Architect as Instigator: Buro Koray Duman Scoops the Emerging Firm of the Year Award

“If you can’t expand the role of the architect in standard proposals, you should make up projects of your own,” argues Turkish-born architect Koray Duman.

Chlo̩ Vadot Chlo̩ Vadot

The architecture of Turkish-born Koray Duman shows influence of his years in Los Angeles, where he attended school and began practicing at the side of Frederick Fisher. Duman moved to New York in 2009, where he established Sayigh+Duman Architects. In 2013, the firm transitioned into its current entity, Buro Koray Duman. This year, in addition to winning an A+ Jury award for the Artist Foundation, Duman and his firm will be recognized at the A+Awards gala as the Emerging Firm of the Year, a special honor that was received in 2016 by Chris Precht of Penda.

Duman has been characterized by some as the go-to architect for young artists and gallerists. When I met Duman at his office on a hot April day, we began our conversation by discussing the meaning of this attribution and how his firm takes to this work.

“It is a bit of a double-edged sword,” began Duman. “If you are working with the right people, there is a really great conversation, a really great respect. One of the greatest things that comes from being around artists and creators,” he continued, “is that there is this constant question of one’s career — what it means to be an artist and an artist now — this question of one’s own practice.” This exchange is to Duman one of the greatest gifts that he received from his involvement with the art world.

Artist Foundation, Upstate New York, 2015

“On the other side, when you are working with gallerists, the kinds of issues that you deal with are limited. When we go to those kinds of projects — an exhibition space or a gallery space — we tend to deal with more modernist issues of architecture: scale, proportions, light, material, details, the dialogue between existing spaces and new additions … ”

Due to these limitations, gallery and studio projects, according to Duman, are tougher to address questions of urban integration or cultural impact, which are issues that deeply interest him and his firm. Nevertheless, Buro-designed galleries each stand out with their own characteristics, from the use of light to the incorporation of fleeting ephemeral materials to make the space stand out from the existing structure.

CRG Gallery, Lower East Side, 2015

“Everybody thinks that when you open a gallery, you can just whitewash it and it will be fine because the most important thing is the art anyways. But it’s not true. I try to make sure to do something that gives a kind of aura to the space and to its existence.”

Duman has been close to the figures of the art world since he worked with Fisher in Los Angeles, after graduating from UCLA. “[Fisher’s] ex-wife was a curator and art historian, and he was very close with most of the dominant LA artists, so we did artist studios, museum projects, exhibitions and other small commissions.” Those established artists had assistants who subsequently established their careers in cities like New York, where Duman reconnected with many.

The Artist Foundation is one of Buro Koray Duman’s most recent completions and received an A+ Jury award in the Factories & Warehouses category. I asked Duman about the project, its beginnings and inspirations to design a storage facility on the grounds of a future foundation established by a renowned American photographer.

Duman’s first project for this well-established artist consisted in the renovation of a Harlem building to become the artist’s studio. Soon after, the photographer approached the firm with a new ambition. The project based itself on the artist’s wish to launch a foundation on a rural site in upstate New York. Over approximately 40 acres of land, existing barns inspired the landscape for a promenade-like experience of art-viewing. Of the inhabited barns, one housed his living quarters, another his studio and a couple more had been built in later years to store additional works and give his staff a place to work.

Artist Foundation, Upstate New York, 2015

“After we finished the [Harlem] studio, [the artist we were working with] had the idea to turn this [upstate] property into a foundation,” said Duman. The initial reflection process consisted not only of coming up with design solutions for building contemporary spaces in a rural landscape, but also focused on creating a vision for the foundation. The most urgent need, explained Duman, was to have a space for art storage, to place many of the works that the client had collected over the years.

“This art storage space is actually quite interesting because it has a system of racks and will be an open storage, a little bit like [the Herzog & de Meuron–designed] Schaulager in Basel,” explained Duman, making reference to a growing trend for collectors to open their collections to the public eye. “One of the biggest problems about museum and private collections are that probably 90 to 95 percent of the collections are in storage and you are only able to see 5 to 10 percent in the gallery spaces. In the past five to 10 years, there has been a movement to create storage spaces that can also become places to visit.” In another instance, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Broad Museum in Los Angeles, the staircase that connects the first and third floors offers a glimpse into the second floor, reserved for storage.

On Stellar Rays, Lower East Side, 2016

Working with artists on projects of this size is a challenge, said Duman, because artists work very differently than architects. For the artist foundation — which one day hopes to welcome visitors and artists in residencies — the vision aims to maintain the feeling of walking through the site, making your way from one barn to the next to visit all the facilities and be transported by the scattered landscape. The firm’s role is to translate this vision into a program of buildings, understanding the needed square footage and construction timelines for each. However, Duman explained that beyond the first barn, no timeline is set in stone for the completion of the foundation’s architectural master plan.

