Too Rich, Too Skinny
A critic with an unlimited make-believe budget goes shopping for a lair at two of New York's new starchitect-designed high-rises.
May 16, 2015
A few weeks ago, the front page of the real-estate section of The New York Times featured two articles. One described the construction of the city's first 'micro apartment' block, its teeny units ranging from 260 to 360 square feet. The second reported the fastidious mock-up in a Brooklyn warehouse of a single apartment, a prototype for those in a hyper-luxe tower rising on West 53th Street in Manhattan. The faux flat'which could probably fit 10 micro-units inside it'was estimated to cost a cool million and will be trashed after the finishes have been suitably agonized over. Here was the income gap made concrete, the tale of two cities, living large and living really, really small. I dream of Gini (Coefficient)!
What gives? The rise of the horrible, steroidal collection of towers near Central Park, with their absentee oligarch owners, their $100 million price tags, their limp starchitect designs, their shadows over the park, their public subsidies, and their preening San Gimignano competition for the most vertiginous views has launched a thousand critiques of the city's rampant up-bulking. How to write another? Let's go shopping! My beloved real-estate agent made appointments for me at the sales offices for the Bob Stern-designed 30 Park Place'at 926 feet, the tallest residential building downtown'and for 56 Leonard, the Herzog & de Meuron pile a few blocks north (and just a tad shorter at 821 feet).
The two condominium showrooms bear a strong resemblance to each other, beginning with the six little bottles of Pellegrino and Evian served on coffee tables in their cozy sales chambers, setting up the basis for the pitch to come: branding. My head spins with the names of the high-end fixtures and fittings that festoon every room! These represent nothing about cooking or pooping but are avatars of our crowd: no way we'd let that Gaggenau anywhere near an American Standard!
The main brand, however, is architecture. Lush catalogues, promotional films, and quotes from the architects (at 30 Park Place) and various critics (at 56 Leonard) emblazoned on the walls make clear that the lifestyle on offer is about much, much more than 'chinchilla mink' marble countertops in the en-suite bath. Although a video for 56 Leonard depicting shards raining from heaven to form the building offers some serious entertainment, the more comedic 30 Park Place movie is better. My favorite scene shows 'Bob' and 'Larry' (the developer Larry Silverstein) kvelling in the backseat of the world's largest Mercedes about how a couple of boys from Brooklyn had crossed the river and gotten so fabulously de luxe. My second-favorite had the long-gone art studios of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Jasper Johns popping out on a map of the area, followed by Bob's chipper declaration, 'If you want to know about real estate, follow the artists!' But the most painfully hilarious moment in our visit was live action: the sales agent's anxious reassurance that because it narrows towards the top, the Woolworth Building wouldn't really interfere with the East River views.
Thirty Park Place is a skinny limestone shaft that might be inoffensive elsewhere but here shamelessly diminishes Cass Gilbert's masterpiece next door. The newcomer nonetheless claims roots in the genius loci. As Bob writes in the sales brochure, 'We're reinventing a New York tradition. 30 Park Place will recall the towers of the 1920s and '30s with an intricacy of shape and a strong skyline silhouette. You'll get a first impression that's a knockout, and then as your eye travels over the surfaces, you'll begin to see a depth of detail.' When I first saw the cladding being attached to the building, I actually thought it was under-detailed'that, given the proportion of void to solid on the flat facades, there was not enough plastic activity and the surfaces were too inarticulate. But, as the building has grown, a crust of flattened froufrou has appeared: a breakout of architectural zits! Especially pustulous are the fat hood moldings (Stern's signature detail, indeed the one that launched his career when he stuck a squiggle above the door of the Lang House in 1974), glued on to signify the double-height joint between the hotel below and apartments'er, residences'above.
To learn something about how detail can emerge from and abet a larger concept, one need only look at a couple of other limestone buildings nearby from the period under reinvention. The first is the 1935 federal building and post office right across the street, designed by Cross and Cross in fulsome WPA style. That building has a fine, if not exactly graceful, solidity, with a wack decorative program based on a merger of deco zigzag and stripped-down nationalist/classicist iconography. Stars and stripes and angular eagles'not to mention fasces!'surmount a beefy frieze of triglyphs and blank-cartouched metopes, awaiting, one imagines, carved portraits of FDR (or Mussolini). The most brilliant exemplar of the era'and one of the greatest skyscrapers ever'is Ralph Walker's immortal Irving Trust Building of 1931, at the top of Wall Street. It's modeled with enormous subtlety'slimming skyward without literal squared-off setbacks'and ascending from a base housing a convulsive, mosaic-covered banking hall (the work of Hildreth Meiere). None of Bob's retro Ralph (born in the Bronx) Lauren-esque d'cor here! At the building's peak, Walker placed four great windows from which the plutocrats in charge could gaze upon the world they owned, puffing on their Havanas. No detail is super-fluous and everything flows from reinforcement and elaboration of the beautifully sculpted mass. This is how detail finds meaning'indigenously, not extraneously.
While one can still get a serviceable two-bedroom at 30 Park Place for $6 or $7 million, the cheapest thing left at 56 Leonard is a $17 million penthouse. Herzog & de Meuron's core conceptual idea is a Paul Rudolph-ish stacking of boxes at right angles such that rooms project into space, yielding a sense of flying. But this move is reserved for the top, the capital. The building is traditionally tripartite and the main shaft (where $5 million bargain-basement pads are now sold out) looks heavily value-engineered. What's built so far is a blandness of exposed concrete slabs and a tacky-looking glass curtain wall. The projecting spaces on the shaft are balconies now, add-ons, not rooms. While staggered to produce something of the Lego conceit that appears up top and on a few lower floors, they have glass railings and disappear into the slabs, leaving their rhythm legible only when you're close to the building and see them from below. And, since their syncopation is so regular, they don't always land in the most felicitous places. I'm not paying $17 million for a penthouse where the balcony ain't even in the living room!
These buildings are vulgar and have no sense of the civic. Vulgarity is not simply a matter of taste or artistic quality, but of excess and flouting of 'civilized' norms. Both the Leonard Street and Park Row buildings contribute to the rampant selfish up-scaling of the city, using architecture as camouflage. However fine the design, they're too damn big and too damn expensive, another driver of the flight of bodegas, diners, artists, and rent-regulated hangers-on. Rather than offering any solution, this new housing only accelerates our housing shortage. While we've debated the meaning and conscionability of the 'poor door' that has been a by-product of efforts to achieve a measure of distributive justice via inclusionary zoning, 56 Leonard offers its own novel twist: an Anish Kapoor door! This is a form of excess that demands regulation, perhaps a revisit to the sumptuary laws of old.
While few lament the passing of the era of generic white-glazed-brick wedding-cake apartment houses from the 1950s and '60s, such buildings did have the distinction of being shaped by a clear idea of public benefit'light and air on the street, for example'and ranked the value of ensemble over today's narcissism of big differences. Back in the postwar years, there was an implicit consensus between the municipality and private developers that there would be great efforts to build for both the middle class (including returning veterans) and for the poor. The 'projects' constructed by the New York City Housing Authority and enormous complexes like Stuyvesant Town or Parkchester were essentially indistinguishable as architectures. Say what you will about 'towers in the park,' but such developments were predicated in egalitarianism, altogether different from towers looming over the park. While it's a mistake to think that this problematically uniform planning was ever the sine qua non of the good city, it did represent an idea about the shared one, about values in common, about convergence. We no longer mind the gap.