I talked with Rafael de Cárdenas in his office, sitting below a beautiful arched window overlooking the intersection of Broadway and Houston Street as the Friday afternoon rush of ambulances whirred by
Our built environment influences us in a lot of ways, but we’re deadened to it. We don’t notice it. It’s also something people have very little control over because your built environment is limited to what you can afford.
On the wall a giant screen displayed an amazing 3D topography created by gamer-turned-artist Tabor Robak. I asked de Cárdenas why Robak couldn’t be both a gamer and an artist, and he told me that the art world wants you to be an artist only. It seems clear to me that de Cárdenas could have been the toast of the art world had he chosen that path. But after an hour with him, it’s also clear that he isn’t the sort to be satisfied with being confined to one thing.
Early in his career, de Cárdenas left a job as a men’s wear designer at Calvin Klein to go to architecture school at UCLA with the intention of creating production design for runway shows, imagining a career path similar to Alexandre de Betak. And indeed, he still maintains that fashion is a stronger cultural force than architecture. “Our built environment influences us in a lot of ways, but we’re deadened to it. We don’t notice it. It’s also something people have very little control over because your built environment is limited to what you can afford.” Fashion, on the other hand, is something that is universally accessible because everyone can — and, I suppose, must — buy clothing.
Just as his career mixes architecture with fashion, so too does de Cárdenas’s architecture refuse to be identified with any one style. Indeed, his stated philosophy begins with the declaration that his firm “Favors the strategic over the thematic,” meaning he does not set out to design in a preconceived style, but rather he makes work to suit the atmosphere and mood of his subject. At the time of my visit, he mentioned working on a 5,000 square-foot terrace atop a prewar building in the West Village. And then, at the complete opposite end of the Manhattan real estate spectrum, he described a job remodeling two apartments in Olympic Tower into one gigantic apartment — “A ‘70s palace.” In both instances the starting place for de Cárdenas is what the mood of the space suggests. For de Cárdenas, “The Olympic Tower evokes the fantasy of a classic black glass building,” and the look he creates for Olympic tower — high-polished marble, Leslie Vance paintings, all subsumed to a floor-to-ceiling view of the Empire State Building — reflects this fantasy. And of course that built environment will be completely different from what he creates for the West Village prewar, a space with its own connotations and references.
Matching the design to the project is typical of the de Cárdenas’s overarching belief that certain rules exist for a reason, and the only reason to break a rule is if circumstances demand it. For example, if you are going to wear a suit, wear a suit. If you’re going to be casual, be casual. What de Cárdenas objects to is wearing blazer with jeans, which makes sense to me. But when you reflect on how many jeans-blazer combinations you see every day, you realize just how refreshingly radical his thinking actually is.