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Sardine Life

8 Spruce Street, 2011  

The charms of standardization eventually wore thin, and the New York apartment soon experienced a transformation almost as fundamental as it had at the turn of the century. It began when the heirs to the cold-water bohemian culture of Greenwich Village drifted south across Houston Street and discovered a zone of gorgeous dereliction. In the sixties and seventies, the industries that had fueled the city’s growth a century earlier were withering, leaving acres of fallow real estate. At first, nobody was permitted to live in those abandoned factories, but the rents were low and the spaces vast, and artists were no more deterred by legal niceties than they were by graffiti, rodents, and flaking paint. They arrived with their drafting tables, their welding torches, movie cameras, and amplifiers. They scavenged furniture, blasted fumes and music into the night, and gloried in the absence of fussy neighbors. They would demarcate a bedroom by hanging an old sheet.

At a time when urban populations everywhere were leaching to the suburbs, this artists’ colonization had a profound and invigorating effect not just on Soho but on the entire city. The traditional remedy for decay was demolition, but artists demanded the right to stay, their presence attracted art galleries, and a treasury of cast-iron buildings acquired a new purpose. Artists didn’t think of themselves as creating real-estate value, but they did. Few events illustrate the maxim “Be careful what you wish for” better than the Loft Law of 1982, which forced owners to make Soho’s industrial buildings fully habitable without charging the tenants for improvements.

It was a triumph and a defeat. Legal clarity brought another wave of tenants, with more money and higher standards of comfort. As working artists drifted on to cheaper pastures in Long Island City, Williamsburg, and Bushwick, Soho’s post-­pioneers renovated their lofts, hiring architects to reinterpret the neighborhood’s industrial rawness, or merge it with cool pop minimalism, or carve the ballroom-size spaces into simulacra of uptown apartments.

Once everyone wanted to be a tycoon, then everyone wanted to be middle-class. Now everyone wanted to be an artist, or live like one. Soho filled up quickly, and the idea of the loft spread, reinterpreted as a marketable token of the unconventional life, promising to lift the curse of the bourgeoisie through the powers of renovation. Realtors began pointing out partition walls that could easily be torn out. Lawyers, dentists, and academics eliminated hallways and dining rooms, folding them into unified, flowing spaces. Happily for those with mixed feelings about the counterculture, loftlike expansiveness overlapped with the open-plan aesthetic of new suburban houses. Whether in imitation of Soho or Scarsdale, the apartment kitchen migrated from the servants’ area to the center of the household, shed its confining walls, and put on display its arsenal of appliances and the rituals of food preparation (not to mention the pileup of dirty crockery). Cooking became a social performance, one that in practice many apartment dwellers routinely skipped in favor of ordering in, going out, or defrosting a package—but at least the theater stood ready.

Starting in the eighties, when the country more or less abandoned the pursuit of greater equality and success was defined by fresh college graduates who coaxed the financial system into dumping sudden millions in their laps, the apartment took yet another turn. Triumphant traders—“Masters of the Universe,” in Tom Wolfe’s phrase—didn’t spend much time at home, but in their few moments of leisure they wanted to gaze down on the city they had conquered. The ultimate trophy was an imperial view.

For the next two decades, developers treated the apartment less as a private retreat than as a belvedere—a platform for a vista. Clunky towers with floor-to-ceiling windows sprouted around the city, their hurried construction, slapdash design, and astronomical prices justified by the assumption that anyone who walked through the front door would make straight for the windows. The city became a diorama of itself.

The ultimate expressions of the panoramic apartment, which required vertiginous height, very fast elevators, and a perimeter of glass, are the penthouses atop Trump World Tower. This dark bronze totem that Costas Kondylis designed on First Avenue for Donald Trump was the planet’s tallest residential building (and the one most loathed by its neighbors) when it opened in 2001, and it was not shy about its stature. The ceilings got higher near the top, so that the tower appeared to be craning its neck, and the 72 floors were deceptively numbered up to 90. The payoff was an Imax view of the skyline below and the weird sensation that the closest neighbors were gulls, planes, and clouds.

Of course, that sort of solitude only lasts until the next set of neighbors climbs the beanstalk. Already, Frank Gehry’s 867-foot rental tower at 8 Spruce Street has nudged past Trump World Tower, and the hotel-condominium designed by Christian de Portzamparc and currently under construction at 57th Street and Seventh Avenue will shoot above them both to 1,005 feet. The push to refine the apartment began with assurances that a fifteenth-floor home could rival a house set on a fifteen-foot stoop; today, a 150th-floor penthouse is not unthinkable.

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