Meet the Team

ESKW/A has added several new team members over the last year or so. Get to know them in a series of meet-and-greet interviews.


Ruth Dresdner, AIA, LEED AP 

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Ruth lunching in Florence

ESKW/A: Where did you grow up?

Ruth: I was born in the Bronx, but my parents are Israeli. I went there at age 3. I returned after my first degree and studied architecture here.

 

ESKW/A: What led you to us?

Ruth: I was aware of Judy [Edelman]’s work on behalf of women and admired it from a distance. I also knew about the New Settlement Campus in Mt. Eden in the Bronx. I’d spent several years in healthcare design and I wanted to do something different and new. Always I try to do work with redeeming social value for the public.

 

ESKW/A: What NYC buildings or spaces inspire you?

Ruth: There are so many places in New York I love. Just picking from the slides in my head, one of them is the FDR Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island. It’s an incredibly crystallized, modern architectural design. It does everything right. The memorial is also outside, with no ceiling, so it creates these outdoor rooms, if you will. The official designer is Louis Kahn, a very important American architect—however ,the original concept came from his mistress, a landscape architect. Just another in the long list of uncredited women!

 

ESKW/A: What is your favorite place you’ve visited?

Ruth: It is very difficult to pick a favorite. I travel a lot, and I’ve never been to a place that I haven’t been interested in. My next planned big trip is to Siberia, but who knows what will happen now with Putin?

 

ESKW/A: What makes you laugh? Or alternatively, gasp or shriek (in fear or disgust)?

Ruth: Trump! That’s the all-purpose answer.

 

ESKW/A: Which celebrity or historical figure, alive or dead, would you want to have dinner with?

Ruth: That’s also difficult to pick only one. Someone I always admired is Susan Sontag, a writer. I wanted to learn more from her, but sadly she’s gone.

 

ESKW/A: What do you do on weekends?

Ruth: I do what everyone does. I do my laundry! But no, that’s not a hobby. Of course, I also do some shopping, cooking, reading, meeting friends, going out.

 

Ruth has been an architect at ESKW/A for almost a year and has taken on two of our largest new housing construction projects. She is project manager on both 2865 Creston Avenue for Project Renewal which is under construction, and the School Street Residences in Yonkers for St. Joseph’s Community Medical Centers.


Michael Kowalchuk 

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Michael traveling in Vicenza

ESKW/A: Where did you grow up?

Michael: Manchester, New Hampshire.

 

ESKW/A: What led you to us?

Michael: I always wanted to end up in New York. I started working at a small firm in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and one of my bosses there worked at ESKW/A prior to starting their own firm.  I’ve also always been interested in affordable housing, so it was a match made in heaven.

 

ESKW/A: What building or spaces in New York inspire you?

Michael: There are two spaces, both by Renzo Piano. The New York Times Building because of its atrium with the birch trees. It’s a very surreal juxtaposition of environments right in the middle of Manhattan. And the Whitney. It has so many vantage points for viewing the city, and it kind of makes you feel more like you’re a part of it all. I was also an English double-major in college, which informs my approach to architecture pretty significantly.

 

ESKW/A: What is your favorite place you’ve visited?

Michael: Havana, Cuba. It’s a really bizarre mixture of old-world architecture in the middle of the Caribbean, and there’s the political history too. It’s like no place I’ve ever been before.

 

ESKW/A: What makes you laugh, or shriek?

Michael: McMansions for both! Also I just saw The Little Hours, and it was really funny.

 

ESKW/A: What famous person, architect or not, and alive or dead, would you like to have dinner with?

Michael: My architect answer is Oscar Niemeyer. He lived through so much—most notably the military dictatorship in Brazil—and was instrumental in adapting Modernism to a regional/national context at a time when the “International Style” was being crudely exported to the Global South. My non-architect answer is Simone de Beauvoir, because she did so much for 20th century politics and feminism, and she’s kind of overlooked here [in the United States]. She’d certainly be an interesting dinner date.

 

ESKW/A: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? (Credit: James Lipton of Inside the Actors Studio)

Michael: I think God (or St. Peter—he guards the pearly gates, right?) would say, “A for effort.”

 

Michael joined ESKW/A in September 2016. He has been a team member on 2865 Creston Avenue for Project Renewal, 3500 Park Avenue for the Bridge, and has managed several projects for Clinton Housing Development Company. Michael is an inaugural member of the ESKW/A’s book club and frequently lends his second degree in English to promotional efforts for the office.


Gary McGaha 

Gary

Gary at a wedding in Virginia

ESKW/A: Where did you grow up?

Gary: Frankfurt, Kentucky—I was born there and went to high school there. Then I went to undergrad in Georgia at Southern Polytechnic State, and did grad school here at Columbia.

 

ESKW/A: What led you to us?

Gary: There was a building on my street that I passed by pretty frequently (892 Bergen Street in Crown Heights), and I thought it was fascinating. My girlfriend did some consulting for ESKW/A on 233 Landing Road, and she was the one that told me the building was theirs. She connected me with the firm.

 

ESKW/A: What building or spaces in New York inspire you?

Gary: In New York, spatially and from an urban standpoint, I’d have to say Four Freedoms Park and the High Line, but there are so many. The High Line is so unique and there’s not a prototype for that type of project. It takes elements of a dense urban condition and stitches them together to create moments that wouldn’t exist otherwise. The scenic factors augment these spontaneous activities and adventures.

 

ESKW/A: What is your favorite place you’ve visited?

