Architecture is an art for Jennifer Luce, FAIA, one she embraces with a sculptor’s sensuality and an engineer’s precision. Every important decision she and her team at LUCE et studio make on a project goes through a meticulous and probing process of research and development, often resulting in ordinary objects transcending their bounds. For instance, a bathroom sink carved out of a single piece of stone becomes an undulating vessel, and that vessel is the fulcrum for an entire architectural solution. The problem? How do you design an apartment that was originally meant for Zaha Hadid in a building she also designed?
Jennifer’s clients, a West Coast couple she’s known for some time, had searched extensively for an upgrade to their pied-à-terre in New York City when they stopped by the sales office of this new building on the High Line. With Zaha’s untimely death, the unit had been released and Jennifer’s clients snapped it up. They called Jennifer right from the sales office with the news and the go-ahead on the project, which eventually tapped artisans on both coasts and a number of stops in between.
The 2,500 square foot unit is located on the quiet side of the West Chelsea building, away from the bustle of the High Line but with access to long-range views. “This unit was high enough and outward enough, it likely had some merit to Zaha,” says Jennifer, speculating about why she might have chosen it. “It feels more private than the wing that reaches toward the High Line.” Although it was earmarked as the famous architect’s apartment, it was a complete blank slate when Jennifer got the keys. All of the other units in the 11-story building were under construction with the developer’s stock interiors, but this one had just a few walls in place—albeit in the wrong places.
With a tabula rasa on the inside, but Zaha’s undulating façade of stone, steel, and glass on the exterior, Jennifer found a perfect balance of inspiration and creative freedom. “We wanted to make something wonderful for our clients. And, as much as it’s our project and not something she would have designed, we felt a need to honor Zaha,” she says.
The Canadian-born architect whose practice is now based in La Jolla has some personal insight and affinity for the British-Iraqi architect. “I met her when I started working with Arquitectonica. She came to give a lecture in Miami, and I was assigned to her at someone’s very elaborate house. I was intensely shy, and it was amazing to meet her,” she recalls. “Later, I invited her to come to Canada to teach and speak there, and we ended up driving for hours through a snowstorm to the airport in Montreal. We were in touch off and on through the years. She was unbelievably charming and empathetic and generous.”
The Art of Making Art
If Zaha practiced art as a way to unlock a more expressive architecture, Jennifer practices architecture as a way to unlock artistic expression in service to her clients. LUCE et studio’s diverse work encompasses corporate headquarters, restaurants, commercial interiors, museums and galleries, custom residences, and much more. Each project taps what’s defining about the client and delivers an original, bespoke solution to their needs and desires.
Often that solution combines fine craft with a taut industrial edge, as it does in the West Chelsea Residence. For these particular clients, that combination was especially perfect. “They are art collectors and patrons, but they built an amazing business together around precision. In the days before FedEx, they were shipping and delivering industrial products within 24 hours. One of their goals was to not keep their clients on the phone for more than 60 seconds,” she says. “So everything we designed, we did to please their propensity for precision.” And she knew SilverLining, Inc., was the perfect builder for the project, she says, “when I first met the site super in the space and he was projecting to the ¹⁄16th -inch reveal.”
The owners, who also have a stunning architect-designed oasis in Del Mar, California, didn’t need a vast footprint in New York, but they did want some of that open, oasis feel in the smaller place. Their primary requirement was for a sanctuary from the city’s overstimulation, but with the flexibility to host larger gatherings of other art lovers. To that end, Jennifer and her team removed the misplaced walls installed by the developer. “Coming from California, it was so important for everyone to feel connected to the landscape,” says the architect. “Our first goal was to break down those barriers—to break through north to south and east to west—to light the space. There was something very soothing to that.”
Having eliminated the last vestige of existing conditions, the team set about reinstalling walls—this time with materials sourced from California. “We called Michael D’Angelo, a woodworker I’ve collaborated with for 35 years,” she says. “He took one oak tree and sliced it himself—one tree—and made the floors and wall panels himself.” The wood was then shipped to a cabinetmaker in New York who collaborated with him on the install. “Every board is precisely located and brought together with the butterfly joints.”
On the floor, the planks are joined at an angle, something SilverLining—despite all the company’s high-end custom experience—had never done before. “The way those angles are cut on the floor is very unusual for us,” recalls Joel Arencibia, director of operations and partner. “It creates a miter detail that’s unusual for New York, with the planks joined on triangles.” Adding to the challenge, the wood was delayed arriving from the West Coast. “Our biggest challenge overall was scheduling and coordinating all the contributors. At the time, the rest of the building interiors were also under construction, so access to the elevator was another complication.”
