The Necropoli of Sicily

Amanda Royale Sengstacken

There’s plenty for an architecture dork to feast on while traveling in Sicily – the island is home to a plethora of ancient Greek and Roman ruins, many in remarkable condition. In fact, the Sicilians seem to simultaneously harbor deep respect and nonchalance towards the antiquities in their midst: you can find yourself standing on a plain-ish portion of 2,500 year-old mosaic while peering over a protective gate at its more elaborate counterpart and feel a bit concerned about damaging the stones under your feet.

Anyway, ruins are all well and good but I was most taken with the necropolises.

I traveled to Sicily with two friends. One with no Italian heritage to speak of yet enough passion for the land and culture that he’s bought a second home there; the other an American whose last name betrays his family’s Sicilian heritage – in which he has no particular interest.

We two non-Sicilians recognized an opportunity for story making, however, and gleefully force-marched our friend on what was for us an emotional tour of his birthright, packing him into a car for several hours to visit his grandparents’ hometown of Floridia and propping him up against various churches and landmarks for photo ops. We even managed to communicate to a kindly local in a few halting words of Italian that our friend, too, had been born of that very earth, eliciting what seemed to be a very positive if long-winded and unintelligible response.

Finally, with lumps in our throats and our poor friend heaving a sigh of relief, we were headed back home to Ragusa Ibla when we drove past a walled-in cemetery and turned to him once more.

“We have to stop and see if your family is in there!”

Maybe he was finally starting to feel the stirrings of his roots, or maybe he’d learned that there was no deterring us, but our captive half-Sicilian agreed.

Cemeteries in Sicily are elaborate cities in their own right. In fact they seem to be laid out to mirror their associated living town, with identical street names. This we garnered from the caretaker who pulled from his wallet something like a social security card, showing us the address on it and gesturing around to indicate that the address of his birth would also one day be the address of his resting place.

But the feeling of walking through a literal city of the dead comes predominantly from the fact that while some in-ground graves of the type we’re most familiar exist, the bulk of the cemetery is composed of, essentially, mini-houses. We strolled through endless rows of elaborately designed shrunken mansions, each bearing a family name and permanently housing as many as a dozen members.


On overview of a typical cemetery; the backs of the family chapels are visible to the left.

The architectural styles vary widely, with sections of intricate Baroque designs grouped next to more Brutalist collections. Whether each structure simply reflects the zeitgeist of the moment it was built or whether it was purely a matter of the clients’ taste is unclear, but the necropolis as a whole provides a rich dose of every imaginable phase of architectural history dating back a few hundred years.

We three found ourselves claiming aspects we liked for our own future perma-homes; “I like the ivy in front for sure, but probably not the sphinxes.”

“This one with the skylight, I like the natural lighting.”

Researching online yields little information about these family chapels, and I’m left wondering what the professional process is like. Are there architects whose practice is devoted entirely to these monuments? Are there firms using modern technology to render their proposals, and BIM to streamline the construction? (In this case a Revit family could, indeed, be an actual family … sorry.) For three awed interlopers it was an unusual and thoughtful exercise to imagine in what style we would wish to represent our families for all eternity.


Art & Architecture

Since we completed their interior fit-out in 2012, we’ve jumped at every opportunity to visit the Bronx Community Charter School and see the kids and teachers in action in their new space. Kimberly and Marcella stopped by BxC today and as always, they were blown away.

The 6th grade class recently finished a project studying the human body and site-specific art. They scoped out sites in their school and created sculptures out of clear packing tape. They studied the position of the body, the way limbs fall, and then one person in each 3-person team became the model. The resulting sculptures are hanging out on a bench, the ductwork, and flying under the central skylight.

We love their artwork (which reminds us of this series of floating and glowing human figures by Cédric Le Borgne installed internationally between 2006 and 2011).

Check out the kids’ talent!


From the Field – Support of Excavations

Kimberly Murphy

As 2016 will be a year of heavy construction administration, we’ve taken the opportunity to learn from each other and share our experiences in a bi-weekly office forum. One recent topic that has emerged from a change in the DOB application approval process is Support Of Excavations (SOE).

battleSOE’s are a Department of Buildings application filed to describe the design, means, and methods for excavating the site in preparation for the new construction. In our experience prior to last year’s filings, the SOE had not been a requirement prior to approval of the New Building (NB) application, leaving this application in the hands of the General Contractor as part of the requirements in pulling the Construction Permit. Now that the DOB is requiring the SOE to be submitted along with the NB prior to approval, the architects have become involved in this process and the SOE design, which is prepared by a geotechnical or other structural consultant to the Architect or Owner, and becomes part of the Contract Documents. Essentially the SOE design becomes another trade consultant to coordinate whose design has impact on cost and schedule. Including the consultant earlier than later in the design process and coordinating with the Structural Engineer has been key. It’s critical that we understand the impact of the proposed SOE design, the proposed impact SOE ESKWon the adjacent properties, and the resultant costs.

