All the Queens Houses is an ongoing photography project by architect/artist Rafael Herrin-Ferri looking at the themes of identity, differentiation, and adaptation as expressed in the low-rise housing stock of the New York City borough of Queens. This includes row-housing, semi-detached two-family houses, detached single-family houses of the early twentieth century, and more contemporary three to five-story apartment buildings on small lots. It is an attempt to reflect the incredible diversity of the borough’s population in its built environment.
Although primarily a typological study of the urban house, it is also very concerned with smaller architectural features that give the buildings a distinct character and human scale which engages the passerby on the sidewalk or neighbor across the rear yard. The section “themes” documents entry conditions, back buildings, stoops, backstairs, front doors, and garden elements. These traits seem to be ignored by most present-day developers as they cater to the appetite for “affordable-luxury” apartment buildings that hide all of their attractive amenities on the inside and offer very little to the public at street level.
To most, these houses will appear to be distasteful, kitschy, ill-proportioned, misshapen, or just plain ugly. There is not one example of classic, well-balanced, architectural beauty in all of the houses shown here. Perhaps the first reason for this is that they are extremely rare in the borough but the more important reason is that, the few that one can find, do not–in the author’s opinion–reflect the evolving everyday, incrementalist spirit of the borough. When so many people from so many cultures with so many different aesthetic preferences co-exist in a tight urban fabric it seems only natural that the streetscape should look like this. For me, these houses represent an “urbanism of tolerance”. One family prefers a peach-colored patio off the sidewalk, the other an outdoor living room on a full-width balcony off the third floor; one has their front door right on the property line, the other receives its guests through two free-standing arches and three sets of steps up to a front porch set back twenty feet from the sidewalk; one has painted their rowhouse blue, the other white, and a third maroon. The houses are as varied as the people one sits next to on the New York subway.
Another key factor influencing the irregularity and informality of Queens houses are the shifting gridded street patterns and the topographic variations of the borough. It does not mimic the relentless orthogonal grid of Manhattan and it did not level its hills and valleys to create an artificially flat ground plane. Before its incorporation into New York City, Queens existed as a series of villages separated by farmland and natural features. As real estate companies began to develop the borough, they filled in the vacant land with new grids that were often discontinuous with the original street patterns and interrupted by the old country roads connecting villages (Newtown Road,Woodside Avenue, Grand Street, etc.). At these junctures one can find many houses that appear to be “off-the-grid” with their ambivalent orientations. This can lead to a balcony jutting out at a surprising angle or a hanging garden in the residual space between the sidewalk and the property.
Although the majority of the houses that are featured here might upset the strict conservationist, it is the author’s belief that this "tolerant" form of urbanism allows the neighborhood to thrive albeit at the expense of the original architecture. The most important thing to preserve is the human-scale of architecture–on pedestrian-friendly building lots–that these houses embody.
“All the Queens Houses” refers to the classic children’s nursery rhyme in which the Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together (again). Perhaps this can be interpreted as a blessing in disguise. This thinking is aligned with the practice of adaptive re-use. Cities and cultures that thrive are ones that change and adapt, even at the smallest of scales.
Rafael Herrin-Ferri is a Spanish-born architect/artist living in Sunnyside, Queens. He received a B.Arch from Cornell University in 1996 and has lived and worked in San Francisco and Barcelona before settling in New York City in 2003 with his wife and daughter.