Aficionados of the musical West Side Story will know the New York neighborhood Lincoln Square, once called San Juan Hill, as the backdrop for the clashes between the Jets and the Sharks. But in real life, this is the part of Manhattan’s West Side that was bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for the performing-arts complex Lincoln Center.
In the decades since the neighborhood’s tenements were leveled, the area has experienced successive waves of gentrification. But the influx of money doesn’t guarantee architecture of distinction, as the most recent crop of residential towers attests. One exception is Handel Architects’ 170 Amsterdam Avenue, a 20-story, 236-unit market-rate building, which developer Equity Residential started leasing in April. The nearly block-long tower, which offers studios, one- to three-bedroom apartments, and ground-floor retail space, is supported by a deceptively delicate-looking exoskeleton in reinforced concrete. According to its designers, it is the first such structure in New York City.
The exoskeleton was conceived, at least in part, to satisfy the client’s desire to differentiate the building from its competition. “We didn’t want to be like the Aire next door,” says Equity first vice president George Kruse, referring to a recently completed 42-story glass rental tower (also designed by Handel but for another developer) one block south. Although 170 Amsterdam is also clad almost entirely in glass, with floor-to-ceiling window walls, the concrete diagrid provides a depth that is similar to that found on the facades of classic Upper West Side apartment buildings, says Frank Fusaro, a Handel partner. He points in particular to the Dorilton, a circa-1900 apartment block with elaborately carved limestone cornices and balustrades.
Behind 170 Amsterdam’s elegant exoskeleton are compact apartments (a typical one-bedroom is about 625 square feet) that feel fresh, airy, and open. This effect is due in no small part to the expansive window walls and light finishes like white oak flooring, but it also owes a huge debt to the near absence of interior structure—a feat made possible by the crisscrossing lattice. Because the diagrid is extremely rigid, shear walls are unnecessary and only a few interior columns are required.
And it looks good from within the apartments: the exoskeleton’s columns sit about 6 inches in front of the glass. They seem to slide by the windows and add a layer of visual interest to the views of the surroundings, which are made up mostly of other residential buildings.
Pushing the structure to the exterior helped the architects get the most rentable space out of the constrained site, which allowed a building footprint that is more than 200 feet long but only about 65 feet wide. In addition to these odd proportions, the project team had to contend with zoning regulations that capped 170 Amsterdam’s height at 185 feet and mandated several setbacks. The restriction made the top floors especially narrow, necessitating a shift from a double-loaded corridor to a single-loaded one. These upper levels in particular would have suffered a significant space penalty had shear walls been needed, points out Stephen DeSimone, president and chief executive of DeSimone, the project’s structural engineer.
In order to achieve a skeleton pristine enough to be exposed, contractors used fiberglass forms and connected the frame’s reinforcing bars with couplers, instead of tying them together, the more typical practice. This approach, which reduced the material inside the formwork that might obstruct the flow of concrete, together with using what Fusaro calls a “soupy” mix containing about 40 percent slag and only small and evenly graded aggregate, produced a smooth and consistent finish.
Controlling the cost of the custom formwork was a concern. “At the end of the day, it is still a rental building,” says DeSimone. So, to ensure that the formwork would be economical, designers opted not to taper the columns, maintaining their diameter at 24 inches throughout. They also limited the points where columns intersect to one per floor for each facade. This reduced the number of the most complex, and therefore the most expensive, forms needed for each concrete pour. As a bonus, the approach created a facade with a subtle rhythm, with the crisscrosses appearing to march up the building’s face on a diagonal. Unfortunately, the pattern falls apart at the top of the structure, where the columns extend above the roof slab and somewhat awkwardly end in midair. Although the tops of the columns are tied together with glue-laminated wood beams that form a decorative pergola over a shared roof deck, the building’s crown feels unresolved. But this is a quibble. On the whole, the exposed frame is quite refined.
Since the developer hopes that 170 Amsterdam will be attractive to tenants with ties to Lincoln Center, the building has soundproof basement rehearsal rooms. Other amenities include a yoga studio and a children’s playroom, as well as the rooftop deck with Wi-Fi access, a built-in grill, and a screen for movie nights.
As of early September, all of the building’s retail space and about 55 percent of the residential units had been rented—a leasing rate that Kruse terms as “right on target.” So far, the tenants are students, businesspeople, and longtime West Side residents, as well as newcomers—“a conglomeration of all kinds of New Yorkers,” he says. Besides the array of facilities, 170 Amsterdam’s occupants get inventive architecture as part of the deal. Let’s hope it sets an example and raises the bar for market-rate rental towers on the Upper West Side and in other design-challenged neighborhoods in high-priced Manhattan.
Handel Architects LLP
120 Broadway, 6th Floor
New York, New York 10271
Size: 229,000 square feet
Completion date: May 2015
Owner: Equity Residential
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Geotechnical / Civil:
CAD system, project management, or other software used:
Concrete formwork: Molded Fiber Glass Construction Products
Metal Panel: Omega Panel Products
Wood cladding: Descience Laboratories
Wood trellis: Structurlam Products
Waterproofing: Laurenco, Parapro and Siplast
Retail storefront: YKK
Metal doors: L.I.F. Industries, Inc.
Wood doors: L.I.F. Industries, Inc.
Fire-control doors, security grilles: McKeon Door Company
Special doors: Wenger Soundlok Sound Isolated Doors
Closers: Stanley, MBS, Dorma
Exit devices: DETEX
Pulls: Saflok Gala, Marks Interior
Security devices: Saflok
Millwork: Four Daughters
Paints and stains: Glidden
Wall coverings: Chilewich, Sultan, LLC
Paneling: Four Daughters, LLC
Marble: Unique Marble
Granite countertops: Unique Marble
Residential kitchens & bathrooms: Daltile
Residential wood flooring: Parky
Resilient flooring: Armstrong, PLAE
Special interior finishes unique to this project: Terrazzo Flooring by Elite Terrazzo Flooring Inc
Reception furniture: Tom Dixon
Fixed seating: Chairmasters Inc. (banquet)
Chairs: Magis, Tolix, Thayer Coggin, Vitra, Moroso, Knoll, Offi, Baleri, Barlow Tyrie, EMU Design Studio, Muuto
Tables: Vitra, Thayer Coggin, Knoll, Offi, Barlow Tyrie, USM, Olde Good Things (communal tables), EMU Design Studio, Skagerak, Herman Miller
Upholstery: Maharam, Sunbrella, Vitra, Knoll, Weitzner
Other furniture: James De Wulf (pool table), Nanimarquina (area rug)
Golf simulator: Full Swing Golf
Downlights Etc: Lucifer Lighting, XAL Lighting, Prescolite, Focal Point, National Lighting
Task lighting: Feelux Lighting, Sistemalux, Juno Lighting, Specialty Lighting
Exterior: BEGA Lighting, BK Lighting, Lumiere Lighting
Dimming system or other lighting controls: Lutron
Residential faucets and shower fixtures: Moen
Other unique products that contribute to sustainability:
Add any additional building components or special equipment that made a significant contribution to this project: