Space Travel in a Loft with architect Winka Dubbeldam
By CHRISTOPHER MASON
CLIENTS willing to indulge the futuristic whims of architects are notoriously rare. But Winka Dubbeldam, a Dutch-born architect based in Manhattan, seems to have a knack for attracting patrons susceptible to her visual poetry and her sculptor's passion for combining natural materials to achieve novel effects. Among her fans, the famously demanding architect Peter Eisenman called her ''a very talented, highly energetic and motivated person.''
''She's the pulse of the moment,'' he added.
Swinging open a pivoting door at the center of a 50-foot-long wall of translucent glass and steel that tilts at five distinct angles, spaceship-style, Ms. Dubbeldam said, ''What I do is so specific, people either love it or hate it.''
She was standing in the exuberantly minimalist SoHo pied-a-terre she designed for Jonathon Carroll, a British art collector, who recently retired from investment banking at 33. ''As my mum says, I'm unemployed,'' the Birmingham-born Mr. Carroll joked.
A devotee of cutting-edge design, he seemed eager to extol the beauty of his loft, and its sense of play: the space flows freely through three distinct areas, kept in flux by moving parts and transparency.
''I think it's a reaction to the traditional house with chintzy curtains I grew up in -- the kind of house that still horrifies me,'' he said.
The apartment occupies the fifth floor of a former warehouse, built around 1870, which had been unoccupied for a decade when Mr. Carroll moved in last year. He interviewed three architects before hiring Ms. Dubbeldam, admiring the experimental verve of her portfolio and her imaginative use of wood, polished plaster, steel, concrete and glass.
''I only work with natural materials because they have a subtle, soft effect on the experience of the space,'' Ms. Dubbeldam said, adding that she developed an affinity for them while studying sculpture. ''I love the feeling of spaces that are seamless and fluid, where there's a possibility of transforming the space by pivoting a table, swiveling a TV.''
Her passion for design was kindled in childhood in Gorinchem, a seaside town near Rotterdam, where she grew up the daughter of a government official and a fashion stylist. ''My parents bought a new house every two years, because my father loved finding new houses and my mother loved doing the interiors,'' said Ms. Dubbeldam, a sprightly, handsome woman with expressive hands and eyes that are apt to twinkle when she speaks of architecture. ''So, I was always fighting with my brother over who got the best room.''
Spurred by that early sibling rivalry, Ms. Dubbeldam went on to graduate from the Academy of Architecture in Rotterdam before moving to New York in 1990 to study at Columbia University. From there, she worked for two innovative and internationally recognized architects, Bernard Tschumi and Mr. Eisenman, before setting up her own firm, Archi-Tectonics, in 1994. Fascinated by the challenges of creating sculptural design using computers, she currently teaches Paperless Studio, a course for third-year architecture graduates at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her meticulous computer-generated drawings, and a model for a house in Millbrook, N.Y., were included in ''The Un-Private House,'' the Museum of Modern Art's critically acclaimed summer exhibition.
Ms. Dubbeldam has a fascinating way of layering space to create a sense of peacefulness: few interiors can match the tranquillity of Mr. Carroll's apartment. Stepping from the elevator, visitors first encounter a wall of soft-gray plaster interrupted at waist level by a broad horizontal cutaway that offers a peak into an intriguingly spare, ordered interior.
To obscure an unappealing view, windows at the rear of the loft were coated with a translucent, removable film that resembles sandblasted glass, creating the effect of radiant light boxes by day and providing privacy at night.
Ingeniously configured expanses of translucent glass, steel and concrete also dominate the new 24,000-square-foot headquarters on West 23rd Street of Duggal Color Projects, one of the city's largest photographic and computer imaging companies, which Ms. Dubbeldam designed for Baldev Duggal, the owner.
''Our work is all rush and meeting deadlines, but here, you still get a feeling of peace,'' Mr. Duggal said, contemplating a sweeping circular steel staircase leading to a new 6,000-square-foot cantilevered mezzanine -- a serene, glass-clad office space that appears to hover above the busy main floor ''street level.'' Vintage columns form an arcade. The office has walls of opague glass; clear glass inserts at eye level form a horizon.
For Mr. Carroll, Ms. Dubbeldam produced drawings and models so inventive and assured that Mr. Carroll felt confident about leaving her to execute his project, monitoring progress from London via e-mail, fax and weekend visits once a month. ''Winka had to make a lot of decisions for me,'' he said. ''But she actually made better choices than I would have made myself.''
