Domino: I master, I rule, I subjugate. The imperial brand name affixed above the Williamsburg waterfront (and emblazoned on a billion packages of sugar) is candid about its past and the corporate family that created it. But the new Refinery at Domino Sugar, a lucid loaf of an office building rising out of its flaking crust, carries another message, best expressed in plain English: Not Anymore. The concept is simple: a glass nave tucked inside a 19th-century temple of industry, its rounded, see-through vault rising above the roofline. A great work of architecture — and that’s what this is — mediates between history and future, between a past we value without wishing to bring it back and a horizon we can’t map yet want to be ready for. Here, the immense industrial apparatus of sweetness has given way to a landscape of leisure: a park, a playground, a handful of apartment towers, and now, at the center of it all, a softer kind of workplace. The names of the previous overlords, Havemeyer and Elder, endure on the factory they built. The current ones — the Walentas family, which runs the real-estate company Two Trees — keep a more modest profile. But they too are pumping in money and placing a bet on the enduring appeal of pleasure.
The Filter House, Pan House, and Finishing House, as the three-part structure used to be known, confronts Manhattan with its raised middle chimney and steps politely down toward Brooklyn. Built in the 1880s to replace a predecessor that had burned down, the great brick bulk defined the Williamsburg waterfront and represented the industrial might of a family that had produced a three-term New York mayor and LIRR president (William Havemeyer), a major art collection (now at the Met), and a nationwide sugar monopoly (largely dismantled). By the time the plant fell silent in the 1990s (and was definitively shut in 2004), it had acquired a hodgepodge of additions, windows, gates, and tanks that obscured the original outlines. In 2007, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the 1880s building but not the ancillary structures. (It declined to protect the Domino Sugar sign, but the developers reproduced it on the front of the Finishing House.)
When Two Trees bought the site, what CEO Jed Walentas discovered inside was a dense tangle of machinery that had virtually no relationship to apparent architectural divisions. Floors were partial and of inconsistent height. Windows were meaningless. Once all the superannuated steel had been carted away and the layers of sweet gunk chipped off every surface, it made little practical sense to simply lay floor slabs with the windows as an erratic guide.
Walentas called the architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, who had an immediate insight. The way to revamp the refinery, he saw, was to drop a freestanding building with desirable ceiling heights into the perimeter and use the old as a screen. The floors would align irregularly with the arched windows, but that unpredictability would be an asset, making each floor distinctive. At first glance, the result looks like a magic trick, a ship in a bottle — or rather a bottle in a ship — with a thick-walled headquarters of sugar production demoted to decorative sleeve. That particular form of closeness and separation is rare; Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower rises from inside Joseph Urban’s International Magazine Building, but the two are physically fused, and the extension overwhelms the original. In any case, Domino’s excellence is in the relationship between two independent structures: the 12-to-15-foot-wide light well, open to the sky, that runs between them; the play of solidity and luminosity; and the way arched openings chop the panoramic views into dramatic vignettes. The first design envisioned small balconies between the layers, but that plan fell away so that the interstitial space is a moat, just out of reach for everyone except window cleaners and gardeners. The one exception is a vertiginous glass-floored balcony at the corner where conveyor belts once carried refined sugar to the towerlike packaging plant next door. What has been lost in this exercise of rationalism is the Gothic weirdness of the plant’s former guts, the platforms and voids and catwalks that characterized a place designed around inanimate objects and the transformation of a product from goo to granules. The result is plainer and more conventional, but preserving that interior drama would have come at the cost of clarity and usability.
For a couple of decades, Chakrabarti has served as a roving urbanist intellectual with a brand-rich résumé in government (the Bloomberg administration), real estate (Related), academe (Columbia and Berkeley), and architecture (SHoP). In 2015, he formed his own firm, Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, and issued an influential proposal for Penn Station, recently replaced by another. The firm has won competitions and stacked up commissions: to plan a mini-city at Sunnyside Yard, design a residential college at Princeton, overhaul the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and produce the next generation of air-traffic control towers. But architecture is a slow-moving process, and in all that time, nobody had seen a completed PAU project until last month when a domed canopy made its debut at an intersection in Columbus, Indiana. But Domino is on a different plane. Instantly recognizable, visible from across the river, on a site that can never be obscured, and with a profile a logo designer might envy, it’s the work that will define the firm for decades.
