On a recent afternoon, Charles Gwathmey scowled up at the massive banner wrapped like a skirt around the bottom of his skeletal tower. The specific object of his disdain is the word curvaceous plastered across the building’s scaffolding. “Curvaceous is not a word I would have used,” he says, without hiding his annoyance with the Related promo machine, which, for the first time, is handling the building’s sales, publicity, and marketing without outside help from a firm like the Sunshine Group, which was hired to help sell the Time Warner Center condos. A Related publicist sweetly reminds him to be perfectly positive when it comes to his developers. But Gwathmey, an artist, after all, presses on: “Undulating I would use.” He also has little use for the glossy renderings Related has produced of the new building. “It’s not showing it as sculptural,” he sniffs.
Later, he’s standing up on what will become a balcony, surveying the city. “The goal with asymmetry and manipulation of all these apartments is to be serene and calming,” he says, stretching out his arms over the bridges, the water, the streets, and rotating—like his new building.
Richard Born, a developer of the Meier towers, doesn’t feel like an amateur. “People are copying me because we were successful,” he says. As for kick-starting the celebrity-architect trend: “It’s no different from the art world, where people may buy names with no understanding of what they’re buying. Not everyone who eats at Jean Georges has a clue what he is eating. There are aficionados with the highest level of taste, and there are people who run with the herd.”
In Gwathmey’s white, airy, strangely calm office are photos of Gwyneth Paltrow with James Truman, Marilyn Monroe in an asymmetrical big white hat, and, inexplicably, a bunch of stuffed animals perched on high shelves. The model for the Astor Place site is smack in the center of the office, surrounded by photos of the firm’s projects. Currently, the firm is working on renovations and expansions of the Guggenheim Museum and the New York Public Library. Gwathmey talks about his new Astor Place design “pulling away from” and “rotating” from its neighboring buildings, the Public Theater and the Carl Fischer building—much like the Flatiron Building functions. And while it may look like the big glassy giraffe in the zoo, Gwathmey’s trying to find a way to slot the new tower into the neighborhood like a fancy, reflective puzzle piece. “I hate to use the word,” he says, “but it’s a kaleidoscope.”
And early reviews are pretty good, excluding the nimby chorus that, of course, doesn’t want anything shiny and new in its neighborhood. “Gwathmey’s design is a very interesting solution,” says Bernard Tschumi, who recently stepped down as dean of Columbia’s architecture school. “If he had followed the street alignment, it would have been a static building. This will work well as an urban gesture.”
To create this kaleidoscope, Gwathmey took Related’s executives on a tour of some of his favorite loft designs in Manhattan for inspiration. On a recent sunny afternoon, Gwathmey was touring three of his favorite renovations again, pointing out fixtures and materials that he liked so much, he’s using them in the Astor Place building. And if he’s lucky, the buyers—like the renovation clients—will also hire him to be their interior and furniture designer.
At the stunning, 6,000-square-foot former gymnasium in the Police Building on Centre Street, he showed off the Bauhaus fixtures in the bathrooms, which will be reinterpreted for the Astor Place building. “It was a great period, and it’s important to keep it in circulation,” Gwathmey says, running his hands over a doorknob. He also notes that, like the Astor site, the Police Building is rotated to the street grid, and all the fresh skylights show off the curves. “Curves are good,” he says. “They help mediate and articulate.”
Cooper Union, which doesn’t charge tuition and therefore survives on its endowment, had two, not necessarily compatible, ambitions for the site. One was to maximize its value. Another was to create a beautiful building. “One of our goals was to have great architecture,” says Cooper president George Campbell Jr., a soft-spoken man who favors bow ties and suspenders. His office looks right out on the site and is even reflected in its green glass façade. “It would be anathema to build something that didn’t meet our rigorous standards.” Since the early nineties, when the school decided to unload the parking lot—which was earning only a $150,000 annual rent—a committee including Gwathmey, artist Alex Katz, and graphic designer Milton Glaser vetted each proposal for the plot. (Cooper also pads its finances by leasing the land for the Chrysler Building, valued at upwards of $80 million, to Tishman Speyer.)
Each time a bid for the lot fell through, the property went back to Cooper, which vetted new rounds of proposals before leasing the land (for 99 years) to Related in 2000. “We won, but part of the requirement was that it had to be a hotel,” says Blau, who first partnered with Schrager. “The Herzog and Koolhaas design made it very expensive and the hotel market declined, and we decided not to go forward.”
The Koolhaas design was presented to Gwathmey, who at the time was on Cooper Union’s board. Koolhaas brought a sponge with him to the presentation. “He said, ‘This is the building,’ ” says Gwathmey. “And I thought that was pretty wild. Every window was conceptually a void in the sponge, and the walls were what was left.”
“I think Rem is a very seductive and convincing person,” says Gwathmey, “and it was interesting to me as an academic and an architect to see how he strategized his vision. I don’t think it would have ever looked or been made out of what he started with, but the vision of it was very compelling.”