For most of my life as a lover of architecture, I’ve been on the hunt for a new Tempietto. The 16th-century original, a cylindrical tomb hidden in a cramped church courtyard in Rome, is a work of miniature grandeur. With its cupola on a gallery above a balustrade over a colonnade on a plinth, the many-layered little temple distills High Renaissance sublimity into a compact package. Because of it, I’m attracted to other projects that are modest in scale and rich in experience, delights of introverted finesse. Such buildings are vanishingly rare in a contemporary city that values obviousness, generic luxury, and bigness. Today’s public architecture often takes place on a scale that would make an emperor blush; instead of enfolding humans a few at a time, giant buildings manage throngs. Instead of asking us to linger on detail, they clobber us with awe.
That quest drew me to Amant, a new arts center occupying a chain of four small buildings and two courts in an industrial pocket of East Williamsburg. I didn’t discover my new Tempietto, but I did find architecture that offers its own low-key pleasures. The campus turns inward, divided from the street by vestibules that shut chaos out and serenity in. The center is the invention of Lonti Ebers, an art collector and MoMA trustee who hankered for a place where artists from around the world could congregate in New York for a few months at a time to research, make, and show. (The Amant Foundation already operates a similar program in Siena, Italy.) For the design, she turned to SO-IL, a Brooklyn firm founded in 2008 by the married team of Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu, who have sprinkled their work across the atlas but have been more of a boutique presence in their hometown.
The firm’s first completed ground-up project in New York shares a block with a meat wholesaler, a self-storage warehouse, a truck-repair shop, a couple of recording studios, a restaurant-equipment supplier, and a brewery. It’s a neighborhood short on preciousness. Ebers managed to assemble three lots, two back-to-back and one across the street, which relieved the architects of the need to maneuver a complicated set of requirements into one large box, as they had initially planned. Instead, they spread the program out over a pocket campus. In plan, the four buildings look like puzzle pieces with curving walls, subtle asymmetries, oblique angles, and jutting tabs. One bulging wall, poking out into a courtyard like a chapel’s apse, is actually a conversation nook for resident artists. What with two galleries, workspaces, a dining room–kitchen–hangout, and a compact auditorium, the place creates the sense of a much larger compound that has grown over time, adding wings and courtyards as needed.
The architects have made a virtue of the narrow block. The studios have ample windows with views onto light wells lined with perforated drywall that may one day be enlivened by art. The outside world doesn’t exist. A long, narrow staircase with a skylight above is a cousin to the one in the New Museum. That’s not a casual reference. Idenburg spent years working for the Tokyo firm SANAA and was the architects’ man in New York when they were designing the New Museum. The imprint of that experience remains strong in Amant’s bright lighting, chunky concrete, steel mesh, and pale palette, which ranges from white to taupe.
A strain of Japan runs through the architecture’s reticence; Amant could be a cousin of the Mass, an even more austere all-concrete mini gallery complex that Nobuo Araki inserted into a quiet Tokyo back street. In the confined quarters of their Brooklyn site, Idenburg and Liu have eked variety out of a limited range of materials. Several surfaces on one building are faced in white concrete bricks that are rotated to create a scaly hide full of implied diagonals, shadows, and an Op Art illusion of movement. That’s a deliberate homage to the famously wavy white brick wall by Jørgen Bo and Vilhelm Wohlert at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, but here the pattern is applied onto origami-like folds, turning a corner, bridging an alleyway, acting as both wall and canopy.
Amant’s architects have moderated their brutalist impulses, balancing muscularity with refinement. Instead of building up bulk, SO-IL focuses on surface. The concrete is variously scored, gouged, wavy, and polished. Bricks are turned to expose the pitted side that usually stays out of sight. In some bathrooms, glazed tiles are rippled on the walls, smooth on the floor. In a couple of foyers, patches of floor are scored in various directions, as if scraps of pin-striped cloth were strewn across the floor. Despite this banquet of textures, SO-IL sometimes overdoes the severity, relying on concrete and steel when the neighborhood all around is a jumble of sheet metal, plywood, vinyl siding, plastic awnings, bodega shutters, graffiti-covered brick, and wood pallets stacked on the curb. Inside, the symphony of hard surfaces needs softening. That will come, especially as the plants in the courtyard scale the walls. Eventually, the resident artists who rotate through Amant can be counted on to leave the architecture looking a little less pure. Some will confine their mess to pixels, but surely others will scarify the walls and stain the floors. Already the struggle between creation and use has begun. The inaugural artistic director, Ruth Estévez, has filled the café with brightly colored tables and chairs that throw a stained-glass glow on the floor, and the residents’ lounge is getting a massive refectory table made of polychrome terrazzo. The architects crowned the main gallery with skylights designed to rain pearlescent, shadowless light into the white box; Estévez has temporarily blacked them out for a video installation.
That wash of color and chaotic energy will help, but it won’t address the architecture’s conceptual hitch: that pseudo-industrial strength is a cliché of contemporary art. The New Museum, designed to take whatever physical abuse artists could dream up, invokes machine-age brawn. Across town, Renzo Piano’s Whitney Museum, a quasi-Cubist mash-up of steamer, silo, factory, and power plant, aestheticizes the links between art and labor. Architects keep rediscovering those connections decade after decade, continuously bewitched by the masculine -bunker chic and circular-saw feats of the 1970s. That was when Gordon Matta-Clark sawed gaping holes into buildings, as if King Kong had put a fist through the wall. Around the same time, Lina Bo Bardi punched out amoeboid openings in the side of a concrete steel-drum-factory tower in São Paulo, transforming it into a cultural center.
Bo Bardi’s rough-cut breach appears at Amant in the form of a cyclopean window on the ground floor of one building. That single milky eye — irregularly round, like the cross section of a tree trunk — meets the street’s old-fashioned New York gruffness with a try-me stare. Its dead gaze reveals nothing except the thickness of the concrete wall; on the inside is just a hallway leading to a bathroom. SO-IL evokes an era of outsize statements and artful destruction, but that’s not what they’re aiming for here. With nowhere to put high, rough walls thick enough to stash a body in, the buildings turn inward, speakeasylike, drawing visitors deep into the block through a series of expanding spaces. There are entrances facing each other across Maujer Street, plus another back door on Grand Street, but steel fencing and blank walls give them all a secretive, almost grudging quality, as if there were a large man in a black suit on the other side of the gate. Slip inside, through a narrow outdoor vestibule or down a walkway, and the atmosphere grows airier. In another neighborhood, such introversion would seem antisocial: Where are the lit glass storefronts, the revolving doors, the come-hither signage? All over the city, that kind of street is looking a bit forlorn these days as the very existence of retail establishments, with display windows and shoppers and browsers, is all starting to feel like a sepia memory. Here, on an East Williamsburg block where an art center is just one more place where things get made or fixed, that transparency would seem wrong.
The context will change, of course. Art attracts art, and money follows, so Amant’s opening may prophesy the end of meatpacking days, reprising the trajectory of Chelsea. The New Museum performed a similar operation on the Bowery, catching a once-derelict street at a moment of change and then whipping it on to faster, fancier frontiers. When architecture is as nimble and fine as this is, it’s often just out of step, adapting to an urban ecosystem and destroying it at the same time.