The man changing the New York City streetscape
Eran Chen is the out-of-the-box architect who went from designing McDonald's branches to reshaping the Big Apple.
New York is a city that seems to be permanently in the middle of a construction boom. Cranes dangle above the traffic-clogged streets, and building sites crop up with as much regularity as flowers in spring. The fabric of Manhattan is ever-changing, with only the most iconic buildings – usually skyscrapers (the Empire State, Flatiron, Chrysler etc.) and a smattering of landmark historic buildings (Grand Central Terminal, New York Public Library) – remaining constant.
There is a lot of construction in New York, but the vast majority of new builds are so by-the-numbers that many fail to even register. That's not the case with the projects on the books of Israeli architect Eran Chen’s ODA, a Manhattan-based firm whose latest bout of projects has been making waves in the best possible way.
Among the more humdrum apartment blocks and complexes of NYC, ODA’s residential structures really stand out. Not just because of their good looks (though make no mistake, these buildings look good), but also because of their innovative, people-oriented designs. ODA’s residential properties eschew the long-unchallenged idea that city living inevitably means compromising quality of life.
“In general, we approach each design from the perspective that architecture is not only about building things within a space, but is mostly about the spaces between the things we build,” Chen told From The Grapevine. “So with every commission, we explore new ways to evolve beyond the prototypical extruded box format, which seals people within four walls, and instead, to ferret out potential pockets which we can mold to encourage human interaction."
Armed with an expertise in zoning and building codes, Chen works within the system to exploit it, consistently uncovering new and unconventional methods for maximizing voids and gaps wherein people can connect – both with each other and with nature. "We believe that greenery is a vital and often overlooked element in urban architecture, so our designs blur the line between living intimately and looking far beyond, between indoors and out," he continued. "In this way, we’ve resolved to replace the dogma of resigned and compromised living with one that enriches our lives and adapts to our needs – that prioritizes our physical and psychological wellbeing.”
Chen, a graduate of Israel's Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, got his start designing McDonald’s branches in his native country. Chen would later move to New York, where – after years of working at the prestigious Perkins Eastman architectural firm – he would eventually set up his own company. In the years since, Chen’s firm has undertaken numerous projects of varying scales and classifications, though it is in Manhattan that ODA has made its biggest mark.
Having turned their attention to everything from a high-end private penthouse to large-scale affordable housing, ODA’s New York projects have been nothing if not varied. Among their first high-profile NYC projects was that of 15 Union Square West. Prior to its redevelopment, 15 Union Square West was to all appearances dull and nondescript, and it seemed destined for demolition. Yet concealed beneath its unexceptional brick façade was the cast iron frame of an older 19th-century building that had once been the headquarters of renowned jeweler Tiffany & Co. ODA believed the historic building shell was an architectural treasure well worth saving.
“We managed to convince the client to clear all the brick and restore the original, 1890s cast iron structure," Chen recalled. "Then, by removing subsequently added intermediate floors, we were able to incorporate six new floors before wrapping the entire composition in an oversized glass curtain wall." Each one of the building's units is unique and designed like a private house – many with distinct outdoor terraces overlooking Union Square and all featuring seventeen-foot ceilings and original, interior cast iron arches. Added Chen: "15 Union Square West celebrates the inherent mystery of history, telling a story about the past, present and future of NYC.“
At the corner of Norfolk and Delancey in Manhattan’s Lower East Side sits another completed ODA project, a striking glass 12-story residential block. The cantilevered upper floors jut out into the unused space above the adjacent lower-rise buildings, maximizing floor space, natural light and views.
Yet another ODA design that got New Yorkers talking was a warehouse conversion in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, which saw Chen and his team put their stamp on a late 19th-century Romanesque Revival building. Once the property of a liquor merchant and later owned by a pistachio baron, the warehouse eventually came into the hands of an artist who would later put it up for sale. Having purchased the dilapidated property, the current owner enlisted ODA to work their magic on it, resulting in a spectacular apartment complex complete with restored period features including cornices, arched windows and wooden ceiling beams. The pièce de résistance? A 1,000-square-foot rooftop penthouse addition that, in keeping with historic building preservation regulations, is invisible to those who pass by on the sidewalk.
And then there is ODA’s currently-in-progress skinny East 44th street tower, which combines the distinctly urban concept of high-rise living with the more typically suburban idea of the backyard. The slender skyscraper features six 16-foot high gaps in its façade, which serve as garden spaces.
And it’s not just in Manhattan that Chen is making his mark. New York’s other boroughs are also getting the ODA treatment. On the Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn, the firm has designed 416-420 Kent Ave. The project comprises a trio of glass-clad towers featuring protruding units, ensuring those who live there get to enjoy expansive corner apartment-style views over the East River and the Manhattan skyline.
Down the road in neighboring Bushwick, another ODA design, a vast residential complex dubbed Bushwick II, is currently in construction. “In this project, we are flipping the NYC grid system inside out, opening typically internal courtyards to the public as well as building dwellers. It's a bit like overlapping the NYC grid with an old European city – instead of organizing some buildings on an empty lot, we carve public and communal spaces out of a solid mass, creating a network of pedestrian streets and courtyards framed by commercial and amenity spaces,” Chen told us. “The result is a true departure from systematic, dead-end live-work boxes to a three-dimensional living experience. This project takes our notion of ‘unboxing buildings’ and applies it on a city scale.”
ODA isn't solely dedicated to residential projects, either. The firm has also applied its out-of-the-box approach to commercial buildings. Take the Breadbox café in Queens, for instance, a limited-budget project which saw an auto repair shop space on a 1950s gas station site transformed into a community bakery. Locals who donated money to partner organization New York Foundling, a charity dedicated to helping vulnerable families and children, had their names inscribed in a rolling pin on the bakery’s façade.
Among ODA’s biggest triumphs was their successful 2013 bid to build a phase of Hunters Point, a large-scale housing project on the Queens waterfront in Long Island City. Chen’s firm beat out stiff competition from some of the best architects in the country with their proposal. Anchored on either side by two high-rise towers which cascade down into townhouses and a courtyard base, ODA’s design encompasses community-shared terraces that feature everything from yoga decks and gardens to playgrounds and lounging spaces. When it's complete, Hunters Point will be the biggest affordable housing project completed by the city in 40 years.
A glance at ODA’s impressive portfolio shows the breadth of their creative capabilities; each one of this firm’s projects has its own unique character and style. Despite only being founded in 2007, ODA has quickly established itself as a firm that can create buildings that not only have curb appeal but also the potential to positively shape the lives of the people who inhabit them.
“We are all bombarded with endless images of magnificent buildings and structures from around the world. Images on social media become more powerful than reality, and buildings are evaluated for form rather than merit,” said Chen. “With this overwhelming visual distraction, it’s hard for architects to ask the simple questions, and even harder to answer them. If we forget that architecture, at its most basic form, is a tool for improving people’s lives, we also forget why we make the choices we do. I always push our architects at ODA to ask the most basic questions: Why are we doing this? What purpose does it serve? And how does it make us better?”
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