- All the Queens Houses by Rafael Herrin-Ferri
In 1981, New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote a piece for his Design Notebook column about the traveling exhibition Transformed Houses. Curated by the Smithsonian Institution (no information was provided about specific individuals involved) and displayed at the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, the exhibit highlighted the ways in which working-and lower-middle-class homeowners in northeast cities (e.g., Baltimore, Boston, Patterson, Pittsburgh, and the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens) modified the façades of their houses, mostly two-and three-story wood-frame row structures. Renovations included the use of asbestos and aluminum siding and the removal of original architectural elements, changes that were based on homeowners' financial and aesthetic choices in an effort to personalize and "modernize" their urban dwellings. Often, the results were visually incongruous, as neighbors did not necessarily consult each other on their respective alterations. According to Goldberger, the exhibition text stated that these modified buildings constituted "the emergence of a different, sometimes striking vernacular architecture that has changed the look of America's older neighborhoods."1
The exhibit piqued my interest because it featured the very housing stock and cultural phenomenon I was all too familiar with growing up in Brooklyn. Despite my curiosity I was unable to see the show, as it closed two days after the article was published. The fact that I saved the yellowing clipping for thirty-six years in my research files is a testament to the allure these reimagined and refashioned humble buildings held for me, and to my appreciation that they had received serious consideration by nonlocal experts on architecture and the built environment.
So it was with great enthusiasm that I agreed to review Rafael Herrin-Ferri's online digital photography project All the Queens Houses, https://www.allthequeenshouses.com/, which features images he has made of transformed houses in contemporary Queens, structures that share much with those highlighted in the 1981 exhibition. Herrin-Ferri, a "Spanish-born architect/artist" and Queens resident, describes his project's purview as "Informal and Irregular Architecture in New York City's Most Diverse Borough." The website is a treasure trove of color photographs taken, for the most part, straight on, as in formal portraits, of a variety of creative and humble architectural adaptations. These are common houses made uncommon through color, textured surfaces, refashioned roof lines, staircases, and other architectural elements that make the mundane exhilarating. The well-designed and attractive website, through its images and written descriptions, provides a vehicle for comprehending the diversity of vernacular remodeling by owners of moderate means and for appreciating local place-making.
The site's navigation is divided into four basic pages or categories (not including the Home, Links, and Contact pages): About, Neighborhoods, Typologies, and Details. The About page states the photographer's interest in "the themes of identity, differentiation, and adaptation" as found in the borough's refashioned architecture. Herrin-Ferri's comment serves as a sort of harbinger for the rest of the site: "To most, these houses will appear to be distasteful, kitschy, ill-proportioned, misshapen, and just plain ugly. There is not one example of classic, well-balanced, architectural beauty in all of the houses shown here." One cannot help but wonder, though, to what degree these adaptations are aberrations—capriccios that caught the self-ascribed artist's fancy—or the norm, as no comparative information is provided.
The web pages are laid out with a grid of rectangular images, usually nine, with an occasional option to load additional photos. The Details page shows an assortment of images presented in a patchwork quilt layout. The bottom of the page allows the visitor to proceed in sequence between subcategories within the larger category, such as Twinned Houses and Row Houses under Typologies. Clicking on one of the photographs produces a popup slideshow from which the visitor can move forward or backward within an individual subcategory. Closing the slide show allows one to return to the page. The site's...