Architect and urbanist Vishaan Chakrabarti’s imaginative and prescient for Brooklyn

In a small office in an inconspicuous building just a few steps from Union Square, the architect and city planner Vishaan Chakrabarti thinks about the future. And not just the escape to Venice he caught tonight – he has become a prominent voice in the debate about how our cities are being built in the face of global warming, a housing crisis and increasing gentrification.

Chakrabarti, who was born in Calcutta, and his family emigrated to the United States in 1968 at the age of three. After a brief stay in Arizona, they settled in Arlington, Massachusetts, just outside Boston.

“I hated every minute of it,” says Chakrabarti. He studied art history and engineering at Cornell University and graduated with a degree in urban planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a second degree in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley. “It was a convenient way to hide from the recession in the early 1990s,” he adds jokingly.

Chakrabarti helped realize the High Line. Photo via Friends of the Highline

His multifaceted career has spanned urban planning, development, architecture and science. Chakrabarti helped launch the High Line while heading the Manhattan Office of City Planning under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is a professor at Columbia University, and published A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America in 2013. More recently he created an alternative proposal to repair Penn Station.

As a principal at SHoP Architects and now head of his own company Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, his biggest project to date has been the renovation of the Domino Sugar Refinery. During his time at SHoP, he helped design the master plan for the mega project.

In the last few months, the developer Two Trees commissioned him to rethink the adaptive reuse of the listed refinery building from the 1880s. Its unexpected and controversial design was approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in November.

Vishaan Chakrabarti Brooklyn Architecture Domino Highline

Chakrabartis Penn Station Vision. Rendering by PAU

In an interview, Chakrabarti would like to speak – precisely and especially with his choice of words – about his vision for a new Brooklyn. For him, this consists of a rethinking of the district’s infrastructure and a commitment to development rooted in history, which will help create jobs and build what is known as a functioning waterfront.

What is your vision for the future of Brooklyn? What does it take

That’s a big question. Brooklyn alone would be the fourth largest city in America. With this metric, she is undersupplied in almost every role. It needs more cultural infrastructure, it certainly needs more affordable housing and it needs more open spaces.

The general public falls asleep when you talk about the word infrastructure, but I think that’s partly because we’re talking about such a narrow range – transportation, sewer systems, electrical systems, water systems. In my book, I talk about an “infrastructure of possibilities” that encompasses all of these things, but also things like affordable housing, cultural space, parks and health care. Basically all the things that create social mobility together.

I think the town hall is trying, but it is difficult to meet the needs of the population for social infrastructure. I think demand is constantly outstripping supply in terms of social infrastructure. That’s the problem – keeping up with the number of school places, with the number of subways we need.

I brought my family to Japan a few years ago and found that they now run the bullet trains between Tokyo and Osaka six minutes apart, which I find just amazing. When you see this stuff around the world you’ll understand how far behind we are. I would definitely start here.

Vishaan Chakrabarti Brooklyn Architecture Domino Highline

The Domino sugar refinery complex today. Photo by Susan De Vries.

How do you approach dominoes?

When I travel, the two of them always ask me about High Line and Domino. Both represent a kind of new city district, which is, however, very steeped in history. I think this is what a lot of city dwellers are looking for right now.

People understand that cities are growing, more people are coming, and big buildings are being built. Not everyone is a NIMBY, but people don’t like it when they feel like anonymous towers that could really be anywhere are being dropped in their neighborhood.

I consider myself a monument conservator. For some people in the architecture profession, building a spaceship in the desert somewhere in Abu Dhabi is what gets them all jazzed up. That doesn’t get me into jazz in the slightest – I’m much more interested in what the existing structure of a place is and how you build on it.

Did you resist?

The master plan was approved by the Community Board with an overwhelming majority. Among other things, the resolution called for the buildings not to be made entirely of glass. The first building to go up is copper and zinc, both materials that were found on the Domino grounds with this patina.

Our design for the sugar refinery is different. It’s not about the materials, but the relationship between the old and the new building and the way the two talk to each other.

Vishaan Chakrabarti Brooklyn Architecture Domino Highline

PAU proposes a new glass building in the listed refinery from the 1880s. Rendering by PAU

What’s most important about building in Brooklyn?

Mixed use is critical. Obviously, the city is in the midst of a major affordability crisis. I can’t talk too much about it, but I think we’ll end up building some affordable housing in Brooklyn, and I’m very proud of that effort. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the occasional luxury condo building, but that’s not where I spend most of my day.

I recently got very interested in this talk about the death of the retail industry on Amazon. But what really kills Amazon are the big chain stores. People are still interested in local retail. You buy based on experience. Does that mean that the ground floor of buildings can have different uses?

Rendering by PAU

Rendering by PAU

What are the concerns about building by the water?

Obviously, climate change is first and foremost. During the master plan, we pulled the buildings out of the water, among other things. We have created more parkland and the park surface is porous, it absorbs more water.

In addition, the most important thing is to restore the functioning waterfront. We started rediscovering the waterfront in the 2000s, but then luxury condominiums and rental properties began to populate it and there were issues like the “poor door” problem which is anathema. I would love to see more industry return to the coast.

Dominoes is very consistent with the way Jane Jacobs thought of cities in terms of mixed use, and when it’s done there will be a school, a community center – there will be a 24 hour room. What we have seen a lot on the water is mono use. If you have a luxury tower with a Duane Reade on the bottom, that’s not what Jacobs means by mixed use.

I think what people fear with new developments is an erosion of identity and a feeling of spacelessness. I think by strengthening the identity of the place everyone understands that they are changing. The sugar refinery workers are in Yonkers now, they’re not in Brooklyn. It’s the same as the Brooklyn Navy Yard or Industry City brought back to life.

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Fall / Holiday 2017/18 issue of Brownstoner magazine.

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