Letting the Architecture Speak for Itself
Published in The New York Times
April 24, 2007
ANNOUNCING yourself to the doorman of a fabled Central Park West building, only to be directed to a rear elevator, far from Central Park, creates a momentary letdown. But disappointment vanishes as soon as Tom Killian and Françoise Bollack open the door to their apartment on the ninth floor of the El Dorado, between 90th and 91st Streets. Yes, their view is west, away from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir and the Great Lawn. And, yes, their apartment lacks the Art Deco detailing of the building’s glamorous lobby.
But the two-bedroom apartment, where the couple have lived since 1991, has other, subtler, charms. Its living room is 24 feet 1 ½ inches long and 14 feet 11 inches wide — a length-to-width ratio very close to that of the golden rectangle, believed by architects, at least since the Renaissance and perhaps as far back as ancient Greece, to produce the most pleasing proportions.
That may be why the room feels unusually inviting. It helps that Mr. Killian and Ms. Bollack — both architects — have done little to obscure the room’s dimensions. Though the space is filled with furniture and art, including many pieces designed by Mr. Killian, almost nothing is attached to the walls, which are painted white.
Ms. Bollack explained that they see themselves as temporary occupants of the architecture. “The goal,” she said, “is to inhabit a room without decorating it.”
Then, too, the room has large windows on one of its long walls. Mr. Killian, who retired from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, points out that, at least in Manhattan, most rectangular rooms have windows at only one end. In the afternoon, this room is flooded with western light, which the couple prefer to the morning light that they would have if they faced the park.
And they don’t mind the rooftop views, either. “We see all the water towers, which is more New York than anything,” Ms. Bollack said.
Proportions, light and views matter deeply to Mr. Killian, who has written a 10-volume history of American architecture (as yet unpublished), and Ms. Bollack, who specializes in restoration of historic structures. Her best-known project in Manhattan is the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, on West 13th Street, where she created an entirely new interior in the shell of an 1844 schoolhouse.
She took pains to avoid details that would date the renovation, which was completed in 2002. Instead, she said, she wanted “to let you feel that the building was here long before you got here, and that it will be here long after you’re gone.”
She has also renovated the Assembly chamber of the State Capitol in Albany, a project that took more than a decade.
Her small firm, Françoise Bollack Architects, is doing restoration work on an apartment building in Midtown where, over the years, many co-op owners have bought multiple units. “You may have your living quarters in one part of the building, and you may have a guest room and another study in another part,” she said. “No architect in his or her right mind would design a building like this, and yet it’s a really interesting way to live.”
Mr. Killian and Ms. Bollack bought their apartment 16 years ago, in part because it had never been renovated. Since then, they have made only small improvements, like augmenting their original 1929 St. Charles kitchen cabinets with a few others that a neighbor was discarding. They have never installed an air-conditioner.
“We’re quite militant that air-conditioning is destroying the earth and you don’t need it,” Ms. Bollack said.
Pity their neighbors. “Some of them turn on their air-conditioners at the end of March and turn them off at the end of October,” Mr. Killian said. “They don’t hear the birds; they don’t smell the trees.”
Mr. Killian, 75, was born in St. Louis, studied architecture at Washington University and came to New York in 1961. He spent 27 years at Skidmore, where he worked on projects like the National Commercial Bank headquarters in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. Since leaving the firm in 1990, he has written a number of books on architectural history, which have resulted in a “four-foot pile of unpublished manuscripts,” he said.
Ms. Bollack, 63, was born in Paris, where her father was an architect. In the late 1960s, as she was beginning her career, Paris was “being destroyed” by garish new buildings, she said. “My way to avoid the pain was to go live in a place I didn’t care about.”
She arrived in New York in 1970 and worked for the architect I. M. Pei before beginning a stint at Skidmore. The couple fell in love while working together on a proposal for housing on Roosevelt Island. Though they have lived together for more than 30 years, they have no plans to marry. “We know what we mean to each other,” Ms. Bollack said. “We don’t need anyone to tell us.”
For years, they occupied an apartment at 50 West 96th Street. But then Ms. Bollack got a yen for a terrace, and the couple spent two years looking for just the right outdoor space. (Their terrace is about 4 feet deep and nearly 80 feet long.) Now, they say, they spend summers outside, as do their cats, Sheba and Kinsey, and a thicket of tomato plants. Ms. Bollack commutes to an office in Midtown, while Mr. Killian works in their spare bedroom, where a mattress sits atop the flat files he uses for storing drawings — turning the bulky cabinets into an improvised daybed.
As part of the low-impact decorating scheme, nearly all the lamps in the apartment are clip-ons, from hardware stores, which tend to illuminate the room in spots without turning it into a bright white box. There’s a modesty to the arrangement, as if the couple had decided that less doesn’t have to be more. It’s all right with them if less is less.
If their neighbors in the front of the El Dorado revel in their Central Park vistas, Ms. Bollack and Mr. Killian are happy with their close-in view of brownstone backyards and Columbus Avenue apartment buildings.
“I think that there’s a great deal of comfort in perceiving the place you live as part of a larger system,” Ms. Bollack said, “instead of feeling like you’re alone, dangling in the air.”