George Ranalli

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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?

Absolutely. Absolutely.

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.

Garden elevation from the rear play space.
L. to r.: Detail of the garden elevation showing the large window of the main room.; Detail of the Director’s window opening.
The small entry courtyard off Hancock Street.
L. to r.: Detail of the large window on the garden side of the bldg.; Detail of the garden elevation showing the large window of the main room.
The Garden elevation seen from the existing high rise building.
Interior view of the main room looking toward the entry and Director’s office. (All Saratoga photographs by Paul Warchol).

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.

Entry sequence into George’s master bedroom. The bed is above and the sitting room straight ahead.
L. to r.: A painting of a country house by Kathryn Heilbron stands in the family bookcase. The cityscape watercolor hanging on the wall above is by Elisha Cooper.; Detail of side table and cabinet. The Guitar in the corner belonged to and is autographed by James Blunt.
Clockwise from above: View in the master bedroom of the small writing table and the construction that holds the master bed. Stairs on the left go up to the bed. On the right down the hall is a storage cabinet and glass into the master bathroom. The desk is Finnish plywood lacquer coated with walnut blocks on the ends. The construction is wood frame with gypsum board and skim coat plaster finish. The stairs are covered in Finnish plywood with brass nosings; A small side table in the master bedroom; The Finnish plywood cabinets in the master bedroom are lacquer coated.

L. to r.: In the master bedroom, a view looking up at the bed projecting out from the face on the block. The block is made of woodframe, gypsum board and skim coat plaster finish.; In the master bedroom, a detail view of the stairs leading up to the bed. Gypsum board skim coat plaster stairs are covered with Finnish plywood with exposed end grain with brass nosings. Wood is attached to the stairs with brass screws.
L. to r.: In the master bedroom, a view from the stairs coming down from the bed. The block above is the bed.; In the master bedroom, a view of the small writing desk and the bookcase and mirror beyond.
L. to r.: In the dressing room area, a small built-in chest of drawers. With multiple size drawers for jewelry, shirts, socks and accessories. ; View from the master bedroom looking toward the master bath. Fixed glass allows light into the bathroom. Bathroom cabinet for soap and towel storage is made of Finnish plywood with lacquer coating.

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.

L. to r.: Dual sinks in the master bathroom. The vanity is made of Surell, the mosaic tile is white-grey marble.; View of the master bathroom shower enclosure. A frameless glass forms the shower around the mosaic tile blocks. ; The second bathroom. Surell blocks hold the Kohler sink.
L. to r.: George’s daughter’s ceramic tile sculpture is imbedded into the mosaic marble tile wall of the second bathroom.; The custom door hardware was designed and fabricated by George Ranalli Designs. This lever handle, entitled Lock-it, is manufactured in cast aluminum nickel dipped. The Lock-it lever handle is in the Permanent Collection of 20th Century Architecture & Design in the Denver Art Museum and it is also in the Design Arts Permanent Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. (The handle can be purchased here.)
Clockwise from top left: Entry door of George’s son’s room; George’s son’s room library and looking out toward the living room; Another view of George’s son’s room. The upper part of the photo has window into the dining room. Window surround is made out of Finnish plywood with lacquer coating.
Detail view of George’s son’s room featuring the panel with the fixed window into the dining room. A sculpture is made out of recycled motorcycle; Details of George’s son’s room looking toward the window.
L. to r.: Entry view into George’s daughter’s room. Finnish plywood door frames and bases were screw assembled to the walls. The doors are made of two layers of Finnish plywood lacquer coated with frosted glass panels. Closet doors in the room are covered with birds eye maple veneer and then lacquer coated.; Closet doors in George’s daughter’s room. Doors are made with a bird’s eye maple veneer that has been lacquer coated.
Clockwise from top left: Closet doors and built-in bed assembly includes storage below; Desk, stair and built-in bed in George’s daughter’s room. All built -ins are Finnish plywood with exposed end grain and lacquer coated; George’s daughter’s comfy couch decorated with sarcastic messages in the form of pillows: “I understand the concept of cooking and cleaning, just not as it applies ot me.”

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.

L. to r.: A view of the dining room and kitchen from the living room. The woodwork is part of a permanent installation at the Denver Art Museum. The table is custom designed by George Ranalli. It is made of cut, folded, welded sheet steel base with a black verte antico Italian marble top.; A detail view of the dining table and custom wood wall, with inserts made of walnut. The table base is welded sheet steel, folded, cut and ground smooth and the table top is Italian verte antico dark green marble.
A view from the entry hall into the dining room. Behind the table is the wall piece designed for the exhibit “U.S. Design from 1975-2000” held at the Denver Art Museum, from February-May 2002.
A detail of the kitchen including Color core cabinets over plywood, a Surell counter top and sink and Gaggeneau cook top and oven and a Miele dishwasher.
L. to r.: A detail of the custom television and stereo cabinet designed by George Ranalli. To the right is an entry view into George’s daughter’s room.; The living room.
A view from the living room into the kitchen and dining room.
L. to r.: The entryway of George’s son’s room.; A view of the entry into George’s daughter’s room.
A view from the living room window up Sixth Avenue.
A detail view of the living room windowsill, features George’s son’s model of the Eiffel tower.
A view of the living room from the entry of George’s son’s bedroom.

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 …

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