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Architecture Worthy of ‘The World’s Borough’

Rafael Herrin-Ferri’s “All the Queens Houses” reveals how architecture reflects culture in the city’s most diverse neighborhoods

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For the better part of a decade, Queens-based architect and artist Rafael Herrin-Ferri traversed Queens with his camera, taking photos of its unique housing stock. Week after week, he crisscrossed the city’s largest borough, capturing the bright-blue beach bungalows of the Rockaways, the reimagined Tudors of Auburndale, and the pastel-colored Queen Annes of Woodside. The project, which slowly grew in scope over time, eventually became known as “All the Queens Houses,” with an eponymously titled book released in October 2021.

Similar to the work of German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, who get a shout-out in the book’s foreword, Herrin-Ferri’s photos derive from a systematic approach. Each shot follows a template—clean, straight lines paired with consistent lighting (achieved partly by shooting on cloudy days, which evens out the daylight) and framing. However, dissimilar to the Bechers’ stark black and white images, Herrin-Ferri’s are exuberantly colorful, both literally and figuratively. The shots shine a light on details that are often ignored in formal architectural surveys. John Hill, architect and author of the architecture-book-review blog Archidose, wrote that Herrin-Ferri’s project is reminiscent of the guidebooks created by Tokyo-based architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow, in that Herrin-Ferri’s book also focuses on the often overlooked built environment. Indeed, Herrin-Ferri’s work captures the unbridled expression that is so particular to Queens, something I know well as a Queens native. I can still vividly recall the summer weekend in 2001 when my mother decided to paint the metal door of our bone-white Queens home a bright cherry red. In Queens, any given house’s designs and details are just as diverse as its residents.

Perhaps the melange of Queens was written in the stars—after all, Flushing Meadows was the site of the World’s Fair in both 1939 and 1964. The motto of the 1939 fair, “The World of Tomorrow,” feels like foreshadowing now: Today, nearly half of the borough’s 2.3 million residents are foreign-born and over 100 different languages are spoken here; Guinness World Records has called it “the most diverse urban place on the planet.”

The Voice spoke with Herrin-Ferri about his exploration of  the many different pockets of Queens, the artists he finds inspirational, and what it was like photographing “The World’s Borough.” (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Brittany Natale: How did the project come about? Did you know from the beginning just how large it was going to be?

Rafael Herrin-Ferri: I’ve always been interested in photographing the vernacular of things, the overlooked built environment. I had a blog before this [project] called “Architecture Happens,” and the subtitle was “Modern moments in everyday building.” It was vignettes of things and vernacular structures that looked unintentionally modern. That was the sort of overarching theme. That became kind of a landing page for a lot of different thoughts. Once [my family and I] moved to Queens, from Manhattan, I started seeing a lot of this stuff all over my neighborhood. As I’d go into different neighborhoods it would just start creeping up out there, in the periphery, these interesting moments in vernacular architecture. Slowly I started adding those [photos] into the website.

I’ve always kind of had an interest in geographies and territories—what comprises self-described neighborhoods, or cities, or countries, you know? These kinds of notions of identity and place. So I thought I would keep exploring because there seems to be a very different attitude here in Queens. After living in Manhattan for 10 years, especially with the space constraints and the density, there isn’t too much of an opportunity to be so individualistic and expressive with the housing stock. But I sensed in Queens there was. So slowly, [photographing homes in Queens] became a kind of a routine, a kind of full-body experience. It was just taking these little bites out of the Queens apple, as it were, for a long time.

What did a typical shoot day look like for you?

There were a lot of constraints once I realized, “Okay, I need an evenly lit photograph with cloud cover.” It became a very analytical thing, it was almost done in a scientific manner, to get each of these houses together in the same format. The first step was basically to see that there were going to be clouds—I was cross-referencing three different weather apps to be as sure as I could. Even today, I’m seeing the cloud cover and I’m getting a bit antsy, like, “I need to be out there.” It became very psychological. So that was step one. I also had to see what kind of time availability I had. So if I had an hour I would obviously do something quick nearby, and just look at the express trains. I had to get to know the system very intimately. What I found, in the end, is that every neighborhood, actually every block, has some interesting houses.

Do you know how many houses you photographed?

It’s in the thousands, maybe three or four thousand. Most of these photos are of a house’s facade … a house portrait. But then in a lot of cases, it would be a detail, an ornament, the front area or the front yard area. Those front yard spaces are some of my favorites. There’s a whole combination of this sort of suburban garden and urban quality of the front yard space. It’s very unique in Queens.

