THE VIEW FROM WAY UP THERE

Res­i­den­tial tow­ers keep push­ing higher. For many rea­sons, the view up there can take your breath away.

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - CHRISTO­PHER HAWTHORNE AR­CHI­TEC­TURE CRITIC christo­pher.hawthorne@la­times.com Twit­ter: @HawthorneLAT

Some­times a view is just a view. And some­times — when you’re stand­ing on the 92nd floor of a con­tro­ver­sial New York sky­scraper with Rafael Viñoly — it’s a win­dow onto the ar­chi­tec­tural arms race that is rapidly re­shap­ing the Man­hat­tan sky­line.

For months I’d been try­ing to get the go-ahead from a small bat­tal­ion of gate­keep­ers to visit 432 Park Av­enue, a tower de­signed by Viñoly, the prolific Uruguay-born, New York-based ar­chi­tect, for New York de­vel­oper Harry Mack­lowe and L.A.’s CIM Group. It’s not only the most con­spic­u­ous of the new breed of so-called su­per­tall (also known as “pen­cil”) sky­scrapers that have sprung up across Man­hat­tan in re­cent years, but at 1,396 feet and 96 floors it’s the tallest res­i­den­tial build­ing in the city. If you don’t count the spire atop One World Trade Cen­ter tower down­town — which you re­ally shouldn’t, since you can’t put a cor­ner of­fice or an apart­ment in­side a spire — 432 Park is the tallest, pe­riod.

Its sym­bol­ism is sim­i­larly im­pos­si­ble to miss. If you’re look­ing for an ar­chi­tec­tural em­blem of ris­ing in­equal­ity in New York City and the way the city (like Lon­don, Dubai and in re­cent years Los An­ge­les) has be­come an at­trac­tive place for the world’s wealth­i­est in­vestors to stash their ex­cess cash, 432 Park is it. Its con­dos were priced when they first went on the mar­ket a cou­ple of years ago from $7 mil­lion to $95 mil­lion, for an av­er­age of nearly $7,000 per square foot. So far a re­ported 80% have sold.

The build­ing looms over nearby Cen­tral Park — and a good chunk of the tri-state area. While vis­it­ing the city this month I spot­ted it from Brook­lyn while rid­ing in a cab from JFK as well from Lin­coln Cen­ter, the rooftop gar­den at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art and the cor­ner of Allen and De­lancey streets down­town. It seemed to be fol­low­ing me from neighborhood to neighborhood, much the way the late twin tow­ers once did.

Fi­nally the email came through: How about a tour with Viñoly late on a Thurs­day af­ter­noon?

I’d met the ar­chi­tect a hand­ful of times be­fore, most re­cently run­ning into him in March at the open­ing con­cert in Frank Gehry’s Boulez Hall in Ber­lin. At 73 he is charm­ing and vol­u­ble, his mop of curly hair now gray. Many ar­chi­tects are fa­mous for wear­ing se­verely fash­ion­able glasses. Viñoly’s trade­mark is not the de­sign of his frames but how many he wears at the same time: on the bridge of his nose, atop his head or strung around his neck.

432 Park rises from a rel­a­tively small site be­tween 56th and 57th streets — the site of the old Drake Ho­tel, which Mack­lowe bought in 2006 and razed to make room for a tower that would more ef­fi­ciently “make the land pay,” in Cass Gil­bert’s fa­mous phrase about sky­scraper eco­nom­ics. The build­ing has a per­fectly square foot­print, 93 feet on each side. Its site in­cludes a penin­sula stretch­ing as­pi­ra­tionally to the east, al­low­ing the devel­op­ers to give it a tony Park Av­enue ad­dress. There are 106 apart­ments al­to­gether, on floors 35 through 96; the lower floors are used for ser­vices and re­tail.

Be­fore head­ing into the lobby to be­gin the tour, I stood on the side­walk along 56th Street and craned my neck to take in the tower in full. Viñoly’s de­sign is ruth­lessly sim­ple. That square base is ex­truded nearly 1,400 feet into the air and clad in a Carte­sian grid of glass and ex­posed con­crete. (Pulling the tower in from the street at ground level al­lowed Viñoly to avoid set­back re­quire­ments al­to­gether.) The six large pic­ture win­dows that march across each side of the tower are also square. The roof is flat.

