Image credit: Tony Cenicola and Neil Denari/The New York Times
THE HL23 tower, planned for a site on 23rd Street in Chelsea, is the kind of commission Neil Denari has being waiting for his entire working life. Mr. Denari, a Los Angeles architect who once ran the Southern California Institute of Architecture, has labored on the profession's periphery for decades. But because of a recent demand for name-brand residential architecture in New York, he is finally getting a chance to test his ideas in the real world.
And Mr. Denari is not alone here. His building is part of an eruption of luxury residential towers already constructed or being designed by the profession's most celebrated luminaries. In the last five years more than a dozen have been completed; maybe a dozen more are scheduled to break ground this year. They range from soaring, elaborately decorated towers by international celebrities like Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry to smaller but equally ambitious architectural statements by lesser-known talents like Mr. Denari.
With the financial markets in an ominous roil, the realization of this boomlet is far from guaranteed. But even if only a few more are completed, the final effect of these buildings could be the greatest transformation in the city's physical identity since the 1960s. Bold and formally elaborate - some would say showy - they reflect a mix of attitudes and styles that the city has never seen.
They also reveal an unmistakable shift in the appetites and aspirations of an elite group of New Yorkers for whom an apartment's architectural pedigree has become a new form of status symbol. Rather than disappear behind the shielding bulwark of Park Avenue apartment houses or into anonymous loft buildings as previous generations of wealthy New Yorkers did, these residents want to live in structures that telegraph their wealth and uniqueness.
Decades from now these preening, sometimes beautiful, sometimes obtrusive towers could well be the last testament to this century's first gilded age.
Manhattan has a long history of rich people wanting to live in the clouds, wrapped in new architectural marvels. When the city's first luxury residential towers were built in the late 19th century, they were marketed as technological triumphs, packed with new features like elevators, steam heating and gas ranges. Hotel-style amenities like doormen and laundry services cut down on the cost of private servants. And at a time of civil unease and class tensions, the heights of such buildings (some with as many as 11 stories) were seen as a way for the wealthy to escape the grit of the street.
Over the next half century or so the obsession with technology was matched by a need to open up the booming metropolis to light and air. Within their elaborate Italianate facades, the internal courtyards of luxury housing blocks like the Dakota and the Ansonia were creative efforts to alleviate urban congestion. Later such buildings were followed by the Modernist white-brick structures of the 1960s, with their light-filled apartments and transparent lobbies overlooking garden courts.
The flamboyant exteriors of the recent crop of signature buildings represent yet another shift in architectural priorities. Whereas technological innovation once focused on the interior workings of the machine - from plumbing to structural innovations like steel frames - most of today's architectural innovations are expressed through the buildings' exterior forms.
Not everyone is happy with this state of affairs. Traditionalists, still stung by the rise of Modernism, see the current crop of signature buildings as a break with the historical street front. Mostly, they criticize these works on aesthetic grounds: as flashy expressions of architectural vanity.
It's true that some of the new buildings are ostentatious. When workers broke ground two years ago on Herzog & de Meuron's 40 Bond in the East Village, the building was hailed as one of the city's first serious residential projects by an international celebrity firm. Today the cast green glass facade feels slick and mannered. An elaborate gate meant to resemble a three-dimensional work of graffiti is an embarrassing effort to tap into a bygone underground scene. (Nevertheless all of the multimillion-dollar units were sold before the building was close to completion.)
But the city has also been starving for innovative architecture. And to my mind the greatest residential projects of the last decade have managed to balance aesthetic freedom with a nuanced understanding of their surroundings. Rather than mimic period styles, such buildings are a physical expression of the needs and demands of the environments they inhabit.
The muscular forms of Mr. Gehry's 74-story Beekman Street Tower, being built near City Hall, are like the chiseled setbacks and crisp vertical lines of Rockefeller Center's RCA tower and the neo-Classicism of Stalin-era Moscow. Yet its crinkled stainless steel is a wonder; as light flickers across the facade, it will seem to dissolve into rivulets of water.
Similarly the slim, tapered form of Mr. Nouvel's 75-story condominium and hotel tower, planned for a site alongside the Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd Street, is a play on traditional New York skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building. The design of its taut glass skin suggests shards of glass falling from the sky. A weblike pattern of beams crisscross the exterior, as if the building were bracing itself against psychological and economic forces pressing in from all sides.
Such towering aesthetic triumphs are being joined by a number of designs that combine a strong structural vision with a critique of Modernist ideas about purity. Their contorted shapes are meant to reflect the collision of forces that shape contemporary cities, from zoning regulations to the private desires of residents.
Like many of the smaller luxury high-rises being built today, Mr. Denari's building will be squeezed onto a tiny lot - in its case, between another high rise on 23rd Street and the High Line, a park to be built on a stretch of abandoned elevated railway. Scheduled to break ground later this month, the 14-story building will twist and swell as it rises to take advantage of views up and down the park. At some junctures its metal skin will peel open to frame the views; at others, a grid of diagonal braces - their pattern reflecting the uneven stresses placed on the building's frame - will evoke the stays of a corset.
Across town that strategy can be experienced in Bernard Tschumi's recently completed Blue Building. Decorated in a checkerboard pattern of irregular blue and black windows, the structure bulges out to one side as it rises above the surrounding tenements, as if trying to pack as much real estate as possible onto its Lower East Side lot. The effect of the distortions is that the building is constantly changing as you move around it, like an enormous piece of costume jewelry twinkling in the light.
