Affable Grotesques

Rafael Herrin-Ferri’s guidebook to Queens’ polymorphous saltboxes, shotguns, and McMansions is a romp through New York’s “global village.”

Fifteen years ago, Kevin Walsh, the terminal nostalgist behind the long-running website Forgotten New York, griped in the comments of a Gothamist article (headline: “A Home Is a Queens Castle”) about the impact new zoning laws were having in Forest Hills. “Look, architecture is over,” Walsh portended, referring to the perceived takeover of the Tudorful neighborhood by Bad Taste. In the early aughts, Bukharan Jewish immigrants, after fleeing the chaos of post–Soviet Union Central Asia, staked out their vision of the good life in this corner of central Queens. Some began buying homes and converting them to mondo manors. Distended to embassylike proportions and churlish in demeanor, these piebald palazzi incorporated a few orientalish signifiers—Persian pointed windows, lovey-dovey wrought iron—but otherwise hewed to received McMansion models. Any elaborations thereof were unsystematic, unless one accepts the contentious proposition that “quantity has a quality all its own.” Agglutination was the prevailing architectonic consideration; the lawn and driveway were seen to be extensions of the house envelope, catchments for expensive and outsize baubles. Balusters, hip knobs, and luxury sedans found their equivalence in the universal language of wealth.

In local politics and online forums, the rebarbative remodels acquired third-rail status, as a friend who savaged them in a web article found out firsthand. Rebukes—from neighbors, preservationists, or commentators—were met with rancorous replies from homeowners in a keyboard conflict that quickly devolved into ugly ethnic typecasting. (More than a generational rift separated the older, liberal Ashkenazi residents of Forest Hills from the Bukharan newcomers.) Enmity between neighbors is scantly in evidence in All the Queens Houses, Rafael Herrin-Ferri’s guidebook to the polymorphous saltboxes, shotguns, Cape Cods, duplexes, “millennial mansions,” and Amityvillas of “New York City’s largest and most diverse borough.” The book is a romp, blithe but also blinkered in a way that intensely personal projects often are, particularly those their makers saddle with strict, scientistic parameters. For a decade, Herrin-Ferri, an architect and photographer residing with his family in Woodside, has methodically trawled Queens, from Far Rockaway to Floral Park, for interesting moments of aesthetic discord. He scopes out residential streets on Google Maps and consults several weather apps for plentiful cloud cover before heading out on foot or skateboard. Attempting to cultivate a gestalt, he insists on a head-on vantage—the distance to the sidewalk opposite dictates the overhead clearance—and horizontal framing that clips the view of the Joneses, the Lees, and the Rodríguezes. Is this what architects mean by context?

From the beginning, Herrin-Ferri committed the outré and oddball, the dazed and disconcerting, to Instagram. Interest in his project grew, leading to an exhibition at the Architectural League of New York and eventually a handbook that, contrary to the recent publishing trend toward dilation, is gracious enough to fit in the hand. The persistence of the one-point perspective and moody skies gives his photographic subjects a degree of commensurability, and the deliberate format, with the houses paired off on spreads, encourages, in those instances where attached and semidetached houses appear, the gimlet-eyed to spot the differences. (Good luck to the color-blind.) Herrin-Ferri’s proceduralism—in interviews, the Hispanic American has cited the Düsseldorf School of Photography, whose practitioners shared a Teutonic impulse for premeditation—would seem to foist conformity onto the serially anomalous. But beyond meteorological sameness, no effort has been made to excise the plant life, street paraphernalia, and cars that inevitably crowd the lower third of every portrait. Indeed, Herrin-Ferri’s gazetteer of affable grotesques is an indirect indictment of contemporary vehicular design, which strains for swagger but can only manage simulated verve.

