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A Look At The Wonderfully Weird Houses Of Queens

The New York City borough is one of the most culturally–and architecturally–diverse places in the country.

High-density design defines New York City architecture, from Manhattan’s towering skyscrapers to Brooklyn’s stately brownstones. In Queens, however, single-family homes abound. And they are as wonderfully distinct as the borough itself.

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Since 2012, architect and photographer Rafael Herrin-Ferri has been documenting the houses of New York’s most diverse borough on his site All The Queens Houses. Nearly 300 of his more than 5,000 photographs are on view in an exhibition at the Architectural League, which closes today.

[Photo: Rafael Herrin-Ferri]
Herrin-Ferri is drawn to aberrations in the built landscape–the one row house painted a wild color, details that look like they’re pulled from English Tudors or Southern manors. He often looks for streets that meet at odd angles, in hopes that someone’s built a house that is equally odd to make the most of their lot. He describes Queens’ unique contribution to New York’s architectural landscape as “monotony disrupted by idiosyncrasy,” a by-product of the many immigrant communities who have moved to Queens over the decades.

“There are many housing tracts and typologies throughout the borough with little to no variation that make up the ‘urban fabric,'” Herrin-Ferri tells Co.Design in an email. “So much of the bulk of Queens’ neighborhoods was built quickly by one major developer or another in a rather bland and anonymous architectural style. Over the years, as these houses changed hands, they started to transform and take on new identities that expressed the aesthetic and cultural preferences of their occupants. This happens to a certain degree in all parts of the world, but I think the reason it is so pronounced in Queens is that the borough maintains such strong ties with people’s heritage–whether that is English, German, Chinese, Caribbean–and since the housing stock is mostly low-rise and the parcels are small there is ample opportunity for people to leave their mark.”

Beyond the physical characteristics of the houses, Herrin-Ferri is also drawn to the social elements of the design. His favorite block in the borough is Van Cleef street, in the neighborhood Corona. The two-story row houses all feature “caged balconies” that face the street, moving outdoor space to the front of a house rather than in the back–a move that builds community and encourages people who live on the block to interact more.

“The quality I find most appealing about many of the houses featured in the exhibition and on my website is their ‘openness’ to the public realm,” he tells Co.Design. “In other words, the absence of a strong ‘street wall’ in favor of front yard spaces, stoops, balconies, etc.”

Though Herrin-Ferri has thousands of photographs of Queens, he still plans to shoot more and eventually plans to publish a book about them. Visit allthequeenshouses.com to see more.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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