George Ranalli, an architect and Dean of The School of Architecture for City College, isn’t one for chit-chat. During the interview he straight away got down to discussing the business of creating buildings. For the past several years, he has been working under the radar of the of the overblown, overbuilt condo phase, diligently plugging away at designing and miraculously completing (yes, in New York—home to the never ending Ground Zero project) The Saratoga Avenue Community Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn funded by the New York City Housing Authority. The center is grounded yet elegant, not just ‘making do’ but a building actually capable of transforming the life of the community it serves.
I thought the community center you have designed in Brooklyn was wonderful from many points of view, not just architecturally but the purpose that it serves in the community. I just think it’s so necessary, what it does for people. What do you think about how a building can expand who you are as a human being?
Well, you’re not going to fix the inequities of life for sure. Social conditions are social conditions. But at the other end of it, architecture represents both our everyday life of living—residential architecture—and the public architecture represents how we feel about ourselves, at the end of the day. It provides a framework through which people feel empowered, represented and at peace with public institutions, more connected.
It must have a been a ‘process’ doing a City building …
Yes, it’s a very long process …
Would you ever do something like that again?
I mean the bureaucracy is unbelievable, isn’t it?
Yeah. I mean I function in two areas in everyday life – well most days. I run a practice and the other is that I’m Dean of the School of Architecture [at City College] so I’m used to a fair amount of minutiae and maneuvering through complex bureaucratic systems—I know how to do it, how to get it done. The Housing Authority was extremely laborious.
But the trade-off is that you get to do the kind of building that you don’t get to do any other way. They’re the public buildings of our culture and they represent us.
I read that you did your thesis on Frank Lloyd Wright …
Oh, I’ve done a lot of work on Frank Lloyd Wright … I think I was interested in the inter-relationship between architecture, design and ornament – the re-understanding of ornament that has been missing for a very long time. Also, listening to what clients were talking about … clients were not that happy with modern architecture … they didn’t like the fact that it was cold and impersonal, wasn’t warm and fuzzy, didn’t age all that well.
The Saratoga Avenue Community Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, designed by George Ranalli.
When you think of what’s been done in New York these past few years with this boom that’s now over—but we have all these glass buildings …
Yes. Unpleasant-looking buildings, I’m afraid to say.
Or you have this ‘replica’ thing. I live near 86th Street and there’s this Gothic Revival building for one look, and then this other ugly thing on Lexington, and there’s no in-between.
No, there’s no in-between, and that’s one of the things I was looking for.
I watched some of your videos about small spaces, I was thinking about that, trying to do more with less – I mean most people don’t have much space but you [as an architect] have to make it pleasant for people to live in.
I’ve done a lot of work in residences – in this building [where he lives] I’ve actually done four or five apartments including one or two for myself that I’ve moved in and out of, and they each explored the differences in scale that you can play with in a small space that allows you to feel that it is much bigger than it is.
If you went next door you would think that apartment is a 2000-square foot apartment because there’s this enormous red curved wall, and you come through this bunch of very small rooms and then you enter what appears to be this very large room, but it’s an illusion, a spatial illusion … most of Wright’s work was very small houses but if you look at pictures, they appear to be majestic and huge but they were 1500-square foot houses … it’s a very uncanny skill.
Do you like doing the insides of places in addition to designing the structure?
Oh, we do furniture, we do hardware – I’ve had a lot of hardware published. We do a lot with storage and cabinetwork, you know the necessities other than the palatial feeling of space – the other is where do you put everything? It’s almost like ship design.
The economy is going to change the way people live – what sort of an impact is it going to have, do you think?
I think most people want as big as they can afford, no matter what. I think that’s a kind of natural inclination.
I wanted to also ask you about teaching: what do you like about teaching?
I enjoy working with young people, I enjoy working with students. One of the main reasons was to provide a base income so that I could open my practice but I was able to work out a lot of things with students, ideas about architecture, interiors and landscapes and a whole array of things that you could watch them develop, make speculations with them, and also train people. I mean the other side of what you do when you run an office is that you hire people and you need the talent to do all this work … and so I was in a position to first teach them and then have them work in my office!
You have, in your marriage, a unique blend of a child psychologist and a professor – does that work any better when it comes to your kids? I’m just wondering …
Sometimes it is very helpful. However, we have the same issues with our kids that all of our friends have with their kids. My son builds these absolutely astonishing constructions of Lego blocks but I don’t infuse anything. I mean I’ll work with him and let him take the lead and do it. I’m sure he gets it out of the environment … they also get it by inference. Unlike how difficult it is to teach architecture students, he understands the story of the building. There’s a narrative that goes with it …