Fred A. Bernstein

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The House That Harry Potter Built

A magical new building in SoHo

Published in The Independent on Sunday (London), July 10, 2000

by Fred A. Bernstein

In his fourth book, which began flying out of stores yesterday, Harry Potter finds a few new ways to use his magic. But to New Yorkers, Harry's greatest magic feat of all may be the one taking shape on the lower Manhattan skyline: With his help, the wish of a visionary Italian architect, who dreamed of building in New York, is finally being realized -- three years after he died in a car crash while driving to his house on Lake Maggiore.

The building is the new home of Scholastic Inc, the publisher of Harry Potter books in the US. The fourth instalment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, should take Scholastic's profits into the stratosphere, with its astonishing press run of 3.8 million copies in the US alone. No wonder the new building will contain a store jammed with Potter merchandise, and the lobby will feature a statue not of the company's founder, but of a bespectacled boy riding a broomstick.

The building, designed by the late Aldo Rossi, fills a site on Broadway in SoHo. Both sides of the street are lined with late 19th century commercial buildings, many with classically-ordered, cast-iron facades. Rossi uses stripped-down and exaggerated classical elements -- including the chunkiest columns this side of Luxor -- to create a cartoon-like take on the neighbourhood's design motifs. But this is serious architecture and, with its wry references not only to its neighbours on Broadway, but to the buildings that inspired them, a lesson in skilfully weaving new design into an old (and precious) fabric. Although it won't be fully occupied until next year (the store is scheduled to open in October), and though it's only 10 storeys high, the building is already one of the more compelling additions to the cityscape in decades.

Despite a sign announcing the new home of Potter's publisher -- Harry himself appears to be flying off the billboard -- it is the building itself that stops New Yorkers in their tracks. And although the building was designed before Scholastic became the Potter factory, the fit between the magic books and the magical building couldn't be better.

In the first book in the series, Harry Potter sets out to buy school supplies, including wands, cauldrons, pointed hats, and dragon-hide gloves.

"Can we buy all this in London?" Harry asks his wizened guide, Hagrid. "If yeh know where to go," Hagrid replies, before leading Harry to a series of shops that are invisible to the uninitiated. Thus, in the view of Harry's creator, JK Rowling, cities are layered with magical surprises for those who look beyond the obvious.

Rossi, born in Milan in 1931, would share that view. Until the 1980s, he was best known for readable but academic books about the nature of cities -- which he believed were layered with meaning that could be mined by architects; his goal was to tap into the public's collective memory. According to the critic Herbert Muschamp, "He liked to say that he never invented forms. Rather, he remembered them." His best known work (at least until the Scholastic Headquarters is finished) is the 1971 Cemetery of San Cataldo in Modena, Italy, a seemingly endless colonnade with a gabled roof surrounding a simple cube-like ossuary.

Rossi's cemetery drove critics to rapture and was responsible for his winning architecture's highest honour, the Pritzker Prize.

It was followed by a series of buildings, most in Italy, that use elemental shapes to dramatic effect: gables, circles, colonnades, often stripped down and reinvented in primary colours, evoking, as Julie Iovine wrote in Rossi's New York Times obituary, "the resonance of a recurring dream or the lyricism of a de Chirico painting." In 1986, Rossi opened a design office in New York, in the hopes of bringing that lyricism to the United States. Morris Adjmi, a former student and Rossi's partner in that office, remembers that after initial bursts of interest, one project after another fell through. The most significant was an architecture school for the University of Miami, which occupied Rossi and Adjmi for years but was never funded.

In the meantime, the peripatetic Rossi got to know New York. Among his favourite buildings were the cast iron warehouses of SoHo, many of which consist of posts and lintels ordered from catalogues and assembled on site; Rossi drew facades inspired by those early pre-fab buildings, but never obtained a New York commission. Eventually, he got to use his SoHo ideas on a hotel, Il Palazzo, in Fukuoka, Japan, with monumental columns fused onto the facade -- an arresting building in part because its components are so baldly out of context.

