In 2012, Rafael Herrin-Ferri began systematically photographing the houses of Queens, the New York City borough he calls home. The Spanish-born artist and architect lives in Sunnyside, one of the many neighborhoods which make up one of the world’s most ethnically diverse urban areas. Herrin-Ferri noticed that the architecture of Queens reflected this diversity, whether the Victorian mansions that mingle with multi-family apartment buildings in Flushing, or the security grille designs and boldly colored siding that individualize even the most minimal homes in Long Island City.
“Queens has a lot of character,” Herrin-Ferri told Hyperallergic. “Manhattan and other parts of New York do, too, but it is usually hidden behind closed doors. In the ‘world’s borough’ it is in plain view to the passerby.”
Over 270 of Herrin-Ferri’s photographs of 34 neighborhoods are currently installed at the Architectural League of New York in All the Queens Houses. While the Manhattan exhibition, co-curated by Herrin-Ferri and with Emily Schmidt, manager of housing initiatives at the League, closes on December 15, the ongoing photographic survey can be explored on his project website, also called All the Queens Houses. There viewers can explore by neighborhood, typologies (like detached houses and apartment buildings), and architectural details (including stoops and gardens). There’s a map of where he’s surveyed houses, with about a third of the borough covered in 5,000 photographs.
“I have always been interested in houses and was impressed by how idiosyncratic — and unorthodox — the low-rise housing stock is,” Herrin-Ferri said. “They express the personal preferences and cultural backgrounds of their owners without much regard for what is ‘correct,’ marketable, or fashionable.”
Indeed, some of the architecture is shockingly bizarre. A semi-detached home in Elmhurst was dubbed by Herrin-Ferri in his caption the “Three Musicians,” as its two-faced façade that collides yellowish siding on one side with red brick on the other conjures the Cubism of Picasso’s famous work of that name. An apartment building in Astoria, titled the “Wedding Cake Condo,” rises with smaller and smaller brick levels like a tiered confection, or perhaps a Mayan pyramid designed for suburbia.
“I started this series of house portraits with the idea that it would reveal something about the urban vernacular in the ‘world’s borough,'” Herrin-Ferri stated. “Through a standardized format, it is striking to see how different so many of the houses are from each other, but when you think of the demographics of the borough, perhaps it is not so surprising.”
And he believes that the community demographics inspire an “urbanism of tolerance” for more extreme experiments in architecture. The variety of buildings and homes also reflects Queens’s history, developing from a collection of villages to a vibrant borough of New York City that maintains its precolonial topography of hills and valleys. In Kew Gardens, for instance, you can see traces of a late 19th-century garden community plan; Little Neck’s humble homes recall its roots as a fishing village. Neighborhoods such as Ditmars-Steinway, which have large populations of immigrants from the Mediterranean, tend to be lush with visible gardens, while Spanish-tile roofing and terrace spaces that stretch like Italian loggia appear among Tudor-style homes in Auburndale.
“The residents of Queens — apart from the Archie Bunker/Donald Trump types — accept multiculturalism and embrace a laissez-faire attitude about building,” Herrin-Ferri said. “Homeowners that I have talked to understand that people from different cultures have different ideas about what their houses should look like, and there is mutual respect. ‘Live and let build!,’ seems to be the motto.”
All the Queens Houses continues through January 26, 2018 at the Architectural League of New York (594 Broadway, Suite 607, Soho, Manhattan).