Inside a Brooklyn firm designing for the 99 percent

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Why did two New York City architects recently jump on a commuter train to Princeton, New Jersey, to visit public intellectual Cornel West? To duke it out—with their minds, of course.

“Cornel West once wrote an article about architecture saying it wasn’t as powerful [a medium] as music,” explains Everardo Jefferson, who, with his partner in work and life, Sara Caples, founded New York architecture firm Caples Jefferson.

West argued that architecture can’t do what music can do: elicit a visceral emotional response, or “that guttural scream of the grave,’” recounts Jefferson, repeating a West phrase that has stuck with the architect ever since. “But, no—I think it can,” Jefferson counters. “Architecture is the mother of communication. To me, that’s what it is.”

Turns out Jefferson and Caples have been communicating ideas—and stirring emotion—with their work since they founded their firm in 1987. It’s key to CapJeff (as the firm calls itself internally) to convey human and emotional qualities in its buildings. “We try to make each project very specific to what it is,” says Caples. “That means that the aesthetic development of each project [differs], and it also means, in a way, that each project is its own artistic statement.” In short, says Jefferson: “We aim for delight.”

That’s surely true of the colorful patchwork facade of the Heritage Health & Housing Headquarters in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, or the light-filled hallways of 10 Bouck Court, a pre-K building in Gravesend, Brooklyn. “My favorite architect, James Stirling, had a certain sensibility and his work was always different,” says Jefferson. In CapJeff’s case, variety in building types and aesthetic choices is a byproduct of setting varying goals from project to project.

The sun filters in through skylights at the pre-K building CapJeff designed at 10 Bouck Court, in Gravesend, Brooklyn. Via Caples Jefferson

But the firm does have universal goals for itself. “When we founded this firm, we agreed we’d do three things,” explains Sara Caples. These grounding tenets supply a mission and a vision that, among other things, landed it on Architect magazine’s 2015 list of the top 50 sustainable firms. The first is that about 50 percent of CapJeff’s projects must engage people and places “that have been traditionally underserved by design professionals,” she says. Next, the firm uses a research-intensive methodology. And lastly, says Caples, “we see our approach as [one that creates] works that have coherence and meaning for the general public.” No cold glass-and-steel towers here—even if CapJeff hews to the teachings of modernism.

“If you want to talk in labels, we’re modernists who think in postmodern ways,” cracks Caples. “Everardo [is] African American and Hispanic, and I’m a woman practitioner who’s lived in lots of different places. Modernism in its origins is Eurocentric, yet it’s a language that has spread worldwide. One of the things that’s very important to us is that there’s an opportunity to enrich modernism and allow modern buildings to speak to communities that don’t necessarily think [the buildings are] speaking to their heritage or their interests.”

Though modernism has long veiled allusions to cultures outside of its Teutonic origins, CapJeff is determined “to bring out more easily interpretable or readable forms of those kinds of dialogues,” Caples asserts. It’s not hard to see Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion in their skylight-illuminated community center for the Marcus Garvey Houses in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

“The issue for us is we’ve digested all the architectural stuff we learned in school,” explains Jefferson. “But every time you get a new project you have to unlearn all that stuff. Because the stakes are different each time. If I’m doing a community theater in Queens, I can’t do the same thing as what I’m doing for Louis Armstrong,” he says, alluding to the firm’s logarithmic spiral Theatre-in-the-Park on the 1964 World’s Fair site, and their recently broken-ground house museum for the Jazz legend in Corona, Queens.

It’s precisely these sorts of considered buildings that have shone the spotlight on the firm. Last week, Caples Jefferson received the 2017 President’s Award from the American Institute of Architects’ New York chapter (AIANY) at the organization’s Heritage Ball benefit. As AIANY chapter President David Piscuskas wrote in an email, “the work of Sara Caples and Everardo Jefferson is notable for the diversity of its mission, its abiding assurance of the invitation of place, its careful attention to detail, and its pitch-perfect presence in underserved communities.”

