The financial crisis of 2008 pummeled many an industry, architecture included. Yet it was just around that time, when new work was hard to come by, that newlyweds and Princeton-trained architects Emily Abruzzo and Gerald Bodziak launched their own design practice in Brooklyn, New York.
It sounds counterintuitive—or, in Abruzzo’s words, like “the worst possible time”—but this fact has always been central to the studio’s modus operandi.
What defines this “generation” of post-recession firms, according to Abruzzo and Bodziak, is a proactive quality and a sobriety that pre-2008 firms didn’t tend to—or need to—have.
“There was an economy of means, certainly,” Abruzzo says. “But there was also this idea of creating projects—self-initiated work—and not waiting for the traditional relationship of a client coming to you to start a project.”
Perhaps that’s why the duo didn’t grow their practice from doing, say, a bunch of small-scale home renovations. Instead, Abruzzo Bodziak has continually taken on civic projects, particularly ones with great potential for positive community engagement.
An early project, Grow A Lot, prototyped a modern greenhouse that would take over a city-owned vacant lot in Brooklyn. The firm also designed and curated FitNation, a colorful traveling exhibit that highlighted how architecture, policy, and grassroots efforts can create healthier lifestyles.
One of the first design competitions Abruzzo Bodziak won was for a new monument at the top of a historic firehouse in Somerville, Massachusetts. Its concept, designed to replace a demolished cupola, features eight curved shells that nod to the arched openings of the original structure. Featuring a brushed stainless steel to be illuminated by LEDs and the streets below, the shells are at once abstract, ethereal, and enlightened by history.
Though the project is currently on hold to allow repairs on the firehouse tower itself, it’s an early instance of the pair’s distinct point of view, which often engages with something they call “meta-modernism.”
Using the “Beacon” project as an example, Abruzzo describes meta-modernism as “the idea that you can incorporate a historic reference, but the way you do it might be extremely modern or pared down.” Evidence of this approach, notably in elegant details, manifests throughout their body of work.
Take the recent “Reflected Ceiling” installation at the 1932 Beaux-Arts War Memorial Opera House, home to the San Francisco Ballet. For an event hosting younger patrons, the firm’s intervention reinterprets the entrance hall by draping 158 reflective mylar strips over the space, creating a surreal mirror of the gilded, barrel-vaulted ceiling.
In an apartment renovation in New York City’s West Village neighborhood, they introduced an angular, modern take on the plaster cornice. And for a vernacular-inspired Michigan home, their design retains the gambrel roof tradition, but adds striking white corner boards and a face of glass.
When asked if there’s a project so far that best represents their work, Bodziak arrives at “no” rather quickly. “It’s a sort of optimism that the next project, the one you’re working on, is always ‘the one,’” he says.
The practice, which employs two other junior architects, has a current docket that includes a studio for a renowned artist, a retail space that will open in a few months, three townhouse revamps in various stages of completion, and a new office for themselves. For the latter, the firm will transform a Bedford-Stuyvesant-area bar into a multifunctional studio space with room for all kinds of activities (the team has started making its own fixtures for projects, like HVAC grilles with custom patterns.)
There’s also a major civic undertaking in its early stages: an extensive renovation of a branch of the New York Public Library. The branch library, a prime example of the firm’s intentional shift from temporary projects to more permanent works, is also one that allows them to think more broadly about the role of architecture in the contemporary city.
“There’s a disappearance of true public space,” says Abruzzo. “Particularly space that doesn’t require some kind of entrance fee, be it a coffee or a ticket.” And the library, she says, is the last public, indoor space of its kind. For that reason, it has to take on many roles, whether that’s as a source of newspapers, air conditioning in the summer, or internet access.
The firm’s current schematic design for the project brings light into the infill site by pairing typical skylights with sculptural, curved elements below. It also merges planning techniques of historic libraries with strategies more commonly found in contemporary public spaces for information exchange.
On this spectrum of civic-minded work, the pair has been turning its attention to affordable housing as well. Last month, they co-organized “New Local: Living,” a workshop that tackled topics like how New York City can experiment with housing stock to become a more diverse and equitable place to live.
“Live/work, for example, is nearly impossible to do in New York City,” Bodziak explains. “I always feel we come up against this, where the codes make it difficult to interpret different ways people could live together.”
Part of the solution, Abruzzo says, is to engage the right types of people, rather than operating in an echo chamber. For the workshop, she didn’t invite many architect speakers, but instead brought in people working in policy, development, housing law, and more.
During our conversation, a number of other ideas surfaced, including, say, a LEED credit for zoning, similar to what exists for water efficiency or air quality. “There’s nothing like that for building form, or type of space,” says Abruzzo. “There’s very little room for experimentation if you’re making a space [to code].”
There was also a project from 2011 that sounds eerily timely in today’s algorithm-obsessed world. For the Audi Urban Future Initiative, the pair explored “smart, adaptive zoning” for the New York City of 2030, writing a program that alters opportunities for improved light and air once, for example, a neighboring property raises its roof. Wild? Yes. Worth revisiting? Totally.
“Housing is one of the biggest problems of our time,” says Abruzzo. “Because we’re interested in New York City, very invested in this place, it’s something we’re planning on continuing researching.”