Frank Gehry’s latest building is the 870 foot tall New York by Gehry, the tallest residential tower in the western hemisphere. His trademark style of undulating waves of titanium has been transferred to a highrise for the first time, and with it a lot of press and critique. So, is it a design FAIL, or is this another landmark building by the award-winning architect?
Chicago may have been the birthplace of the skyscraper, but NYC was where it came of age. For years, the city was the leader in both the design and the number of skyscrapers built. However, in the past couple of decades, NYC has fallen behind much of the rest of the world when it comes to unique design (and it hasn’t had the tallest building in the world since 1974). With few exceptions, the buildings are safe, unremarkable, and downright boring from a design standpoint.
Meanwhile, cities in Asia (and Dubai in the Middle East) have been building highrises that boggle the mind in terms of their design, imagination and their height. European cities shy away from skyscrapers, for the most part (with a few notable exceptions), but in contrast they have some of the most daring architecture being built today.
So when it was announced that Gehry would be desiging this new structure at 8 Spruce Street, there was much anticipation. NYC used to dominate lists of the Top 10 Skyscrapers in the World (both in height, and in design). Now it’s lucky to have one building on a design list, and none when it comes to height. Would this building gain New York a spot back among the greatest highrises ever designed?
Ever since the titanium sheathing started to make it’s appearance (and even before), critics have been making their opinions known. In general, most of them have praised the design (some practically gushing), although to be sure, the building has its detractors. Let me be upfront and say, overall, I like the building. It’s a breath of fresh air, in a sea of architectural dullness that NYC has been drowning in for decades. It’s different, and dare I say, cool. But is it one of Gehry’s masterpieces? Not in my opinion.
There are two problems, as I see it. First, the style for which Gehry has received the most praise, works well for buildings with a horizontal design. The Guggenheim in Bilbao, and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles being two prime examples (see pictures below). However, translating that style into a horizontal structure presents a set of challenges. Add in the fact that those buildings don’t require a lot of windows (as does the New York building, by virture of being residential), and it was highly unlikely you could duplicate that look in a skinny, tall vertical building.
Second, Gehry was dealing with New York developers, whose main objective is to squeeze every last square inch of rentable space out of the building, and to do it at the lowest possible cost. Unlike in the past (and unlike developers overseas today), no developer in NYC wants to make a statement with their building. It’s why you no longer see grand spaces being built, like the lobby of the Woolworth building, or Grand Central Station. Most of us see beautiful spaces, developers see lost revenue opportunities. A grand (and I use that term loosely) lobby today is lucky to be 2 stories tall, and bereft of any aesthetic, minimalist or otherwise.
To that end, take the metallic waves off the building, flattening the sides, and you’re left with a strikingly mundane building, though perhaps more asymmetrical than most in NYC. Take a tour of some of the apartments, and you will see that their floorplans, aside from a few odd angles due to the waves, are very conventional. Up close, the much ballyhooed waves can make for some very interesting sights (and photo ops). But pull away from the building, and the uniqueness of the design is soon lost.
Now, despite it’s shortcomings, I do like the building. It is far better to look at than probably 95% of the buildings built in NYC during the past 40+ years. And Gehry probably did the best he could, while being beholden to the developer’s demands. However, I think one of the readers of Curbed said it best: “New York City is where the world’s most daring architects come to complete their dullest projects.” And I would add, “What could have been?”
Well, just what could have been? Look at the Gehry building pictured below, which is located in Dusseldorf. Now imagine that design enlarged and stretched to almost 900 feet high. That would have been a skyscraper the world would have been talking about for years. Maybe one day we’ll see it built. In Asia.