The Architect: Daniel Toretsky

published Nov. 11, 2018

by Friedman and Won

Unraveling an eight-foot drawing of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, Daniel Toretsky reveals an anomaly of a neighborhood in which three different communities, African American, West Indian Caribbean, and Lubavitch, live separate but adjacent lives. Fifth year architecture student Toretsky focused on this community for his thesis, the culmination of Cornell’s architecture program.

After four days of interviewing members of Crown Heights, Toretsky incorporated both historical and contemporary issues that inundate and define this area of Brooklyn to tell a profound story.

Inspection of the individual components of Toretsky’s project reveal the detailed depictions of the aforementioned communities, created through both hand-drawings and computer-aided design programs, that collectively compose Crown Heights.

Moreover, quotes from interviewees are weaved throughout his work, drawing viewers into this living and breathing narrative. Reflecting on his conversations with interviewees, Toretsky recalls repeatedly hearing of the tension that historically and presently burdens Crown Heights.

The stark religious contrast that exists between the groups -- Lubavitch is defined by its strict Jewish traditionalism and fervent outreach, while the African American and Caribbean communities often attend the same Christian churches -- is made apparent in Toretsky’s work. Through two religious metaphors this juxtaposition is included in his work. The perimeter of the piece is adorned with drawings of overlapping hands and feet. The feet reference Reverend Al Sharpton’s ‘Christian Walk,’ and the geographic scope of his aid. Meanwhile the hands symbolize the Crown Heights Rebbe’s ‘Daled Amos,’ a phrase that means ‘personal space’ in Jewish law.

“Lubavitchers believe the whole neighborhood is the Rebbe’s personal space; you’re in his care when you’re in this place,” Toretsky explains. The overlap of the hands and feet represent the crossover of the Lubavitch and Christian religious groups within this particularly segregated community.

Toretsky’s interest in such a specific community was influenced by Cornell Professor Jonathan Boyarin, Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies. Professor Boyarin led Toretsky to Crown Heights, as he had interest in “finding a place where there were tensions between a very active Jewish community and sometimes marginalized members of other groups.”

Toretsky remarks upon the influence of actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith’s 1993 play Fires in the Mirror. She recounts stories of community members in an attempt to understand the conflicts in Crown Heights after the 1991 riots, a three-day dilemma in which violence broke loose amongst the black and Lubavitch groups. Her influence comes from the reality that “understanding complexity and understanding difference is something that can be difficult and can be uncomfortable but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t [try and understand] or accept incomprehensibility," said Toretsky.

Toretsky believes that architects should “relate to and see people as valid participants in the process of design” – a belief that is evident in the meticulous inclusivity of his final thesis.

Post graduation, Toretsky plans to embark on a career that will "balance academia and practice," while assuming social and environmental responsibility. "I want to learn how to make a really good building first," he said, "and then be capable of actually helping." These goals reflect a social consciousness already apparent in his study of Crown Heights, an all too common urbanistic conflict.

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