The cost associated with the SOE work is significant, and as with any trade, there are several ways to skin the cat. The SOE design that goes out to Bid, could be subject to value engineering and is a way that submitting Bidders can propose to cut costs. This could mean revising the consultants’ design or even replacing the SOE application and superseding the design professional.

Even once the SOE and the NB are approved and the GC has permits in hand, there is no guarantee that things will sail smoothly. Due to unforeseen below-grade conditions, the SOE design is likely to change—possibly many times. As with all approved DOB applications, the SOE then needs to be amended to reflect the updated design.

We all know that getting out of the ground is more than half the construction battle, so being more familiar with the SOE process has become something worth talking about. Our internal office discussions have been crucial for furthering our knowledge.  Any thoughts or experience with SOE? Feel free to comment or contact us!

Happy digging!

Mother featured in Esquire

Mother Industries, the quirky yet stylish advertising agency, is a hub for all things creative. Esquire recently profiled Paul Malmstrom, the co-founder, in their recently completed Hell’s Kitchen office. Working with designer Steven Sclaroff, ESKW/A was the architect for the conversion of this former warehouse to fit the office’s needs: flexible spaces, better access to light, and unexpected nooks all harbor the firm’s creative spirit.


As Esquire notes, the offices “could easily be confused for an art gallery, a museum, a furniture shop and perhaps even a construction site.” We’ll take that as a compliment. Windows from the street look into a casual gathering space leaving the passerby wondering exactly what goes on inside this “office”. The centrally located “kitchen” and the bleachers are all untraditional yet effective spaces for the ad-agency. At the client’s request, we kept the rough-hewn floors to preserve the tactility of the old structure, allowing the new furnishings to create an unexpected found object-type aesthetic – a principle that Mother is known for.


The central Skylight and the open communication stair is the anchor for the space and projects the ethos of the office. As Malmstrom says, “We wanted to make the building feel open where you could see and hear each other clearly,” and the skylight achieves this. We truly appreciate the talent at Mother and appreciate their aesthetic and creative eye. We especially applaud their long-term goal to have miniature cows grazing on their roof deck. This city needs more cows.

Architect: ESKW/A; General Contractor: Vanguard Construction and Development Co., Inc.; Owner’s Rep: ProjectConsult.

Photos from Esquire. 

Grace leaves ESKW/A for California


After almost five years at ESKW/A, Grace Lee is moving to the sunny shores of the west coast. We will miss her dearly here in the office and wish her the very best in her future endeavors. Grace has been a strong design contributor to every project she’s touched and was a driving force for St. Lucy’s Housing, Hour Children Apartments III, and Maison Gerard. Her work on True Colors Residence, Central Park West, Blitzer, and countless RFPs was integral to their successes. Grace is leaving to be nearer to her mother and sisters, and probably most importantly, her adorable nephew.

Good luck to you, Grace! And please keep in touch!

architecture render

Architects needed: ESKW/A is hiring!


Edelman Sultan Knox Wood / Architects LLP is seeking two professional architects to join our 15-person office. We are an award-winning downtown architectural firm with a varied practice focusing on public and institutional projects, housing, educational and community facilities. Projects are primarily for not-for-profit clients located throughout New York City.

We are seeking two motivated, thoughtful, and detail-oriented candidates with professional degrees.



Junior Architect

The Junior Architect shall have 2-3 years of working experience. The successful applicant’s professional development will be encouraged and responsibilities will include involvement in all project phases. AutoCAD proficiency is necessary. Familiarity with Adobe Creative Suite and three-dimensional modeling is also required.

Intermediate Architect

The Intermediate Architect shall have 5-7 years of working experience. Previous experience must include all phases of Project Design and Construction Administration including development of design documents, construction detailing, and coordination of project consultants. Candidates must be familiar with complex building construction drawings and details, and researching materials and building systems. AutoCAD proficiency is necessary. LEED accreditation and familiarity with Adobe applications and 3-dimensional modeling is preferred.



Please email cover letter, resume, work samples and salary requirements to Responses shall include one (1) pdf file with multiple pages (up to 8), no larger than 4mb please.

Hermanyka: Learning to Live with Nature as an Architect

By Francisco Gastelo (with Claire Webb)


As an architect, one major goal is to build structures that last while catering to a user’s needs in the best ways possible. Since we take for granted that the places we inhabit are stable and unchanging (for the most part), and are tailored to our needs, I have always wanted to explore living in a way that bucks these notions of permanence and ease of use. Architects carve out spaces for homes and skyscrapers, defining the urban landscape as we see fit; although we strive for as little impact as possible – building to LEED standards, using green products, or specifying energy efficient products – we ultimately shape nature for our own uses and comfort. How we live in our Western, urban environment, and especially how we live in New York City, is inherently at odds with the elements.

