New York magazine's Wendy Goodman lead the panel featuring restauranteur Andrew Tarlow, architect Morris Adjmi, and hotel designer Stefanie Brechbuehler of Workstead. The group discussed the various moves that make the hotel emblematic of the borough's sensibility—the exposed brick walls and timber ceilings, and the extensive ironwork remaining from the building's past life as a factory.
"We wanted to bring this old building into the present and future," Tarlow explains to the crowd. "It was just a question of how to respect and love the building itself." Hotel designer Stefanie Brechbuehler agrees, saying that a big part of her job was simply "listening to what the building was telling us."
When deciding upon a front door for the hotel's scoop entrance, Brechbuehler found the idea of a traditional doorway appalling and so created a curved front door that integrated naturally into the brick entryway. Building architect Morris Adjmi, of Morris Adjmi Architects, points out they did make one dramatic move: they decided to slice off half the building to make way for the glass addition. That meant integrating modern windows into the new building wall, which weren't designed to blend in seamlessly with the rest of the brick exterior.
The Williamsburg neighborhood in which the Wythe Hotel was built is not a protected landmark district. "You can do whatever you want here," Tarlow says. Adjmi chimes in, saying that it was "okay to have a mix in this neighborhood," although he points out there are more than a few new developments less than pleasing to the eye.
"Hopefully the more projects like this, the better quality we can expect for the neighborhood," Tarlow adds. (Another boutique hotel is planned a few blocks away, so perhaps Tarlow can expect better quality and competition.)
Adjmi speaks at greater length on developing in landmarked, historic districts of Brooklyn, and how "development is in many cases frowned upon." The goal of his firm to convince community boards that what they're pursuing is good for the neighborhood and can be contextual and different at the same time, says Adjmi.
Brechbuehler warns against the obsession many designers have to mimic the old, and the difficulty of "creating something that feels like it's already been there." She says there are some spaces she's visited and wondered: "Is this Brooklyn or the Epcot Center?"
An audience member asks the panelists what they envisioned to "Brooklyn design" to be, and if the inherent grit Brooklyn has long been associated with will remain. Their answers varied but hit similar points. "We're always encountering older buildings that need to be taken apart and rebuilt, and that's unique to Brooklyn," says Tarlow. "It's a question of keeping the existing character and repurposing it." Brechbuehler says her firm simply tries to be "mindful of the spaces we're given." And Adjmi sums it up: "I see honesty, authenticity, and funkiness in Brooklyn. Most importantly, it's not homogeneous."
Emily Nonko is a writer living in Brooklyn. She specializes in real estate and architecture coverage at Brownstoner.com. You can also find her on Twitter @EmilyNonko.