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The Glass Stampede

5. New York Times Building
620 Eighth Avenue
Renzo Piano’s push to put the Times on the skyline carried midtown’s energy westward and did away with a few very seedy buildings. But the building itself is a craftsmanlike tower that hits the sky with a dull thud. An improvement, but less than it should have been.   

You can’t hold the material responsible for the architecture. To compare the ham-fisted use of glass by Avalon’s designers to the wizardry of Dubbeldam is almost grotesque, but they are linked because one represents the vulgarization of the other, in the same way that brick furnished forth both the tenement and the Dakota. The Dakota of glass is Richard Meier’s pair (and then trio) of condos in the West Village. When the Perry Street buildings went up in 2002, they were defiantly different from everything else in that bastion of old-time Jane Jacobean preservationism. Meier imported the pared-down, transparent office-building aesthetic of Mies van der Rohe and fused it with the sexy California aeries of Pierre Koenig, Richard Neutra, and John Lautner. The classic modernists shared a worship of visibility, but there was a huge difference in the sights they framed. In midtown, white-collar laborers toil in stacked modules, glancing out at each other from time to time. In Los Angeles and Palm Springs, residents of modern mansions gaze out on vistas of desert, city, or ocean. Meier’s Perry Street buildings attempt a compromise between proximity and panorama. They look out on drivers and joggers who gaze right back, enjoying high-def views of the inhabitants and the backs of expensive sofas.

I have mixed feelings about these apartments’ watery cool. Their austere beauty jangles with the distasteful look-at-me pose. Meier has fashioned exhibitionist paradises for the wide-screen age. Even when there’s nobody home or nothing much to see, they broadcast the illusion that the lives being led within them qualify as public spectacles. How un–New York: What’s the point of being a voyeur if everything is on display?

The glamour of living under glass spread quickly, evolving from Meier’s impractical purity into both more nuanced and more plebeian uses. The fact that the rich crave it is good, because glass is becoming an ever more complex and flexible material. So long as clients will pay to live behind it, designers will keep finding new ways to bend it, toughen it, color it, coat it, cast it, etch it, fill it with light, and bake it full of ceramic frits. Avalon Bowery Place is a by-product of the market’s boiling upper end.

So even here, standing before an icon of discontent, I am not inclined to inhale the nostalgia that thickens an atmosphere already dense with concrete dust. I am convinced that the boom has left New York better off: stronger, suppler, safer, better integrated, and better looking. Yes, it’s grown stands of interchangeable rental towers, but it’s also given Crown Heights prettier, more livable streets. The wealthy have their decorative bouquets of Tribeca condos; the commuting throngs benefit from an airy new subway terminal in Coney Island. In the rush to satisfy the voracious demand for square footage, the city has also rediscovered the pleasures of good architecture, an art that for years it had written off as a costly frill. We need new buildings just as much as we need the old. I hear in the cacophonic symphony of construction the sound of a still vigorous and hungry city. I see in all that moving of dirt and hoisting of concrete panels the New York I’ve always known: unsentimental and steadfast in its refusal to stay the same, yet vigilantly proud of its past.