When Bates Masi + ARCHITECTS began designing a new office space for itself two and a half years ago, the Long Island, N.Y., firm never dreamed the project would open up a vitriolic public debate. But its plans for a minimalist, 4,700-square-foot commercial building in the town of East Hampton have provoked fury among some local residents. Although the environmentally friendly project sailed through the design review process, a group of nearby homeowners is suing the town for granting Bates Masi approval.

The controversy illustrates yet again the gulf between supporters and detractors of modern architecture. "It's become an issue of fashion," firm partner Paul Masi, AIA, says ruefully. "I would hope the East Hampton environment is a little more than that. As long as a building is good quality and well thought-out, who cares what style it is?"

Masi's frustration also stems from the fact that he and his colleagues worked hard to make the project contextual. They consulted the town historian, studied the simple forms of the area's early architecture, and chose locally traditional wood shingles and masonry for the exterior materials.

The firm has won a heap of design awards over the past year, mostly for its sensitive, quietly modern houses and renovations. Two of them went to its on-the-boards office project. One was from the U.S. Green Building Council, which must have approved of the project's green roof, native landscaping, energy-efficient building envelope, and other sustainable features. The other prize came from the local AIA chapter, whose awards jury was chaired by The New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger. In a supportive letter to The East Hampton Star newspaper, Goldberger called the design "one of the best pieces of public architecture to be proposed for East Hampton in a long while," as well as "a first-rate piece of modern architecture."

Currently Bates Masi is assembling its legal defense and hopes to have the neighbors' lawsuit dismissed. If all goes well, it may be able to start construction about a year from now. Masi says the eight-person firm is learning to make the best of a bad situation. "It has matured us quite a bit," he points out. "We've also learned more about engaging the community at strategic moments. You need to engage people in the beginning as much as you can."

For more on Bates Masi + ARCHITECTS, read residential architect's July 2006 profile of the firm and its coverage of Assembled Residence, a RADA 2006 Grand award winner in the Custom / 3,500 Square Feet or Less category.