Railroad Apartment in Three-Story House


Location Greenpoint

Rent $1350 (market)

Square feet 800

Occupants Susanne Bellinghausen (architect and interactive spatial designer), Stephen Kovats (architect and media theoretician)

[Door crashes open] Whew, just in time for the sunset. The L train didn’t come for an hour. People were 10 deep on the platform, getting to know each other. This man with a diamond ring on every finger said we should “just calm down” because “New York works pretty well, considering.” Anyway, you’d told me about your sunsets, and I was so excited to talk about them, but I realized, after thinking for a week, that I don’t have much to say about sunsets. When something is beautiful and happy, what’s to say? Once a friend came back from a sublime sailboat ride. I said, “Well?” He was speechless. Oh, but wait, I do have some thoughts: old people watching sunsets, sitting in Adirondack chairs, having lived their lives as twosomes, now waiting for the end to come. Sunsets do make us feel larger than we are. You know how people toddle to their jobs every day and then they go on vacation and they’re watching the waves crash in and they start thinking big thoughts: Oh, how small the sand is and how big the moon! [Stephen] When I first moved here, I was so fascinated with the sunsets, I’d stand by the window every day. I thought I was going a little bit crazy. It makes the whole apartment change—white-ish blue to deep orange. Look at the light on her face. [Susanne] You’re so good with words.

So here we are in Greenpoint with your landlord’s wood-grain wallpaper in the building’s hallway and the red-brick, retrofitted former warehouse across the street with small one- and two-bedrooms renting for $1600 to $2500. The landlord there said, “I want to attract those midtown Manhattanites, and not artists.” [Stephen] We moved from Berlin in ’99. I’m originally from Ottawa. My parents are Hungarian, my father a ’56er—one of the ones who left after the revolution. After college, I went to work in East Germany for 10 years, dealing with unification as a teacher, architect. [Susanne] I met Stephen at the Bauhaus in Dessau in ’91. [Stephen] The Bauhaus finished as a school in Chicago after the war. It’s just the building now in Dessau. There’s a foundation dealing with international issues of the urban realm.

What about that time in Addis Ababa? One day, we got a call from the foundation director. He said, “We have a problem in Ethiopia, and it’s next week.” We flew there and did an exhibit on proposals for redeveloping the city’s master plan. [Susanne] The plan was 10 years old and never applicable, politically. [Stephen] Master plans are basically political processes which are then imposed on a city and space to make them conform to an ideology. There was a Marxist regime in Ethiopia until the early ’90s, and they produced a model of an Eastern European socialist town plan. When the regime fell apart in ’92, ’93, there was a big push to quickly develop Ababa as a free-market city.

Now for another topic: You got married on the Arctic Circle. Yellowknife. I know about Canada because the National Lampoon used to have a column called “Canadian Corner.” There was a picture of a Mountie in his hat. Yellowknife’s the gateway to the Northwest Territories, the last frontier in North America—75,000 people, and it’s half the size of the United States. [Susanne] Steve was there doing a television documentary. [Stephen] Things tend to be easier in Canada than Germany. To get married, it takes 25 minutes. Then we ended up on the front page of the paper—”Wildcat Wedding.” The documentary was about this 1000-mile-long river system that goes from where the Chippewas live, where there are trees, to where the Inuits live on the tundra. But for the Chippewa, the edge of the forest was the edge of the world, the end of life. The Inuits didn’t want to go to the forest because it’s dark. Every now and then, they’d meet at the tree line and think, “Oh my God, the people on the other side are the devil.” And they would kill each other.