Remodeling the industry: CED alum transforms Manhattan Townhouse with innovative style
May 10, 2018
Photos courtesy Alan Tansey
The defining project of Michael Chen’s (B.A. Arch. '96) career in architecture emerged when he was tasked to completely overhaul a dilapidated six-story townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. After four years of rebuilding and renovating, Chen completed the structure in 2017, restoring the home to its original Gilded Age glory.
When he first took on the project, the 19th century Neo-Grec building’s facade was crumbling. Chen even recalls pulling off chunks of the original structure’s facade with ease. Once a single-family home, the building had since been converted into an SRO with bathrooms in the hallways and many separated residences. Chen and his firm Michael K. Chen Architecture transformed the townhouse back into a single-family residence with historically-accurate period details and meticulous and research-backed fabrication and construction techniques.
For instance, the vertical garden off of the backyard’s terrace, developed in collaboration with Local Office Landscape Architecture and Boston Valley Terra Cotta, includes slip-cast glazed terra cotta planters that vary slightly in shape and size and undulate according to a complex environmental analysis of the wall and each planter’s shadow. With help from conservation botanists at the Syracuse branch of the State University of New York, Chen obtained permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propagate and fill the containers with endangered ferns from Hudson Valley cliff faces.
Chen was also authorized by New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to recreate the townhouse’s original Neo-Grec facade in terracotta masonry units colored and textured to mimic brownstone, which is usually achieved with stucco or precast concrete. “In all of our work there is a deep technological backstory and a constant flirtation with industrial design and science,” says Chen.
Through his firm, Michael K. Chen Architecture, Chen has created an avenue to continually explore how innovative technologies impact a city’s public and environmental health. One such project was a survey which mapped all 14,000 NYC cell phone base stations. Originally exhibited at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, it was recently picked up by Citi Bike to improve the availability of its bike stations. Furthermore, the vertical garden implemented in Chen’s revitalized townhouse became the root of research into the ecological possibility of utilizing vertical aspects of establishments.
“I think that design for biodiversity is a bit of a missing piece of the larger discussion around sustainability and resiliency, and it’s interesting for us to think about how the built environment can be evaluated and modified to benefit the diversity of plant and animal species in New York,” says Chen.
This atypical approach to architecture, involving copious amounts of research and outside-the-industry resourcing, can be traced back to Chen’s time researching military imaging technology at the American Academy in Rome in 2004. After working at Leroy Street Studio and Polshek Partnership (now Ennead) and teaching at Cornell University and Pratt Institute, Chen eventually launched his own office.
Chen’s revolutionary townhouse, coined the “machine for entertaining,” offers an array of unique design aspects and custom features which highlight other craftspeople, artisans and artists’ works throughout the home’s six floors. The parlor vestibule ceiling is a billowing horizontal sculpture that references the egg and dart moldings of the original townhouse’s facade; the folds of the ceiling were designed to house light fixtures and sprinklers, but they also establish a dialogue between the historical context and a contemporary residence. “For us, craft becomes the way that we mediate that transition,” says Chen.
Chen is currently working on other unconventional residential projects as well as a ground-up building in Brooklyn’s Prospect-Lefferts Gardens neighborhood. He’s most excited about two library commissions—one for the architecture department at Pratt Institute that puts his expertise in small multi-use spaces to the test, and a pro bono project for children at a shelter in the Bronx called the Concourse House that he hopes will be stepping-stones to larger commissions and cultural works.
With these new undertakings, Chen continues his support of collaborators who are local, independent designers and artists, just as he did with the town house.
“I wanted to pay it forward wherever possible.”