Architecture & Design

Chelsea Condos Get Magic Glass Walls; Behemoth Rises in Midtown


At the push of a button, the 20- foot-high wall of glass opened with an electric hum, folding itself flat against the ceiling. A breeze and muted street noise wafted in.

Shigeru Ban’s 11-story boutique condo with its duplex apartments is a world away from another luxury apartment building now nearing completion: Arquitectonica’s 63 story, blue-black glass behemoth containing 150 condos atop 500 rentals.

The New York real estate market has gotten pretty strange.

At Shigeru Ban’s Chelsea building, another button controls the motorized metal mesh rising from outside the apartment’s balcony. Push that, and daylight pours in, revealing a view of mottled red brick and lush street trees.

With such simple gestures, Ban transforms the quality of light and space in the apartment.

The building is called the "Metal Shutter House" because the condos disappear behind the vertical Shoji screens. All the units but a $13-million penthouse have long been sold.

Midtown Behemoth

By contrast, consider the $800-million project on 42nd Street in an area developers have named MiMA (for Middle of Manhattan) .

Arquitectonica, the prolific firm based in Miami, has perpetrated its worst work here for Related Companies. On the skyline, MiMA looks like a giant headstone.

And it’s just one of a forest of new high rises in flimsy glass, ill-fitted metal and dingy masonry that have sprouted along the stolid commercial streets southwest of Times Square.

The MiMA apartments I toured sacrificed space for views and were of the functional, generic style perfected by the apartment-layout specialist Ismael Leyva. David Rockwell decorated in diluted browns typical of today’s mainstream-modern interiors.

Rentals go from $3,200 for a studio to more than $11,000 for a two-bedroom. Condo prices will be set soon since sales are just about to begin.

Your Yotel

Into this mammoth mix, Related stirred in a Yotel with 669 ultra-tiny rooms in "Star Trek" style. (Rockwell lent a hand in this, too.)

Frank Gehry designed three jaunty, plywood-paneled auditoriums for the Signature Theater, but neither the theater nor the Yotel can enliven the neighborhood because Related conceals them behind relentless tinted-glass walls. A lazy applique of precast concrete panels pretending to be stone rubs salt into the aesthetic wound.

MiMA tries to compensate by providing a full-floor adult playground. Beyond a screening room, the pool sparkles within a massive empty Equinox gym. The Dog City spa has treadmills and groomers.

This raft of goodies will cost renters $1,000 a year. Such heavy "amenities packages" make good come-ons but don’t dependably last. Dozens of early 20th-century apartment buildings came with clubs and dining rooms. I know of none that still operate.

Gushing Cash

The rest of us will be living with this overbearing architecture for a long time. Unlike upscale residential neighborhoods, these blocks aren’t defended by anti-development activists and lawyers.

Developers could have rejoiced in such freedom, using it to show how inventively their projects gush cash while enhancing their surroundings.

Instead we got a rush to the architectural bottom.

I thought of Ban, who has made a career of teasing out unusual beauty from the ordinary. He first came to fame making shelter out of paper tubes for disaster victims in Japan, Turkey, and India.

Why couldn’t Related and Arquitectonica think like him?

Related and its brethren should not whine when neighborhoods fight developers to the death. When not lashed by activists, too many do their worst.

Russell is the architecture critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.

Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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