Gary: I think it’d be between Paris and Vienna. There are so many layers between the contemporary and the medieval. And there are lots of monuments, boulevards, and the same kinds of opportunities for social interaction and surprise.

 

ESKW/A: What do you do on weekends?

Gary: Well, when I’m not busy with home repairs, a lot of biking around Prospect Park where I live, or we’ll go to events and exhibits that are opening. And there’s the occasional travel upstate or to a close city like Philly—a little weekend train getaway.

 

ESKW/A: What makes you shriek or gasp in fear or disgust?

Gary: Kind of like a pet peeve? Cars that get in the bike lane.

 

ESKW/A: What famous person, alive or dead, would you like to have dinner with?

Gary: I might have to do a dinner party. Nina Simone, Martin Luther King Jr., Le Corbusier. That’s a good balance—or combination—of genius, visionaries, and just the greatest citizens or examples of humanity.

 

ESKW/A: What superpower do you want?

Gary: Teleportation. There are lots of moments where the biggest constraint on reality is time and space. And in New York, so much time is taken just getting from point A to point B. So if you could skip that, you’d have more time for everything else. Also I probably wouldn’t need a passport or a hotel reservation.

 

ESKW/A: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? (Credit: James Lipton of Inside the Actors Studio)

Gary: “Neat or on the rocks?” Or maybe it’d have to be “How do you take your coffee?”

 

Gary has been an architectural designer with ESKW/A since August 2017. Bringing a mix of experience with both institutional and smaller scale interior work, Gary is project manager for the Lucile Palmaro Clubhouse renovation for the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club and an affordable housing renovation at 1772 Second Avenue. Gary also embraced the Revit challenge by being a team member on the School Street Residences in Yonkers for St. Joseph’s Community Medical Centers.


Jon Mark Bagnall, RA 

Jon Mark Bagnall

Jon Mark at the Sailors Ball, which raises money for a kids sailing program in New York Harbor

ESKW/A: Where did you grow up?

Jon Mark: We moved around a lot, because my dad was a minister. So I was born in the South Bronx but moved to Long Island, then New Jersey, and so on. My mother was a social worker as well, so we’d go where the need was greatest. That’s where I found my motivation to work with nonprofits, institutions, and people who need someone to look out for their interests.

 

ESKW/A: So is that what led you to us?

Jon Mark: It’s kind of a small world so I was aware of firms doing this type of work. When you look at what we do, it’s exactly in my wheelhouse. I’ve ventured outside—I’ve done hospitality, even a casino!—but these often have specific design formulas, and I wasn’t feeling challenged. Here, I care about the work we do, and you can’t put a price on that.

 

ESKW/A: What motivates you creatively, in general?

Jon Mark: I think the reason I’m an architect and not an artist is that I need a client [laughs]. I mean I find that the client inspires and challenges me. I like to solve problems. When you have very specific needs—working with the elderly, or those with mental health issues or specific physical needs, or even sharks—and at the same time limited budgets, those provide a framework. Rules make it easier, because you can move around within them. They’re a starting point. It’s a creative problem that needs solving.

 

ESKW/A: Are there any specific buildings or spaces in New York that inspire you?

Jon Mark: For me, New York is less about specific buildings and more the overall texture of a city—going from neighborhood to neighborhood and experiencing the different patterns and scales.

 

ESKW/A: Do you have a favorite place you’ve visited?

Jon Mark: The Yucatan really stood out for a couple reasons. We drove south through the jungle to Calakmul, a temple site which was still being uncovered. The largest pyramid of the Mayan period is there, and climbing to the top, you look out over the trees and see these little hills, and you realize that each hill is another temple that has yet to be uncovered. A landscape architect once told me that if everybody left New York, in a decade the city would be overrun with plants, and that’s exactly what happened to these sites.

Another thing is that the Yucatan peninsula is all limestone, very porous and soft, and it sits on top of the Gulf of Mexico, which flows around and under it. So you come across these huge sinkholes, or cenotes, where you can climb down to what looks like a little island in a shallow pond. You put on snorkeling gear and look down into the water, expecting it to only be a few feet deep. But it actually goes down 100 feet or more! I got vertigo as if I was looking down from the top of a skyscraper.

 

ESKW/A: What do you do on weekends?

Jon Mark: I enjoy sailing in the little sloop I’ve fixed up. My favorite sound in the world is the whoosh of air I hear after the hubbub of the outboard motor is silenced. I also like building things on a smaller scale. I built a small weekend house on Long Island without any drawings—intentionally! I just stood at different locations on the site, and again later in the rough framing of the house, and said, “I’m going to put this here and that there.” I also can’t help making suggestions to anyone who invites me to dinner and risks asking my opinion on their kitchen. I love seeing how other people live and finding out how they want to live. Maybe I’ll have a good idea. Then, of course, they want me to build it!

 

ESKW/A: What superpower or special ability would you want?

Jon Mark: To go back in time and just stand anywhere and see what a landscape or a city looked like 100 years—2,000 years ago… because we live on top of all these layers—of other people, their lives, what they felt, and what they built. It’s incredible.

 

Jon Mark joined ESKW/A in September 2016 and brings many years of new construction experience with him. As the project architect for the office’s largest housing development, he is a critical part of the Archer Green team for Omni New York LLC. He is also the enthusiastic leader of the office’s Building Codes Working Group and makes keeping up with codes a ton of fun.

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Hermanyka: Learning to Live with Nature as an Architect

By Francisco Gastelo (with Claire Webb)

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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.

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