Soaring arched windows illuminate the immense main living space, which encompasses three free-flowing but distinct areas, each containing movable elements that contribute to an engaging sense of playfulness, inviting discovery.
In a spacious sisal-carpeted sitting area, floor-to-ceiling raw-linen curtains can be drawn to create an intimate atmosphere for lounging in front of a slate fireplace set into a jutting, right-angled corner. Across the room, a silver flat-screen television suspended from a vertical pole can be swiveled to provide entertainment from multiple angles. Similarly, a poured-acrylic see-through breakfast bar, cantilevered from a tree-trunk column in front of the gleaming stainless-steel kitchen in the center of the apartment, can be swiveled from side to side at whim. ''The structural engineer kept saying, 'Are you sure you want this?' '' Ms. Dubbeldam recalled. ''I guess it was a bit new for him.''
Clearly enchanted by all the modernity, Mr. Carroll does not seem at all fazed that his designer has given him a doorless master bedroom. ''It is possible to have privacy,'' he insisted, dragging a giant moss-green Ultrasuede curtain around the room to demonstrate that it can be transformed into a giant cocoon. ''It is a bedroom, after all,'' he said.
Nearby, a suite of more intimately scaled rooms -- a modern walnut-paneled library, two guest bedrooms and the master bathroom -- are nestled behind the apartment's signature bulging steel-and-glass wall. The bathroom, contained in a glass capsule, is the most spectacular.
''If you're naked in the shower and your mum and gran are sitting out there in the kitchen having breakfast, you obviously don't want them going, 'Oh, my God!' '' Mr. Carroll said, recalling that he erred on the side of caution when he and Ms. Dubbeldam experimented with glass of varying clarity for the wall.
''I said it should be more translucent, because it would steam up when you take a shower,'' Ms. Dubbeldam added mischievously, noting that they reached a compromise with semiopaque panels that permit the passage of light but preserve a bather's privacy.
In a striking contrast to the rest of the apartment, where neutral-toned plaster walls complement artworks by Warhol, Christo and Hockney, the master bathroom is a riot of vivid, purplish-blue polished plaster. The floor, washstand, shower and bathtub were created by pouring a thin warm-to-the-touch layer of concrete, mixed with prodigious quantities of pigment over custom-built molds of fiberglass and timber.
The most startling feature is the stainless-steel toilet from Metcraft, a Missouri-based company that supplies prisons. ''I said I wanted two, and the guy said, 'Two hundred, right?' '' Ms. Dubbeldam recalled, laughing.
Somewhat alarmingly, the all-metal toilet has no raiseable seat (to spare inmates the temptation of prying them off to use as weapons). ''When I explained that to Jonathon, he said, 'But it's going to be cold,' '' Ms. Dubbeldam said, grinning. ''So I told him, 'Get used to it.' ''
Working with Mr. Duggal over the last year on his new headquarters in Chelsea, Ms. Dubbeldam found herself dealing with a client no less passionate than Mr. Carroll about innovative design, but with an infinitely more complex and shifting series of spacial requirements. The challenge was to accommodate under one giant roof advances in new technology and operations that had sprawled over 12 floors.
At the company's new headquarters, gracious 1880 cast-iron columns coexist with sleek new forms in an office that is a city block deep.
''The columns are the real sculpture of the space,'' Ms. Dubbeldam said, recalling that all 18 were invisible under multiple layers of paint, gypsum and grime before Mr. Duggal had them stripped.
''I'm lucky having Jonathon and Mr. D. as clients because they're like me -- they want everything to look perfect,'' Ms. Dubbeldam said. She withholds such praise for those who labor at Gear magazine, whose offices in Chelsea she designed for Bob Guccione, the publisher, earlier this year.
''As the architect, I can't very well say, 'Clean this up!' '' Ms. Dubbeldam noted ruefully. On a recent visit, Gear's spacious blue-and-green river-view offices were strewn with a workaday assortment of sports equipment, stray files and portable coat racks.
''Winka thinks we're a bunch of pigs, I guess,'' said Lonnie Major, the office manager.
To escape the exigencies of her architectural practice, Ms. Dubbeldam often leaves the city on weekends, driving her 1976 Pacer, with its distinctive oblong hatchback. ''I can't tell you how much I love it when people in big Mercedes yell, 'Love your car,' '' she said. Ambitiously, she is counting on the Pacer to pull her latest acquisition, a silvery 1967 Airstream.
''Next,'' she said, ''I want to buy a piece of land so I can park my Airstream.''
And hopefully, find the time to build a house of her own.