While almost everything in New York used to be something else—it remains a badge of endurance to say this restaurant, this bar, this nightclub used to be this and that or this—the Astor Place parking lot had been a parking lot for as long as anyone can remember. But after Cooper Union, the art school whose vast 1850s brownstone pile is across the street, bought the site for $677,000 in 1966, the stretch of asphalt has had more suitors than a baby socialite. It has also been the subject of more architecture-student theses than almost any other site in the world. Cooper Union made architectural excellence a precondition for developers interested in the site, and lured some of the skyline’s most influential sculptors eager to develop the next Flatiron building on the last triangular site in Manhattan. Ian Schrager hired Rem Koolhaas and, later, Frank Gehry to design hotels there (critics compared Koolhaas’s design to a “cheese grater”), though neither one got close to breaking ground. Robert De Niro wanted it for a Tribeca Film Festival flagship. In the mid-nineties, the Resnicks, one of the city’s most powerful real-estate families, tried to develop it in concert with the International Center of Photography.
What has landed there, however, is not the kind of structure usually associated with architectural excellence, like a museum or a hotel, but rather an apartment building. During the summer, a 21-story steel frame suddenly rose in that triangular spot, where Lafayette Street meets Fourth Avenue. Soon, passersby could see the zinc fittings and reflective green glass rising over a wraparound billboard spelling the new building’s architectural virtues: CURVACEOUS, UNDULATING, PROVOCATIVE. And affixed to the billboard like a designer label is the phrase ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN BY GWATHMEY SIEGEL.
The Related Companies finally won the rights to develop the site by enlisting Charles Gwathmey, one of the most illustrious postmodern architects, with a long, close connection to Cooper Union, to design his first new residential tower. Prices started at almost $2 million, and have risen to nearly $3 million, for a 1,449-square-foot loft. Only 48 hours after the lofts hit the market in early October, 11 of 39 units had contracts out to likely buyers.
Gwathmey, whom his friends call Charlie, looks more like an Ivy League history professor than a loft designer. In fact, he’s designed university buildings at places like Princeton and Cornell, as well as sleek apartments and mansions for moguls like David Geffen and Steven Spielberg. He favors tweed blazers with elbow patches and ties with prints of crickets and rhinos, often the work of his good friend Ralph Lauren, whom Gwathmey’s wife, Bette-Ann, works for as a vice-president of corporate philanthropy.
Gwathmey has been fascinated by the triangular Astor Place lot, with its Flatiron echoes, for years. “As a New York site, it’s the most acknowledged,” says Gwathmey, who recently hired an architect who’d designed a monastery for the site. “I think the site is unique and our building is unique because it’s based upon the obelisk precedent,” he says. “Historically, the obelisk has always been a point and place marker at the center of a neighborhood or context and therefore is not obligated to replicate the existing fabric or materiality or style. It stands on its own as the piece that anchors that place.” (Across the street, of course, is another obelisk, the famous cube, which has long anchored a community of skateboarders, punk rockers, and assorted East Villagers who need a place to nap.)
As notable as Gwathmey’s new building is who’s paying for it: The Related Companies, developers of the Time Warner Center, not a firm heretofore known primarily for its commitment to world-class architecture. The pairing of Gwathmey and Related is emblematic of a growing trend in the city, with developers seeking out big-name architects to lend cachet to their condos. Glassy new designer buildings are sprouting all over Manhattan like mushrooms after rain. “Until now,” says Gwathmey, “the developer was not willing to take responsibility to defend urban fabric and be a patron of architecture.” Gwathmey has turned down three other developers to do a residential project and shudders at the mere mention of The Donald. “We’ve never enjoyed the developer client,” he continues. “Historically, they weren’t interested in what we were interested in, and that’s changed. It’s a new reality.”
And clients, these days, at least pay lip service to the earnest notion that they are patrons before cunning businessmen. “It’s a little of an un-economic decision we’re making here,” says Related’s president, Jeff Blau, who’s overseeing the Astor Place project. “But it’s our brand.” Of course, working with a name-brand architect has its hassles. “You have to collaborate; you can’t just hire the guys,” says Blau. “They are artists. But we have to make sure it’s buildable.”
“Having a celebrity architect design a project adds a couple hundred thousand dollars, or an additional 1 to 3 percent,” says developer Aby Rosen, who owns the Seagram Building.
Gwathmey, in turn, bows in Blau’s direction. “Every work, you hope, is creative,” says Gwathmey. “You have to make the client happy first. Then, make it artful.”
