August 9, 2016

10 Questions with… Cary Tamarkin

Architect and developer Cary Tamarkin is a man both out of step with time and totally in sync. He doesn’t own a smartphone, he believes “technology will ultimately be the ruination of our society,” and he plays bluegrass and other “old timey tunes” on banjo and mandolin. And yet, Tamarkin’s prescient real estate investments have led to a thriving—and lucrative—career.

Purely an architect until he was 35, Tamarkin decided he didn’t want to be a “starving artist [his] whole life,” so he invested in an abandoned warehouse in the West Village in the early ’90s. When he made $1 million in return, he knew he was suited for his new dual identity.

In 2008, when the High Line was only an idea, he developed and designed the building at 456 West 19th Street, which epitomized Tamarkin’s classic style with its hand-laid black brick exterior and large steel windows. He has since built a number of condominiums (Tamarkin hates the word “condo”) near the High Line, including the Béton Brut concrete building at 508 West 24th Street and the upcoming 550 West 29th Street project. Tamarkin believes his commitment to doing things the old-fashioned way and his sensitivity to fitting into the urban fabric have made him a favorite of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Board of Standards and Appeals. This belief is backed up by buildings like 47 East 91st Street, the first new residential building in Carnegie Hill to have been approved by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission in more than 50 years.

Today, as the president of his 12-person firm, Tamarkin Co., he continues to patiently wait out overheated markets before buying, and brings a slower, sometimes anachronistic, approach to his designs. Here he talks about the challenge of balancing the often-opposing forces of development and beautiful architecture, the importance of sketching by hand, and what’s with all those clocks on his recent buildings.

Interior Design: How do you balance being an architect and a developer? Does it feel like having a split personality at times?

CT: It’s exactly like that. They’re so different. Architects sit in an ivory tower, commissioned with creating and drawing and making it beautiful. Developers are considered greedy, bloodsucking, food spitting. People hate developers.

Having said that, I’m not your typical developer. I won’t do projects that will make a lot of money, but don’t have a chance of being beautiful. And I won’t do projects that have a chance of being beautiful, but no chance of making money. It’s just too much time. I don’t have a passion for one more than the other. The real passion is for what is being created, which is a firm that does both.

At one point, many years ago I came into the office, I said, “This is fucking crazy. We’re not going to be architects anymore. We’re just going to be developers. We don’t make any money doing the architecture.” I went through the whole interview process, chose someone, they designed a project, which I’m sure was perfectly nice looking, but it had nothing to do with me or the ideas behind this firm. I said, “There’s no way I’m putting my name on this.” It taught me a great lesson: to have a happy life, I need to be involved in the design too.

ID: How would you describe your philosophy or style as an architect?

CT: The whole thing all fits under one banner, which is “old timey”. As an architect, I’m interested in making well-crafted buildings that will stand the test of time. The values that we use to design are age-old values of good architecture—proportion, light, and detail—not bending and folding glass curtain walls and showing off all your stuff. There are so many people screaming for attention, especially on the High Line where we’ve been building lately. We purposely tone it down and tear it back. I like getting attention, but I don’t like yelling for it.

I didn’t start out thinking I would do a signature look. But looking back now, 20 years later, there are definitely themes that tie my buildings together as a group. If your process stays the same from project to project, you’re going to end up with things that are able to talk to each other.

ID: On the other end, how would you describe your philosophy as a developer? Is the bad rap that developers get unfair?

CT: No, it’s not unfair. Developers are charged with making as much money as humanly possible, which means 99.9 percent of them don’t [care] about what they’re selling as long as it sells. Your days are spent calculating, doing proformas, fighting with the contractors, and checking out building sites. It’s a lot of very stressful work.

Prices are so expensive now—for land and contractors and financing in general—that it’s a very hard time to do development. It’s too expensive to buy. It’s too expensive to build. There are a lot of first-time developers around and a lot of new money in New York—both of which don’t really know how to do it. A lot of people are anticipating sell-out numbers that are way beyond what’s going to actually happen. We’re teaming up with certain deep-pocketed partners so that when the carnage comes, we’ll be there to pick it up the pieces and finish the buildings.

ID: What is one of the greatest difficulties of doing both architecture and development?

CT: As an architect, I need to take my time, especially when I am designing. As a developer, time is not your friend. This is a very difficult contradiction to reconcile. Toward the end of the project, the clock is ticking away at $50,000 a day. It’s really a lot of pressure. I have a huge library with lots of vintage books, and I spend a lot of time perusing, thinking, and changing. I don’t stop looking at things, which drives everyone crazy. If I come back with a better idea, it means all sorts of change orders, consultants, additional services, and so on. 

