The Genteel
January 25, 2021


Inside a downtown townhouse designed by Galia Solomonoff. Photograph by Alex Guerrero.

"When you have less and less space to work with, the puzzle becomes more intense and the more selective you need to be with your material palette. You also need to be more careful with its execution. Intimacy - architectural intimacy - is hard!" - Galia Solomonoff, 2012. 

Today, a bold new symbol adorns the New York City skyline. One World Trade Center (1 WTC), a downtown skyscraper, is supposed to represent success, freedom, unity and strength for the American people. It serves to highlight a new era of innovation and change, but in stark juxtaposition, it also draws attention to a fragile time in the recent past.

In tandem, in the city's underbelly, a new thread in design mastery is unravelling. Clearly, New York City's thirst for technological know-how, its rapacious consumerism and rapid population growth are working in cohesion to determine how many architects are required to knit together the city's future look. But, if we glimpse closer at their intricate world, the addition of 1 WTC may have brought something else to the architects' table. 

A gratifying surge in design awareness has sent the city hurtling over a new threshold, says one prominent Manhattan architect. "The World Trade Centre process demonstrated the importance of architecture as a symbolic catalyst of urban experience. Not just for architects (we had always suspected it), but for everyone," says Galia Solomonoff, an award-winning architect and assistant professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. "We are more conscientious than ever that living together means building consensus together for everyone; that building is the opposite of war." 

Galia Solomonoff architect new york city
Galia Solomonoff pays close attention to
detail to ensure her work is diverse and
customised. Photograph courtesy of 
Solomonoff Architecture Studio.

Solomonoff's firm SAS (Solomonoff Architecture Studio) is based in the heart of Chelsea, and her choice of aesthetically-sensitive location is no accident. "Design matters here, more than ever," she explains. "At Columbia University, I sense the importance of this industry: more students are enrolling than ever before. The city is thriving and architecture here supports a new, positive vision - we architects are by nature stubborn optimists!" 

If we delve a little deeper, it's Solomonoff's unique method and style which also appear to be leveraging further excitement. Ever since this new sense of unity, awareness and equanimity has begun blanketing the city, Solomonoff says her firm's client base has been swelling. The appeal of SAS lies partly in its highly customised and intimate approach; one that is thoughtfully woven into the studio's creative process at every level. Through her practice, Solomonoff shows that what she terms as "architectural intimacy" actually works. 

"Architectural intimacy" appears to be based on adhering to an un-convoluted set of design principles which, in the case of SAS, are consistently upheld by Solomonoff's young but longstanding team. "First off, I pay attention to detail, and my work is totally custom," Solomonoff explains. "Second, it's important to maintain the diversity of styles here, the old and the new," she continues. "And finally, construction is very important to me. I'm not a 'paper architect,' which means that when I draw something I consider how it's going to be built, not just how it might look great on paper." 

Solomonoff's biggest project, Dia: Beacon, is an art exhibition space that she designed, both inside and out, with her previous firm, OpenOffice. The massive collection of galleries was converted from an existing 292,000 square-foot Nabisco box factory situated an hour and a half out of the city. "With Dia, we were focused on creating an architecture that allowed the permanent art (by incredible artists like Richard Serra and Michael Heizer) to be truly at home, in a surprisingly intimate way for such large sculptures," Solomonoff explains of the challenging mandate. Still, the project worked, and the artworks' new home brought new life to old standards. "We did a careful survey of the existing buildings and of Dia's collection, and fitted art-to-space one-by-one; it is the precise measure of content to container that makes the space work, and so intimately." 

There are not many women-owned architectural firms here ... I think women work differently and see the process differently.

Inherently trusting her feminine instincts and working hand-in-hand with her clients helps Solomonoff achieve what she believes brings design perfection. "There are not many women-owned architectural firms here," she says, and smiles. "I think women work differently and see the process differently. For me, I make sure that everything feels absolutely right and that the flow is perfect. It's very labour intensive and it's sometimes slow, but it's super gratifying." 

