As Brooklyn grows, so does architect Karl Fischer

Nov.November 21, 2007 03:20 PM
Architect Karl Fischer, in an interview with The Real Deal, talked about his planned hotels in Brooklyn, how the borough is “a different city” than Manhattan, and how he reshaped a stretch of Williamsburg. After founding Karl Fischer Architect in Montreal in 1984, Fischer soon began designing projects in New York City, where he opened a separate office in 1999. His planned projects include the Duffield Hotel, a 22-story development with 170 rooms at 237 Duffield Street in Downtown Brooklyn; Warehouse 11, a residential building on the site of Williamsburg’s former Roebling Oil Field; and West 13th Street Hotel at 5254 West 13th Street in Manhattan. By Lauren Elkies

Why do you have such an interest in Brooklyn?

It started with Brooklyn because there’s a very strong Jewish connection between Montreal and New York. I did a lot of work in Canada for the Jewish crowds. I ended up doing work for the same people or word of mouth spread that I was available to work in New York.

Do you consider yourself a New York or a Canadian architect?

More of a New York-based architect now. The New York office is 100 percent New York-based projects. The Montreal office is 80–20, 80 percent New York-based projects.

You did three adjoining, mid-rise condo buildings on Bayard Street — 20, 30 and 50 — in Williamsburg. What impact did they have?

They made it much more residential; 50 Bayard is one of my favorite buildings. It’s a mixture of an existing four-story manufacturing building that’s being converted to residential, with a five-story metal and glass addition where each floor is one unit.

How do you preserve the character of a neighborhood while enhancing it?

Sometimes it’s pretty easy to do if you look hard enough. However, with the demands on us these days to try to do more modern architecture, it’s not always possible. We have a small project on Roebling Street — Roebling Square @ North 8th Street. It’s just a bunch of townhouses. Although it’s a bigger block, it’s broken down into little townhouses. I would say that fits in very well.

What’s your favorite project you are working on now?

One of my favorite ones right now is the conversion of the old [Pennsylvania Railroad] Power House [at 50th Avenue and Second Street] in Long Island City. We are converting that into residential and adding four stories of rooftop additions.

Are you doing any buildings in other boroughs?

In the Bronx, we’re into preliminary design on a mixed-use project — hotel and residential — at 467 River Avenue. It’s alongside the Major Deegan Expressway.

Do you have a signature style?

Generally I don’t like to do boxes. I like the buildings to have a little bit more flair — maybe some curved lines, maybe angled lines. I like to make sure every building is a little bit different.

What makes building in Brooklyn unique?

Brooklyn is just a different city. Manhattan has its restrictions; you have to deal with the subways and the tight space. Brooklyn is a little more generous in terms of space and there are more low-rise buildings.

In parts like Williamsburg, the challenge is to break down the scale of these buildings. Because they used to be manufacturing blocks — it’s not like in other parts of Manhattan where you get 50-foot lots — here you can get lots that are 200 and 300 feet long. You don’t want it to look like a great, big box.

For instance, we’re doing one on North 7th and Berry streets [in Williamsburg], it’s probably like 150 feet long, but I broke it down to 25-foot modules to try and get the feeling of 25-foot houses.

A fair amount of Brooklyn has been downzoned to restrict development. Do you think that’s a good thing?

Yes. That’s what makes parts of Brooklyn so special. You have all of these rowhouses, townhouses, smaller-scale developments, more neighborhood-friendly developments. You have more open space. The quality of life in this way is going to be preserved in Brooklyn.

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