Interview: Acclaimed Architect Morris Adjmi

From The Rockaway Hotel to Williamsburg's Wythe Hotel and Greenpoint's The Huron residences, a figure weaving the fabric of NYC's future

Few architects have infused multiple New York City neighborhoods with a future-forward vision that manages to honor underlying heritage. Morris Adjmi, founder of the eponymous architectural practice, has done so multiple times over with meaningful contributions that range from Williamsburg’s Wythe Hotel to Dumbo’s Welcome Sign, Queens’ Rockaway Hotel, Tribeca’s Spring Studios, and now in Greenpoint with the addition of The Huron. On one of Brooklyn’s last undeveloped waterfront parcels, The Huron comprises two window-clad towers of 171 residences, astonishing amounts of outdoor space and extraordinary amenities.

Adjmi strives to create a legacy of responsible designs and does so via the concept of contextual architecture, where he studies, observes and responds. After working with world-renowned Italian architect Aldo Rossi, Adjmi founded his own firm in 1997. Roughly ten years ago, he added interior design as a service—and recently created an in-house art program to advise clients on works that will complement the furniture and design of their spaces, both inside and out. To learn more about Adjmi’s mission and vision, we spoke with the architect about The Huron, the fabric of the city and more.

Can you explain what the term “contextual architecture” means to you?

A lot of people think that working within a historic context can be limiting. For me, it’s really invigorating and provides a departure point for investigation. There are so many ways you can respond to context. We recently published a book of our work. It’s called A Grid and A Conversation. That title reflects our point of view. There must be a dialogue; there must be a connection. We must look at neighborhoods and even cities as places that are not frozen in time, but rather as places that can be reborn and refreshed.

Are there specific challenges in places like Williamsburg, the Rockaways or Greenpoint, where you are infusing something new into the established aesthetic?

I like to be careful and respectful and design buildings that play nice with their surroundings. It’s easy to design a place that is just about calling attention to itself or making a loud statement—and that’s appropriate in some cases. But there was a cartoon I once saw, looking down Fifth Avenue with Central Park on the left. On every block there was a Guggenheim Museum. It’s a great building but we don’t want one on every corner. We want to build fabric-of-the-city buildings and then special buildings to complement them.

Can you tell us about your first thoughts regarding the parcel of land that you’re building upon in Greenpoint?

The city is changing rapidly and one of the best things to happen has been the activation of the waterfront. It was at one point relegated to storage and industry. As that moved away, it became fallow and everyone turned their back on it. The last ten or fifteen years, the waterfront around the entire city has been invigorated with parks and places for people to gather. It’s natural that you’ll start to see residential and office development closer to the water, too.

Does this reflect on The Huron’s design?

Being familiar with this site and the industrial landscape that surrounds it, I thought it was appropriate to draw on some of that in terms of attention to detail both inside and outside of the building. But also the siding of the project and organizing the two towers, trying to create something that worked with the water but didn’t overwhelm it.

Can you distill the design vision for The Huron?

It has a bespoke industrial aesthetic. It has a tailored point of view. It’s more refined. There’s a lot of attention to detail in the shapes and profile, as well as the brick treatment on the ground level. There’s a lot of outdoor space and we pay particular attention to the rhythm of the windows, which changes slightly. We were able to eliminate columns to open vistas to the water and the New York City skyline.

And there’s ample outdoor space?

We’ve been working in residential for a long time and there was a trend of moving away from outdoor space. Some developers thought it was more complicated and not desirable. This changed—it started before Covid, though Covid has been a catalyst for further outdoor development. Because of The Huron’s position on the water, the developers were focused on providing as much outdoor space as possible. I think a third of the apartments have outdoor space. Then there’s dedicated outdoor space for kids, as well as space on the roof. We also set the building back 40 feet to create a park along the river.

Can you share with us how your approach to residential design differs from your approach to hospitality design?

They inform each other. The Wythe Hotel was the first hospitality project we did. There was a goal to create a warmer experience. I think more and more of the hospitality projects today are designed to feel like you’re staying at your cool friend’s apartment rather than a cookie-cutter space. On the residential side you’re starting to see more amenities that you see at resorts or hotels.

How do you feel when you see the Wythe now?

It’s been there for ten years. They recently had a celebration! A year ago we finished an office build-out for an Italian hair care company, Davines, in the building adjacent, which used to be connected to the Wythe Hotel. It was very similar inside—the same heavy timber columns, the brick and cast-iron elements. It was like coming back home after ten years and working in a similar way.

I think the Wythe has held up. It doesn’t feel like it was a trendy design. It feels lasting. The things that we did there anticipated where we are today. We took all the wood joists and repurposed them as the beds and desks and some of the furniture in the lobby. Our intentions were right for the neighborhood: reusing the building and adding onto it in a way that’s respectful.

You grew up in New Orleans. Does that influence your practice?

If I hadn’t grown up in New Orleans I probably wouldn’t be an architect. It’s because of my experience growing up in New Orleans and going to the French Quarter almost every Sunday to get coffee and doughnuts and seeing the architecture there. I started drawing the balconies and columns on a class trip and my teacher started encouraging me to start looking at the orders of architecture. I was really fascinated by that—and architecture that was similar but different. The overall quality of the buildings sparked something in me.

Is there a building that’s long inspired you?

There are so many. A lot of people ask me my favorite and I think that every day I have a new favorite. I am so stimulated by architecture. I was in Stockholm this summer and two of my favorite architects—Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz—have done a number of buildings there. In fact, they did the Woodland Cemetery together. I think that was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had: being there and seeing their work together.

Is there something from your time working for Aldo Rossi that infuses your work today?

I was drawn to Aldo Rossi’s work based on knowledge of his early projects, like Gallaratese and San Cataldo Cemetery in Modena. But really Il Teatro del Mondo in Venice was the first project that really grabbed my attention in a way that inspired me to say “yes, we can make modern buildings that fit into and reflect the place they are and also the history around them.” The idea of a floating theater was something around since the 1500s in Venice. He built something in 1979-1980 that carried on that tradition but also felt like it belonged there then. It was a little humble pine wood and scaffolding construction on a barge.

Working with him affected me in a way that inspired me to continue the journey of looking at architecture and understanding history. It’s really the foundation for everything that I do.

Images courtesy of Redundant Pixel