Moreover, Solomonoff understands the commonalities of every project, regardless of superficial differences. "Everyone is at some level a collector, and has things at home that reflect the way they think about the world," she says. For residential projects, Solomonoff and her team ask their clients to show them one or two pieces that they have collected; the design process then draws inspiration from those items. "We apply the same process to all our clients to make it personal," Solomonoff explains. "In hospitality, which isn't so immediately personal, the challenge is bigger, so it's necessary to work with the chef and consider the food concept - this is a new area for us." SAS is working on multiple hospitality projects, and also does retail work, most recently the Angelo Galasso luxury fashion store at the swish Plaza Hotel, where the fashion designer's blue velvet suits were perfectly complimented by laying a glamorous, matching blue carpet. 

With a population of just over eight million, New York City remains the most densely populated major city in the United States. Hence one other prerequisite for any New York architect lies in working successfully with very limited space. "The city is only going to become more dense," Solomonoff says. "Some of the projects SAS is working on are 6,000-square-foot luxury townhouses for bachelors, or for young families. It sounds big, yet fitting in an exercise room, a sauna, an indoor pool, a wine cellar, a library, a pinacoteca, a formal dining room, and large sculptures and paintings rapidly consumes the maximum allowed building envelope, which is tightly regulated."

However, Solomonoff argues that the city could become more effectively occupied. "I would build constructions that are more efficient and more environmentally sound. I wouldn't tear down the old and the new, and make only new," she says. "Something that works for SAS is that a majority of our projects are a combination of old and new. New York may feel modern, but the city is over 400 years old. We need to use everything available and protect what we already have." 

galia solomonoff architect new york city

"Defective Brick Project". Photograph 
courtesy of Solomonoff
Architecture Studio.

In fact, such an example of this creative fusion refers us back again to the Angelo Galasso store project. "The hotel holds one corner of Central Park, and has such a strong character," Solomonoff maintains. "I always search for the intricate connection of inside and outside, of the urban and intimate. I connect the language of architecture and that of landscape." For Solomonoff, "the new and the old are always connected through my work as I aspire to participate in the lasting dialogue of the city." 

Solomonoff's penchant for the use of steadfast and durable materials ensures that her exceptional and personalised work is lasting, even with the challenges brought about by the rise of technology. "The materials you use and the techniques that you employ will determine the architectural form that you get," she says. "With digitalisation and industrial production, building materials have become thinner and thinner and so much is coated with a plastic shield to defend from wearing. Technology can work in concert with architecture though. We have so many ways of capturing the world now through sound, visuals and data. It's just not my way to use technology to produce cheaper things. For every project we try to upgrade our palette of materials and continue to pay attention to detail. 'Upgrade' means finding ways of doing things that are lasting, and that factor wear and tear. I like weight; I like things that age well. For example, I love the worn steps of the New York Public Library. I love to see how the millions of footsteps have given a gentle curve to what was a perfectly flat stone, first built a hundred and one years ago. When I select a material for a floor or a counter, I ask my clients to visit a well-travelled sample of the material. Everything looks good new and young, but the trick is for it to look noble with age."

'I prefer to let time tell,' [Solomonoff] says. 'Maintaining New York City's rich history while sating its residents' quest for the new is but one aspect I always consider...'

This architect's expertise at bringing every comfort of the digital age into places that were demarcated hundreds of years ago is undoubtedly one of her greatest skills. But the rarity and success of the method used by SAS lies in Solomonoff's refusal to be an advocate of shortsighted trends. "I prefer to let time tell," she says. "Maintaining New York City's rich history while sating its residents' quest for the new is but one aspect I always consider; our clients are mostly residential and they are comfortable with experimentation."

Drawing from several different eras means she won't be earmarked as a strict modernist, although her sensibility is modern in its scope. "I draw from the Baroque, from Modernism, from Latin America's rich vernacular and from contemporary art," she explains. "I feel connected to some Swiss architects because they want to build what they design, and they draw from a long tradition of building."

And finally, how does this advocate of "architectural intimacy" view New York City's future? "We need to find out what the synergy of all these people living together is, of how this city can work and how we can support the growing population," she continues. "Like many architects, my vision for New York City is a very positive one. I can imagine that it becomes a region where we live closer together, make lasting investment in infrastructure, waste fewer resources, and leave more space for nature. The story this city tells is an incredible and creative one and as architects we have the ability to make things better. We need to provide ever more nurturing environments."



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