New York, like other cities around the world, has spent much of the past generation recycling its grimy waterfront of factories and warehouses for a postindustrial age, and though the project still isn’t complete, the refinery acts as its capstone. That’s partly because in this instance the rapport between old and new, rough and smooth, dark and crystalline, is so instantly legible and so satisfying to experience. There were other options. The architect Morris Adjmi has made a career of juxtaposing the city’s past and future in projects such as 520 West 20th Street, where a handsome black steel-and-glass box appears to levitate over a 1914 warehouse. Studio V and S9 took a more sleight-of-hand approach in Dumbo, threading offices, shops, a courtyard, and a rooftop through an abandoned coffee warehouse to produce the Empire Stores. At Domino, the present is physically contained within the past and bursts through it at the same time. The molted shell remains, giving form to the addition. A field of arched windows begets a massive barrel vault. (Chakrabarti regularly mentions Peter Behrens’s 1910 AEG Turbine Factory in Berlin, with its barrel-vaulted roof, great windows, and brawny piers, as a stylistic precedent.) Vegetation sprouts in the gap between brick and glass walls — a mixture of carefully tended trees, vines in hanging baskets, and a scattering of fake greenery — like a reminder that all structures, if they survive long enough, are destined to be ruins. And that in the process of realizing that fate, nature always wins.
Domino has a lot of terrible history to wrestle with, much of it legible but not obvious in PAU’s design. The Havemeyer family, like New York as a whole, was built on sugar, which depended on slavery and then sharecropping. It’s a taut chain that runs back from today’s workplace cool to lethal conditions on the Brooklyn waterfront, forced labor in the Caribbean, and systematized kidnappings in West Africa. Sugar grows best in hot, humid climates, which makes planting, harvesting, and grinding it by hand a hellish form of labor. From the 16th through the 19th centuries, the most brutally efficient way of getting the job done was to enslave Africans, transport them to the Caribbean, and work them to death. Even after slavery ended in this country, it continued for another 20 years in Cuba, one of the Havemeyers’ principal sources. The molasses boiled on the islands traveled north in barrels or hogsheads, was unloaded in Brooklyn, and processed by workers in conditions barely more humane than those on the plantations. “Men employed in the [Havemeyer sugar] refineries rarely live to old age,” the New York Tribune reported in 1894. “They are nearly all new immigrants when first employed, and before work is given them, they must be found perfectly docile and obedient … Then begins a life of perpetual torture as long as he remains in the refinery, and not infrequently death comes quickly to his relief.” That passage is cited in the Landmark Commission’s 2007 study recognizing that this long history of indifference and cruelty is baked into the walls.
How to deal with that legacy? Sugar itself is the ultimate sanitizer, the pure white powder that smooths over so much darkness. That was one big point of the sugarcoated sphinx that Kara Walker installed in one of the Domino warehouses in 2014, shortly before its demolition. Real estate is another way to pave over the past; no developer wants to confront office tenants and riverfront residents with shrill reminders of ugliness. To their credit, Walentas and Chakrabarti aspired to balance bleak history with urban optimism. Months of cleaning, restoring, dismantling, and replacing sections of masonry might have left the exterior a kind of simulacrum of itself, too uniform to be believed. Instead, it came out gorgeously mottled, flaunting its scars and expressing experience as eloquently as a human face. Brick bears the uneven discoloration of years, showing all the visions and revisions along the way. Glass, though, looks fresh and smooth until the day it needs to be replaced, then it starts again. The architects have amplified the difference in those opposing ways of coping with time, in part by letting some ancient echoes sound. Here and there, a leftover bracket or a metal ring protrudes from the shell. A bricked-up circle marks the spot where a chute might have linked one building to another. A small exterior chamber with a view up through the chimney to a tiny oval of sky has a prisonlike feel. I doubt these remnants were intentionally left to remind us of the site’s relationship to shackles and cells — but they do anyway.
One concern is over that high vault, a great spot for parties but a greenhouse form that does what greenhouses do: trap warmth. The skyward-facing glass is fritted against the overhead sun. AC ducts in the floor will cool just up to head height, letting the air above simmer harmlessly, and motorized shades on the west flank will cut the afternoon glare. Even so, the sun-filled tunnel strikes me as a troubling microcosm of our stewing world — another unintentional embodiment of industry’s legacy.
The refinery doesn’t quite conclude the build-out of the Domino complex that began more than a decade ago, but it does provide the centerpiece. Low-rise buildings and apartment towers line up along Kent Avenue, separated from the East River by a popular industrial-themed park. A landscaped plaza on the waterfront side and a public plaza to the south set the building off from its neighbors, giving it a kind of heroic isolation it never had as the heart of a vast factory complex. But it’s not just an object, aloof from its surroundings. Chakrabarti is an urbanist at heart, and he’s sensitive to the way, once all the construction mess finally disappears, that life will flow into, through, and around the project. Nine stories of offices and a ground level of retail should disturb the neighborhood rhythms in welcome ways, bringing commuters in from elsewhere and giving at least some locals a place to go in the morning, even if only a block or two away. The round-the-clock rumble of the sugar plant will have its muted counterpart in an area where each person is on a different clock.