Time is the single most important gift we have. It is required to make proper decisions in our lives and to organize our thoughts. Lately, we have been putting clocks on our buildings. It’s intended as a gift to the city and to remind people of the importance of time.

ID: I understand that you don’t have a smartphone. Why is that?

CT: I don’t use a smartphone because all I want from a phone is to make phone calls. I am as addicted to email as much as everyone else. I am constantly sending and receiving messages at the office and at home. The last thing I need is to be contacted while I am out. Usually the person on the other end is expecting an immediate response, which I am not always prepared to give.

I’ll go to a meeting with the Carlyle Group or some other multibillion-dollar fund, and everybody will put down their two smartphones, one for personal and one for business. And I’ll put down this little teeny flip phone. They go, “What the fuck is that? How are you doing $100-million buildings with a flip phone? How are we going to get in touch with you?” I say, “Well, you’re not. That’s the whole reason I have it.”

ID: You don’t draw on the computer either. Do you think technology pushes us to move too quickly or thoughtlessly?

CT: I cannot draw a single line on a computer. I believe that the connection between the hand and the eye is the most important tool in the design process. Sketching allows the architect to make this connection. Because the very first image from a computer is perfectly printed, it cons the architect into thinking the design process is complete before it ever starts. The ability to sketch is rapidly disappearing from our profession, which makes me very sad.

ID: What are some of your favorite materials to work with?

CT: Brick is a standard. Steel windows are a standard. In fact, that’s what we’re known for. I’ve had one idea my whole life. I need to think up a new idea.

I’d like to do more concrete buildings. I built a cast-in-place concrete building on 24th street on the High Line, which is a wild material. You have to rein it in, but it’s so tough and brutal. There’s something very expressive about it. I really like muscular architecture—exposed beams and things that show what they’re holding up. 

Normally, the masons are asked to clean up the drippings and the ceilings are skim coated so that you get rid of the plywood imprints. From the beginning, I would draw the way the plywood should be lined up because it’s going to stay. The drippings, or snots—that all stays. It all becomes its own seemingly simplistic decoration. The exposed formwork and tie holes, which hold the forms in place, are pretty much the only decoration, so you have to do a very careful job with that. And then it just takes on a very interesting presence. This is an overused statement, but it’s really true: to get something to really sing takes hard work. It’s not the typical way of doing things, so it’s a lot of study and a lot of paring back.

ID: When you’re designing new buildings, do you look to specific historic buildings in New York or do you look at the neighborhood for inspiration?

CT: I definitely look at the neighborhood. I don’t want to design traditional buildings that look like the building next door. To me, we do modern buildings, modern being like from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. There’s a much different aesthetic than people design in now.

I’m very interested in the urban fabric. The starting point is what’s around this thing, which is why I think Landmarks likes us and the Board of Standards and Appeals likes us. We’re not just going for the maximum square footage. We want to also make it fit in. New York’s such a loud place that anywhere you build there’s going to be opposition to it. People want their building to be the last one that’s allowed to be that tall or whatever. It’s pretty well known that we’re committed to the final result, so it tends to be more discussions than fights with those guys.

ID: You’ve done a number of conversions, including a firehouse for Anderson Cooper. How do you approach conversions of historic buildings?

CT: He bought a firehouse and he wanted a firehouse. The more it looked like a firehouse when we were done, the better. And it did. The main thing is, we listen to the building. You don’t impose yourself on it. It’ll tell you through window placement and structural bays how it wants to be set up. I suppose you could rip it all apart and impose your will on it, but that’s not what we do.

We did a building at 206 West 17th Street, which was a conversion of an original Barney’s administrative headquarters to a residential building. Harrison Ford bought the top floor and a bunch of other people are in there. Meryl Streep is on the 5th floor. It has big beautiful windows, lots of light. I put in old-time cast iron radiators and things that most people would not be into, I think. It tends to attract a very self-confident crowd.

ID: What are the current design trends that really drive you crazy?

CT: Other people using our windows. That annoys me because there’s a ton of it going on now. Literally developers will say to their architects, “Make it look like that.” And glass curtain walls on residential apartments are annoying to me. Why do it? It makes no sense. I’m looking across the street at a glass building, floor to ceiling, and I can see the backs of desks and computer wires and things shoved up against the glass wall and a kid’s bedroom with stuffed animals. It’s just stupid. Maybe the designers aren’t thinking about furnishing it or how people really live, but we’re interested in how people really live.

ID: Do you feel like you’re often pushing back against these trends?

CT: I’m not pushing back against them; I just don’t pay attention to them. I read about everything that’s going on, which you have to do to make a successful project. And I have a not-so-secretly huge ego, so I like being part of it. But we try really hard to just do our own thing.

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