All the Queens Houses

All the Queens Houses: An Architectural Portrait of New York’s Largest and Most Diverse Borough
by Rafael Herrin-Ferri
Jovis, October 2021

Paperback | 4-3/4 x 7 inches | 272 pages | 244 illustrations | English | ISBN: 9783868596564 | €22.00


The borough of Queens has long been celebrated as the melting pot of America. It was the birthplace of North American religious freedom in the seventeenth century, hosted two World’s Fairs in the twentieth, and is currently home to over a million foreign-born residents participating in the American experience. In 2013, Spanish-born artist and architect Rafael Herrin-Ferri began to paint a portrait of the “World’s Borough”—not with images of its diverse population, or its celebrated international food scene, but with photographs of its highly idiosyncratic housing stock. While All the Queens Houses is mainly a photography book celebrating the broad range of housing styles in New York City’s largest and most diverse county, it is also a not-so-subtle endorsement of a multicultural community that mixes global building traditions into the American vernacular, and by so doing breathes new life into its architecture and surrounding urban context.

Rafael Herrin-Ferri is a Spanish-born architect/artist living in Sunnyside, Queens. He received a B.Arch from Cornell University in 1996 and has lived and worked in San Francisco and Barcelona before settling in New York City in 2003 with his wife and daughter.


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I have lived in Astoria, Queens, for fifteen years, ever since the summer of 2006, when my wife and I moved here from Chicago and I entered the Urban Design program at City College of New York. Outside of my childhood home in suburban Chicago, Astoria is the neighborhood I've lived in for the longest stretch of time; it's easily the place I've lived in the longest in my adult life. So needless to say I am familiar with this northwest corner of the borough of Queens pretty well, enough that I know the exact location of most of the houses in Astoria photographed by architect Rafael Herrin-Ferri and included in his great little book All the Queens Houses. Not only that, I've photographed many of the same houses as him, usually tagging them either #astoriaugly or #astoriaabsurd on Instagram. To use the names that Herrin-Ferri gives each of the houses in his book (he does not supply addresses, more on that later), I've also documented Astoria Citadel, Queens ZigguratPantheon House, Minoan Makeover, and Tetris Stair Tower (second photo in that link).

So it seems Astoria has a riches of quirky residential architecture, be it single family houses or apartment buildings. (My other frequently used tag, #astoriaportal, is aligned with the area's courtyard apartment buildings.) But Astoria is not alone, as All the Queens Houses makes abundantly clear. Herrin-Ferri, unlike myself, has trekked the entirety of the borough, akin to the late William B. Helmreich, photographing its many blocks and focusing on its smaller-scale residential pieces. The diversity of the borough's architectural character is front and center in the photographs, thanks in part to his preference for overcast days, something he determined after some months of his survey because "varying amounts of direct sunlight were distorting the true colors of the structures and casting long shadows that would obscure the most interesting features." So Herrin-Ferri is an anti-architectural photographer, setting out on gray days rather than sunny ones. With evenly gray skies throughout the book, the colors and forms of the houses — each one squarely in the middle of the page, free of people but often fronted by cars — jumps off the page.

Although Herrin-Ferri references Bernd and Hilla Becher in the introduction, when describing his preference for photographing "with a good dose of cloud cover," All the Queens Houses brings to my mind something else: the guidebooks by Atelier Bow-Wow. Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima's Made in Tokyo and Pet Architecture Guide Book focus on parts of the built environment that most architects would overlook. Instead of highlighting buildings that were designed by well-known architects or that are architecturally inventive, as many architectural guidebook authors do (myself included), Atelier Bow-Wow have honed in on buildings that are exceptional in other ways: non-designed yet functional hybrids in Made in Tokyo and tiny structures that fill the gaps in Tokyo's urban fabric in Pet Architecture. The "pets" of the latter are a bit like the Queens houses that are increasingly being overshadowed by larger buildings as neighborhoods like Astoria become more appealing to developers. Unlike Atelier Bow-Wow, who locate the buildings in their books precisely, Herrin-Ferri gives the buildings fictional names rather than precise addresses; this lets the author accentuate the interesting qualities of the houses while also providing privacy for the residents.

Before All the Queens Houses, the book, Herrin-Ferri documented his exhaustive survey of the borough's residential architecture on a Tumblr blog and then in an exhibition at the Architectural League of New York. The latter, which was titled All the Queens Houses: Surveying the Eclectic Housing Stock of New York's Largest and Most Diverse Borough and ran from October 2017 to January 2018 and was a great show, but it was located in an office and therefore visible just four hours per week during its five-month run. Although Herrin-Ferri's posts on Instagram point many more eyes to his ongoing survey, there's something to be said for putting some of the photographs into book form. I like the small format, which makes the book portable even if not necessarily usable as a guidebook; the size is more suitable to its contents than if it were large like a coffee table book. And again, although the book is not a go-here-and-look-at-this guidebook, the geographical layout of the book — from Northwest Queens roughly clockwise down to the Rockaways — gives a great sense of one aspect of the borough. Ultimately, a pervasive, defining trait of the borough is the diversity of its houses, surely a reflection of the diversity of its (past and present) residents.