Caples Jefferson Architects
Caples Jefferson Architects
getting to the heart of the matter…
by Dar Dowling
The sunset gold dome of the Queens Theater, the melodic symmetry of the Louis Armstrong House Visitor Center, and the Ghost landscaping of Weeksville Center, are only a few of the reasons why I fell in love with the work of Caples Jefferson. However they’re also some of the reasons why Sara Caples and Everardo Jefferson headed up to Saratoga Springs NY to receive the AIA New York State 2012 award for Firm of the Year last weekend. An amazing accomplishment considering the number of talented architect firms there are in NYS, and frankly it’s well deserved.
While Sara Caples and Everardo Jefferson accepted the award, Caples points out that they do so for all the architects who worked at the firm over the past 25 years, reflecting the collaborative nature that makes up the culture of Caples Jefferson. While clearly thrilled to be getting the award, what also excites Caples, as much or more, is when their projects are embraced by the public. In fact she says that their most successful projects are the ones that people feel right away.
They’ve certainly achieved that, and more, when it comes to Queens Theater, built in Flushing Meadows in Corona Park, along side the Philip Johnson 1964 Worlds Fair complex, which includes the instantly recognizable Unisphere. For any architect the Queens Theater would be a challenging project considering the sites significant place in history.
Instead of imitating the past as some might Caples Jefferson worked with the past, building a bridge between the two eras, and in turn breathing new life into the area. Part of this process was the creation of a large inverted dome. According to Caples they spent a great deal of time digging deep in order to find just the right color for the dome ultimately settling on sunset gold, because it symbolizes and feels like a celebration to each of the 109 ethnic groups that make up Queens.
But they didn’t just choose the color and move on, instead inspired by Rothko paintings they decided to blur the edges, and make the very outer ring of the dome crisp and clear to create a very special effect. Caples Jefferson often explores the use of light in their work, so they pierced the dome with three cone shaped skylights, moving away from using more traditional cylinder shaped ones. This addition allows the sunlight to play on the floor throughout the day, while at night the light in the room moves your gaze upward illuminating the Philip Johnson World’s Fair buildings, successfully meshing the two eras with light.
The Louis Armstrong House Visitor Center and Archives, one of their upcoming projects, will be located just across the street from Armstrong’s actual home in Brooklyn. Caples Jefferson has designed a structure to reflect Louis Armstrong the man and his music. One of the more exciting aspects of the centers design is the inclusion of a Jazz club so visitors can experience what Armstrong loved about jazz first hand – bands will hold open practices in the space, so visitors can sit down, relax, and actually feel the music.
Caples Jefferson infused the space with two things that Louis Armstrong loved – music and nature, so it’s not surprising that they included a rooftop garden just above the Jazz club. The garden not only gives the structure a bigger Louis Armstrong factor by including his love of nature, but it also makes the building very neighborhood friendly, providing neighbors with a gorgeous garden view along with birdsong during the day.
Architecture has been called frozen music, and this is an idea that the firm played with when designing this structure. Using three dimensional aspects to create what you could call structural music, including the use of a curved facade and brass mesh imbedded in glass, along with alternating brass and mild highlights. These brassy notes reflect Armstrong’s love of music, while also illustrating his contribution to the neighborhood. According to Caples throughout the design process their intention was to bring visitors into his music – getting them to think about it and ultimately to feel it.
The Weeksville Heritage Center, nestled between Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, is a very special project the firm is currently working on, which is slated to open in six to eight months. The four houses in the complex are what remain of a pre-Civil War community founded by freed African American slaves, which was also a station on the underground rail road. Unexpectedly discovered by historians in the 60’s, the neighborhood preserved and restored the site – and Caples Jefferson is now spearheading the design of the new exhibition, research building, and the grounds.
Part of the communities when it was founded was to blend into the surrounding towns to keep themselves and their charges safe a natural end result was keeping their culture out of sight. So part of the design process was to bring their African roots into the light of day. The firm achieved this by using what Caple’s calls modern syntax combined with African riffs in the visitors center, which is low and horizontal in order to anchor the complex and stay in tune with the overall landscape of the area.
The African riffs are everywhere, appearing in some very unexpected places. You’ll find basket patterns in the steel used to design the atrium, as well as in the panes of glass integrated into the structure, which contain varying degrees of darkness causing a very distinctive pattern to form on the floor in the light. When you look carefully at the glass or shadow it casts, you can see the smaller Congolese patterns contained within. This design aspect also reduces heat, which ties into the fact the building is a Gold LEED sustainable site.
Light and nature play a role in many, if not most, of Caples Jeffersons projects, so it’s not surprising that, Elizabeth Kennedy, the projects Landscape architect, used the surrounding grounds, to provide visitors with a much fuller experience. Kennedy developed what Caples calls a host landscape. The mapped road, which is actually an old Native American trail, weaves through grounds appearing and disappearing as you walk and look into the horizon- using nature to integrate the complexes of the sites previously hidden nature, with its new much more visible one. All of which Caples hopes will allow visitors to experience the process of discovery through the landscape.
One Caples Jefferson core principles back when they were starting out was for the heart of their projects to touch the hearts of the people viewing it, and bring them into it and they’ve certainly achieved that and more.