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Despite its name, the emergence of New York–based practice Only If wasn’t so much a matter of “if” as “when.” “It’s always been an ambition to have my own practice,” says Adam Frampton, who founded the young firm in 2013 after leaving OMA’s Hong Kong office where he had worked on landmark projects such as the Taipei Performing Arts Center. His time in Asia also inspired Cities Without Ground, a guidebook to Hong Kong that he co-authored with Jonathan Solomon and Clara Wong.
“When I returned to New York, I immediately set up the office. It might have been smarter to get settled first, but momentum is an important force,” explains the 36-year-old. Three years later and the firm is still surfing on that momentum, with designs ranging in size from the elegant Voyager Espresso Bar in a subway concourse in Manhattan’s Financial District (2015) to ambitious behemoths such as a masterplan for the Liuxiandong quarter of Shenzhen (2013).
While the former occupies only 550 square feet, and the latter over 10 million, the two projects are linked by their almost impossibly simple design schemes — a square within a circle within a square. “The job of the designer,” Frampton insists, “is to envision simple gestures and forms that impose structure, coherence and identity.” Only If aims to use basic shapes to calm “the underlying uncertainties and complexities” of environments like a crowded transit concourse or a rapidly industrializing boomtown.
The Princeton-trained Frampton also puts these principles to work in education. Among his teaching activities is a workshop — for Columbia University’s graduate-program project Housing the Majority — that looks at one of Shenzhen’s less-developed quarters, the urban village of Baishizhou. “The workshop explores current issues around urban migration and density,” he explains. At a more micro scale, Frampton recently purchased a vacant lot measuring 100 feet by 13 feet, 4 inches, in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood after a search for “irregular, undervalued, slender or residual” sites in the city.
Narrow House by Only If
The Narrow House he has designed for the plot employs an ingeniously straightforward scheme, envisioning each stair landing as a room and eliminating the need for corridors. “This self-initiated project will become a low-cost prototype for how to infill otherwise-overlooked parts of the city,” says Frampton. Another Brooklyn residential project is an affordable 70-unit senior-housing project, a typology Frampton feels “is beset by institutional design.”
He hopes that he can manage the contrast in scale between the Narrow House and the senior housing without getting overwhelmed and that the two projects, though conventional in function, will appeal precisely because their programs “might be considered boring.” But if Only If’s only goal is to make “boring” typologies interesting, Frampton may already have succeeded.
Adam Frampton; photo by Rachel Chandler
Words by Paul Keskeys
PIN–UP is a biannual publication that celebrates architecture and design in the context of culture at large.
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PIN–UP is a biannual publication that celebrates architecture and design in the context of culture at large. Visit PIN-UP →