Despite controversy, ‘Marvelous’ Heights architect leads transformative projects

April 9, 2015 By Kathryn Cardin Brooklyn Daily Eagle
This rendering shows Brooklyn Bridge Park access via new retail and public assembly amenities on Furman Street. As so much attention has been focused on the rooftop treatment of the Pierhouse buildings, many forget that the ground level treatments will bring new life to a long-barren Furman Street. Renderings courtesy of Marvel Architects
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Like an albatross, controversy seems to drape itself over some of the biggest Brooklyn projects of architect Jonathan Marvel. But in each project, it is not Marvel who killed the mythic sea bird and must wear it draped over his shoulders, but the nature of the projects, which involve complex interplay of public and private interests. Yet his brilliant innovations and sensitivity to environments do indeed transform each project. The albatross is, in effect, brought back to life, and the curse is lifted.

The nearly complete St. Ann’s Warehouse theatre is one good example. At issue early on was a turf-war over the empty shell of a 19th century tobacco warehouse just a stone’s toss north of Brooklyn Bridge tower.

On one side were preservationists who wanted the warehouse shell kept intact, versus Brooklyn Bridge Park leadership who wanted the space developed for broader public usage, particularly for the popular St. Ann’s Warehouse Theatre.

Jonathan Marvel created a plan that built a state-of-the-art performance space within part of the shell, using its own steel beam system so that original brick walls of the landmark warehouse are never even touched by the theatre walls. Another part of the shell was left entirely untouched to serve as a public garden with stunning views of the Brooklyn Bridge tower.

“From the outside of the theatre, and both inside and out within the triangular garden,” says Marvel, “anyone can get the full visual and visceral impact of that historic brick structure.”

One of Marvel’s favorite words in dealing with landmark structures is “reversible.”  He believes strongly that any and every aspect of his project could be “reversed” — that is, removed completely — without disturbing one brick of the landmark shell.

“Nothing touches these sacred brick walls,” Marvel emphasizes.

Further than the reversibility of the building structure itself, the space that Marvel created in collaboration with St. Ann’s for the performances is incredibly adaptable in nature.

The entirely open floor plan, which segregates the administrative offices, community room, greenroom, bar, restrooms and box office from the performance space, allows for complete versatility of the theatre space depending on the performance and audience.

From the ceiling hangs a continuous catwalk that runs throughout the entirety of the building, allowing for props and structures to be administered from above rather than the floor, which is a more common approach.  

The nearby Pierhouse project sponsored by Toll Brothers still carries an albatross, and may in fact end up in court. Neighbors in Brooklyn Heights are fighting a battle to oppose the additional height that has been added to the North Building at the new construction on the site of the former, century old Cold Storage Warehouses.   

While the tempest still rages over the bulkhead height on the North Building due to views of the Brooklyn Bridge being blocked from the Promenade, though the design conforms to pertinent zoning codes and guidelines given by the Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP), the public has remained unaware of creative amenities at ground level that are a perfect example of Marvel’s brilliance.  

Furman Street is being, in a word, transformed as a pedestrian access to BBP. Between the new buildings replacing the massive Cold Storage Warehouses, Marvel has created high-arched “pass-through” openings that feature retail attractions, access to the required public assembly spaces and safer, wider sidewalks.

“Everybody, including myself, had a wonderful sense of openness after they took down the Cold Storage Warehouses,” Marvel said. “We had that window of nothing there, and it lasted long enough to have people sort of get used to having nothing there, and once this building started going up you see people going into shock because there’s something blocking what used to be blocked before.

“But what I think is going to happen, when the building is up and you can see the materials and how it really integrates the building in the park, when you see how Furman Street will become a lively place to walk and to shop, I think people are going to start to like this building again, and I think over time its going to become kind of a classic.”

Marvel has taken several steps to ensure the buildings’ uniformity with the BBP and area surrounding it. Pieces of yellow pine from the old warehouses will be used for the hardwood floors in the resident apartments and white granite from the same quarry as the granite in the Brooklyn Bridge is used as the bulk heading surrounding the buildings.

As well as recycling materials from the Cold Storage Warehouses, Marvel wanted to keep the overall geometry of the buildings recycled and in line with the “zigzag” and free flowing shape of the park.

Further moving to integrate the building to the area, the “pass-throughs” will connect Furman Street to the BBP for pedestrians’ easy access and retail shops will occupy the building along Furman Street sidewalks.

From the BBP side, Marvel looked to blend the building into the park by adding garden terraces to each unit, whose plants are the same as those used in the park and are watered by a drip hose system maintained by the building and were designed by Michael Van Valkenberg (the designer of BBP).

“We don’t want any terrace owners changing the overall effect visually on the terraces, any more than we would want them to custom paint the outer wall of the building with graffiti,” he added.

And while these two nearly finished projects have had and still create their fair share of controversy, a new project has emerged for Marvel and brings even more community sparring.

Marvel Architects is in the works of designing a new Brooklyn Public Library Brooklyn Heights branch where doubts have risen about space and facilities.

However, Marvel has hosted a community meeting requesting suggestions about the new branch and is planning on hosting more in the near future.

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