Pillar of the Community
In the portfolio of Stephen Yablon, social responsibility shines
Joseph Giovanninii -- Interior Design, 5/1/2010 12:00:00 AM
The ceramic floor tile and powder-coated aluminum perforated panels fronting polished stainless steel at the division of student affairs for New York's Columbia University; photo by Michael Moran.
A soup-to-nuts 10-person practice in New York, Stephen Yablon Architect takes on everything from urban planning to interiors. Many firms start off with residential projects, but that's not the direction Stephen Yablon went when he founded the firm in 1995. Because of his previous experience with some of the biggest names in architecture—Gruzen Samton, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects, and Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects—he pursued public commissions from the beginning. He's remained unwavering in his commitment to modernism. And, regardless of what borough or state he's working in, he doesn't design up or down to his clients.
Meeting rooms for the division of student affairs at New York's Columbia University; photo by Michael Moran. The Columbia project's built-in reception desk veneered in Forest Stewardship Council—certified maple; photo by Michael Moran.
How did you hook up with civic, institutional, and commercial clients initially?
It was always a central goal, but I was lucky in some ways. The New York City Housing Authority, which started doing community centers, supported giving small firms larger projects. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Design and Construction Excellence Program also made a point of patronizing small practices for projects such as firehouses, health clinics, libraries, and cultural centers. So the city itself was reaching out.
With institutions, we just knocked on their doors. At Columbia University, where I studied architecture, we persisted until we got small projects, which led to larger ones. With that track record, we could approach other universities. We've also worked for small and large nonprofits. One thing about them is that your client is not only the staff but also the board of directors, and you have to be skilled at presenting to the board. We got better at it with trial and error.
Completed under New York's Design and Construction Excellence Program, the Central Harlem STD Clinic; photo by Michael Moran.
How do you pitch your projects in communities where you might invite charges of design elitism?
It helps to have a strong idea that the clients can get behind—something clear, simple, well edited, and tied to an aspect of their lives. You establish a framework. Then, if something extraneous comes up, you can say it doesn't work with the initial plan. That's especially useful with public work, when you're dealing with so many entities.
Why do you try for such a wide range of work?
More areas of expertise stabilize the practice, especially in an economy like this. The commercial sector has slowed up over recent years, but we've survived on institutional and public projects, so far without layoffs.
What role have competitions played?
They've given us the confidence to develop strong ideas quickly—and abandon weak ideas just as quickly. Competitions are confidence-builders for the staff. They also end up being expensive, of course. Even though we've won several, we're doing fewer now.
The boxing arena at the Betances Community Center in the Bronx; photo by Frank Oudeman.
What's different about practicing in New York?
If you're a small firm, it's definitely more challenging to get ground-up work. But you can be consistently modernist in New York, whereas that's not necessarily true in other parts of the U.S.
Tell us about your modernist roots.
Early on, I was influenced by classic California modernists like Richard Neutra as well as by Louis Kahn, and I loved the Russian constructivists and suprematists. I still go back and mine that material. At the same time, though, I tweak it, so it expresses the client's identity, program, and place. But always in a poetic and abstract way, a plan response rather than surface applications. For example, with the Betances Community Center in the Bronx, we learned that the community prided itself on its boxing program. So we made that unique attribute a focal point—a monumental three-story glass-enclosed boxing arena. You look down on it within a glass pavilion.
Our design is characterized by simple modernist ideals: natural light, flowing spaces, and an abstract palette, though I'm not afraid to use color and warm materials. It's not a signature style. It's more of an approach.
A computer rendering of louvers of FSC-certified ipe on a guesthouse in South Carolina; image courtesy of Stephen Yablon Architect.
How has being LEED-accredited affected what you do?
We do everything now in a sustainable way. Whether or not it's a LEED project, our specs have shifted over. But I don't think you can hang your hat solely on green. You still have to have a strong design for a project. To me, it's one of the most pressing issues, but it's not a substitute for a great idea.
Would you describe your work as experiential?
I'm very concerned about the process of getting from one space to another in an almost theatrical sequence. At Betances, the boxing ring isn't readily apparent at first. You go through a series of layers, and it unveils itself over time.
Where would you like your practice to go?
We are working now with ever greater self-confidence, and I look forward to opportunities for being more adventurous. I'd like more projects in other parts of the U.S., so we can push our approach of tailoring modernism to different sites and clients.
A New York's Leona Baumgartner Health Center, slated for a 2012 completion date and targeting LEED Gold; image courtesy of Stephen Yablon Architect.