James S. Russell – November 14, 2007 NYT
Nov. 14 (Bloomberg) — There is exactly one moment of idiosyncrasy in architect Robert A.M. Stern’s two-towered, limestone-clad, megabucks condo nearing completion at 15 Central Park West in Manhattan.
A stone trellis draws together a roofscape of asymmetric towers and a draping buttress. At 548 feet high, this silhouette is picturesque when seen from Central Park — a welcome relief from the bland calculation that otherwise infuses this 886,000- square-foot behemoth.
What was in play is that Manhattan rarity: a full city block on Central Park with views on all sides. It’s a site that developers salivated over for three decades until a group including William and Arthur Zeckendorf ponied up an eye-popping $400 million in 2003.
The brothers’ company, Zeckendorf Development, poured another $400 million into the new building and realized record- shattering prices on the result. (Sales have topped $6,000 a square foot. Former Citigroup Inc. Chairman Sanford Weill paid $42.4 million for a penthouse.) All 201 units sold months ago. In real estate terms, the building is genius.
Zeckendorf hired Stern, the financial upper crust’s go-to guy for impeccable neo-Georgian country houses. There’s no one who understands the architectural DNA of Manhattan better than Stern, who has produced five invaluable books on the city’s architecture. He somehow also finds time to be dean of the Yale School of Architecture.
With Stern on board, it was clear that Zeckendorf was targeting a market for luxe tradition. I didn’t expect an aesthetic breakthrough, but I hoped the lush budget — and the site at the end of an extraordinary line of soaring towers — would inspire Stern to an authoritative reimagining of Manhattan’s prewar glory.
The best thing about 15 Central Park West is the way he arranges the building bulk. One chunky 19-story structure, with some wedding-cake setbacks, is dubbed “the house.” It faces Central Park, emulating the Mayflower Hotel that long occupied the park frontage. A slim, 35-story rectangular tower rises behind, separated from the house by a 65-foot court that runs the full width of the block. A five-story base extends west of the tower to pick up the angled frontage of Broadway.
Big as they are, neither of these structures looms overweeningly. The space between the two buildings ventilates the block (literally and visually), allowing an enriching play of light, shadow and views between the two.
Stern said in an interview that the massing was mostly dictated by the zoning code. He refined the requirements, making the tower slimmer than the house, for example, which opens up the narrow side streets and lets the tower rise more romantically.
Passersby can glimpse the pylons and buttresses that give a Jazz Age grandeur to the private garden on the north side of the court. More of such detail was needed to relieve the flatness of the block’s massive walls. The Central Park West side suffers the most, with just minor variations in window rhythm, a pencil- thin cornice and some tacked-on railings that offer the visual impact of hairpins. The tower is better, with a surface relieved by layering and a livelier mix of windows.
The historic sources that Stern draws on are impeccable: a bit of Rockefeller Center, a dollop of decorator Dorothy Draper, a dab of Park Avenue, a wisp of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s romantic classicism.
Yet the aesthetic devices are assembled mechanically. Even with such well-made details, the big picture somehow got lost. Stern called it “a modern classical tower,” which is an oxymoron, as he knows.
Inside, Stern has brought impressive discipline to sprawling layouts by associate architect SLCE. This condo is not for a buyer, Stern has dryly observed, who “wants to sit in an arrangement of four Mies van der Rohe chairs on a rug floating like a raft on a sea of emptiness.” So there are “real rooms,” generously sized and handsomely proportioned (10-foot ceilings help), with oak herringbone floors.
They align in a civilized progression, and almost every apartment gets at least two exposures. These are qualities not to be taken for granted in New York, where velvet-draped Park Avenue parlors often feel dark and low-ceilinged, and fat columns obscure the views in glass-sheathed towers.
Stern delivers high-end posh. Terrace-wrapped duplexes as large as 6,000 square feet (with internal elevators) crown the house. Penthouses in the tower (one is 11,000 square feet) have 14-foot ceilings and fireplaces. A 39th-floor living room opens to three drop-dead views.
Attending to such niceties is so rare in Manhattan that it’s no wonder buyers are willing to pay top dollar. Yet one reason Manhattan’s skyline is so magical is that there was a time when architects remixed the standard ingredients to capture the city’s unstoppable energy in steel and stone. (The 1931 Century Apartments next door, built of humble materials and defaced by insensitive window replacements, has twice the pizzazz.)
For all the dollars and attention, 15 Central Park West lacks the courage of its nostalgic convictions.
(James S. Russell is Bloomberg’s U.S. architecture critic. The opinions expressed are his own.)