While all New York’s boroughs could fit the trope of the distinct city within a city, Queens might have the best claim. At 109 square miles, it has by far the largest land area among boroughs. Its 2.3 million residents surpass the population of every other US city but Los Angeles. And with nearly half of its population born outside the States, Queens is often regarded as the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world. To shelter those that call its patchwork of neighborhoods, from Flushing to Howard Beach, home, the borough hosts almost 850,000 units of housing in a striking variety of structures.
Following in a long tradition of documentary photograph and typological study, architect Rafael Herrin-Ferri has embarked on an exhaustive study of Queens’ contemporary vernacular housing stock, now partially recorded on his blog All the Queens Houses. Of particular interest are the creative additions and alterations that residents employ to overcome the limitations of buildings or to make their mark on their small piece of the city, readily exemplified by connected semi-detached and row housing that sometimes manifest split personalities. Although he focuses on functional interventions and appendages, color is also a recurring theme in his work. In his pithy titles and captions, Herrin-Ferri mixes architectural terminology with evocative descriptions to share the delight he finds in the buildings: one home demonstrates “unintentional Cubism” while another evokes a “strawberry pink top on sugar cone base.” While rarely including people, the photos nonetheless feel alive. Read on to learn how his investigation came about, why architecture must be adaptable, and what makes Corona’s 97th Street his favorite in Queens.
How did you get interested in photographing the houses of Queens? Why Queens, and why houses?
I used to have a blog called Architecture Happens, which was all about finding modern moments in everyday building. My posts ended up featuring Queens a lot — the borough is always evolving with new additions and building accoutrements, which you don’t see as much in Manhattan or the other boroughs. When I moved to Queens with my wife after living on the Lower East Side for nine years, I realized I should just focus on the borough and do a more extensive photographic survey that could ultimately lead to a book or some kind of major study.
Detached and semi-detached houses and rowhouses are typologies and scales conducive to the kinds of alterations and transformations that I’ve always been interested in. I started seeing incredible juxtapositions of different housing types, especially the semi-detached typology where you have two neighbors who apparently started as identical twins then grew apart. Some of these are so radical — one of the most extreme and most comical features a brick wall extending above the two front doors, three different building materials, and four colors between the two units. It sort of looks like Picasso’s Three Musicians.
What’s your process?
Queens is very large, so for now I’m focusing on photographing western Queens, basically everything west of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. I’ve always been attracted to things like Eugène Atget’s Paris photo-documentation and similarly exhaustive photo studies, like Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typological studies. I worried that I would miss something, maybe the best example of a classic Queens building type, if I didn’t go street by street. So I decided to be very systematic and do a house-by-house-style survey.
I cut up little sections from a map of the borough that I think might be interesting. You know that diagonal streets are a good place to look for examples of where people have had trouble reconciling their buildings to the urban grid — something Atelier Bow-Wow explains in Made in Tokyo. You get very interesting backsides and exposures: people normally just worry about the front façade, thinking that a building’s other sides aren’t so visible or people will not notice. But, of course, architects like to look everywhere.
Before I set out I’ll do a pre-scan to make sure I’m not getting into an area of large apartment complexes, where there’s a low propensity for alterations. I go about it mainly on my bike or my skateboard. I start weaving the streets, popping into alleys and trying to see as many sides of a house as I can. But it’s challenging — obviously my photographs aren’t as professional as the Bechers, but one thing that I’ve noticed always works for them is the constant lighting conditions of gray, overcast Germany. The changing conditions sometimes alter my route or allow me to linger a bit more in an area, in order to get more objective photos without hard shadows. I have this karmic idea that when I’m hanging out waiting like that, it’s for a reason. I usually end up finding something good or even better than what I planned to photograph after taking a second look around while waiting for conditions to improve.
I’d say I’ve covered about 40, maybe 50 percent, of western Queens. I have most of Ditmars-Steinway, Jackson Heights, Long Island City; almost all of Astoria, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst, Woodside; and a quite a bit of Corona, North Corona, Maspeth, and Rego Park. I’d eventually like to photograph every street in the borough, but once you get into the east side, it becomes very suburban. There’s less propensity for these urban tactics that try to eke out some extra space to enjoy. To the east, there’s also probably more of a political dimension in terms of property dynamics and how people view alterations, but from what I can tell they’re pretty accepted in the western part of the borough.
You wrote in one of your captions, “This is how homeowners of limited means can shape their environment.” So is this project somewhat about how people cope with dense urban living?
Yes — western Queens is a less dense living situation than Manhattan’s, but at the same time it’s not suburban and lacking in proximity. I think it reminds me of my Spanish background and the scale of village life where you have interesting relationships within public space on a pedestrian level. There’s a human scale component that you just don’t see when things become too large-scale or too suburban, and life is hidden behind the facade of the perfect house or housing complex. That’s what I look for: signs of life in the environment. And there are a lot of them here.
This house, I call it “Sidewalk Dugout,” is a rare case where the owner has appropriated space and made a little porch at grade under an awning and behind a low breeze block knee wall. You can poke your head into it if the roller shades are up. There are all these layers of transparency, not unlike miradores in Spain, where you have these veiled scrims that give you privacy as you’re looking out into the world. You see a lot of cheap versions of that.
My favorite street thus far is 97th Street in Corona. It has a continuous run of balconies the full width of each building on both sides of the street. Everyone is facing each other, so when you walk down the middle of the street it almost feels like you’re inside a theater where the box seats are looking at you. You couldn’t have more “eyes on the street.” People have their laundry out; I saw a very festive dinner party. It’s got a bit of a French Quarter feel to it. It’s very animated. Even though every section bleeds together a little, you can tell they’re unique properties with different owners.