Of course, the serially anomalous is self-denying. The multitudinous variety to which Herrin-Ferri has devoted countless weekends and snatched hours to cataloging is, by its nature, recombinant. Stock vendibles underlie the impression of the sui generis, and behind every exemplary marker of dissimilitude is a repressed desire for standardization. Broken pediments, chamfered gables, pagoda roofs, pergolas, polycarbonate awnings, aluminum awnings, stainless-steel doors and balconies, chrome grilles and gates, fluted columns with composite capitals, postcap finials, fauna-inflected finials, marblish stone, ashlar stone, glass block, and plenty of fenestration—picture windows, bay windows, bowed windows, ox-eye windows, Federal-style windows, arched transoms, skylights—are all off-the-shelf and, given how quickly the gimcrack construction starts to decay, jetsam-in-waiting. Disposability is a holdover virtue from the postwar era, when compound growth, capitalist forbearance, and guilt-free abundance were cast in the terms of the eternal. The appeal of the easy, light-as-air enticements publicized by the 1964 World’s Fairs in Flushing Meadows turned out to be far more enduring than the reproachful solidity of Beaux-Arts Manhattan and Brooklyn, alleged by Lewis Mumford in his slim study The Brown Decades to have embodied the humanistic values of the late-nineteenth century. (No surprise that Technicolor won out over umber and sepia.) As Joseph Heathcott notes in his introduction, Queens experienced a population spike in the interwar years, with developers meeting demand through a mix of walk-up tenements, chastened row houses, amenity-rich Garden City–style co-ops, and to a great extent, cheap, even mail-order, tract housing. But beginning in the 1950s, when Queens “took extra measures to accommodate the automobile,” the borough acquired its dispersed, resource-profligate character. After federal checks on migration were lifted in 1965, immigrant families from East and South Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean “searching for a modest foundation for their social and economic mobility” increasingly took the place of Italian and German Americans, who decamped for Long Island or Jersey.

Herrin-Ferri doesn’t have much to say about historic preservation or even zoning, still less about the politico-economic calculus that sorts winners and losers and forces groups into delimited areas where they may resume regional or ethnic disputes. Generally, he subscribes to the image of Queens as a “global village” and to the idea that home ownership in a dense, intractable urban context is the great arbitrator.

The comportment of Queens’ housing changed accordingly. Existing properties were subdivided or torn down for constructions more material to rising fortunes. Deference to the car was reflected in new or modified suburban configurations that prioritized ostentatious display. Postage-stamp lawns grew popular, but when upkeep proved to be a hassle, they were paved over without a thought to surface runoff. Imported decorative motifs, stuck onto street fronts, were deployed with the subtlety of clarions. Small, detached garages were grafted onto the home proper, dignified—preposterously in the case of the Mizrahi–Forest Hills idiolect (curiously missing from Herrin-Ferri’s index)—as “wings” in a manor or, when space was tight, incorporated into the basement. Thus was born the sunken driveway, instantly recognizable as “Queens” and ignominious for being laughably steep, with slopes that could be described, without much exaggeration, as alpine.

Other borough-specific innovations include the “Fedders” buildings, a type of cut-rate multifamily development whose most distinguished feature are the brand-name air conditioner units that punch through the facade. With little to no pretense of mimesis, let alone originality, and often garbed in an apron of nauseating flaxen-colored brick, the buildings set a new standard for humdrum. They appear to be a favorite of Herrin-Ferri’s, presumably because of the way their constitutive blankness incentivizes drunken levels of customization. He highlights numerous strategies for injecting cheer into these barren vessels, ranging from hats (mansard roofs, dormerlike “eyebrows”) and decorative appliqués (brick striping and diapering) to the functional superimposition of balconies and canopies. And so, a Corona Fedders disappears beneath a coat of fire engine–red paint and wall-to-wall winter gardens, even obtaining a jaunty cap in the form of a step-down roof awning.

