Camber Studio Designs an Exercise Center Fit for a General in Brooklyn, New York
In 2003, Wes Rozen snuck inside an abandoned shipbuilding facility in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The long-decommissioned site, along New York’s East River, was transforming into a hub for creative and manufacturing businesses. But some structures were still dilapidated. Rozen, then an architecture student at the Cooper Union, was helping to plan and design a facility in the Yard for Crye Precision, a start-up military-gear manufacturer. After hours, he slipped into the building through a broken door and saw a 70-foot-high ceiling with shattered clerestory windows and a massive hall filled with old machines. “The place was falling apart and full of holes,” the Camber Studio principal remembers.
Today, that 87,000-square-foot building, since renovated by MN Design Professional Corporation, is Crye’s headquarters. Recently, executive director Gregg Thompson invited Rozen back to design the workplace’s amenity spaces, including a fitness center, for Crye’s 240 employees. “Wes knew the building better than anyone,” Thompson says. And Rozen certainly understood the difficulty of installing a gym there. Crye, now a major supplier of body armor and combat apparel for the U.S. Armed Forces, manufactures almost everything on-site; by law, military garb must be made domestically. Two floors of offices and sewing rooms line the sides of the building, and the 470-foot-long hall is used for storage. The best space for the gym was on top of two rooms in the center of the hall, which connect to the site’s mezzanine via a bridge.
“It’s unusual to have a gym in the middle of an industrial space,” Rozen notes. “The challenge was making it private, while designing something with scale that would hold the spotlight.” It made an intriguing first commission for Camber, a design and fabrication workshop in nearby Red Hook. A co-founding partner of SITU, which coincidentally is also located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Rozen left after 13 years to launch Camber in 2018. His new firm focuses on unique projects at the intersection of art and architecture, and is named after the term for to arch slightly. At Crye, the two rooftops act as plinths for a sculptural, origamilike structure of black prefinished plywood. “Since this was an interior buildout, we didn’t have to worry about outdoor elements, so we could have fun,” Rozen says.
It helped to have a supportive client: Thompson requested a gym, but was otherwise open to ideas. Early on, the architect suggested adding flex spaces to five empty balconies once used for unloading cranes; one is now a small kitchen and the others are informal work and meeting nooks. After surveying employees, Rozen fleshed out the program for the gym: a yoga studio on one side, a fitness center with a climbing wall on the other, and a tunnel over the bridge in between. All told, the amenities add 5,000 square feet.
The Camber team members started by thinking about visibility and camouflage, like an army would. They identified viewpoints throughout the hall that form a network of sight lines, then placed windows accordingly. Shaped like a cone, the openings privilege the viewer on the inside, much like those in a castle or a bunker wall. “When you’re inside the amenity space and close to the window, the cone matches your line of sight and the view feels expansive,” Rozen explains. Camber also created shutters that gym users can close or open for more or less privacy.
The plywood cladding references the garment manufacturing happening within the building. A repeating diamond motif, engraved with a CNC router, gestures to stitches, measurements, and sewing patterns. “People actually make things here, so it speaks to that craftsmanship,” Rozen says. The walls, bolted to a steel parapet, are about 1 foot off the main gym structure and hang like clothes on a body. “We considered how to make plywood as fabriclike as possible,” he says. For the tunnel, Camber added hinges so the material can fold and drape over a steel-and-aluminum armature as well as, on one side, myriad colorful holds for the climbing wall.
With an undulating roof, the tunnel also takes inspiration from something farther afield: the mesas and mountains of the American West, where Rozen grew up. Camber envisioned it as a contrast to the urban surroundings that nods to landscapes where soldiers spend much of their time. The shell is flat by the yoga studio and rises toward the climbing wall, its geometry derived from a spot on the rim of the Grand Canyon where the desert meets a rocky valley. Inside, the space feels both futuristic and cavelike, creating what Rozen conceived as a moment of compression within the expansive hall. Cutouts bring in light but blur people within.
Camber prefabricated most of the plywood components in its workshop and assembled them at Crye. Starting with large mockups, the team worked out the geometry for the folds with the help of structural engineers and a Grasshopper CAD programmer. “The computation for the tunnel is super heavy and complex,” Rozen admits. For Thompson, the equations add up to a deconstructed form that “changes and breaks apart visually,” as if alluding to the site’s formerly ruined state. “It’s abstract, dramatic, and works well,” he says. Most importantly, the amenities are heavily used—busy with tai chi classes and breakout sessions.
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