. We work similarly even outside of historical neighbourhoods to imbue projects with a distinctive sense of place and purpose. 

VB: How did you scale up your practice?

MA: For a while, we maintained the office with the same number of people. Then there were 16 of us, working on interiors. We continued to grow organically, remaining at the original Aldo Rossi space in the Flatiron District until we had about 44 people. Then we moved to our current location in the Financial District with the intention to double, eventually. That’s where we are now.

Aerial view of the structure by Morris Adjmi Architects at 550 Clinton | 809 Atlantic Ave | 550 Clinton - 809 Atlantic Ave | Morris Adjmi | STIRworld
Aerial view of 550 Clinton | 809 Atlantic Ave by Morris Adjmi Architects Image: Selvon Ramsawak

VB: It used to be that most architects in New York had to look for work outside of the city. Now there are many more opportunities right here. How do you pursue projects here in the city?

MA: For a long time, I was not very keen on going after projects outside of the city. My focus was local from the beginning, which was different from Aldo’s who worked primarily on projects outside of both Milan and New York. For example, I worked on 12 projects in Japan with him, flying there all the time. The reason I focused on building in New York was to be engaged in the projects’ development from design all the way to execution. That’s how I developed a detailed understanding of each project phase and what it takes to actually construct a building. The more clients see that you can work in many capacities, the more interested they become in working together. The first project we were offered to do outside of New York was in Washington DC, which kicked off back in 2012 or so. Now we are doing just as much work outside of New York City as we are within.

151-155 Mulberry Street by Morris Adjmi | Morris Adjmi | STIRworld
151-155 Mulberry Street by Morris Adjmi Image: Selvon Ramsawak

VB: You once said, “We bring the site into our projects.” How would you describe your design process? Where do you begin?

MA: What I find most critical to work with right away is the context. I think it connects what we do to our past and to our immediate surroundings. A couple of years ago we published a book A Grid and a Conversation. It refers to our buildings’ engagement with their places, the history of architecture, and the physical context around them. To me, the grid is a rational departure point. It is an organising principle that helps to create something special. We recently finished a building that we are very proud of in Little Italy on the corner of Grand and Mulberry Streets. Analysing many tenements in the area we came up with the idea of juxtaposing a rigorous modern facade with a sort of a ghost image of a typical tenement building. This illusion or memory of a historic facade was made of hand-moulded domed bricks; they read as dots or pixels and reveal an abstract representation of a building that might have stood there at one point in the past. I like this narrative and the references that make buildings' legacies. It is a new building that coexists with the history of its place. We explored numerous options for how to represent that image before arriving at the idea of using a dome shape, on the brick’s surface. This brick, even though it was entirely custom, was, in fact, a cost-effective way of building the facade.

155 Mulbery Street is a seven-story building featuring a brick facade with a stacked running bond coursing | Morris Adjmi | STIRworld
155 Mulbery Street is a seven-story building featuring a brick facade with a stacked running bond coursing Image: Selvon Ramsawak

VB: What you are describing is quite unusual for working in a major city. Most buildings nowadays are assembled out of standard readymade materials that come to construction sites from all over the world. But you experimented with a manufacturer to design a particular brick as if you were working on a small-scale project in the countryside directly with crafters. How did you achieve it? 

MA: What we always try to pursue in our projects is a combination of tradition and innovation. We did another building recently in a different part of the city where we designed a custom L-shaped brick. We collaborate a lot with Glen-Gery, a brick and stone manufacturer, which was recently purchased by an Australian company Brickworks. We worked on producing prototypes at their plant in Pennsylvania. Making materials that are specially designed, produced, and put together is what interests me the most.  

119-121 2nd Avenue by Morris Adjmi | 119-121 2nd Avenue | Morris Adjmi | STIRworld
119-121 2nd Avenue by Morris Adjmi Image: Jimi Billingsley

VB: What would you say your architecture is about?

MA: At its core, our architecture is about humanity. We are constantly trying to contribute to the cityscape and provide places that enable people to enjoy life.

VB: What are the biggest challenges working in New York City?

MA: The construction itself is extremely challenging. Sequencing the deliveries of the materials to the site is extremely hard. To make sure everyone shows up on time, and so on. It is like a ballet but with heavy big material. The cost of purchasing land is extremely high. The cost of materials and labour is very high. What I can say is that we are absolutely obsessed with achieving great quality and not just in our design but also in execution. 

Front & York by Morris Adjmi | 85 Jay Street | Morris Adjmi | STIRworld
Front & York by Morris Adjmi Image: Selvon Ramsawak

VB: What one building built in New York since 2000 would you call the most exciting for you personally? 

MA: To me the most dramatic thing that happened in New York since I came here is the activation of the waterfront. New parks are everywhere now. I ride from West Village to my office as much as I can and it is glorious to see the city embrace and nurture cycling and strolling along promenades. And as far as the single structure, not a building, I would say is the High Line. It linked parts of the city that were not connected before. It enabled us to see the city and its parts in ways we never even thought of. Understanding a city from different vantage points is critical. The High Line also inspired projects around the country and around the world with the idea that we can build on our industrial past and turn it into an environment that’s modern and enjoyable. 

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