We cloak ourselves in these spaces the way we do in designer clothes. If you live for Prada, chances are you’d like the Richard Meier towers in the West Village. (It could become a parlor game: Does Frank Gehry link to Giorgio Armani or Tom Ford?) The parallel holds even more dramatically when you realize that, 50 years ago, the vast majority of clothes was Seventh Avenue stuff, with few brands beyond Brooks Brothers. The label rarely mattered; only the overall look did. It took the likes of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein to make fashion into a field upscale consumers felt they could analyze. Today, that design-savvy group of shoppers is much bigger than it used to be. Can’t handle hiring Jean Nouvel to design a townhouse? Buy at 40 Mercer. “It’s a name you can get a piece of,” says Liebman.
If you live for Prada, chances are you’d like the Richard Meier towers in the West Village.
But there are only so many 40 Mercers and 80 South Streets. Hence the rise of “masstige” buildings—prestige for the masses, priced for the well-off but not for the Lear-jet set. These mid-market towers have deluged the scene, creating a uniform, rather sanitized aesthetic. With few exceptions, mass-market condos are often built under a cost-driven approach that references standout properties but dilutes their unique, brilliant natures. (Trump himself says, “You have to do a building that really works . . . [with] apartments that are livable.”) Their kitchens all have granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances; their bathrooms, the same Grohe faucets and Kohler sinks. Rooms are similarly carved—developers often hire the same project architects for interiors. Set the brochures for these buildings side by side and you often can’t tell them apart. (All those 38-year-old New Yorkers who grew up in Jersey or Long Island are, weirdly enough, reenacting their Levittown childhoods, except with elevators.) Is a luxury still a luxury if everyone has it?
This rush to the new has affected the rest of the market, too. Turn-of-the-century buildings with meticulously crafted façades are often renovated inside to uninspired newness. Either way, they’re rendered Pottery Barn–perfect before they’re resold, with the same inoffensive cream sofas and vaguely modern coffee tables. (It’s a process known as staging—rendering apartments bland but elegant before they hit the market ready for a buyer’s own stamp.) In a city filled with personalities, our spaces are remade to appear unlived-in, a New York without grit under its fingernails.
Sex Pistols manager (and onetime clothing designer) Malcolm McLaren once said, “Punk was just a way to sell trousers.” Perhaps architecture—great or not—is becoming just a way to sell apartments. This is where we live now.