By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
During the past few years Chelsea became a one-stop-shopping destination for high-style contemporary architecture as well as high-end art, and the results can be depressing. For every significant building that went up, the neighborhood seemed to produce a half-dozen or so inferior knockoffs. The feeling on the streets now is the same as it is in most of the galleries: the sheer amount of work, and the mediocrity of most of it, can make the effort of sorting out the good from the bad too painful to contemplate.
So Jean Nouvel’s new residential tower — at the western end of 19th Street, unveiled at an event this month — is a relief of sorts. It is a luxury building, and who would argue that we need more of those? But its mix of grit and glamour — embodied in a glittering facade that seems to have been wrapped around the curved front of a black brick tower like a tight-fitting sequined dress — is apt to temper whatever you may feel about the Wall Streeters and art-world insiders who are likely to move into its apartments.
It conjures a downtown New York we once loved and can now barely remember, where rundown manufacturing buildings buzzed with cultural vitality.
The building’s rough-edged sex appeal may actually overshadow what’s best about the project, the remarkable skill with which Mr. Nouvel embeds it into its surroundings. Rising on the brief stretch of 11th Avenue that doubles as the West Side Highway, directly across the street from the billowing glass forms of Frank Gehry’s IAC building and abutting a somber brick women’s prison on the other side, the tower is part of a taut composition of disparate — even conflicting — urban realities. Its shifting appearance in the skyline is a sly commentary on the conflict between public and private realms that is an inevitable byproduct of gentrification.
That process has become particularly savage in New York, a city divided between big development companies that see architectural novelty as a tool for inflating prices for their luxury projects, and local activists who have marginalized themselves by their refusal to accept any kind of change at all. (If the financial collapse has slowed this trend, it has done little to alter the mentalities behind it.)
Mr. Nouvel did not invent that world, but he knows that his name is used to sell real estate, and he understands that fashionable forms can disguise the damage caused by heedless market forces behind a gloss of radical chic. Like many of his generation — Mr. Nouvel is 64 — he retains a stubborn, some might say naïve, belief that architecture should make us alert to the conflicts that shape the modern city rather than conceal them.
That attitude is apparent in the mixed signals the building sends. Seen from across the West Side Highway, the tower’s twinkling facade, with its hundreds of irregularly shaped windows tilted at odd angles to reflect fragments of sky or the surrounding city, offers a striking counterpoint to the soft, sail-like curves of Mr. Gehry’s creation. Rows of older brick buildings flank them to the north and south, and the contrast between glass and masonry, straight and curved lines, creates a nice rhythm along what was once a bleak strip of decrepit offices and warehouses.
I prefer the view from the east, however, along West 19th Street. The side of the building is made of matte-black bricks and punctured by a few small sporadic windows, evoking the unadorned backsides of prewar tenements. All you see of the main glass facade is a thin sliver of steel running along its front edge.
As you approach the corner, the facade’s riotous forms suddenly come into view, and it’s startling. Close up, the steel frames that support the windows look beefier, and the effect is more frenetic. A second glass-and-steel screen wraps around the building’s lower floors. Supported on a heavy concrete base, the frames of this screen interlock at the street corner like interwoven fingers, enclosing a small open-air terrace that will serve a ground-floor restaurant and bar.
These spaces have no tenants yet, and for now remain hidden behind fencing and construction equipment. Some of the window frames have been left intentionally empty, so that it may take a moment to sort out whether you’re indoors or out. A network of heavy steel beams reaching up several stories connects the screen back to the main facade; the beams will eventually support big planters containing trees that will seem to hover in midair.
It’s a nice surrealistic touch. Yet the punched-out windows and ragged corner also suggest an erosion of the boundary between the public life of the street and the guarded, private realm inside. The future restaurant’s terrace is made of the same concrete as the sidewalk, as if to suggest that it really belongs to the city. Glass-enclosed terraces off the lower-floor apartments will push out into the space of the elevated trees, as if the building’s residents were reaching out to grab more for themselves.
These same tensions continue to play out inside. There’s a sexiness to the main lobby, with its floors and walls of sleek black granite and painted glass, and its fleeting view of a swimming pool set between the tower and the back of the older brick building behind it.
Once you get to the apartments, however, that eroticism is mixed with a certain urban toughness. Details are simple and straightforward (despite the Viking stoves). The apartment terraces are reached through pivoting, industrial-scale doors. Mr. Nouvel imagines the terraces filling up with potted plants, bicycles and other odds and ends once the tenants have settled in.
Conversely, the backs of the apartments have small cut-out windows placed at odd heights — some at eye level, others up near the ceiling — that frame contrasting views of the city: the clock on the old Metropolitan Life Tower; a caged recreational area on the roof of the prison; a sooty brick wall covered with pipes, the Empire State Building. The care with which the views are framed — reinforced by the windows’ simple heavy steel borders — is such that you can almost feel the city tugging at you.
(The penthouse, not surprisingly, is the least seductive of all the apartments. Vast and airy, it could have been shaped by a real estate agent’s checklist. Sweeping river views, marble fireplaces, walk-in closets: these are today’s equivalent of gold faucets and sunken tubs.)
Some will argue that all of this simply provides a veneer of civility to a culture that is sliding deeper and deeper into narcissism. For me, though, the building is a lesson on how to navigate an enlightened path in an era of extremes. It’s not utopia, but it demonstrates what a major talent can accomplish when he focuses his mind on a small corner of the city.
Pays $22 Million for a Raw Chunk of Nouvel’s 100 Eleventh
December 17, 2009, by Joey
Yesterday’s news of a $3.78 million closing at 100 Eleventh Avenue? Small potatoes when it comes to the Jean Nouvel-designed Vision Machine. Today things get more interesting in the West Chelsea sensation. The Post’s Jennifer Gould Keil reports that 10 units have closed so far, and the biggest came yesterday: An anonymous “computer/Internet tech whiz” paid $22 million for 10,000 square feet of raw space on the 17th and 18th floors. Only about half the building’s listings are online, none of which measure up to an apartment of that size, so we have no floorplan porn to gawk at. But luckily the 100 Eleventh website has a rendering of a tech whiz at home in his new starchitecture, so we have a visual! There is one $22 million unit listed as in contract, but it’s a penthouse less than half that duplex’s size. In other Nouvel news, a second apartment in the building is now for rent, and that means new interior shots!
The first 100 Eleventh rental, a 3BR asking $20,000 per month, is still available, and this latest one is a 2BR, 2.5BA, 2,000-square-foot space going for $12,500/month. The picture on the left appears to show off the building’s curve rather nicely. Jersey City, holla! Forget price-per-square-foot when it comes to the Vision Machine, shouldn’t it be measured in price-per-window?