In the book, you mentioned that you spoke to some of the residents of these homes. Can you talk a little bit about some of these exchanges, and what you learned from them?

Most general interactions were, “Why are you photographing my house?” And I would respond, “Well, I really like what you’ve done here, it’s very interesting and unorthodox and personal. It just brings a sense of sort of participating in the public realm that you normally don’t get in a lot of places in New York.” But, you know, with the help of my Spanish, in a lot of cases I was able to talk to people. I would sometimes ask a neighbor if they were outside what they thought of their neighbor’s home. “Es su casa, they can do what they want with it,” they’d say. There is this very tolerant attitude, there’s a lot of respect. But I think behind it is this tolerance, like, “Look we’re all immigrants here, we all want to do our thing and be expressive and whatever property we have is ours to do as we please,” you know?

I really enjoyed talking to people and seeing that they are trying in many cases to bring something from “home.” A great majority of [these houses] have been transformed. Like I mentioned in the intro, people putting Spanish tile on Tudor houses—it’s one layer on top of another. There’s this guy in Richmond Hill, who is Guyanese, and he painted his Queen Anne house completely turquoise. Monochromatic, no trim, nothing, all turquoise. He was there in front of his house and I managed to talk to him. He even invited me into his backyard, which was also all turquoise. He said he wanted to be reminded of the Caribbean Sea, and that’s the kind of color that makes things feel alive. In most places in the world, the building stock is a lot more colorful than it is here. Here, people come and things look really drab. For instance, it’s rough coming back and going home after our trips. You notice all the gray and brown, and a kind of hermetic, box-like feel. Whereas you go to other places and it’s open and colorful.

In the foreword of the book you mentioned Bernd and Hilla Becher, and how you tried to shoot on overcast days like they did. Did you look to any other photographers or artists for inspiration along the way?

The Bechers started the Dusseldorf School, in Germany—maybe you’ve seen this guy, [Andreas] Gursky, who does these super-large photographs that are panoramas of supermarkets in China. It’s a lot of density and small variety. He had a MoMA show that was pretty popular 10 or 15 years ago. Anyhow, there’s a bunch of photographers that came out of [that school]. There are also some photographers in Hong Kong that are some of my favorites. Michael Wolf is one of the photographers that really looked at the built environment of Hong Kong in a similar way.

I like to describe my project as a mix between architectural photography, which normally prioritizes the structure and doesn’t have people too prominently in the photographs, and street photography. [Street photography] is a lot more personal and focuses more on the happy accidents and life moving around you—that’s an element of Queens. A street photographer I like a lot is Saul Leiter. There’s also a current street photographer, David Rothenberg, and he’s photographed in Queens. He just put out an amazing book about the Jackson Heights 7 train station, Roosevelt Station, it’s called. It’s mostly people and light coming through. There’s another with airplanes flying over East Elmhurst, called Landing Lights Park. Those [images] feature planes mixing with the architecture—a lot of times you’re looking at the idiosyncrasies of the architecture and then a plane is added into the mix. I find his work so fresh and so reflective of what present-day Queens is. In some ways, those elements kind of are solidified into an architectural form, in the houses that I have photographed and featured. I follow a few photographers, although I try not to distract myself too much with other people’s projects.

How do you think having a dual perspective, as both a photographer and an architect, has informed this project?

I’m aware of all the “rules” people are “breaking” and the historical styles and traditions—for me that’s the humor of it a little bit. These structures where people just do what they will with historical forms, and then in a lot of cases modernize them, just by stripping away stuff or flattening them. That was very interesting. What I am really reflecting on as an architect is the rules of architecture in residential architecture, because in a way it’s just like cooking or dressing or anything else—it’s personal. People kind of do their own thing and have to DIY it for the most part. It doesn’t need to be so high design.

This kind of aspirational [idea] of having a high design product, a living product, I think is just the wrong attitude—it’s kind of a consumerist attitude. It’s, in the end, very inflexible, because you can’t just add or slap on things. You need something that is not as precious that you can grow with. I think that’s what I love about Queens. What people here are adding to their houses isn’t for the purpose of the market. It’s more that they are going to enjoy their house, they are going to represent their house, it is their ancestral home. There is that sense that this is the home base, kind of what you may feel when you go back to your family’s home in Queens. And people in Queens don’t want to sacrifice that.  ❖

Brittany Natale, a born-and-raised New Yorker, is a freelance writer who often writes about the city’s vibrant history and culture. Her work has appeared in the Village Voice, i-D, and Teen Vogue, among other publications.

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