While Gwathmey looks healthy, the kind of guy who plays tennis every weekend at the club, he narrowly dodged death a few years ago, when cancer claimed one of his lungs. “I built myself back up,” he says, flashing that big Pepsodent smile while he carefully stirs sugar in his cappuccino as if he were concocting an exotic potion. “I’m a fanatic,” he says. “I’m not anal, but I’m neat. I like order. When I place things, it’s a conscious thing.”
|Clockwise from lower left: the downtown site of Frank Gehry's project; Santiago Calatrava's cantilevered tower at 80 South Street will house only twelve families, in four-story units; the buzzwords at Gwathmey's Astor Place building are rotated, as in "rotated from the street grid," and undulating, which describes its glass sheath. Renderings: courtesy of the 7th Art; Santiago Calatrava S.A./David Sundberg/Esto. Photograph: Mark Heithoff.|
The Astor Place site is only the beginning. In a few months, Gwathmey and his firm’s partner, Robert Siegel, will also start working on a design for the former Superior Ink building—purchased last year by Related—on the West Side Highway. And another developer, Yitzchak Tessler, has enlisted Gwathmey’s firm to design a renovation for the Windsor Hotel on 58th Street. The firm is also creating its first hotel design, in Hoboken, for the W chain.
Although a few name-brand architects (Michael Graves, most notably) got involved in the building boom of the nineties, it was the competition to rebuild ground zero that moved the trend into high gear, catapulting modern architecture—and the site’s design competitors, including Richard Meier and Gwathmey—into dinner-party debate. “It was a lousy process,” carps Gwathmey. “A frustrating and fulfilling thing to have done.”
But the renewed interest in urban design, coupled with the financial success of Richard Meier’s towers in the far West Village, which were completed in 2002 and quickly sold to celebrities like Calvin Klein and Nicole Kidman, helped convince the city’s major developers that architecture could be a selling point. In the next year or two, acclaimed architects will finally be transforming downtown into a showcase for world-class architecture. Frank Gehry is designing a 55-story luxury apartment tower in the financial district with developer Bruce Ratner, and Norman Foster has designed a Tribeca tower with developer Scott Resnick; ground will be broken in January. Partners Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron are working with Ian Schrager and Aby Rosen on a Bond Street condo tower, and Jean Nouvel’s plan for a 40-unit apartment building on Grand and Mercer for hotelier André Balazs should break ground this winter. Philippe Starck has designed a condo conversion at 15 Broad Street. And Santiago Calatrava is designing perhaps the most compelling design: twelve four-story cubes cantilevered off an 835-foot-tall concrete core on South Street.
A famous architect is a selling point, yet another way to manifest taste and status in this most status-conscious of cities. And a surprisingly cheap one. “Having a celebrity architect design a project adds a couple hundred thousand dollars, or an additional 1 to 3 percent,” says Aby Rosen, a wild-haired skyscraper collector who owns the Lever House and the Seagram Building and is developing luxury apartments at the Gramercy Park Hotel and on Bond Street with Schrager.
Developers are learning, however, that artistes can be temperamental. A superstar can also be difficult to work with. Just ask Resnick. After his proposed 35-story tower at 200 Chambers Street was cut down to 30 stories by city officials, Foster backed out of the project—though he had already completed most of the design. (Costas Kondylis, who collaborated with Foster from the start, finished the design.) “Politics played a role in his decision to resign,” says Resnick. “An architect like that usually works on museums or corporate headquarters. A residential project in particular has even more nuance than a commercial project, so it is a challenge.”
The Meier towers in the West Village are the touchstones of the new architectural renaissance, in ways both positive and negative. On the one hand, the buildings attracted torrents of media attention and sold out swiftly at high prices to a largely celebrity clientele, showing that architecture could be monetized. On the other hand, shoddy workmanship and missed deadlines also attracted plenty of notice. Blau is happy to emulate the Meier towers’ developers’ profits; he thinks he can deliver a bigger and better product by learning from their mistakes, like choosing flash over function. Also, the developers had previously built hotels primarily (the Mercer, the Maritime, the Chambers). “I believe the problems with the Meier towers were a lot of the developer’s fault, but the architecture is responsible for a building that can be built,” says Blau. “This building is not going to be like Meier’s towers. Meier’s problems were like amateur night. You just can’t do the things they were trying to do.” Those things include having all the buyers simultaneously bring in their contractors to a cramped lobby and narrow elevators—just one reason for extremely disgruntled residents like condo-board president Calvin Klein, who has threatened to sue the developers.