Neil Denari's HL23 nears completion
As the second section of New York’s popular High Line nears completion this spring, a new residential project along its ranks will soon open. HL23, a luxury condominium project designed by Los Angeles architect Neil Denari, is no ordinary building. The 14-storey tower, which houses one living unit per floor and two duplex apartments, occupies a commanding presence in its West Chelsea neighbourhood where it joins a number of recently completed architecturally distinctive buildings such as Jean Nouvel’s Vision Machine and Frank Gehry’s ICA building. But unlike those buildings, HL23 occupies rare air, being the only building to directly engage the High Line, thus guaranteeing its occupants unobstructed views to the north and south. But beyond this notable feature, the building deserves to be respected as a serious work of architecture.
To say that HL23 is decidedly different is an understatement. Nothing about the building is conventional. From its reverse tapering, which allows the building to rise from a narrow footprint of 40’ x 90’ and become much larger once it clears the High Line, thus maximising the zoning envelope; to its large cantilever over the High Line; to its facades, each of which is off the grid, neither vertical or parallel to the ground plane or to the buildings around it; to its metal cladding, the individual panels of which contain so many convexities and concavities that the building itself appears to modulate like a wave, perhaps in deference to the Hudson River. Simply put HL23 is poetry in motion. And it is a building true to Denari’s ideas as espoused in his monograph, Gyroscopic Horizons, where the physical earth as datum is replaced with cultural and graphic forces as points of departure.
But unlike other buildings of its ilk, HL23 is well crafted and seemingly built with little compromise. The same cannot be said of ‘idea buildings’ by other theoretical architects like Peter Eisenmann for example, whose numbered houses are not very liveable or well constructed. But buildings that are by definition self-referential and allude to things outside the physical realm run the risk of falling short on other grounds. And this is true of HL23. Whereas HL23 is an interesting object building it is not a very good urbanistic building. HL23 would be more at home in a place like Los Angeles than in New York where there is little or no context, leaving the architect to create one. At the street level, there is little that distinguishes HL23 from the galleries, shops and office buildings around it. The building has no foreground, like a garden or a stoop, which is part and parcel of apartment living in New York; nothing that announces it as a home. The same is true for other buildings around it like High Line 519, a condo building designed by architect Lindy Roy, which make for a very cool and unfriendly block that is devoid of life. In this way, HL23 is no different than a building like Trump Place on Manhattan’s far West Side, which is equally removed from the city. For a building that endeavours to reinvent the wheel, one would hope it would have taken a bigger leap in creating a more hospitable block.
But beyond this flaw, HL23 is a very liveable and beautifully crafted building that anyone would be happy to call home. Despite what has been described as its ‘spaceship’ like quality, the building is on its interior - which has been warmed considerably by New York architect Thomas Juul-Hansen - more reminiscent of high modernism than the imaginary worlds depicted in Bladerunner or the films of Antonioni, which are of great interest to this architect.
HL23 is one of the more architecturally adventuresome buildings to come along in New York City in a long time. While it is indeed a highly individualistic and inventive work, it owes a great debt to others, namely to architect Steven Holl, who in his Bridge of Houses proposal of 1981 was the first to envision living on the High Line and to Frank Gehry without whom parametric modelling in architecture and shapely metal buildings would not exist. Given that HL23 has weathered many fits and starts, including legal threats, and until recently was pronounced all but dead, it is remarkable that a building of its quality exists at all. While many aspire to realise such architecturally ambitious and conceptually pure work, it is not easy and harder still in a city like New York where the conditions are tough and the climate is ripe for failure. This is truly one of HL23’s finer moments; that in addition to creating extraordinary living space high above the city’s din, it gives hope to other architects that it is possible to build complex visionary buildings with few compromises if you have the resolve to muster through and the right team by your side.