Herrin-Ferri calls it “Red Fedders with Solariums,” a moniker that stakes it all on a limp reduplicative, descriptive to the point of banality. “Pantheon House,” another disavowing Fedders, this time in Astoria, plays up a tertiary facade embellishment at the expense of the whole—a startling guise of International Style stucco, (implied) ribbon windows, and geometrically crisp balconies. Some sobriquets—they number 175 or so in all, each one heading a different house and extended caption—betray an ear for cadence. “Commuter Tudor,” bestowed on a 1930s Douglastown apartment building with turreted aspirations that originally catered to Manhattan office workers, sticks. “Queen Anne Cartoon” and “Samurai Helmet House,” while not especially lyrical, attain greater resonance when seen alongside images of a bowdlerized Richmond Hill “painted lady” and a white South Ozone Park house with suggestive black eave trim, respectively. “Brick-Clad Italianate with Hydraulic Balcony” (Belle Harbor) delivers on its riotous promise, while “Opera House” (Jamaica Heights) is suitably grandiose, equally redolent of Lincoln Center (Herrin-Ferri’s analogue) as gold-foil-wrapped chocolates. Many of the upmarket or learned references miss the mark. There isn’t a scintilla of Walter Gropius in “East Elmhurst Gropius,” nor is Palladio apposite with the diminutive South Jamaica house with a graphic roofline that Herrin-Ferri christens “Everyday Palladian.”

The visual density of the book is syntactically doubled by Herrin-Ferri’s informative, if at times plodding, captions. (Levity, when not immediately detectable in the photographs, is meant to be supplied by the makeshift taxonomies, the prosodies of which are variable.) He has an extensive grasp of both the dead nomenclature of classical architecture and McMaster-Carr’s and is equally fluent with “indigenous” architectural idioms, even when they are buried under one, two, three layers of last season’s fashions. A great majority of the single-family houses taken in by Herrin-Ferri’s lens are pre- or immediately postwar but look like they’re from the 1980s or, conversely, the 1480s. In this way, a Little Neck saltbox (year built: 1945) described as a “Mediterranean-style” villa crossed with a “pleasure pavilion” actually resembles, in function, a clotheshorse. A modestly accoutered Italianate detached house in Whitestone (year built: 1925) has been let out and reappointed with the sober opulence of quattrocento Florence.

Rarely is the sagacity of property lines called into question, and not just in All the Queens Houses, though there they engender a medium-specific buoyancy independent from the pathologies they enact in the real world.

With such renovations, ethnic affinities tend to be pronounced but self-contained. Sometimes, as with “Mixed-Use Buddhist” in Elmhurst, where an upturned flying eave drapes the midriff of a midblock house-cum-temple, these affectations exert a physical presence. Elsewhere, they are announced through surface treatments, typically an irradiating lick of paint. The rose fill with salmon trim of a converted two-family residence in Glendale achieves a “Latin” look that “[reflects] recent demographic shifts in the neighborhood,” Herrin-Ferri writes. The original structure was built in 1920 by German bricklayers, who, taking pride in their work, ornamented the facade with intricate reliefs. All this detail, with the exception of the balustrade, has been swallowed up by a sea of pink stucco. Had landmarking protections been in place in the area, this “Mesoamerican Transformation” may have precipitated a fuss. Herrin-Ferri doesn’t have much to say about historic preservation or even zoning, still less about the politico-economic calculus that sorts winners and losers and forces groups into delimited areas where they may resume regional or ethnic disputes. Generally, he subscribes to the image of Queens as a “global village” and to the idea that home ownership in a dense, intractable urban context is the great arbitrator. Better that contending conceptions of the individual be litigated on the terrain of aesthetics than explode in outright violence. The mismeasure of applying mock-marble bathroom tile to the exterior of your house is a forgivable offense—or, at least, it should be. This inexhaustible permissiveness, a frame of mind in thrall with itself or its projections, suffuses All the Queens Houses.

For eleven years, or as long as Herrin-Ferri has been house-hopping, I’ve lived in Jackson Heights. The neighborhood has a reputation for being a peaceable crossroads for emigrants—historically, from Colombia, Ecuador, India, Bangladesh, China, and Thailand and more recently, from Nepal and Tibet—New York’s LGBTQ+ community, and cuisine. What’s not to love? Perhaps the restrictive covenants on which nearly all garden cities were premised, Jackson Heights being an abbreviated version of the idea compared with Forest Hills or Kew Gardens. (Not coincidentally, Blacks and African immigrants are a blip on local demographic charts.) Surely, the dank and dangerous basement apartments squirreled away in some of the oldest homes in the vicinity; hardly a secret, they are nonetheless tolerated as a temporary hardship on the way to economic prosperity. Then there’s the tenacious drug and sex trade on Roosevelt Avenue and the ethnonationalism that sporadically flaunts itself in Diversity Plaza (actual name), inscrutable to visiting gourmand and beknighted co-op dweller alike. We’re all here in the global village, even as we’re worlds apart.

