Alexandra Lange | Essays

Scarano's School for Scandal

There’s a piece in New York Magazine this week about the buyers in defrocked architect Robert Scarano’s buildings, worried about shoddy construction and their resale values. It almost entirely misses the larger point. What was so terrible about Scarano’s practice is what is terrible about Scarano’s practice: we seem to be stuck with out-of-scale buildings with not-to-code apartments that are inevitably going to unbuild themselves, facades peeling off like the collages they are. Sure, he can’t (officially) make more, but over a period of 10 years he was Brooklyn’s most prolific architect. The work doesn’t disappear with self-certification privileges. Just as an architecture critic can’t make a building disappear, neither can the DOB.

More important than the woes of those who bought in them (did you really think a room without a window and a closet could be called a bedroom?) are the woes of those of us that live around them. Zoning is supposed to preserve the character of a neighborhood, so that, over time, styles change but the basic envelope does not. That it took the DOB so long to shut Scarano down is a scandal, since anyone with eyes in their head could see that there was something wrong with his slivers and towers on two-family blocks. That the DOB only rarely makes architects and developers take down their extra floors is also a scandal. There is no going back once the neighborhood ceiling has been raised.

Scarano sold himself as the expert to small-time developers, convincing them that he had special design powers that allowed him to squeeze extra square feet out of the zoning code. They came to him since he seemed to have a good relationship with the DOB. Work begat work. He hired an office full of recent graduates who may or may not have known better, but were thrilled to be designing real buildings in New York City at the age of 25. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, even if it comes with a funny definition of mezzanine.

During the boom years I always wanted to write a review of the Fedders buildings invading Brooklyn, but never found a willing editor. To me, they and the Scarano condos with delusions of contemporary stylistic grandeur indicated a new and terrifying vernacular, like the white brick of the 1960s. The real architecture critics suggested glass was the new white brick, and they were right, but only in Manhattan, and only over a certain price point. It is the boroughs that got stuck with the architectural albatrosses.

Posted in: Architecture

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