Though partners and projects come and go, the one constant at PARA-Project is Jon Lott, a Harvard graduate who thrives on collaboration. The firm’s portfolio is equally varied, with residential, commercial and educational work that challenges convention. Lott started the firm to tackle side projects while working in the New York offices of OMA, and later REX. He envisioned PARA as a practice that would focus primarily on architectural ideas competitions and conferences. Within a few years, however, hypothetical design briefs gave way to concrete commissions on both sides of the continent, including a small bar in Brooklyn, and a store in Los Angeles for fashion designer Phillip Lim.
Today the studio’s four core designers continue the synergistic work ideology, frequently partnering with others. In addition to his own firm, Lott started a team called Collective-LOK (CLOK), with friends William O’Brien Jr. and Michael Kubo, that pools ideas and resources to undertake larger projects and participate in high-profile competitions. This on-the-fly collaboration has already led to a competition win to design a new space for the Van Alen Institute in Manhattan, and to CLOK’s nomination as a finalist in the 2014 edition of MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program, which commissions an emerging architecture firm to design a temporary courtyard installation each summer.
In 2009, when Lott moved from New York to teach at Syracuse University, he received the steady string of commissions needed to make the studio a full-time undertaking. For the university, the firm renovated the entrance to Huntington Hall, which had been relocated to a back alley in the 1970s. The solution was to bring the entrance back to the campus’s main axis, and to make the building infinitely more inviting by demolishing the lower level of a load-bearing masonry wall, replacing it with an expansive glassed-in gathering space. “It was about opening a hole rather than building something new,” says Lott.
Earlier this year, the firm completed a dramatic modern addition to a more traditional private residence in Syracuse known as Haffenden House. Though the brief was straightforward – create space for a writing studio and library above a garage – the resulting structure is unlike any other workspace. The facade has a grid of irregularly shaped windows visible through a translucent silicone fabric usually used for stadium roofs. This covers the entire house, keeping distractions to a minimum by blocking views to the street while letting in natural light. Inside, the floor of the second-storey library is interrupted by a deep, integrated soaking tub for moments of quiet contemplation; and the third-floor reading room is shaped like a bowl, with a soft floor that encourages lounging anywhere. The project has already brought in numerous other commissions, as well as plenty of visits from curious locals. “For the neighbourhood, it’s clearly a misfit,” says an unapologetic Lott.
Reinterpreting architectural conventions has become one of PARA’s favorite exercises. For La Casita, a Latin American centre in Syracuse completed in 2011 on a limited budget, Lott reimagined a balloon frame house as an organizational system to be inserted into an existing warehouse. Inspired by makeshift homes and gathering places constructed in the Bronx by the
Latin American community after buildings there burned in the 1970s, Lott created a flexible 418-square-metre skeletal interior that serves a wide range of programming. “It was all about paring it down to the absolute minimum for the division of spaces,” he says. “What can you do with the typology of the house when it’s liberated from having any exterior walls? It’s just a wooden frame with some curtains and chairs.”
When asked to participate in the 2014 competition for MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program, Lott and his partners at CLOK attempted to visually extend the museum’s courtyard beyond its physical boundaries. Their design, Mirror Mirror, proposed an enormous, sagging roof structure made from thousands of small triangular mirrors, which would pull views of the city into the enclosed space while reflecting the activities inside back out to passersby.
On The Books
PARA is now at work on a pavilion for Syracuse University’s School of Architecture; and a private residence made up of three small buildings, set on a steeply sloped site in New York State’s Finger Lakes region. But its most closely watched project is a new street-level office and event space for the Van Alen Institute in Manhattan, which is like-minded in its co-operative ventures. CLOK’s competition-winning design, scheduled for completion later this year, uses five types of screens and a flexible floor plan to create a shape-shifting space. It can be easily reconfigured for exhibitions, lectures and other events, while accommodating the daily needs of staff – a fine example of the team’s ethos of adaptability and collaboration.
Brooklyn, New York
2014 AIA New Practices New York
2014, 2009 Finalist, MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program
2009 First place, Netherlands Architecture Institute Open Fort competition
2007 Architectural League Prize, New York
Current Van Alen Institute, New York
Current Syracuse University School of Education Auditorium, New York
2014 Haffenden House, Syracuse
2013 Huntington Hall, Syracuse University
2011 La Casita cultural centre, Syracuse
2010 Crawford attic writing room, Syracuse
2008 3.1 Phillip Lim flagship store, Los Angeles