Flexible Team Helping to Bend and Shape New York City
By Elaine Misonzhnik
Real Estate Weekly
For the three principals of Magnusson Architecture and Planning, the construction and design business has always been more than just a way to make a living – it has been an outlet for their desire to make a difference in the world.
For example, Magnus Magnusson, the founder of the firm, has always been interested in sustainable design and in creating structures that were not just comfortable for their inhabitants, but safe for the environment. Petr Stand, on the other hand, has an affinity for affordable housing and providing his professional services where they are needed most – in New York’s battered and impoverished neighborhoods.
And Joseph Lengeling is the kind of architect who likes to think in terms of the bigger picture – his background is in master planning and his expertise is invaluable when Magnusson is working on a mixed-use community, the kind of project the firm has been doing more and more lately.
Perhaps it was inevitable that these three would eventually find each other. Now in its 20th year, Magnusson Architecture concentrates on the kind of work many architects shy away from: affordable housing, hospitals and schools and community master planning. In other words, the kind of work that requires coordination with government agencies, lots of paperwork and stringent design requirements. But for Magnusson’s principals, the reward is having a positive impact on the city they live in.
“Architecture is stressful and difficult and wonderful no matter what project you are doing, so in a way, I don’t see that there is a great difference between working for a private developer and doing government work,” Stand explains. “Whatever you are building, you still have to go through a regulatory agency.”
“Sometimes, the bureaucracy is frustrating, but ultimately, it’s satisfying work,” adds Magnusson.
It was, in fact, Magnusson who started the firm in 1986. A graduate of Columbia University’s master ‘s program in architectural technology, he earned real-life experience in his favorite field of green building in his first job at EEK Architects, and even won an award for a development that utilized passive solar design.
From there, Magnusson went on to Robert Lamb Hart, where he concentrated on planning and building housing and office buildings but, by the mid 1980’s, he “wanted control of my own destiny,” so Magnusson Architecture was born. During his first few years in the business, Magnusson completed healthcare facilities and affordable housing projects for such clients as the Columbia University Presbyterian Hospital and the New York City Housing Partnership. By the early 1990s, he felt that he could use a partner to help him with the workload and that’s how Petr Stand came to join the firm.
Stand and Magnusson were long-time buddies since their days as undergraduates at the City College of New York. But while Magnusson started his post-graduate career in architecture proper, circumstances forced Stand to take what was essentially an administrator ‘s job with the City and he spent the better half of the next 18 years searching for the right place for himself.
“While I was in college, I interned for the chief architect’s office at the New York City Urban Development Corporation,” Stand explains. “But in 1975, there was a recession and the UDC let go all of the architects. I enjoyed working in housing, so I took a job with a predecessor to the Housing Preservation and Development agency. My job was to analyze the programs and the planned buildings and get them funding. It was very important work, but it was also very frustrating. I wanted to be an architect, not an administrator.”
Stand eventually found a job in the design world, but for a long time the work he was getting wasn’t quite what he wanted to do – at one place he was responsible for the designing of high-end interiors, at another he felt there was no outlet for his creativity however, the job did bring him into contact with Cooper Robertson & Partners, one of the biggest architectural firms in the city. While there, Stand got the opportunity to do an affordable housing project for Andrew Cuomo’s HELP organization, as well as meeting Joseph Lengeling. “The first day I started with the firm, I learned that Joe was going to do a project at Stuyvesant High School, of which I am a graduate,”Stand explains. “We started talking and soon became friends.”
But soon afterward another recession hit and Cooper Robertson had to give up affordable housing work. Instead, Stand was now designing high-end homes in the East Hamptons, not the kind of work he found particularly fulfilling.
A mutual friend suggested that he might give Magnusson a hand with Columbia Presbyterian and, by Feb. I, 1993, Stand had cashed out his 40 I K plan to become a principal at Magnusson Architecture.
Now, he finds it amusing that the first paying job he brought to the table was not a revolutionary residential development, but a parking lot in the South Bronx. In another couple of years Lengeling came on board and Magnusson Architecture was on course to becoming one of the most versatile firms in its field.
Lengeling likes to point out that his dream has always involved ‘living in and building up big cities.
A native Midwesterner, he decided to attend Cornell University because the Northeastern school seemed exotic and urban, and he even spent a brief period of time living in London, first as an architecture student and then as a teacher of urban planning.
But after working for many years for some of the most prestigious architectural practices in the city – FXFowle Architects, among them – he was ready for the kind of opportunity Magnusson Architecture had to offer.
Working together, the team has been getting one award after another. The one they all seem most proud of is the American Institute of Architects’ Housing Program Design Award for Melrose Commons, a mixed-use community in the Bronx that has been more than a decade in the making. According to Stand, a Bronx native, Melrose Commons used to be an urban war zone, the kind of shabby neighborhood the borough is often associated with.
“This was taking on a whole community and figuring out where everything should be,” Magnusson explains. “The job started 13 years ago and we are still working on it.”
When the project is completed, Magnusson and his colleagues expect to add more than I million sf of space and 1,000 units of new housing to the neighborhood.
They are doing a similarly challenging assignment in Trenton, where they are turning a former New Jersey Bell Telephone Company building into residential condominiums, and plan to use surrounding Iand parcels to build 125,000 sf of class A office space, 40,000 sf of retail space and a 630 car parking facility.
Another complex the firm is currently at work on is Atlantic Terrace, a residential and retail building on a former brownfield site in the vicinity of Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards.
Slated to include both market-rate and affordable housing units, Atlantic Terrace will feature 80 apartments and 12,100 sf of retail space.
Magnusson has also completed similar projects in East Harlem, in Queens, in Yonkers, and all around the metropolitan area. In addition to affordable housing and 80/20 programs, they have experience in Section 8 design, assisted living facilities and renovation work.
According to Stand, “We educated ourselves on a whole range of things having to do with affordable housing. We understand the nature of being a person in your 80’s with low income. We try to understand the nature of our clients instead of just being the people who know the code. We are passionate about architecture and we are passionate about design.”
“What I always say is that we do all types of housing, we do all kinds of schools and we’re also involved in healthcare and commercial work.” Magnusson adds.
According to Lengeling, this kind of versatility just happens when an architecture firm gets involved in community master planning.
“Usually, a whole spectrum of work is involved, including not only residential and office buildings, but civic structures, like firehouses and police stations,” he explains.