Blue Sky on Canal Street

The odd-shaped block at Canal and Varick Streets is, in some ways, an architect’s dream. Even the nearby Holland Tunnel entrance, nominally a downside, ensures that whatever goes up there will be visible on all sides. The owner, Trinity Real Estate, cleared the site earlier this year, and says it’ll be used as a sculpture park until plans firm up. (There’s already a small plaza next door, Juan Pablo Duarte Square, with a statue of the Dominican hero.) New York asked four architects to come up with ideas for the plot (which, we will admit, faces our offices). We required only that the result include a residential component and that it more or less meet zoning requirements.

The Locavore Fantasia

It would be a total departure if Work AC’s utopian vision were ever to bear fruit—and we do mean fruit, because it’s an apartment building topped with a working farm. “We thought we’d bring the farm back to the city and stretch it vertically,” says Work AC co-principal Dan Wood. “We are interested in urban farming and the notion of trying to make our cities more sustainable by cutting the miles [food travels],” adds his co-principal (and wife) Amale Andraos. The cheerful if slightly mad design, riffing on a concept they came up with to win the P.S. 1 Young Architects Program, would have different crops on each floor; land laying fallow would be used for play (putting greens, say). Four large water tanks would collect rainwater for irrigation. “Sculpture structures” commissioned from artists would act as columns supporting the building, which leans back to face the crops toward the sun. “We show a Brancusi, but it could be anyone,” says Wood.

The Site-Specific Sculpture

Spanish architect and urban planner Ana Maria Torres and her team opted for a landmark meant to evoke the site’s temporary life—in fact, the building looks ever so slightly like a concrete Anselm Kiefer sculpture at giant scale. (It does in this early rendering, at least; ultimately, much of the upper part of the building would be encased in glass, with stone sheathing at the base.) It’s round, explains Torres, because the spot “feels like a pivot point, so the idea is to have a building that rotates conceptually.” The plaza at the center will give Sohoans a place to hang out, augmenting the plaza that’s now at the edge of the site. (“Maybe they can gather there for the Tribeca Film Festival,” she says.) Torres, a big proponent of green architecture, suggests that the many horizontal planes be turned into green rooftops. Side panels could collect solar energy.

The Realistic Proposal

You don’t find sites this wide open anymore, so the prolific Karl Fischer allowed for a plaza (see inset map) to give “pedestrians a reprieve from the traffic of Canal,” he explains. The plaza will perhaps enhance Duarte Square’s neighboring open space, which is a little windswept and underused right now, and add some much-needed trees to the area. It’s also a practical choice, because under New York’s zoning laws, adding a plaza gets you permission to build taller. Fischer’s structure, cleverly designed as hotel space that’s easily convertible into residences, would be faced primarily in two materials—gray brick and glass. Each of the four façades would be unique, making reference to the site’s odd shape.

The Subsidized Solution

Flank, known for its inventive façades (like the copper cladding at 385 West 12th Street), came up with a concept that inventively addresses the acute shortage of apartments for middle-income Manhattanites. “Affordable housing, the way it’s being created now, isn’t bringing housing downtown, not anywhere close to where people work,” says Mick Walsdorf, one of FLAnk’s principals. The private-sector, free-market solution integrates a corporate logo into the building’s shell, creating a permanent billboard at a major artery; ad revenue subsidizes the apartments. For this exercise, the firm picked Target—a clever choice, given that the company’s known for unexpectedly chic design at extremely basic prices.

Blue Sky on Canal Street