In the mid Nineties, Scholastic began looking for a way to expand its headquarters. The company was crowded into a former drygoods store in the landmark cast-iron district. A site was available next door (between the drygoods store and an intricate commercial building of red brick and green metal) but what could possibly pass muster with the landmarks crowd? The company contacted Gensler and Associates, an architecture firm known as a corporate problem solver; Gensler had developed a relationship with Rossi and decided to enlist his help on a proposal for Scholastic. According to Adjmi, Rossi envisioned SoHo, with its factory-made Corinthian columns, as "caught between the classical world and the industrial world." He designed a classical facade for the front, and a more industrial facade for the rear - on gritty Mercer Street. That facade, with its highly articulated steel arches, is fascinating in itself. But the Broadway side is the show stopper. Because of its ample columns, the facade is more than two feet deep - indeed, over the course of ten floors, it eats up enough floor space for a dozen offices. But Scholastic loved the design. "It's toy like in its simplicity," says Bill Bretschger of Scholastic, explaining the scheme's appeal to the children's publishing company.

Eventually, Scholastic had Rossi plan the building's public spaces, including a lobby sheathed in metal, terra cotta and stucco, drawing the exterior themes indoors (the Harry statuary is a recent addition to the scheme), a basement theatre modelled on Palladio's 16th-century Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, and a cafe.

The idea, according to Adjmi, is to scatter enough interesting amenities throughout the building to keep visitors delighted. If anyone's work can do that, it is Rossi's.

Still, there were problems, including neighbours angry that the building -- twice as large as permitted by zoning regulations -- would throw their art studios into shadow. But the Landmarks Commission liked the building so much, it approved Rossi's design on the first go-round.

Adjmi called Rossi in Italy to tell him the good news. Eighteen days later, the architect drove off the side of a winding road near Lake Maggiore. When Adjmi arrived at the hospital in Milan, his mentor was still conscious. Within days, however, Rossi's condition had deteriorated. He died on 4 September, 1997, aged 66.

Back in New York, there was more bad news. Sales of a series of children's thrillers, called Goosebumps, fell so steeply that Scholastic's stock dropped 40 percent in one day, and the company began announcing layoffs. Remembers Adjmi: "Everyone said, 'Uh-oh, the building will never happen.'" But Scholastic pressed ahead, committing $ 18 million for the building's shell. And then Potter hit; Scholastic has sold 21 million copies of the first three books alone.

But the company hasn't asked Adjmi to substitute marble for concrete, or platinum for steel. "The budget," he says, "is the budget." Adjmi is amazed that the building is a reality; his only regret, of course, is that Rossi isn't here to see it.

"This was a really important project for him." At the same time, Adjmi is finishing another Rossi building in a prominent location: a 400,000 square foot office building on the Disney lot in Burbank, California. Visible from one of LA's busiest freeways, the building overshadows Disney structures by Michael Graves (with the Seven Dwarfs as caryatids) and another by Robert Stern (with a 50-foot-high "sorcerer's hat" office).

It's hardly the first time an architect's plans have been realized after his death, but it's hard to remember another architect whose posthumous buildings were so important to his reputation. (Frank Lloyd Wright's heirs finished dozens of buildings supposedly conceived by Wright, but did them so badly that the architect's reputation suffered.) Adjmi, whose office is lined with Rossi's fanciful renderings, many of which will end up in museums, has no desire to ride his mentor's coattails; he has already begun designing under his own name.

"It would be a mistake for me to pretend that I am Aldo," he says. Perhaps that's why he gets along with Rossi's son, Fausto, a philosopher now engaged in cataloguing his father's materials, and daughter, Vera, an actress.

One hundred or so pages into the first Potter book, Rowling describes the building in which Harry goes to school: "There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn't open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place . . ." By the time it's finished, Rossi's building may be almost as delightful.