In our new series “Anatomy Of A Building,” NYU Local will examine and contextualize the architecture of new and interesting buildings around the city.
In the past decade there have been two major additions to the neighborhood around Astor Place. The first, built in 2003 on the sight of a former parking lot where 4th Ave. splits to become Cooper Sq. and Lafayette St. is Charles Gwathme’s “Sculpture for Living.” We suspect, however, that is not the name by which most people know this 270-foot condo tower. Far more likely is something akin to the ugly green blob, or the big ugly green thing. And indeed, ugly it is.
The building is a bizarre blend between the amorphous undulations of Chicago’s Lake Point Tower and a boxy office building. Worst of all, the entire structure is covered in a green tinted highly reflective glass that would be much more at home in an office park off the New Jersey Turnpike than amongst the brown masonry structures of Astor Place.
The second, completed in 2009, is 41 Cooper Square (aka Cooper Union’s New Academic Building). Designed by Thomas Mayne of Morphosis, 41 Cooper Square stands in stark contrast to the “Sculpture for Living.” While the latter has been bemoaned as a modern disaster, gaudy and conspicuous, the former has been widely hailed as a modern masterpiece, understated and graceful. It neither mimics nor clashes, but is in dialogue with the early 20th century buildings around it—the aspiration of all modern buildings in a pre-modern city. In short, Astor Place has been, in the past ten years, the recipient of one of New York’s worst and one of its best new buildings. And now construction is nearly finished on yet a third major addition to the neighborhood—51 Astor Place—and while it is certainly not New York’s best, it is far from its worst.
Designed by Pritzker-Prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki (designer also of the nearly completed 4 World Trade Center), 51 Astor Place is a black and white study of intersecting geometrical forms. Like much of Maki’s work, its angles are razor sharp and its shapes are simple, no more than rectangles and triangles. The building’s most striking visual effect occurs on the Eastern façade where the two exterior materials, jet-black and ghostly-silver glass, meet at a precise 45% angle to create a unmistakable geometrical image—a silver trapezoid floating above 3rd Avenue.
Still, for all its truly captivating play with shapes, there is something undeniably disconcerting about 51 Astor Place. It like the black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, landed from a distant world in a new environment to which it is totally alien, except here the distant world is midtown and the alien environment is Greenwich village. It’s not all bad. Unlike the “Sculpture for Living” (which is all bad) it was clearly built with the shape of the plot in mind and viewed from the Bowery it actually provides a brilliant black frame for the Cooper Union Foundation Building. However, these are rare moments of harmonious dialogue in what is mostly a dissonant struggle between new and old. Most offensively, the façade facing 4th Avenue and the former Wanamaker store, rises, without set backs, nearly 200 feet, both blocking any eastern view of Wanamaker’s, one of the Village’s turn of the century masterpiece’s, and creating around the Astor Place Subway stop the kind of urban canyon many people come to the Village to escape.
Whatever one feels about the design of 51 Astor Place, or even “the Sculpture for Living” it is hard not to feel a bit cynical about their construction. Built on land owned by Cooper Union (an institution long in financial straits), and leased out to its developer for 99 years, these buildings symbolize well the kind of place Manhattan is quickly becoming—a city of anodyne (or just plain ugly) high-end condos and office buildings, built with entirely financial motives. What could say this more clearly than the 51 Astor Place website, which actually describes the building as one “built to brand your business.” Not “built to preserve the dignity of the neighborhood” or “enhance the urban environment” or “push the bounds of green-design” (or like 41 Cooper Square, which does all three), but “to brand.” Unfortunately for Mr. Maki, I doubt that “business branding” is exactly what the Pritzker people are looking for.