While almost everything in New York used to be something else—it remains a badge of endurance to say this restaurant, this bar, this nightclub used to be this and that or this—the Astor Place parking lot had been a parking lot for as long as anyone can remember. But after Cooper Union, the art school whose vast 1850s brownstone pile is across the street, bought the site for $677,000 in 1966, the stretch of asphalt has had more suitors than a baby socialite. It has also been the subject of more architecture-student theses than almost any other site in the world. Cooper Union made architectural excellence a precondition for developers interested in the site, and lured some of the skyline’s most influential sculptors eager to develop the next Flatiron building on the last triangular site in Manhattan. Ian Schrager hired Rem Koolhaas and, later, Frank Gehry to design hotels there (critics compared Koolhaas’s design to a “cheese grater”), though neither one got close to breaking ground. Robert De Niro wanted it for a Tribeca Film Festival flagship. In the mid-nineties, the Resnicks, one of the city’s most powerful real-estate families, tried to develop it in concert with the International Center of Photography.
What has landed there, however, is not the kind of structure usually associated with architectural excellence, like a museum or a hotel, but rather an apartment building. During the summer, a 21-story steel frame suddenly rose in that triangular spot, where Lafayette Street meets Fourth Avenue. Soon, passersby could see the zinc fittings and reflective green glass rising over a wraparound billboard spelling the new building’s architectural virtues: CURVACEOUS, UNDULATING, PROVOCATIVE. And affixed to the billboard like a designer label is the phrase ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN BY GWATHMEY SIEGEL.
The Related Companies finally won the rights to develop the site by enlisting Charles Gwathmey, one of the most illustrious postmodern architects, with a long, close connection to Cooper Union, to design his first new residential tower. Prices started at almost $2 million, and have risen to nearly $3 million, for a 1,449-square-foot loft. Only 48 hours after the lofts hit the market in early October, 11 of 39 units had contracts out to likely buyers.
Gwathmey, whom his friends call Charlie, looks more like an Ivy League history professor than a loft designer. In fact, he’s designed university buildings at places like Princeton and Cornell, as well as sleek apartments and mansions for moguls like David Geffen and Steven Spielberg. He favors tweed blazers with elbow patches and ties with prints of crickets and rhinos, often the work of his good friend Ralph Lauren, whom Gwathmey’s wife, Bette-Ann, works for as a vice-president of corporate philanthropy.
Gwathmey has been fascinated by the triangular Astor Place lot, with its Flatiron echoes, for years. “As a New York site, it’s the most acknowledged,” says Gwathmey, who recently hired an architect who’d designed a monastery for the site. “I think the site is unique and our building is unique because it’s based upon the obelisk precedent,” he says. “Historically, the obelisk has always been a point and place marker at the center of a neighborhood or context and therefore is not obligated to replicate the existing fabric or materiality or style. It stands on its own as the piece that anchors that place.” (Across the street, of course, is another obelisk, the famous cube, which has long anchored a community of skateboarders, punk rockers, and assorted East Villagers who need a place to nap.)
As notable as Gwathmey’s new building is who’s paying for it: The Related Companies, developers of the Time Warner Center, not a firm heretofore known primarily for its commitment to world-class architecture. The pairing of Gwathmey and Related is emblematic of a growing trend in the city, with developers seeking out big-name architects to lend cachet to their condos. Glassy new designer buildings are sprouting all over Manhattan like mushrooms after rain. “Until now,” says Gwathmey, “the developer was not willing to take responsibility to defend urban fabric and be a patron of architecture.” Gwathmey has turned down three other developers to do a residential project and shudders at the mere mention of The Donald. “We’ve never enjoyed the developer client,” he continues. “Historically, they weren’t interested in what we were interested in, and that’s changed. It’s a new reality.”
And clients, these days, at least pay lip service to the earnest notion that they are patrons before cunning businessmen. “It’s a little of an un-economic decision we’re making here,” says Related’s president, Jeff Blau, who’s overseeing the Astor Place project. “But it’s our brand.” Of course, working with a name-brand architect has its hassles. “You have to collaborate; you can’t just hire the guys,” says Blau. “They are artists. But we have to make sure it’s buildable.”
“Having a celebrity architect design a project adds a couple hundredthousand dollars, or an additional 1 to 3 percent,” says developer Aby Rosen,who owns the Seagram Building.
Gwathmey, in turn, bows in Blau’s direction. “Every work, you hope, is creative,” says Gwathmey. “You have to make the client happy first. Then, make it artful.”
While Gwathmey looks healthy, the kind of guy who plays tennis every weekend at the club, he narrowly dodged death a few years ago, when cancer claimed one of his lungs. “I built myself back up,” he says, flashing that big Pepsodent smile while he carefully stirs sugar in his cappuccino as if he were concocting an exotic potion. “I’m a fanatic,” he says. “I’m not anal, but I’m neat. I like order. When I place things, it’s a conscious thing.”
Clockwise from lower left: the downtown site of Frank Gehry’s project; Santiago Calatrava’s cantilevered tower at 80 South Street will house only twelve families, in four-story units; the buzzwords at Gwathmey’s Astor Place building are rotated, as in “rotated from the street grid,” and undulating, which describes its glass sheath. Renderings: courtesy of the 7th Art; Santiago Calatrava S.A./David Sundberg/Esto. Photograph: Mark Heithoff.
