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Inside the Donald Judd House, New York

Architect Adam Yarinsky of Architecture Research Office (ARO) thinks experiencing Donald Judd’s art can help architecture make a more vital connection to contemporary life

It is this conviction that made the design-led practice want to take on a restoration. Writing about one of Judd’s large-scale works, Yarinsky says: ‘… it was not an object to which I reacted, but rather an instigator of a new reciprocal relationship between itself and me’. Similarly 101 Spring Street intuitively gives every visitor a heightened sense of spatial awareness. Yarinsky has also discovered (from Judd’s bookcase) that he and Judd shared an interest in Adolf Loos, particularly in the complex interlocking of spaces. I buy his argument that 101 Spring Street is not primarily a historic building, but essentially a very large work of art, of profound relevance to architecture.

Judd bought the whole of 101 Spring Street in 1968, when New York’s SoHo was a run-down industrial district; blighted by plans for Robert Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway (Judd was to join the successful conservation battle against this massive piece of proposed infrastructure). Many artists moved into the area, attracted by cheap buildings with large floorplates and generous windows, but few developed such an intense relationship with their surroundings.

101 was designed by Nicholas Whyte and built in 1870. It is a classic cast-iron building: a largely prefabricated, system-built structure. Its proto-modern credentials appeal to Yarinsky, who points out that it makes less attempt than most of its neighbours to replicate masonry details. Although it would originally have been painted a stone colour, with sand added to emulate stone, it has been kept the grey of Judd’s era. Its prominent facades wrap a corner site in the Cast Iron District. In 1989 Judd wrote an essay about the building and the aim has been to return it to the state it was in when Judd died in 1994.

When Judd acquired the building, there was a different business on each floor. Following a notorious garment district fire, building code changes required the addition of an external fire escape, sprinklers, and enclosure of the open staircase − crude and pragmatic works.

Judd’s view had been that the building should be repaired and basically not changed, and he allocated separate floors for sleeping, eating and working. He partially re-opened out the stair, and began to install large-scale art work. Every intervention he made was very deliberate and has specific impact on how the component parts of each floor are read. For instance, on the third floor there is no skirting board and a narrow shadow gap between the floor and the walls − so the floor is a simple plane, while the fourth floor has identical floor and ceiling. The subtle differences are crucial.

The restoration faced two outstanding challenges: how not to detract from this careful orchestration of space (specifically how to provide fire safety without subdividing each floor from the staircase again) and how to improve environmental performance.

Arup helpfully developed a performance-based fire protection system, installing very early warning smoke detectors which continuously sample air. A back-up generator on the roof (rebuilt to carry a very heavy plant load) provides emergency power for air intake and exhaust fans, as well as the discreet computer-controlled fire shutters on the second and ground floor. Computational fluid dynamic modelling of possible fire scenario demonstrated that this would give staff and visitors time to escape.

A reworking of the envelope was critical to improving environmental performance. A special scaffold enveloped the building throughout the construction period, allowing the largest art works to be boxed up in situ (they were too big to move). There has been no attempt to freeze the exterior in a state of artful decay: the building now has the perfect restoration Judd never managed. The cast iron was extensively repaired, with 1,300 non-structural elements being taken off site for thorough cleaning, patching, and in a few instances allowing the recasting replacements. Spandrel panels were refixed with concealed stainless-steel brackets. Every individual sash has been replaced with a new double-glazed unit, but careful choice of replacement glass, and a dark edge spacer between panes minimises visual impact.

The window frames were taken off site, but have been reinstated, complete with carefully preserved chipped paintwork. In contrast, walls have been replastered to match Judd’s choice of material, but while his efforts soon stained as residual oil seeped out of the building, the decision has been made to ‘correct’ this fault in the restoration. Similarly Judd’s bathroom floors were pitted plywood, painted grey, but it was decided to honour Judd’s intention and install the slate he would have liked instead.

The original rope-operated lift provides level access, and an adjacent set of cupboards has furnished a service riser. Neither of the two basement staircases was code compliant, and both have been replaced, allowing ARO their biggest design input (welded steel plate referencing Judd’s work and the industrial context − possibly confusing, but pleasingly understated).

Yarinsky has the self- awareness to appreciate that he has not applied a pure conceptual ethos, but has made dozens of individual decisions. The project makes the case for intelligent pragmatism over dogma.

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