Rarely is the sagacity of property lines called into question, and not just in Herrin-Ferri’s book, though there they engender a medium-specific buoyancy independent from the pathologies they enact in the real world. (It bears saying: though housing prices are receding from Covid-era highs, houses in Queens aren’t cheap. For those set on staying in the borough, the dream looks less like a manse in Malba and more like a two-bedroom apartment in Kew Gardens or a fixer-upper in St. Albans. Meanwhile, second- and third-generation homeowners unable to keep up with payments have had to reconfigure their properties and bring on tenants.) This pitiless angularity, everywhere condoned in the urban environment except in architecture, produces, among other brain worms, a high tolerance for homelessness; New York shelters haven’t been patronized in such high numbers since the Great Depression. On nightly walks from my apartment building on 35th Avenue to Sunnyside, I often shuffle past drifters in repose and stretched out on cardboard. Or I did, until our glabrous mayor ordered sweeps of homeless encampments in March 2022. The underpass that connects the westernmost edge of Jackson Heights to Woodside remains (mostly) cleared of everyone but pedestrians. It’s about as harrowing as you might expect, soiled with dirt and pigeon shit and menaced by rats ensconced in the poché of the abutments. To walk the passageway requires both alertness and willful stupor. To sleep there, well, I just don’t know.

Emerging on the other end, the BQE at my back, the exhaust-choked air is a balm.

Then, to borrow a phrase from Herrin-Ferri, architecture happens. On the southwest corner of 35th Avenue and 65th Street, an ordinary row house inexplicably breaks character. A paroxysm of glass and composite board, steel treads, and diamond mesh irrupts from a lump of chocolate brick. A masonry wall with cutouts swings out ninety degrees from the aboveground basement. An older two-story vestibule extension lurches back from the perimeter edge of the east facade, inadvertently providing the basis for the later intervention. Gridded windows slotted into industrial-looking frames encase the second floor living room volume; a rotated square in plan, the box appears to have slid off its bricky base. The presence of chain-link, often considered, after Gehry, to be obligatory for the consciously cultivated ramshackle, is simply an afterthought and an expedient means of plugging gaps in the custom fence after the money ran out. Squidges of soffit—the residue of those clashing geometries—are discolored and water-stained, even completely eroded in spots. Railings are indecorously mismatched. An exterior quarter-turn stair set perpendicular to the front-door landing is spindly like a fly-tower gangway, with no obvious means of support save for a very tall reddish turning post. The raked profile of the balustrade, as high as a wall and painted gray, is flush with the also-gray parapet, which picks up the right angle of the vestibule cuboid below. A pair of intersecting white planes demarcating the penthouse level exude an almost salutary air. Sniffing the actual air, I remember my surroundings.

I’ve passed the corner house (built in 1930 and altered in 1976 and 2007) a thousand times, imagining it to be the work of an unpracticed but informed person—some precocious pupil who powered through design school knowing they could make over their parents’ home come convocation. Wrong but not far off, it turns out. Following Herrin-Ferri’s lead, I looked up the property on the city’s Building Information System and Zoning and Land Use Map. By that time, I had assimilated the house’s torqued “symbolic signs,” as Charles Jencks, whose architecture chapbooks were a probable inspiration for All the Queens Houses, would annoyingly say. (For instance, the house’s floating, canted stair strikes me as an unacknowledged copy of El Lissitzky’s Lenin Tribune or at least one of Bernard Tschumi’s aberrant architectonics. Obnoxious, right?) Certificates of occupancy, zoning diagrams, DOB violations, noise complaints—these were new. I wouldn’t say any of it is especially edifying, but it is, without a doubt, part of architecture. For the next printing, Herrin-Ferri might consider substituting the corner house for the current entry labeled “Everyday Deconstructivism.”

Samuel Medina never wants to leave Queens.