In other cases, however, the seemingly noble aim of working within a neighborhood's character leads to lackluster design. The scale and placement of the windows on the facade of Deborah Berke's new black-granite-and-zinc apartment complex east of 40 Bond, for example, does echo those buildings. But the results are tepid.
The current infatuation with brand names has also opened up the profession to new and unexpected voices. It's been a good while since I have written about a building as crudely cobbled together as Julian Schnabel's Palazzo Chupi, which was completed last year on West 11th Street, for example. A bright pink stucco box adorned with Venetian-style arched windows, it looks as if it had been plopped atop an existing warehouse. Still, the overblown scale and collision of styles have a refreshing bluntness; in some ways it's closer in spirit to the vernacular architecture of the Far East, an atavistic approach that is a nice counterpoint to the hyper-modernity of so much contemporary work.
As a whole, the best of these buildings are gorgeous additions to the skyline, a relief from decades of creative stagnation.
This external bravura, however, makes the mind-numbing conventionality of their interiors so much more disappointing. As a rule, most of the architectural fireworks in these buildings tend to stop at the lobby, and there are no compelling ideas about how social spaces should be organized. The interiors of these buildings could have been designed by real-estate marketers, and in many cases they more or less were. Despite the expensive appliances and luxurious finishes at 40 Bond Street, for example, the floor plans are generic: one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments and town houses with loftlike living spaces and kitchens at one end. The same can be said for virtually all of the projects I have mentioned so far.
Some architects were able to work around conventional real estate wisdom by forging exteriors that would impose a specific experience on the interior spaces. By the time the consultants at Forest City Ratner, the developer behind Mr. Gehry's Beekman building, realized that the wrinkled walls of the architect's tower would be mirrored inside the apartments, for example, it was too late to change without a costly reworking of the design.
Similarly, the canted walls and steel cross bracing of Mr. Denari's HL23 building will have a powerful effect on the interior. But from the point of view of a real-estate consultant, this will only make it harder to hang curtains.
Yet neither Mr. Gehry nor Mr. Denari was allowed to tinker with the actual layout of the apartments, which will be the same loftlike interiors that have become as much of an urban clich‚ as the gated Mediterranean community has in suburbia.
Admittedly, New York has never been known for bold experimentation in interior space. There has been nothing comparable in Manhattan to Le Corbusier's 1952 Unit‚ d'Habitation in Marseilles: a giant slab packed with an endless variety of intricately interlocking apartments. Technological innovations here have never been coupled with that type of social experimentation.
But the banal interiors of New York's luxury apartment buildings may also have to do with our reactionary times. Among architects it is now common wisdom that today's clients are less willing to upend conventional living arrangements than earlier generations were. Sulan Kolatan and William MacDonald, whose firm is one of the few that has challenged clients to be more adventuresome, have had a typically frustrating experience. In their 1991 design for the Shapiro Fields apartment on the Upper West Side, they transformed a prewar space with the typical formal entry and maid's quarters into a fluid sequence of rooms connected by a sequence of surgical cuts and strategically spaced mirrors.
Less than two years later the owner sold it, and the new occupant immediately converted it back to its original prewar state.
Later, in the late '90s these architects built the O/K Apartment, which featured molded orange surfaces that extended seamlessly from the bathtub to the bed to the hall. It was intended as a prototype for a new kind of millennial living. There were no takers.
This resistance may not be surprising for a class of people who increasingly want the same residential experience whether they are in Moscow, Paris or New York. Arriving in New York by private jet - or wishing they had - they tend to view their homes as personalized hotel rooms, and developers are more than happy to indulge them. Many of the new buildings provide the same kind of services you would find in a luxury hotel, from breakfast in bed to spa treatments to dog walkers.
Add to this the subtle effects of technology. The discovery of nonreflective glass has meant that the play off reflections that once animated glass high-rises has been replaced by a greater degree of transparency, one that has reinforced the buildings' image as architecture for exhibitionists. Meanwhile the growing use of computer software has tended to smooth out designs' rougher edges, often leading to slick, lifeless interiors in pretty wrappers.
Yet the biggest shift of all may have to do with where we focus our most valuable architectural resources today. The city has seen monuments to personal ostentation before, from the Vanderbilt chateau on Fifth Avenue at 52nd Street to the Carnegie mansion 40 blocks north. But for the most part New York's most memorable architectural achievements in the 20th century were either major civic buildings or monuments to corporate power.
CarrŠre & Hastings's New York Public Library. Reed & Stern and Warren & Wetmore's Grand Central Terminal. Raymond Hood's Rockefeller Center. Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building. All were profound reflections of the cultural values of their day.
Today that balance has been reversed. While several outstanding new civic buildings have been completed here in recent years, from Sanaa's stacked-box New Museum of Contemporary Art on the Bowery to Renzo Piano's archaeologically artful expansion of the Morgan Library & Museum, the abundance of luxury apartment buildings and the wealth of talent enlisted proclaim their outsize significance. And some of these architects rarely get to work on the kind of public projects that probably would have been part of their portfolio in New York half a century ago.
We all like to look at pretty baubles, even if they tend to be hollow. But a generation from now we may look back at these condo buildings as our generation's chief contribution to the city's history: gorgeous tokens of a rampantly narcissistic age.
Copyright c 2008 The New York Times Company. Reprinted with Permission.
Image credit: Tony Cenicola and Neil Denari/The New York Times