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The Open House

A retractable façade that brings the outdoors in is no surprise in California. But on 14th Street?

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Say what you will about glass condos—they’re too glitzy, too impersonal—but they do fulfill one of modern architecture’s basic tenets: to let in light and open up apartments. So how can a small-scale builder compete? Install retractable walls.

“Private outdoor space is at a premium in the city, and this is an opportunity to open up an entire room to the outside,” says architect Bill Peterson, who’s remaking the four-unit Brownstone East Village. Co-developer Carol Swedlow says the design fillip “wasn’t meant to be a Star Wars thing,” but it is pretty high-tech. From the street, the property will look much like its neighbors; at the flick of a switch, though, the parlor-floor façade will rise up, garage-door style, and tuck under the ceiling. A glass balustrade serves as a safety barrier, and an “air curtain”—essentially a heavy-duty, continuous fan—will blow downward to keep the bugs out and the temperature even, and mask the din from 14th Street.

Mobile walls aren’t new. In California or Arizona, where so many people lead an indoor-outdoor life, they arrived with fifties modernism. Many apartments at the Jean Nouvel–designed 40 Mercer have panes of glass that slide out and away, too. Swedlow and Peterson have also installed two more retractable walls, out back and on an upper-floor terrace, but they’re the standard restaurant-style variety. What makes this project different is the challenge of our climate, and the engineering it’ll take to retain the building’s structural integrity while removing nearly the entire front of the apartment. “It’s costing us $200,000 in engineering, fabrication, and installation,” says Peterson. (The unit’s priced at $2.595 million for 1,971 square feet.)

So why bother? “Everybody’s doing glass-box modernism, so we wanted to do something different,” says Peterson. And it just might help them stand out in a crowded condo field. (The real-estate fiends who post at Curbed.com are divided on the project, with one calling the design “daring,” while others brand it a “gimmick” that’s not pet- or child-friendly.) Halstead’s Roberta Benzilio is watching closely: “This is the first time we’ve seen it—it depends on if buyers see the value in it. My gut reaction is, it’ll probably catch on—everyone likes to bring the outside in.”


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