New York developer has a way with mortar that is at once contemporary and recalls the earliest days of cities, which masonry made possible.
A neat little row of bricks and stone blocks sits on a worktable inside the New York offices of the development firm DDG. Some are classic red, others ivory white, a few resemble smoke, a ghost of their birth in the kiln.
“Each brick has a fingerprint,” says Joe McMillan, chief executive and co-founder of the 6-year-old firm.
He was not being poetic, at least not entirely. On the top of each 21-inch brick is a pair of thumb prints, a reminder that each one was pressed from a wooden mold by an actual person in Broager, a small seaside town in Denmark where the bricks have been made in this fashion by the Petersen brick company since 1791.
“The crazy thing is, no one is ever even going to see that print once it’s been set,” McMillan says. “But just knowing they are there, it gives you a sense of how much care went into each brick.”
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And by hand-laying those bricks — a nearly lost art — DDG hopes to show how much care goes into each of its buildings.
With everything growing slick, streamlined and interconnected the past few decades, both in construction and life, DDG’s zeal for mortared joints happened almost by coincidence, more through a bond with craft than a love of bricks. Yet the attraction has been just as strong for luxury buyers who want everything in life to be tailored.
Whether a boutique Tribeca loft building that looks as if it pushed its way out of the earth, or a 521-foot tower with nearly 600,000 hand-laid bricks on the Upper East Side, DDG has a way with mortar that is at once contemporary and recalls the earliest days of cities, which masonry made possible.
“I think we’re finally over the stripped-down modernist boxes, and we’re searching for something with more intrinsic values,” Peter Guthrie, DDG’s head of design and construction, says. (Unlike most developers, the firm does both in-house, part of the reason its work can be so exacting.)
He and McMillan could spend hours talking about bricks, discussing and dissecting them the way some people do wine or literature. The patina, the heft, the hue, the character, even the philosophy of construction are popular topics around the office.
This may sound strange, but it is doubly so given how most brick buildings are assembled these days, whether a four-story townhouse or a 40-story tower.
After the great fire of 1835, New York mandated that all buildings be made from noncombustible materials. Suddenly the clay-lined shores of the Hudson Valley became a gold mine. “It became one of the greatest brick industries known to man, almost all of it feeding the growth of New York,” says Richard Pieper, director of preservation at Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, an architecture firm specializing in historic restoration work.
For more than a century, there was an explosion of red brick, brownstone, terra cotta and limestone construction around the region. Even once skyscrapers started rising on their iron and steel frames, bricks played an important role — the Empire State Building, though clad in stone, has more than 10 million bricks invisibly lining its structure as fireproofing.
After World War II, companies such as Alcoa and U.S. Steel looked for ways to put their factories to use building things other than tanks and planes, which spurred aluminum panels and glass curtain walls.
“It just took over in the 2000s,” Carol Willis, director of the Skyscraper Museum, says of the boom in crystalline construction. “Somehow glass came to symbolize luxury and first-class construction, even if that wasn’t always the case.”
Even when developers still use bricks, they have all but abandoned bricklaying in favor of what is known as “panelization.” Inside factories across the Midwest and China, bricks or stone blocks are arranged into panels many feet or stories in dimension. They are then shipped to the site and hoisted into place, often exposing seams.
Into this void stepped DDG in 2009. The firm’s first project was 41 Bond St., on the blockbuster NoHo block of New York City that was already home to the work of Herzog & de Meuron, Deborah Berke and BKSK.
Given the neighborhood’s fabric of cobblestones and Romanesque Revival loft buildings — and the fact that it was a landmark district — the firm decided that a hand-laid facade would be most fitting. Rather than brick, though, they settled on slender, undulating bluestone blocks. A local material more common in Brooklyn sidewalks, here it got a modern treatment with deeply grooved window frames. (As with all their projects, the masonry is not structural, but merely decorative, and largely made possible by the firm’s employing its own masons.)
Two years later, the firm turned to the Danish bricks for an 11-story project on 14th Street just off Ninth Avenue, on the border of the meatpacking district. The zippered corners and mottled coloration of the white bricks could have been achieved with panels, but it would have shown not only on the outside, but also within, given the deeply recessed windows. It is for that same reason DDG will lay all those bricks on the Upper East Side, at the corner of Third Avenue and 88th Street — 593,989 to be exact, by McMillan’s calculation.
“We considered doing panels after the first hundred feet or so, because you’d think you couldn’t tell,” he says. “But you know where you could? From inside the apartments.”
On a newly proposed project on Franklin Street in Tribeca, DDG tried to branch out with a mostly glass facade with brick accents. The property is in a historic district, though, and the community board was emphatic, so back came the bricks, though again with modern flourishes, in this case subtle perforations in the pattern.
At 12 Warren St., a 13-unit development that is the firm’s latest, the designers turned again to bluestone. No two blocks are the same, and while most are a foot or two long, some are the size of small boulders and weigh many tons. All the pieces were arranged in a yard, tagged, and then put into place in the city.
Passers-by could be forgiven for thinking they had always been there.