World Architecture Day 2014
 
 
 
 
Daring not to be different
Matthew Freedman
ACC Publishers

In a reverent, plush sort of way, Robert A.M. Stern’s recent projects are a faintly rebellious presence on the New York landscape. Elsewhere on WAN you can find an exclusive selection of images of his immense new apartment building on Central Park West, and at 99 Church Street, a few hundred yards from the World Trade Center site, work is soon due to start on his latest.
This will be a 912-foot tower, comprising a hotel and luxury apartments, rising 120 feet higher than the venerable Woolworth Building (1913) on the same block. Some are already arguing that its height and proximity alone will impair appreciation of the Woolworth, but Stern’s assured, nostalgic styling will at least serve to complement its neighbour, rather than simply craving attention for itself.
Recent years have brought a torrent of reports on the rise of big-name, residential high-rises in the well-heeled neighbourhoods of New York. From Herzog & de Meuron at 40 Bond, to Tschumi’s Blue Building on the Lower East Side, to the work of Gehry, Gwathmey and FXFOWLE, we know to

 

expect unabashedly modern work, heavy on the glass and likely to bulge or curve in unexpected and thrilling ways. To an excitable outsider, development in the city can often seem entirely predicated on this model.
Such projects have never wanted for positive media coverage or high-spending occupants, but they have their detractors too. Back in late 2006, Vanity Fair published A.A. Gill’s long, withering feature on the profusion of “bendy-glass-and-steel erections”. He surmised, probably too hastily, that they would be bleak places to live: “It’s not like floating in the sky. It’s like living in Pyrex.”
Gill might well prefer the work of Stern, especially the Central Park West project - brand new and yet strangely, pleasingly familiar as it is. With its limestone cladding and familiar rhythm of windows and setbacks, it directly recalls an internationally recognised, old-school brand of New York sumptuousness. This is the solidity and luxury of the classic pre-war apartment buildings of Emery Roth and Rosario Candela where, cocktail in hand, residents sashayed through super-posh interiors designed by Dorothy Draper or Elsie de Wolfe.
15 Central Park West is neither audacious nor brash, but it exerted hypnotic appeal on those who could afford to buy in; it was sold out way before completion last year. Now, if you have the cash and the inclination, you can be neighbours (and share a communal library and wine cellars) with Sting and Denzel Washington, both reported to have paid over $20 million for their whole-floor penthouses. No doubt they love the bygone intimations of elegant privacy that the building bestows.
But this is rarefied stuff. Only a tiny number of people experience such places from the inside. Far more important than the domestic comfort of Sting is the

 

impact of the development on everyone else, experiencing it daily at ground level, as an addition to the built fabric of New York. This huge, stately presence at Central Park joins a street of august towers and apartment houses from the 1920s and 30s. It doesn’t jar, and it won’t date. But does that make it a spirited return to the grand heritage of the city? Or is it just a big failure to innovate - the misuse of a key city site simply to hark back to a mythic Woody-Allen-endorsed past?
Stern is certainly no mere pasticheur. A revered historian of New York architecture, his nuanced understanding of the city’s styles results in commissions that satisfy developers, investors and residents.
In the end, speculation about what’s best for New York must be respectfully left to New Yorkers - experts on the city’s psyche as well as its design. But today, anyone can see why Stern’s approach might be finding increasing favour. Alongside the stream of buildings proclaiming innovation and renewal, there must be room for a few that forge contemporary links to that solid, reassuring and rather romantic heritage.

READ ARTICLE - Sharon McHugh

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