The Astor Place site is only the beginning. In a few months, Gwathmey and his firm’s partner, Robert Siegel, will also start working on a design for the former Superior Ink building—purchased last year by Related—on the West Side Highway. And another developer, Yitzchak Tessler, has enlisted Gwathmey’s firm to design a renovation for the Windsor Hotel on 58th Street. The firm is also creating its first hotel design, in Hoboken, for the W chain.
Although a few name-brand architects (Michael Graves, most notably) got involved in the building boom of the nineties, it was the competition to rebuild ground zero that moved the trend into high gear, catapulting modern architecture—and the site’s design competitors, including Richard Meier and Gwathmey—into dinner-party debate. “It was a lousy process,” carps Gwathmey. “A frustrating and fulfilling thing to have done.”
But the renewed interest in urban design, coupled with the financial success of Richard Meier’s towers in the far West Village, which were completed in 2002 and quickly sold to celebrities like Calvin Klein and Nicole Kidman, helped convince the city’s major developers that architecture could be a selling point. In the next year or two, acclaimed architects will finally be transforming downtown into a showcase for world-class architecture. Frank Gehry is designing a 55-story luxury apartment tower in the financial district with developer Bruce Ratner, and Norman Foster has designed a Tribeca tower with developer Scott Resnick; ground will be broken in January. Partners Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron are working with Ian Schrager and Aby Rosen on a Bond Street condo tower, and Jean Nouvel’s plan for a 40-unit apartment building on Grand and Mercer for hotelier André Balazs should break ground this winter. Philippe Starck has designed a condo conversion at 15 Broad Street. And Santiago Calatrava is designing perhaps the most compelling design: twelve four-story cubes cantilevered off an 835-foot-tall concrete core on South Street.
A famous architect is a selling point, yet another way to manifest taste and status in this most status-conscious of cities. And a surprisingly cheap one. “Having a celebrity architect design a project adds a couple hundred thousand dollars, or an additional 1 to 3 percent,” says Aby Rosen, a wild-haired skyscraper collector who owns the Lever House and the Seagram Building and is developing luxury apartments at the Gramercy Park Hotel and on Bond Street with Schrager.
Developers are learning, however, that artistes can be temperamental. A superstar can also be difficult to work with. Just ask Resnick. After his proposed 35-story tower at 200 Chambers Street was cut down to 30 stories by city officials, Foster backed out of the project—though he had already completed most of the design. (Costas Kondylis, who collaborated with Foster from the start, finished the design.) “Politics played a role in his decision to resign,” says Resnick. “An architect like that usually works on museums or corporate headquarters. A residential project in particular has even more nuance than a commercial project, so it is a challenge.”
The Meier towers in the West Village are the touchstones of the new architectural renaissance, in ways both positive and negative. On the one hand, the buildings attracted torrents of media attention and sold out swiftly at high prices to a largely celebrity clientele, showing that architecture could be monetized. On the other hand, shoddy workmanship and missed deadlines also attracted plenty of notice. Blau is happy to emulate the Meier towers’ developers’ profits; he thinks he can deliver a bigger and better product by learning from their mistakes, like choosing flash over function. Also, the developers had previously built hotels primarily (the Mercer, the Maritime, the Chambers). “I believe the problems with the Meier towers were a lot of the developer’s fault, but the architecture is responsible for a building that can be built,” says Blau. “This building is not going to be like Meier’s towers. Meier’s problems were like amateur night. You just can’t do the things they were trying to do.” Those things include having all the buyers simultaneously bring in their contractors to a cramped lobby and narrow elevators—just one reason for extremely disgruntled residents like condo-board president Calvin Klein, who has threatened to sue the developers.
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.”
Koolhaas and Schrager declined to be interviewed, but in a lecture at Columbia University in February 2003, Koolhaas bragged that his design for Schrager had “inspired terror in the inventor of the boutique hotel,” and went on to recount his unsuccessful attempts to satisfy Schrager. He added: “Ultimately, it became very clear that America in its current mood would resist a certain kind of challenge as systematically as Ian Schrager.”
In order to retain its lease, Related had to submit another proposal—part of another round of bids competing with other developers—to get approval for a condo tower. This time, shrewdly, it hired Gwathmey.
Gwathmey—whose father, Robert, was, like De Niro’s father, a drawing professor at Cooper—stepped down from Cooper’s board almost five years ago. Almost two years ago, he was hired by Related to design the site. “Part of our decision-making process was absolutely influenced by the fact that Charles has close ties to Cooper,” says Blau, who met Gwathmey when he was pitching Cooper Union’s board with a presentation to partner with Schrager. “What easier way to get through that process than to hire one of Cooper’s most famous former professors who they knew and respected and who we knew could make our building iconic, which we wanted to do anyway?”
“It was a tough question,” adds Glaser, who was on the board for more than a decade before stepping down three years ago. “Basically the board wanted to have a plan that would not in any way damage the neighborhood, and at the same time the financial rewards of the development would justify starting the whole thing.”
Glaser says he and the board are pleased with Gwathmey’s design. “Ideally I wish the whole place were transformed into a university of the arts, but I don’t think that was one of our options.”