Apartamento, Judd, 2014

Apartamento Magazine

“Preserving Experience”
Issue 14, 2014
Adam Yarinsky

Why did I spend eight years working toward a goal that, if achieved, would efface the evidence of my effort? What could possibly make this an incredibly fulfilling obligation? If the project is the restoration of 101 Spring Street, Donald Judd’s home and studio in New York City, the answer is unambiguous. Within this 19th-century cast-iron building, Judd originated his idea for the permanent installation: a carefully calibrated relationship between art and its setting which brings about a profound awareness of space and your relationship to it. Judd intended this place to be what he called the ‘measure’ of his work, where it is encountered exactly as he wished. He modified the architecture to make spaces to live in and to create a context for his own art, as well as his carefully selected collection of art (much of it made by his friends). The result deeply engages each visitor’s perception, as it has my own even after countless visits.

Judd’s will established the Judd Foundation to preserve the entirety of this space and make it accessible to people. However, this mission was compromised by the poor condition of the building, including falling pieces of rusted cast iron, extensive life-safety violations, deficient interior environmental systems, and the absence of a certificate of occupancy. Yet the solution, comprehensively restoring the exterior and installing the infrastructure of a modern building within the confines of its historic fabric, had the potential to destroy the very conditions it sought to protect. A multitude of technical, aesthetic, philosophical, pragmatic, logistical, constructional, and administrative decisions, each framed by the question of whether to do anything at all, guided the painstaking preservation process. As the architect for this project, my responsibility (shared with many collaborators) was to sustain the integrity of this authentic experience, which is the sum of an infinite number of qualities.

Judd’s work was conceived in relation to the existing building. The cast-iron façade is astonishingly delicate, a proto-modern assemblage more window than wall. Its plainly visible order radiates from the corner site and establishes a framework for everything within. Judd noted that each floor was essentially one space and he therefore assigned each a distinct purpose: sleeping, dining, studio, etc. One of his few sketches of the building consists of five rectangles depicting each floor plan, arrayed vertically like one of his stack pieces. This signifies that the totality, including the interval between floors (travelled by the stairs and the elevator), is as significant as each separate floor. In a brief description entitled ‘101 Spring Street’, Judd deemed three of his ‘inventions’ important: the third-floor plane, the aligned floor and ceiling on the fourth floor, and the tall baseboard on the fifth floor. These elements create charged domains of space that link art, building, and viewer. Preserving them gave rise to our inventions. Explaining these in more detail helps convey the scope of our endeavour and the close connection between every aspect of the project.

The narrow, three-quarter-inch-deep reveal between the third floor and the enclosing walls is created simply by holding the new oak boards Judd laid over the original wood flooring slightly away from the walls. Could this be the first time this detail, now familiar in architecture, appeared? This small gap, distinguished by a thin strip of brass laid into it, accentuates the entire floor as a discrete plane scaled to the open-ended large floor piece Untitled (1969) made from four thick aluminum plates. The position of the stair enclosure defines an area corresponding to the proportions of this work of art, reinforcing its stature. Judd applied ordinary grey basecoat plaster to the walls and ceiling, which rendered the interior a monolithic volume in dialogue with the room-scaled presence of this piece and the floating surface upon which it rests. However, over time the finish became stained by machine oil (a vestige of the building’s prior use as a textile factory) which seeped though the framing, and in some areas the plaster was peeling away from the wall. It was not possible to clean the plaster or stop the staining process, so the decision was made to replace it entirely. Unfortunately, the same material could not be used because it is now made with different ingredients. The skilled craft of Venetian plaster, quite unlike the expedient means originally employed, was necessary to achieve a successful result. Many samples were tested to arrive at just the right warm grey colour and texture. To preserve the uninterrupted plaster surface, several diameter holes measuring one-eighth of an inch are the only evidence of the sophisticated air sampling smoke detection system hidden above the ceiling.

Judd covered the fourth floor and ceiling with pine boards, defining parallel planes that, unlike the floor below, are not separated from the walls with a reveal. The enclosed volume of space between these equivalent wood surfaces is palpable because it is symmetrically bisected by your cone of vision. This horizontal sandwich is reinforced by planar tables of his design; there is no art by Judd on this floor. To further the sensation of spatial continuity and extension, he removed the enclosure around the fire stair. Maintaining this openness while respecting the legally required separation of the fire stair was perhaps the greatest technical challenge in the building. Simply installing a wall would have jeopardized the entire premise of the project. In lieu of this conventional approach, the engineers used computational fluid dynamics modeling to design a performance-based life-safety strategy. Key components include a smoke-management system, advanced sensing devices, an emergency generator, and an invisible flame-retardant coating on the wood. Concealed in the existing walls, bespoke electromechanical baffles deploy in the event of fire to contain the smoke at the ceiling to allow sufficient time for safe egress in the stair.

The new wood floor and tall wood base that Judd installed on the fifth floor created what he called a ‘shallow recessed plane’. The low platform for the bed sits within this space, and the top of the base marks an intimate horizon that you come to know through lying prostrate. In contrast, the white ceiling surface corresponds to the slope of the roof joists as they pitch to the drain. Although the floor itself did not require restoration, the ceiling and most of the wall finishes were replaced so that steel beams could be added to support roof equipment and the building could be properly insulated. Dan Flavin’s artwork, made from florescent lights and created for this location, sits on the floor along the entire west façade. It steps into the space from the narrow approach near the elevator. When seen frontally, its rhythm, set by the dimensions of a commercial light fixture, interacts with the cast-iron column spacing behind. At night, the glow of blue and red light is visible from the street. Other than a small task light beside Judd’s bed, this is the only source of illumination on this floor. Rather than add emergency lighting, we wired this piece to the emergency circuit so it could provide the required illumination for the exit path in the event of fire.

Ultimately, what validates the existence of 101 Spring Street and all the work required to preserve it? Judd wrote about ‘unity’ as a fundamental objective—merging thought and feeling, mind and body through the experience of his art. In the permanent installation, this idea is manifest in the bond between art and its site, between content and context. As with Judd’s work, here art has no frame; it transcends its physical limits to affect the visitor through view and movement. The quality of this place is further enriched because the permanent installation changes over time as daylight modulates perception. Here everything, from a stove to a table to a wall to a work of art, may be ‘thoughtfully considered’ as Judd wished. Here the coupling of past and present, of art and experience, is a paradigm for being both in and of the world. Although Judd no longer inhabits the building, it is still lived.