Duman’s first building for the Artist Foundation was built from scratch, inspired by the typological forms of the barns on-site. Over time, existing barns may be renovated and given new purposes following the need of the artist and the foundation. Buro Koray Duman was also recently commissioned for the extension of a New York cultural institution.

Urban Canopy, New York City, Research initiative

To break the monotony of working on a single project through the year, Buro Koray Duman leads research projects every year on topics that it feels need to be addressed. In 2016, the firm worked on reinventing the space that scaffolding creates or, rather, takes away. “Last summer, I sent two interns, they walked 10 blocks by 10 blocks around here and realized that 22 percent of the sidewalk was covered with scaffolding. The idea that you have this structure that is a big part of your everyday life, but is just for protection and safety, is actually not using the full potentials of it.” The visual results produced by this research proposed the attachment of food vendors or public seating to the scaffolding, creating new public spaces in the city. Recently, the NoHo and Madison Square Park B.I.D.s — business improvement districts — are showing interest in the project, and with this comes the possibility of having it become a reality.

“In our generation, there is a bit of a crisis in architectural identity,” explained Duman, “and our role as architects starts to shrink, to the point that we are seen as a service provider at the end of the construction. There are people now who are part of the decision-making process — marketing, developers, client representatives and more — that are taking control of the decisions and put the architects in more of a technical position.” Duman’s objective is to disrupt the standards of the architecture practice and influence the power of the architect as an instigator for new projects and proposals.

Islamic Cultural Center, Schematic Design

Young practices often start their businesses thanks to competitions. However, Duman found that competitions were not as common in the U.S. and the main issue of working on conceptual projects abroad lay in the inability to be completely aware of local institutions, context and politics. In 2015, the firm was approached by a nonprofit organization — the American Society for Muslim Advancement — wishing to raise funds for a cultural center. With a very small budget, and neither a site nor a fixed program, the project turned into a research experiment for Duman’s firm, which dedicated a period of time imagining the space for the Islamic Cultural Center and producing renderings that the ASMA Society could use for fundraising purposes.

“I realized that was where my strength lay. If you can’t expand the role of the architect in standard proposals, you can make up projects of your own.”

With his firm spending a dedicated amount of time on research projects of their choice — rather than answering to set requests for proposals (RFPs) — the architects become the principal decision-makers for a program and the instigators of a vision for a place. “We try to work differently, and I hope one day, the research projects and the art-related projects can overlap, too. If there is a way to involve nonprofit work and institutional work, you start to engage with issues of the city and cultural issues, and then you might be able to expand your own role,” said Duman.

“When I was going to school in the ’90s, there was this obsession with branding,” he explained. “You needed to have a brand, a distinctive voice or signature, and there was this notion of the elevator pitch, that was so powerful. But I realized that this branding exercise in the end starts to limit you very much. Architecture education is one of the very few disciplines where you are exposed both to the humanities and science, and no other curriculum have courses where design thinking is so central. The role of the architect as this one stroke of a practice is something that is forced upon us, and it also pushes a lot of architects to specialize, to create a niche for themselves so they can be identifiable.”

“Architecture studios are great because you define a lot of the programs out of your own observations,” concluded Duman. “The architect as instigator is something that is taught in the studio, and for some reason, we as architects kind of shy away from it when we enter the profession.”

Under the BQE, Brooklyn, N.Y., Research initiative

In a different research project led by Buro Koray Duman, the firm observed the ground space created by the elevated Brooklyn-Queens Expressway at the point that it passes by Industry City, which is also where the expressway is at its widest. The firm looked at the potential of the space, as a place of passage, with the possibility for exchange, commerce and cultural happenings.

“I don’t want to come in and tell people what to do, but it is important that project-based decisions should be made with architects around the table.”

Out of the 300 miles of elevated subway and freeway infrastructure that exist in New York, the need to reinvent the forgotten spaces below those elevated structures is crucial to bettering urban environments and social ecosystems, expressed Duman. These are areas that need to be architecturally thought before getting treated with feasibility procedures to determine programs. According to Duman, it does not mean that the architect who designs the program should be the one to build later, but he wishes to see more initiative on the part of architects to instigate constructive conversations about the possibilities for innovative programming in third spaces.

Architizer has decided to honor Buro Koray Duman as the Emerging Firm of the Year for its forward-thinking vision for the role of the architect and the desire to disrupt the stigma of the practice. As a firm that has worked extensively within the cityscape of New York City, Buro Koray Duman is a practice that shows a dedication to bringing creative places for cultural exchange and initiative to this energetic city, and we are eager to see how the firm grows and leaves its mark on the streets we think we know so well. To learn more about Buro Koray Duman and see its most recent work, make sure to visit the firm’s Architizer profile or its website.

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