MHN Interview: Michael Ytterberg of BLT Architects Takes on Cramped Apartments

4 min read

Michael R. Ytterberg, principal, BLT Architects, speaks with MHN on the firm's recent projects, and shares insight on maximizing space in an apartment.

The Symphony House
By Jessica Fiur, News Editor

Philadelphia—BLT Architects knows the importance of maximizing space in a crowded city. The Philadelphia-based architecture and interior design firm, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this month, has a portfolio that includes hospitality, education, and mixed-use buildings in the busy cities of Philadelphia and Atlantic City, N.J. Michael R. Ytterberg, principal, BLT Architects, speaks with MHN on the firm’s recent projects, and shares insights on maximizing space in an apartment.

MHN: Describe some of your multifamily and mixed-use projects. What were some of your favorites?

Ytterberg: We are architects who work most often on urban, brownfield sites. Because of the density of development in the city, large-scale projects frequently become mixed use, as an addition to the main use, a secondary use often is economically advantageous and the ground floor will have retail and parking, which must be accommodated below or above ground. Each building in an urban environment tends to recreate within itself the diversity and excitement of life in the city.

Theater Square

Another factor of working in cities is the presence of beautiful old industrial and office buildings that can be adapted to a residential use. Much of our work is adaptive reuse. A favorite is the Phoenix, in the heart of Center City, Philadelphia. A beautiful 1920s neoclassical bank headquarters on the historic register was saved and transformed into residential condominiums, with two levels of retail and a third [of the building as] offices. A café spills out onto the sidewalk. The original banking hall had been destroyed and filled in. A two-story shopping arcade was created in its stead that links the two entries for the building and reinterprets the style of the building in contemporary terms. This is the kind of building that just can’t be duplicated anymore, and it has been remade into an exciting residential environment.

A favorite new construction project is Symphony House, a 32-story, 163-unit luxury condominium project on Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts near the regional performing arts center. A requirement of the RFP from the city was to include an arts or entertainment use, because of the project’s location in the heart of Philadelphia’s performing arts district. Symphony house includes a 350-seat theater with a resident company in the base of the building along with two high-end restaurants and parking both for residents and for theater patrons. There was very little existing housing in this area of town previously, much less high-end luxury condos, so this project really made the area come to life, 24/7, making the entire neighborhood the round-the-clock urban destination that it always had the potential to be. The client loved it so much that he took one of the two-story penthouses at the top of the building with a 1,000 square foot terrace and views out over the city. He lives the cultivated urban life to the hilt.

MHN: Which of your upcoming projects are you most excited about?

Ytterberg: The upcoming project I am most excited about is also linked with a performing arts center, this time in the center of the rapidly reinvigorating city of Newark, N.J. We will be creating the tallest building in Newark, a real symbol of the regeneration of the city as residential development moves out past Hoboken and Jersey City from New York City. It will be 44 stories tall with 325 rental apartments, 20 percent of which will be subsidized for musicians, artists and others. Again there will be retail and parking at the base. Situated opposite the performing arts center, NJPAC, the building will at last be creating a new urban square between the two structures. I can’t wait for opening night!

MHN: What are some of your design tricks for maximizing space in apartments? What do you recommend for making an apartment look bigger?

Ytterberg: One of the keys in any of these buildings to making the most of available space inside the apartment is to arrange the site lines to have a glimpse of a spectacular view immediately as you step in the front door. This can be difficult to achieve in the corners of a building, but oh so effective just because of the additional views that are available at those key locations. Of course, floor-to-ceiling glass to take advantage of the views and make the outside almost a part of the interior space is incredibly important.

Another key factor that we like to emphasize in smaller apartments is not to squeeze the living area too much at the expense of the sleeping areas. This is a common result of reducing apartment size. You can tell right away that things are not working when someone shows their plans without furnishings shown. We design our apartment layouts around the furnishings and would never show them any other way. It is the only way to guarantee that every inch is doing its job and that the result feels spacious, regardless of the actual footage.

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