James Rossant; helped design Reston, Va.

By William Grimes
New York Times / December 20, 2009

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NEW YORK - James S. Rossant, an architect who helped design the planned city of Reston, Va., and developed the 1966 master plan for lower Manhattan that led to the building of Battery Park City, died Tuesday at his home near Condeau in Normandy, France. He was 81.

The cause was complications of leukemia, his son, Tomas, said.

Mr. Rossant, a student of the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, first made his mark as one of the two principal designers of Butterfield House, a double building surrounding a courtyard in Greenwich Village at 37 W. 12th St.

Completed in 1962, Butterfield House was hailed as a model of how to integrate modern architecture into a historic townhouse district. In its 1969 report on Greenwich Village, the Landmarks Preservation Commission noted, “The delicacy of form and elegance of detail, inherent in the design, make it as one with its residential neighbors.’’

In 1979, writing in The New York Times, the architecture critic Paul Goldberger named Butterfield House one of the 10 best postwar apartment buildings in New York.

As a planner, Mr. Rossant took on several ambitious projects, most notably the master plan for Reston, the modern planned city begun in the 1960s. Robert E. Simon, its developer, wanted a garden city along the lines pursued by the architect and urban planner Clarence Stein in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, and Radburn, N.J.

With William J. Conklin, his partner on Butterfield House, Mr. Rossant developed plans for a city of 75,000 in suburban Fairfax County, about 20 miles west of Washington. Its design would address landscape, recreation, culture, commerce, and housing.

He and Conklin designed all the buildings for the city’s commercial and residential core, Lake Anne Village Center, the first of seven proposed village centers (five were eventually built).

Lake Anne, which opened in December 1965, struck many architectural critics and town planners as an inspired response to suburban sprawl. With a vague resemblance to the port city of Portofino, in Italy, it combined townhouses, detached houses and a 15-story apartment high-rise with a shopping district along a manmade lake.

“He was that rare combination of planner and architect,’’ Simon said. “These are two entirely different professions. In addition, he had all the fire of a creative person without the appalling ego that some of them have.’’

James Stephen Rossant was born in Manhattan and grew up in the Bronx. He attended the Bronx High School of Science and earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Florida in 1950. In 1953 he received a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Harvard’s graduate school of design, where he studied with Gropius.

After serving in the Navy, Mr. Rossant went to Italy to work with the architect Gino Valle, known for his Brutalist industrial buildings.

In 1955, Mr. Rossant married Colette Palacci, known under her married name as a food writer and memoirist. She survives him. Besides his son, Tomas, an architect with the Polshek Partnership, of Glen Ridge, N.J., Mr. Rossant also leaves three daughters, Cecile, of Berlin; Juliette, of Reston; and Marianne, of Queens, N.Y.; and eight grandchildren.

Returning to the United States, he joined Mayer, Whittlesey & Glass as an architect and town planner. After working on Butterfield House and Reston, he became involved in the drafting of a master plan for lower Manhattan. Completed in 1966, it envisioned a mixed-use future for the area and a planned residential development on the Hudson, to be built on landfill. This eventually became Battery Park City.

In 1967, Mr. Rossant and Conklin started their own firm, Conklin & Rossant, whose projects included 2 Charles Center in Baltimore (1969), the Ramaz School on East 78th Street (1981) in Manhattan, and the US Navy Memorial in Washington (1987).

In 1995, Mr. Rossant dissolved his partnership with Conklin and started a new firm, James Rossant Architects.

Mr. Rossant taught architecture at the Pratt Institute from 1970 to 2005 and urban design at New York University’s School of Public Administration from 1975 to 1983.

A consummate draftsman, he exhibited his architectural drawings and paintings, including images of fantasy cities free from the forces of gravity.