The wood wraps the doors and walls (some are moveable), transforming the space into a warm embrace. Handmade hardware from architect-led artisans in New York injects a cool gleam against the wood surfaces and then embeds—chameleon-like—in steel accent walls and doors. The gleam remains, however, because the hardware is polished and reflective and the metal surfaces are patinaed and variegated.
The use of steel throughout the apartment is a major hat tip to Zaha’s façade, while at the same time aligning with the LUCE et studio aesthetic. “We were very much influenced by the building itself and the craft of the metal,” says Jennifer. “Our work is rooted in the industrial. We have a passion for metal, and on this project, we go on a journey of examining that material, celebrating the curves and the arches, and the sinuous 3D aspect of the building itself. Metal is incredibly sensual as a material. The apartment is basically wood, metal, and stone and that’s it.”
The steel carries through to the interior window detailing, tracing the curves of Zaha’s dynamic exterior fenestration. “The exterior of the building was all custom metalwork—all stainless steel,” recalls SilverLining’s president, Josh Weiner. “But the interiors were not detailed that way, so we installed the custom metal around the curves to match.”
The custom metalwork is not the only element that curves. In collaboration with Quarra, a stone fabricator in Madison, Wisconsin, LUCE et studio designed bathroom sinks and a showcase tub for the primary bath carved out of solid pieces of Italian stone. The wave-like undulations in the stone cavities evoke the façade, swirling gracefully in a slow vortex.
“There was so much blood, sweat, and tears in that tub,” Jennifer recalls. “I had a conversation about the design with my client while sitting in a bathtub. It’s like product research; we have to confirm all those details before the cutting begins. We had to find a block of stone and make sure we could get it in the elevator. Then the process of cutting it took two weeks. Ultimately, we had to shorten it by 2 feet to get it into the apartment.”
The tub was a great effort on everyone’s part for sure, but this is one of the aspects of design Jennifer loves best. Collaborating with artisans on custom solutions informs her work at every scale. “We’re working with Quarra on a piece for the museum [the Mingei International Museum in San Diego debuting this summer]. They’re making a 45-foot-long bench for us,” she notes. “It’s a nice evolution that satisfies me as a maker.”
The West Chelsea Residence is, indeed, an uncanny fulcrum for connections. There was the Zaha/Jennifer connection, of course, and now the apartment owners have made a substantial donation to Jennifer’s museum project. Meanwhile, the owners’ art collection infuses their New York apartment with their own highly curated choices, with the inspired exception of one piece sourced by Jennifer. It’s an installation that brilliantly distills the crossover between art and architecture: A large, translucent glass screen by German photographer Veronika Kellndorfer of Lina Bo Bardi’s Brazilian modern house.
“We placed it at the apex of the space, where morning light from the east, afternoon light from the west, and all-day light from the south coalesce,” says Jennifer. “We commissioned the piece from the photographer and licensed Lina Bo Bardi’s design for the concrete-and-wood stands that hold it.” Precisely situated, it serves as the suggestion of a partition wall between the kitchen and the living area, defining the space while leaving it open.
In the sculpture as in the apartment, art merges with architecture and resonates with the story of women architects’ uniquely collaborative contributions to both disciplines.
Plans and Drawings
West Chelsea Residence
New York, New York
ARCHITECTS: Jennifer Luce, FAIA, LUCE et studio architects, La Jolla, California
BASE BUIlDING ARCHITECT: Aditya Karmarkar, AIA, Ismael Leyva Architects,
New York, New York
BUILDER: Josh Weiner, president, and Joel Arencibia, director of operations and partner, SilverLining, Inc., New York
Project Size: 2,500 square feet
Construction Cost: Withheld
Photography: Michael Moran Photography, Inc.
COOKTOP/OVENS/REFRIGERATOR/FREEZER/WINE UNIT: Gaggenau
DOORS/MILLWORK/MOLDING/TRIM: Cousin Furniture; Argent Fabrication; Quarra Stone
DOOR HARDWARE: Custom by H. Theophile
FAUCETS: GESSI for Valcucine (kitchen); Vola (bathrooms); Dornbracht (shower)
KITCHEN CABINET SYSTEM: Valcucine
LIGHTING CONTROL: Lutron
SINKS: Custom by Quarra Stone; Blanco (kitchen)