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Donald Judd’s Lessons for Architects

ARO discusses restoring the artist’s SoHo home

By Kimberlie Birks, Superscript September 27, 2013

It doesn’t take long to realize that the devil is in the details at 101 Spring St., the recently renovated New York home and studio of the late artist Donald Judd. The Judd Foundation-led tour begins with a Juddian vocabulary lesson: “sculpture” is to be replaced with “specific object”; “tour” is eschewed for “guided visit” while any talk of minimalism—the artistic movement with which the artist is often associated—is to be avoided altogether. Judd, it seems, was as studied in his semantics as in his use of space.

101 Spring Street, New York, 5th Floor. Photo: Joshua White-Judd Foundation Archives. Image © Judd Foundation. Dan Flavin artwork © 2012 Stephen Flavin/(ARS), © John Chamberlain artwork/(ARS), © Claes Oldenburg

When the artist purchased 101 Spring St. for $68,000 in 1968, the 19th-century cast iron building, a former textile factory, was in complete disrepair. Over the following 25 years, Judd transformed the building floor by floor into a home, a studio, and most importantly a laboratory for ideas. The address became the testing ground for Judd’s concept of permanent art installation in a space tailored to it specifically. Judd—who wrote extensively about his ideas of how artwork should be shown and experienced—went to great lengths in the service of spatial clarity, often removing light fixtures, pipes, and sprinklers at the expense of more practical considerations. In so doing, 101 Spring St. became an influential archetype of the artist’s loft and the vernacular of contemporary art galleries, exhibiting many of the spatial theories that he would continue to develop in Marfa, Texas.

101 Spring Street, New York, 4th Floor. Photo: Joshua White-Judd Foundation Archives. Image © Judd Foundation

Following the artist’s death in 1994, the building fell into disrepair while the Judd Foundation considered how to preserve this seminal space, and make it accessible to the public. In 2005, Rainer and Flavin Judd auctioned off $20 million of their father’s work to pay for the renovation of the SoHo space and the Judd Foundation hired the New York-based Architectural Research Office (ARO) to lead the renovation. “Donald Judd was notorious for his dislike of architects,” muses ARO principal Adam Yarinsky, adding: “I tell people I think it was for all of the right reasons.” Known for its thoughtful restraint and considered approach, ARO seemed the perfect candidate to challenge Judd’s notion that architects repackage a single idea into multiple projects. 

The Books

Donald Judd: Raume Spaces Donald Judd
Volker Rattemayer
Kunst + Design: Donald Judd Donald Judd
Renate Petzinger
Hanne Dannenberger

Characteristically, ARO immersed itself in research; with Yarinsky reading and even writing and lecturing on Judd. “What I find inspiring is Judd’s notion of the unity between thought and feeling; that you can come to this place and simply have an experience,” he says. “On a deep level I think that is what he was interested in and—as beautifully crafted as the work is—it is ultimately not about itself as much as it is about the experience you take from it.” Similarly, a renovation originally budgeted at $8 million grew to $23 million, as the architects sought to stay true to Judd’s exacting vision while bringing the building up to modern safety codes. Fire-activated robotic baffling was devised to maintain the illegally open fourth-floor staircase, Dan Flavin’s 65-foot-long fifth-floor light installation was wired to function as emergency egress lighting, artisanal plaster was commissioned to replicate the effect of the no-longer-produced original. And yet, amidst this, here and there, walls are lovingly left with their original peeling paint and windowsills maintain their timeworn patina.

“Another lesson that Judd gives to architects is this idea of renovation or restoration as a kind of layering of the new and the old to create this kind of new simultaneous totality, rather than a slavish recreation of the past or an overlay that masks it,” explains Yarinsky. Walking through the newly unveiled 101 Spring St., one feels that even Judd, for all his exacting standards and professional misgivings, could not help but admit that these architects aren’t so bad.

The third-floor library at 101 Spring St., furnished with Alvar Aalto furniture. Image © Judd Foundation
101 Spring Street, New York, 1st Floor, 1974. Whitney Independent Study Program Seminar with artist Donald Judd at his studio in 1974. On Judd’s left is Ron Clark, and on his right is artist Julian Schnabel. Courtesy Judd Foundation Archives. Image © Barbara Quinn

To see more work and for more information on Donald Judd, see the Donald Judd Foundation and the Donald Judd page on Artsy.

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