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New Affiliates: Test Beds

Mock-ups for New York’s luxury residential skyscrapers could become structures that serve the city’s community gardens.

Architecture firm New Affiliates has conceived a radical plan to repurpose construction waste as infrastructure for New York City’s community gardens. Working with architect and academic Sam Stewart-Halevy, the studio’s founders Jaffer Kolb and Ivi Diamantopoulou first came up with the idea when they recognized a correspondence in scale between architectural mock-ups commissioned by developers to test building facades, and the structures in Kolb’s sister’s community garden in Harlem. 

“A couple of years ago we were talking about the billionaires row as this aggregation of hyper-articulated hyper-tall architecture and seeing on the map, the mutually exclusive nature of those and community gardens,” Diamantopoulou told The Journal. “The idea that you could take a fragment from a hundred feet up in the air and put it on the ground in the Bronx and someone can actually walk up to it and access it and inhabit it is exciting to us.” That excitement led to a much more involved project, with the goal of actually acquiring a building mock-up and transforming it into a structure for a community garden to use.

The mock-ups are a byproduct of New York’s latest residential construction boom. When real estate developers need to test the materials from which they plan to construct a building, they will create a full-scale model, producing a section of the building’s facade, windows, or other architectural features to see how it will look and behave in the real world. Visual mock-ups examine the facade’s appearance in the context of the building site, while performance mock-ups trail how the facade will stand up to the elements. Performance mock-ups are put through a rigorous battery of tests, which can include fire, wind, rain, a battering ram, and even a simulated riot.

Architectural mock-ups are created to test the facades of luxury residential towers.

Because most of the new buildings going up in New York City are high-end residential developments, these mock-ups tend to be made with materials of extremely high quality – but are left for waste after the tests are complete. Rather than just re-locate them, or create some kind of sculpture, the three architects are seeking to transform the pieces into something truly useful.

“Our observation is that these are really beautiful high-end building pieces that can really be a benefit if you couple them with these typologies: the casita, the greenhouse, and the garden shed,” said Kolb. These three types of structures are common in New York City’s community gardens, where they are frequently built from salvaged or donated materials. Rather than introduce a new form to the gardens, the architects want to transform the leftover mock-ups into a form that is recognizable and useful to community gardeners.

Since most mock-ups are not fully formed structures, the teams’ challenge is to incorporate the pieces of facade into new structures that suits a community garden’s needs. The result is custom architecture, made of the same materials used in Manhattan’s fanciest buildings for community gardens in the outer boroughs. “You’ll get fragments or a wall or something that we have to build an armature around,” Kolb said. “That armature becomes a really interesting design project, because we are working in conversation with another architect ostensibly, and it also provides a moment of translation between us and the gardeners in order to amend that object to work within their particular context.”

New Affiliates noticed a similarity in scale between the mock-ups and community garden structures.

Though architects and builders have been more than willing to donate mock-ups once their tests are complete, and the idea is generally met with enthusiasm from garden groups, bringing the idea to fruition requires complete buy-in from the members of a community garden. “We’re really working between two kinds of bureaucracies: the bureaucracy of construction and the bureaucracy of the gardens,” said Stewart-Halevy.

The theme of translation between formal and informal finds many resonances in this project. On the one hand, the architects are taking these highly technical study pieces that are ultimately not functional for everyday use, and converting them into something ad-hoc, but useful. The mock-ups are also signifiers of the density and wealth of New York real estate, most of them originating in Manhattan's most sought-after neighborhoods. By relocating these artifacts to the outskirts of the city, where groups of neighbors have built community gardens on plots of land passed over by developers, the trio hopes to help redistribute some of the city’s architectural resources.

“In a way it’s an environmental project, and we are trying to sort of work against the production of waste or the accumulation of byproducts, but at the same time we want to think of it as a political project,” said Diamantopoulou.

The team hopes to democratize the luxury waste materials across New York City.

Since community gardens generally make decisions on the basis of complete unanimity, and because of the logistical challenges of moving and storing the mock-ups, no Test Beds projects have yet been brought to fruition. “There have been one or two false starts where it almost happened and then one piece didn’t come through at the right moment,” Kolb admitted. “I do imagine that that’s going to kind of keep happening over and over.”

However, the three architects have been working with the New York City parks department since November 2018 to forge closer relationships with garden groups, and hope that at least one of their Test Beds finds a suitable home soon.

Text by Ethan Tucker.