Especially as New York becomes more economically stratified thanks to the creeping realities of gentrification, “it’s important to leave your mark,” says Caples. And she doesn’t just mean hers and Jefferson’s. “We think it’s very important that all communities have a chance to leave their mark,” she says, particularly in a city motored by its own pace of change, where layers of years past are frequently razed and rebuilt.

An aerial view of the Weeksville section of Brooklyn (foreground), formerly home to a community of 19th- and early-20th-century black landowners. Julian Olivas

One such layer is the historic Brooklyn section of Weeksville, a once powerful and economically thriving example of free black society in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, the area is home to the Kingsborough Housing Projects, Atlantic Avenue train tracks, and, lately, glassy residential buildings (a sure sign of rising rents).

While now only four structures remain of this past—the landmarked Hunterfly Road homes from 1860, 1900, and 1930—at its height Weeksville bore the markings of a self-sufficient utopia: schools, churches, a home for the elderly, social and charitable societies, even its own newspaper, Freedom’s Torchlight, all available to its 500 property-owning residents.

James Weeks, the formerly enslaved man who bought the original plots of land in 1838 to sell to other free black Brooklynites, designed this community as a haven of opportunity for African Americans.

Weeksville was rediscovered in the 1960s by historian James Hurley and local resident and pilot Joseph Haynes, who, after rummaging through old maps of the area, rented a plane to follow their hunch that some built remnants of Weeksville must have remained. And indeed, something did. They spotted the Hunterfly houses from the air, and began a community-oriented excavation project that unearthed the sorts of everyday objects that offer a fuller picture of life in Weeksville. In 1968, they launched a preservation society that restored Weeksville in the public imagination.

The Weeksville Heritage Center (foreground), in front of the historic Hunterfly houses (rear, right). Nic Lehoux

Some five decades later, in 2013, Caples and Jefferson completed the Weeksville Heritage Center, with it intending not only to preserve the history, stories, and artifacts of this exceptional neighborhood, but activate its beleaguered current reality.

“It’s a community center, but it’s not just generically a ‘community center,’” says Caples. In fact, now, it stands as Brooklyn’s largest (in size) African-American cultural institution. “It’s a center based around a specific society and history, so the issues of representation, and having something that would speak to this history, meant our building should participate with that rediscovery,” she explains.

However, Weeksville Heritage Center doesn’t only participate in its past—especially if the newly minted executive director Rob Fields has his way. “Really what I am is a steward,” says Fields, who is the third person to hold the title. “Now, the wonderful challenge is to activate it and ensure the community of central Brooklyn knows it’s welcome here. We are focused on outreach to the community [so that it knows] that this is theirs, not just our little 19,000-square-foot building. The building has set the groundwork for us to have a real place for convening in the community—we literally have the space to do it.”

Inside the Weeksville Heritage Center. Nic Lehoux

Nic Lehoux

Landscaped along the site’s old American Indian trail—and directly referencing patterns and forms found in West African art in the fence pickets, glass hallways, and stone building skins—CapJeff designed a LEED-Gold-certified space that’s heated with a geothermal system. It’s currently being used for curated historical shows; neighborhood programs, including its In Pursuit of Freedom and Ancestry projects; and participatory site activations.

“We try for some kind of tension, because we feel there’s a tension with the plan—like with Weeksville. There’s a tension between the past and now, the garden and the building,” says Jefferson. “You don’t have to see it that way, but if you go into deeper thinking, you can see there’s something there.”

Perhaps what’s telling about these architects’ work is “when we work together and talk about this stuff, there’s always an essential tension,” Jefferson says, “Personally—and I don’t know if she agrees—it’s from that tension that we come to some compromise or disagreement where the next idea develops.”

“Isn’t it ironic,” Caples quips, that “Bob Stern was our matchmaker?”