Pleasant to live in, harmless to the skyline, equipped with all the standard luxuries, and practically invisible to the casual glance, the Lyric is a chorus member in the opera of New York architecture. But even unradical building has a powerful effect on life at street level. As required, Kondylis lined the Broadway side with glass-faced storefronts that should in theory keep the sidewalks lively. In practice, the economics exclude small businesses with meager credit histories in favor of companies that can back up a twenty-year lease. This block has a New York Sports Club, a Commerce Bank, and a Starbucks, feeding the triumvirate of upper-middle-class needs: fitness, money, and caffeine.
Nobody flat-out hates the Lyric, whereas the nine-story Avalon Bowery Place seems more egregious. That’s partly because the Avalon flaunts its hide of metal and glass, and because its sole nod to its proletarian surroundings is in the crudeness of the design: Its curtain wall is so clumsily detailed that it appears to have been patched together out of bulletproof windows salvaged from subway token booths. To accuse a new building of being out of character with the neighborhood is the protest of first resort. But fitting in doesn’t mean blending in. Donning red-brick camouflage is a cheap and thoughtless way for a building to assimilate. Truly contextual architecture starts a conversation with the block, the street, and the city.
When that happens, it can yield greatness, and the boom has given us some of that as well. One superb example of elegant context is the fanciful riff on the glass-and-steel fish tank that Winka Dubbeldam, the principal of Archi-Tectonics, bestowed on Greenwich Street. The glass in Dubbeldam’s condo has both the liquidity of water, in ripples down the inclined façade, and the roughness and depth of masonry, which links it to the muscular workhorse buildings all around. Equally thrilling is the way the interloper throws an arm over the old brick warehouse next door, making it a partner in the block’s modernization. Now that’s how you transform a block without betraying it.
Dubbeldam’s tour de force lends strength to the idea that the context of the city places healthy constraints on artistes of unlimited imagination and equally expansive ego. “The urbanism of the city dominates architecture,” says Robert A.M. Stern, who is dean both of the Yale School of Architecture and of New York’s traditionalist wing. “The intricacies of the street wall are unending, and the edges of the parks, the streets, the squares, create amazing architecture at the urban scale. I like the fact that European architects are adjusting their techniques so that their work becomes part of the city and not just a piece of Barcelona dropped in here.”
In its awkward way, Avalon Bowery Place, too, attempts to absorb some local character. Squeezed along the Houston Street side is Liz Christy Community Garden, founded by the Green Guerrillas in the early seventies. Instead of ravaging it, Avalon paid to restore it, and it now provides a lush haven from the thundering traffic. Around the back of the building is Extra Place, an alley that served as CBGB’s vomitorium. Avalon plans to line it with stores and cafés. In their tiny way, these two scraps of land embody New York’s powerful urbanistic force.
But if Avalon Bowery Place was so keen on fitting in, what is that big glass paperweight thing doing here? The answer is that each era gives one or two materials a starring role, and our celebrity is a crystalline concoction of fused silica rolled into panes. Architects love glass for an assortment of technical reasons: It is relatively cheap, malleable, and lightweight; it can be used in tiny chips or vast sheets. It can be mounted on movable frames; it can take on a thousand forms, from the plain storefront to the baroque contortions of Gehry’s IAC headquarters. It can be environmentally virtuous by letting in more light than heat. Its delicacy can set off an assertive frame, or it can be inconspicuously clipped to a hidden structure and appear to float in midair. But the chief allure of glass in this era of deceptive exhibitionism is its usefulness in crafting illusion. A glass wall carries with it the suggestion of obviousness; it is the architectural equivalent of a magician’s rolled-up sleeve. Glass looks insubstantial and yet it keeps the weather out. It’s brittle yet remarkably immune to age; weightless yet able to carry a load; revealing as it keeps secrets. If glass has become the material of our age, it’s not because it keeps us honest but because it implies, falsely, that we have nothing to hide. The New York Times has moved from a fortress to a glass-walled headquarters, for example, but it has not for that reason become less Kremlin-like. It’s still impossible to divine what’s going on in a marriage, even if the couple lives in a zoolike pad. So the great glass wall has become an alternative to the ponderous luxuries of the prewar palais. It has also become our vernacular siding—what clapboard is to the Cape Cod saltbox.