Creating a building even better than the Mercer is Balazs’s current fixation as he enters the façade-finishing phase of construction on 40 Mercer Street, a fifteen-story condo building between Broadway and Mercer on Grand, to be completed by next August. Prices range from $2.3 million for 1,222 square feet to $12.5 million for a duplex with a private pool. Twenty of the 40 apartments are sold. It is the first residential project in the U.S. by the neo-modernist Nouvel, known for wearing black every day of the year except during the month he summers in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, when he wears only white. It is glass, like everything that is new at the tippy-top of the market today, all these voyeurs hovering in their pseudo-case-study apartments up in the downtown sky.
“The challenge is, how do you build an unabashedly modern building in a historical neighborhood?” says Balazs. “Do you do something like the Tribeca Grand and try to pretend the building was built a hundred years ago? Or do you probe deep and try to find the essence and build something new but appropriate? To me, the Disney-esque approach of doing a faux building was just repulsive. To me, it violated the very Soho that I’ve known for 25 years. Soho is a gritty former mercantile area that has, of course, evolved into the most bourgeois neighborhood in New York. If the reason this district is landmarked is because at one time it embraced a tremendous modernism of the time, then the most authentic thing is to approach it anew.”
It was a sunny day indeed when Herbert Muschamp wrote his review of the building upon its approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2001, calling the decision of “breathtaking importance for the future of architecture in New York.” In one of Muschamp’s greater flights of fancy, he wrote that the building was “made for Moody’s ‘Mood for Love’ as performed by King Pleasure, on a rainy weekday afternoon, downtown. . . . Not least, this design is about sex.”
One rainy day, Balazs looks up at the great concrete skeleton of his building from in front of the sex-aids dispensary Toys in Babeland. “This is everything I wished I could have had at the lofts in Soho I’ve lived in, everything I loved having at the Mercer, and everything I wished I could have at the Mercer,” says Balazs. He realizes where he is standing and chuckles.
It certainly sounds nice to have in-house parking and a concierge and a pool, and to be able to move the seventeen-by-twenty-foot sheets of glass that are your windows with an electronic button. There is a shared bathhouse, including a sauna and steam room—“for birthday parties!” says Balazs, who seems to have made it a personal mission to bring shvitzing to the elite; he is a patron of the Tenth Street Baths, his downscale Hotel QT in Times Square has a sauna and steam room, and the new Standard in Miami is more a spa than a hotel, including a large hammam. Baden-Baden was the first hotel Balazs visited as a kid. “A spectacle,” he says. “I remember it was everything.”
The notion is that at 40 Mercer, with a buyer’s brochure that includes a children’s book about two Soho dogs who fall in love and move into the building, you can live as though you are at a fabulous André Balazs hotel every day. On the building’s top floor, a view of the spires of downtown spread at his feet, and romantically enhanced by the rare graffitied water tower, Balazs wades his Prada shoes through the construction crew’s cigarette butts and Pepsi cans floating in deep puddles. “I don’t know if I’ll move in here,” he says, a smile spreading over his face. “I haven’t decided.”
Balazs is in the enviable position of having his celebrity precede him these days. To have Uma Thurman as a girlfriend could provide mystique to Michael Bloomberg. There is not a hint of the striver about Balazs, though his voice bears traces of a Boston accent. The son of educated Hungarian immigrants who left their country during World War II, resettling in Sweden and then Cambridge, Massachusetts, Balazs grew up in a Swedish-Danish-designed home. “My parents always kid that the things I’m into today are the same things they had back then,” he says. His father taught at Harvard Medical School, and his mother is a psychologist. Balazs went to prep school and doesn’t have particularly fond memories of Cambridge. “It’s surprisingly close-minded,” he says. “It’s scared. There’s a fearfulness there. To me, the most charming quality of New York is its open-mindedness.” At Cornell University, he studied humanities and wrote short stories with Harold Brodkey, a mentor and friend, and started a Playbill-type publication for upstate New York rock concerts. After college, he attended a joint journalism-and-business master’s program at Columbia University.