A River Runs Through It
Water bridges the opposites in architect David Ling's living and working space
Elizabeth Hayt -- Interior Design, 2/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
"It's all recycled," says architect David Ling. "We took everything that was here and made furniture, exposed shelving, and reinforcements for the existing structure." The structure in question is Ling's live-work space in New York. The three-story front building—with its gouged brick facade and worn wooden front doors, a block from Gramercy Park—was built in the 1880s as a factory; later, a two-story carriage house was added behind. In the 1940s, a husband-wife team of WPA artists converted the 6,000 combined square feet to residential, studio, and gallery use. And in 2000, when Ling bought the property, a real-estate developer was in the midst of yet another renovation. The stockpile of shoring posts, fir beams, and other materials lying around became fodder for the architect's design as well as helping keep the budget to $80,000.
Ling's office now occupies the front of the former factory building's ground floor. (Two rental apartments are above.) In this deceptively sleek and clinical-looking work area, visual double entendres add complexity to an initial impression of austerity. The steely-looking floor is actually hand-sanded reflective acrylic, a bargain at $60 a sheet. Roll-up plastic shades conceal closets and bookshelves, the shades' translucency mimicking the milkiness of frosted glass. Again, each shade cost only $300, compared to $1,000 for the average hollow-core door on hinges. Ling had designed the conical pear-wood chairs for a Berlin office building; he fashioned worktables from 3 by 8–foot sheets of sandblasted glass supported by cast-off shoring posts. "I introduced modern materials as a contrast to the masonry walls and beams," Ling says. "Both are unadulterated to form a dialogue between old and new, industrial and ancient, reflective and opaque."
Behind the office, the dialogue of opposites continues in a kitchen-dining-living area delineated by strong horizontal and vertical elements. Tatami mats atop shoring posts serve as elegant platform seating, echoing the sweep of the floor. A kitchen island made of hand-burnished, custom-tinted, waterproof black cement—elevated on a recessed 6-inch base to make the volume appear less massive—reiterates the long axis of the room, leading the eye rearward to Ling's pièce de résistance. Suspended from the second floor, sheet metal descends to form a thronelike seat, cushioned with an old silver-fox coat. The verticality of this insertion forms a dramatic counterpoint to the diagonal of a black staircase, set against the rear brick wall's 24 layers of black and ultramarine paint.
The loft bedroom is intimate, with an 8-foot ceiling and a modest platform bed. Clothing racks are concealed behind another set of translucent roll-up shades, and Ling stained the wood floor a custom-mixed satin-finished ebony, its waxy sensuality recalling Brice Marden's late '60s monochromatic field paintings. (Ling also demonstrates an affinity for sculptors Richard Serra, David Smith, and Alberto Giacometti, who all share an appreciation for tactility and process.) The upstairs shower enclosure is in fact the top portion of the galvanized-steel structure, which forms an unexpected curve that also screens a prison-issue stainless-steel toilet. A custom sink is clad in sheet metal and lined with hand-enameled waterproof cement, the cone configuration echoing that of the shower enclosure. Perhaps the most innovative feature of Ling's architecture is the integration of water. To separate the office and living area, he removed a 10 by 20–foot section of floor to expose the basement and foundation walls of Manhattan schist. He then lined the bottom with river-washed Mexican stones and added 4 inches of water to produce a moat. From the ceiling, he dangled black cables affixed with porcelain sockets and incandescent bulbs—a swarm of giant fireflies.
To establish a transition between the public living environment and the bedroom loft, Ling built a footpath of shoring posts across a shallow pond fed by a delicate curtain of water that pours from the head of the cantilevered bed, 10 feet above. A channel of water also flows through a 6-inch reveal between the floor of the living area and its masonry walls. (The water is periodically pumped into a waste line, and fresh water is brought in.) A lighting trough alongside makes the floor appear to float like a gigantic rectangular lily pad. Between the sound of trickling water and the gentle sheen of surfaces, coupled with the natural materials and overall restraint of Ling's design, a sense of earthly calm prevails.