In thinking about how I could best explore a mode opposite to the one the urban environment dictates, I decided I should live in nature in a way where I would adapt to forces around me; I wanted to experience something different than what I do every day, which in part is building projects that ultimately change the landscape to fit human needs. When I considered how best to live closer to nature, my quest became clear: I would experience habitability in a boat.

And not just any type of boat would do; I needed a sail boat. I was attracted to using the wind as the main source of mobility as it is the element that best embodies the antithesis of stable ground and human’s conception of permanence. I was also attracted to living with the wind because it confers a mode of being that combats our oil-dependent culture. On the water, I would have to make the sailboat adapt to an environment where the rules of land did not apply.

I found Hermanyka in January, 2011 in Staten Island. Even though she needed some serious work in the bottom and the interiors, she was in great condition. She was hull number fourteen of 366 produced from 1977 – 1990 by Catalina Yachts in California. Hermanyka, a Catalina 38, is an evolved racing boat; the shape was modified to be a cruiser / racer boat, meaning the interior of the hull was designed to be comfortable without sacrificing too much of the boat’s racing potential. This fusion of racing and leisure makes her the perfect combination to experience both the the pleasure and challenges of a living on the ocean for a short period.

I bought Hermanyka with a friend, a very talented wood worker, mechanic, electrician and sailor, on December 24th 2011, and so we had to wait out the winter until the weather permitted us to start working. As is the case sometimes in  rehab work, once we started such a task it is better not to look the amount of work ahead; it is more heartening to set small goals and complete them so as to not get discouraged.

The original scope of work, on a small budget, was intended just to get Hermankya in the water for the next season; once work started, however, the project evolved to a complete rehabilitation job that included upgrading all the mechanical systems and serious interior restoration. In architectural rehab jobs, sometimes it’s better just to start anew; in the case of Hermanyka, the renovations were extensive but worth the energy.

The interior shape of the cabin, covered in teak, includes a kitchen, a bathroom, a living area and a bedroom; all are formed to adapt to the curves of the hull. Once we decided to restore the interior, we dismantled the entire cabin. At my friend’s wood shop in Clinton Hill, we worked long nights to carefully restore each element. On site, we replaced the plumbing and electrical systems, bathroom fixtures, pumps, water tanks. We also performed maintenance work on the main engine.

We scraped away the bottom of the boat that had accumulated decades of layers of paint. We decided to go back to the original first coat, and so we had to scrape a seemingly endless amount of paint off for weeks. (It was better not to count the number of hours involved in this task). The three hard months of renovating Hermnayka made the prospect of sailing her that much more rewarding.

Architecture rehabilitation for a new use of a building presents an endless array of approaches of how to maximize and then style the space. In a boat, however, these possibilities contract because the physical space is so limited. Interestingly, we found ourselves trying to renovate Hermnakya in the same way we would approach a building, even though the conditions of habitability we have on land are quite different than at sea. As an architect, I’m used to thinking about a floor plan as a stable, unchangeable map; on Hermankya, the floor plan must adapt to continuous motion in every direction; the “floor” is never completely horizontal, and so a paradox arises in trying to maintain it in the same as we would a building’s. I had to reevaluate my expectations of up, down, and horizontal.

We took Hermnakya out for the first time in May 2012. Once we started sailing, I was amazed to realize how different it was to be at sea, attempting to live in a world I wasn’t used to. The idea of combining a moving yet habitable space certainly changed my perception of the usual and more permanent urban life; being one with the water encouraged me to function in a more simple way, from maximizing my own resources to adapting to natural forces.  In order to move from point A to B and the time involved in travelling from those two points are related to a different parameters that in one way enrich my perspective as an architect as a whole.

When I start to work on a new project, my chief concern is permanent structure (positive space): what is the massing, where should the HVAC system go, what façade would jive with the neighborhood, what floor tile would be best. Other less obvious – but equally important – players are negative spaces, transient spaces, and overall experience. On the other hand, living on the water forces an architect to come at negative space as the starting point: I thought about how the wind and buoyancy – essentially negative space – defined the physical boat.

We had a wonderful time on the water, and each experience was an insight into how to be a better designer because it forced me to think of architectural principles like stability and permanence in a fresh way. Living on the sea temporarily, working with the elements and (to some degree), and being at the will of nature are ingredients for exploring a new spatial perspective.


I plan to sail more this spring, so check back soon for more photos!