Homes Are a Language of Self-Expression in Queens
Photographer and architect Rafael Herrin-Ferri explores the borough’s expressive architecture.
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In “All the Queens Houses,” architect and photographer Rafael Herrin-Ferri explores the language of homes in New York City’s largest borough.
The title of the project refers to a line from the children’s story Humpty Dumpty: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men / couldn’t put Humpty together again.” Herrin-Ferri sees the inability to return something to its original state as a blessing in disguise.
Having moved to Queens 15 years ago, the Sunnyside resident became interested in the architectural vernaculars of his borough the more he explored it.
Walking around Queens, Herrin-Ferri said he noticed “asymmetrical structures and a certain randomness that happens organically,” such as wildly divergent, semi-detached homes and the finely detailed, landscaped hedge that squeezed up against a driveway.
To Herrin-Ferri, what Queens residents do to the exteriors of their homes is a form of communication. “When you have these competing architectures and languages, people use their houses to express themselves,” he said. “In the case of a Guyanese person I talked to, he said he wanted to be reminded of the Caribbean, and chose a color [turquoise] that reminded him of that.”
“Everyone’s bringing their different traditions and it all gets collaged together here,” said Herrin-Ferri, who was born in Spain. “If you talk to most people who move to New York, they’re here because they don’t want to conform. I think that’s what this is: a non-conformity and yet a connection back to their traditions.”
The project is in many ways a celebration of the borough’s diversity and individuality—in 2014 The Atlantic found Queens to be the third most diverse county in the nation.
Of course, not every home in Queens has riveting plumage. “There’s a lot of monotony,” Herrin-Ferri said, “but it always seems to be interrupted by something unique, something idiosyncratic. That’s the rewarding part of walking the streets—seeing these slight disruptions and moments of cheer and individuality breaking out of the housing stock.”
In some ways, one prominent vernacular of these neighborhoods seems to be addition: layers stacking up on top of one another like a wedding cake, sunrooms added to the front of a home that clash dramatically with the house’s general aesthetic. “A lot of what you see is many layers beyond an original structure that’s pretty bland in terms of its base architecture,” Herrin-Ferri said.
The flourishes residents give their homes exist in Queens neighborhoods regardless of class, though Herrin-Ferri has noticed that the neighborhoods further from public transportation tend to have less individuality. “I think there’s something inherent about street life, and engaging the sidewalk, that breeds more customization—that helps foster this kind of vernacular of alterations and small-scale interventions,” he said. “I’ve seen things where it looks like a public bench [has been] built into people’s front yards so they can be on the edge of their property communing with people.”
The exhibit will conclude its run at the Architectural League of New York on January 26, but Herrin-Ferri is far from done with the project, and it can be viewed in its entirety on his website. Though most of his work thus far has covered the western neighborhoods in Queens, Herrin-Ferri plans to eventually cover the entire borough and estimates that doing so will likely take him another 5 years. He usually gets around on foot or bike, using an app to track his way through sections of land that are “pregnant with good examples.”
But Herrin-Ferri says that most of the new developments he’s seen, the “glass tower forests,” are replacing warehouses and donut shops, not residential streets. He doesn’t worry about the character of these homes and neighborhoods vanishing.
“I think it just gets replaced and replenished,” he said. “Since parcels [of land] are relatively small, I think if one idiosyncratic house comes out, another one can just as easily come in.”