Brooklyn to RI via London, Genoa, Paris

A girl from a poor family in Brooklyn dreams about becoming an architect and ends up working in Genoa, Italy, for Renzo Piano, one of the most renowned architects in the world and the winner of the Pritzker Prize in 1998. Unlikely, maybe, but if you are Island House resident Nina Freedman, that is part of your life story. And the steps that led to Genoa and the upper world of architecture are equally unlikely.

Freedman’s first goal was to study landscape architecture at the City College of New York (CCNY). Her primary obstacle was to find the money for CCNY. She remembers, “There was no money in the house.” Undeterred, Nina enrolled at CCNY. The school itself was located near 79th Street and Broadway in an old building that had been renovated. “I noticed that there was no coffee bar or snack area for the students. I approached the school authorities with the idea of starting a coffee bar. I was given some space on one of the upper floors, and set about making it into a student area with coffee, bagels, and other snacks. Each morning, I would put all my schoolwork in a backpack and take the subway from Brooklyn to H&H Bagels, located near the school. I’d load up on huge bags of bagels and lug everything over to school. After arranging for coffee and sandwiches to be delivered, I was in business. I didn’t have any coffee-making equipment, but I did have a percolator that made hot water. All the coffee was instant and served in paper cups, because there was no sink to wash cups and saucers. I kept the coffee bar going during my four years at CCNY, which allowed students who worked for me to raise some of the money they needed.”

Nina also worked as a part-time secretary and receptionist to earn extra money, but the coffee bar was her main source of income. “At graduation, some of the seniors looked oddly at me. They hadn’t realized I was a student, too. They thought I just ran the coffee bar.”

First Job

Graduation brought a new challenge – getting a job. “I had a BS [Bachelor of Science] in Landscape Architecture and had been the recipient of the top award in my class, but I soon discovered that the City of New York offered few opportunities for landscape design. (The parks and public spaces had all been laid out years before.) I spent a year working for a developer doing site studies, building layouts, but I hated every minute of it. There was no opportunity to use my imagination or creativity.”

Realizing that landscape architecture was not her future, Nina decided to obtain a formal degree as an architect. “I wanted something different, a little bit ‘edgy,’ so I applied to the Architects’ Association in London. They were famous for a creative, unusual approach to architecture. I worked and studied there for five years and I loved every minute of it.

“In 1987, I received my BA in Architecture, and my first job was with Renzo Piano in Genoa. I couldn’t speak a word of Italian, but many in the firm spoke English, and I took a course in Italian. I really wanted to work in Paris. Genoa was as close as I could get. I eventually got to Paris working for Richard Meier, another Pritzker Prize winner.”

Freedman soon found that working in Paris was not as glamorous as visiting it as a tourist. She returned to the States to work for Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, ultimately spending eight years there as an associate. High-profile projects that she was involved in include the complete restoration of Radio City Music Hall, the design and construction of the Packer Collegiate School in the Bronx, and the restoration of the Central Synagogue on East 55th Street.

Thereafter, Freedman went to work for Shigeru Ban (another Pritzker Prize winner). “My title was Director of Architecture, and I worked on all of Shigeru’s projects here in the United States. They included the Camper Shoe Store in SoHo, condominiums in the West Village, and the Aspen Art Museum in Colorado. The condo project on East 89th Street was especially noteworthy, in that each apartment was a duplex with a 20-foot wall that raised up like a garage door onto an outdoor terrace. The idea was to break down the separation of the interior from the outside world. I enjoyed the work. It was challenging and creative, but I always had a desire to have my own company.”

The Dream

Freedman did reach that goal. “After my son graduated from NYU, I felt free to pursue that dream.” She named her company Dreamland, and set a mission of providing creative solutions to affordable housing, elder-living, and other socially inspired projects. “When we work with a client, I want to spend time with him or her and find out what kind of person I am working for. I think the end design should reflect the personality and aspirations of the client, and not just the creativity of the architect.”

One way of achieving that goal is demonstrated by RIBOX, an apartment-remodeling tool that affords a three-dimensional view of an apartment. Sample apartments from Island House and Westview are laid out on a pegboard base. The walls of an apartment can be inserted into the base to reflect the original design. All the walls are removable, and it is easy to see many different possible layouts of the space. Looking down at the possible designs for the space gives the client a much more accurate idea of what can be done – as opposed to renderings or sketches. “We seek out our client’s story, which we call the seed of the dream and its creative, identifying fingerprint. We work inside out to promote understanding as the core of pioneering ideas.”

Essentially, what Freedman is saying is that if you are looking for traditional architectural solutions to a design problem, that isn’t what she does. Her approach involves the personality and character of the client at every stage in the creative process, so that something unusual and different emerges. Additionally, Freedman teaches at Pratt Institute and Cornell on such subjects as Professional Practice (how to run a business), Materials (how they differ and how to use them), and Assembly Systems (how to put together a high-rise building).

Freedman is also the co-founder of ­ArchiteXX, a bridge for women architects into the working world. ArchiteXX offers a mentoring program for female architects, and helps them develop the leadership qualities they need to excel in their chosen profession. “I’m being a lot more creative now and working with people I want to work with.”

The Island

About Roosevelt Island, Freedman says, “I loved everything about Roosevelt Island from the first time I saw it. I thought the overall design of the Island was extremely creative, and I liked the mix of economic levels. It’s amazing it happened, a new way of living in the city. The design was way ahead of its time.”

Freedman has suggestions for the Island. “We obviously need more retail ventures on Main Street, with designs that have more character to them. I would like Roosevelt Island to be more like Long Island City, with spaces for people to work together and with more use of our waterfronts and access to the water. Cornell seems to have some unusual designs in its buildings. But the main problem is that all of the building activity is taking place outside the core of the four original buildings. The core could be redesigned to make it more ‘edgy’ and artistic.”

With undiminished energy and ambition, Nina Freedman is living the dream that began in an impoverished home in Brooklyn, and included working here and in Europe with some of the most distinguished architects of our time. Her ideas for the further development of our Island are as imaginative and creative as the story of her journey.

Tags: Community Profile Jim Baehler

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