My mother once recalled how shocked she was when we moved here from Spain that everyone wanted to hang out in the backyard instead of facing the street and the people. When you go to the backside of this particular street in Corona, it’s just a brick wall with punched windows. It’s really the strongest case I’ve seen of turning the domestic interior inside out and exposing it to the urban context.
How do you think the additions or added decoration — a fence, landscaping, whatever it is — demonstrate the diversity of the borough and its residents?
When I show people these photos, their reaction is either comic or tragic. Some people think the buildings are dilapidated and that the neighborhood is in a state of entropy. But this is not about photographing ruins or things that are falling down. It’s more the messy vitality born of people living different lifestyles, cheek-to-jowl.
Queens was originally developed by Germans, the Dutch, and the English. Then in the ‘70s and a little earlier, other waves of immigration began, and now Queens is the most diverse borough in the city, and likely county in the country. So you’ve got new influences layered on to a more northern European sensibility. There are these Tudors with sunken driveways that have a new layer added on. That layering is what keeps the borough alive in a way. People are able to expand outside what is perhaps a somewhat rigid shell and really participate more with the life on the street.
I think the residents’ many backgrounds and traditions account for these particularities. It’s also a tolerant landscape. There’s a pretty laissez-faire attitude amongst neighbors. So as messy as it can look sometimes, people have the confidence or the uninhibited feeling to do things like this, and there are enough people like them that they won’t be ostracized. If they want to paint something bright orange or yellow, they’ll most likely get a compliment from someone, whereas if it were a more homogeneous population, that’d probably be a little more difficult to pull off.
In your captions, you speak of the buildings you encounter with such delight. You also use fairly technical architectural language. There was one you described as having “serious loggia ambitions.” Most people don’t talk about loggias or concrete plinths, especially on commonplace buildings that don’t fall into “architecture” as traditionally talked about.
I don’t think of these houses as architecture with a capital A, but architects need to remember that buildings are for people. These examples, in a way, express the shortcomings of architecture, or the way architecture will evolve, like it or not. Robert Venturi wrote about this ad infinitum. There’s the Le Corbusier quote about his worker housing project Pessac: “You know, it is life that is right and the architect who is wrong.” That’s true to a certain degree — things obviously grow, and it’s not wrong to start with something more modest that you can afford and grow from that.
Getting back to the language, I’m always looking at these buildings and remembering art history and early modern works they’re reminiscent of. Some of my captions put the photographs in that kind of painterly or artistic frame.
Obviously the investigation has great personal meaning to you, but who else do you see as your audience? What are you be trying to communicate and to whom?
I’d very much like this work to get out to the public and for it to be something the public can appreciate. I think these houses and their significance are hidden in plain sight to a certain degree. Some people may also consider them an eyesore and look away. The idea is to bring together all the photos and exhibit them to intensify the experience; then the vernacular will surface throughout all of them and become visible. I want to get the material organized by neighborhood and type so that at some point you can see all the step-down awnings, for instance, and even be able to filter those by color. It’s a classification study in a way — trying to sift through the material to collect and recombine it in order to create interesting juxtapositions.
One of my friends once told me, “I think you’re a preservationist at heart.” It’s kind of a weird thing to want to preserve, but I do want to preserve this more human-scale quality, with the intention of densifying and making the environment more urban. I don’t think we’re anywhere near capacity in terms of density.
Do you feel that this project is capturing a moment in time that you think might not exist for much longer?
For sure — many buildings in the photos have since been changed or demolished. They are pretty ephemeral.
This condo coup is under way; as Long Island City-style living continues to encroach into Queens, houses like these become more and more important to protect, but I wouldn’t try to protect them with planning guidelines and restrictions or any sort of landmark status. I think the freedom to keep altering your property pays off. My neighborhood, Sunnyside, is actually one of the least interesting in western Queens, especially the Sunnyside Gardens area. The trees are nice, and I love the mews that cut through the gardens, but for all the talk about protecting it as a landmark, all except for two of those gardens have been left overgrown or completely weed-infested. I think there’s something that stifled the original vision. People aren’t as communally minded as when it was developed. And they’re restricted from doing anything that would break out of the mold of the planned community to further develop their own house, so it’s just kind of rotting from the inside. It’s an interesting conundrum: you try to preserve it, and it decays in a way, whereas if you don’t, it sort of thrives naturally.
At the borough scale, you also see this interesting déjà vu phenomenon where developers didn’t develop a whole neighborhood but did just a block or even one side of a block here and there. Facing it will be a completely different tract. But then the developer will take the tract you see in Jackson Heights, and they’ll repeat it in Astoria, Elmhurst, or Corona. So you’ve got this very mixed fabric across the borough with repeating motifs of street patterns and elevations throughout.
Was the allusion to Humpty Dumpty in your blog title always a point of reference or did that come later?
It came at the beginning. There’s the pun with “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men,” but I also thought the line about the “great fall” applied nicely. There is a little bit of this fall-from-grace quality to much of this housing, a kind of imperfect world situation that has been embraced. Humpty Dumpty isn’t getting put back together again. All the Queens’ houses won’t help that either. They’re never going to come back together to form a perfect egg. If you can accept this kind of heterogeneous mix and “confetti-style urbanism” (to paraphrase Teddy Cruz), then I think Queens holds great promise as a model for future urban life.