A vibrant community in the city’s largest borough, Flushing is known more for its bustling Chinatown than its architectural significance. The area’s residential enclaves look, for the most part, like the classic American suburb.
“We love that type of Levittown-style houses,” says architect Devin O’Neill. “They’re very straightforward and honest about what they are and how they work.” When he and his partner, Faith Rose, were asked to design a home in the area from the ground up, they wanted to do so with a respect for the existing streetscape. “We wanted to take that form, and kind of twist it.”
This project can be read as an almost literal twist: The white stucco façade, asymmetrically punctuated by only two windows, looks like you’d expect the sides of a neighboring house to look, while the open rear reads almost as the front of a building. For the architects, though, design is intertwined with function. And their client, Ming Choy, had a tall order: to create a single home in which three branches of his family could live comfortably. The structure isn’t a postmodern riff on the American suburb; it’s a house meant for real life. “It’s about working with the collage of the neighborhood and translating that into how this family would use the space,” says O’Neill.
Though it functions as three distinct residences, the space coheres as a single house. The building’s form communicates with the same honesty the architects admire in its neighbors: The stucco volume that fronts the street contains the rooms designated for Choy’s brother and sister-in-law; the bulk of the concrete-finished bottom level is set aside for his parents; the rest of the house (for Choy, his wife, and their two children) is clad in cumaru timber. Just as these exterior sections fit together comfortably, the homes blend into one another, via multiple staircases and a shared visual language. There are definite boundaries within, but they’ve been blurred.
Though the window placement seems idiosyncratic, there’s a logic to it. Rather than place windows where they’re expected (symmetrically flanking the main entrance, say), the architects considered instead the demands of light and the ways residents would inhabit the home. “We place the windows where they need to be,” says Rose. “We’re always trying to make sure their placement is dynamic.” The tiny window on the ground-floor façade, for example, is set so one can see visitors arriving; on the façade and on both sides are picture windows with attached ventilation shutters, so that windows provide air as well as light.
Choy and the architects have a long history; he’s a contractor, the principal at the Brooklyn-based MC2 Properties. “It’s really fun to work with someone who knows our craft,” says Rose. “We could talk details with him. He was the contractor, but he was also the client.” Some choices were born of Choy’s desire to reuse things he had on hand: The garden is terraced to incorporate some pressure-treated wood beams, and the stucco and the steel base of the central staircase were also surplus materials. The architects relished the challenge of remaining faithful to a larger concept while using what amounted to recycled materials. “We’re not going to hurt the design to make that work, but that’s the fun thing for us,” says O’Neill. “You make adjustments. Here, we’d left some moments open and that allowed us to figure things out together.”
*This article appears in the Winter 2015 issue of New York Design Hunting.