Brooklyn Health Center: A nerd of a building in the land of hipsters

Architecture review: Francis Cauffman's 620 Fulton design to bore the good people of NY

TRD New York /
Apr.April 02, 2015 01:30 PM

In the heart of the Brooklyn Cultural District, a mixed-use commercial building is set to rise. The groundbreaking ceremony was held last month, with Mayor Bill De Blasio in attendance, for the new home of the Brooklyn Health Center, which serves the city’s hotel workers union and will occupy five floors of the building at 620 Fulton Street.

That prospect, though worthy, probably doesn’t sound all that exciting, because it isn’t, and the building matches one’s expectations. It was designed by the firm of Francis Cauffman, whose serviceable institutional structures have been boring the good people of Philadelphia since the 1950s. Now, apparently, it is our turn here in New York.

The new 12-story building at 620 Fulton can best be described as deconstructivist, in the sense that it embraces asymmetry both in its massing and in the treatment of its surfaces. But that stab at being contemporary, rather than showing how up-to-date this inveterate firm can be, serves only to reveal to us how mainstream the once radical style of deconstructivism has now become.

Gussying up a curtain-wall with flange-like appendages was old a decade ago– even then it didn’t make much visual or thematic sense. And yet there it is on the surface of the soon-to-be Brooklyn Health Center, as though the architects spontaneously thought it up. A complicated interplay of layers, variously treated, floats across the somewhat squat massing of the building, which is hardly endowed with additional interest through the inclusion of one setback on the fifth floor and another at the top. One entire side of the building, which is scheduled for completion in 2016, will be left flat and windowless and is to be adorned by a massive mural.

To date, the firm of Francis Cauffman has worked exclusively on institutional projects, including the Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., the GlaxoSmithKline office at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and the Institute Hall at the Rochester Institute of Technology. All are different from each other in form and conception. But, alas, all are ultimately the same: institutional buildings that have assimilated some stalled modernist tricks of light and spatial flow, but that, from a formal perspective, have little to recommend them beyond their dazzling adequacy.

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