The com­bi­na­tion of the build­ing’s ex­treme height and its dis­ci­plined, min­i­mal­ist form makes it a pe­cu­liar sym­bol. It is con­cen­trated wealth ren­dered in Spar­tan terms, a Sol LeWitt sculp­ture hold­ing stacked con­dos for bil­lion­aires. What the build­ing says about in­equal­ity and the priv­i­leges of the one-tenth-of-the-1-per­cent shouldn’t be ig­nored. But nei­ther should its sig­nif­i­cant ap­peal in purely ar­chi­tec­tural terms.

I read­justed my neck and walked into the lobby, where Viñoly was wait­ing with a pub­li­cist and a Mack­lowe Prop­er­ties mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive. The three of them were seated around an Yves Klein cof­fee ta­ble filled with crum­pled gold leaf. Greet­ing Viñoly I noted that the pair-of-glasses count on this day was four: one atop his head, one perched on his nose and two more around his neck.

After chat­ting briefly about the price of gold leaf, we stood up and en­tered a smaller in­te­rior lobby. (The “in­ner sanc­tum,” Viñoly called it.) We then as­cended smoothly into the sky in­side one of the build­ing’s four pas­sen­ger el­e­va­tors, each of which is out­fit­ted with bronze doors and mar­ble f loors, with wall pan­els and a bench wrapped in peb­bled leather.

Our des­ti­na­tion was a model apart­ment on the 92nd floor de­signed by the dec­o­ra­tor Kelly Be­hun.

Once we en­tered I found my­self mak­ing a bee­line to­ward one of the large pic­ture win­dows fac­ing south, where we took in a stag­ger­ing view that in­cluded nearly ev­ery im­por­tant tall build­ing in New York, a sort of ar­chi­tec­tural en­cy­clo­pe­dia come to life: Mies van der Rohe’s Sea­gram Build­ing and Gor­don Bun­shaft’s Lever House just be­low us; William Lamb’s Em­pire State Build­ing, a full 150 feet shorter than 432 Park; to the right French ar­chi­tect Chris­tian de Portzam­parc’s 90-story One57 tower, the first of the mid­town su­per­talls and a Ve­gas-style dis­as­ter of a de­sign; the U. N. tower by Os­car Niemeyer, Wal­lace Har­ri­son and Le Cor­bus­ier to the left; Renzo Pi­ano’s New York Times tower; and all the way south the stolid One World Trade, ar­chi­tect David Childs’ mon­u­ment to the po­lit­i­cal and ar­chi­tec­tural mess that is the re­built World Trade Cen­ter site.

It was also pos­si­ble to see the de­gree to which 432 Park will soon face a crowded Mid­town sky­line. Vis­i­ble from our perch were three tow­ers in var­i­ous stages of con­struc­tion: Jean Nou­vel’s 53 West 53rd (1,050 feet) above the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, Robert A.M. Stern’s 220 Cen­tral Park South (950 feet) and, fi­nally, the build­ing that will snatch the high­est-res­i­den­tial build­ing crown from Viñoly: SHoP Ar­chi­tects’ 111 West 57th, which will rise 1,428 feet above Stein­way Hall. SHoP’s reign may be brief: The planned Cen­tral Park Tower at 217 W. 57th St., by Burj Khal­ifa de­signer Adrian Smith + Gor­don Gill Ar­chi­tec­ture, is set to reach 1,550 feet.

Aside from the views, what im­me­di­ately stood out was how solid — para­dox­i­cally enough, how grounded — the con­crete frame and rel­a­tively low win­dow-to-wall ra­tio made the in­te­rior of 432 Park seem.

It felt al­most like a pre­war apart­ment. Un­like a cur­tain-wall tower sheathed en­tirely in glass, with floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows, Viñoly’s de­sign gives you a ready sense of the mas­sive struc­ture that is hold­ing you aloft. This is the kind of high-rise even an acro­phobe could love.

Ah, but what kind of acro­phobe?

The kind who made his money in murky cir­cum­stances in Doha, Baku, Bei­jing or Moscow — or on Wall Street — and is now look­ing to park it some­where safe? The kind who might own four or five other pricey apart­ments around the world and visit New York a cou­ple of times a year?

Aside from the con­cern that they will in­creas­ingly press shadows on neigh­bor­ing streets and Cen­tral Park and blot out the sky (though the skin­ni­ness of the new crop will lessen this prob­lem), this is the main charge against the su­per­talls: that they sym­bol­ize a city that is set­ting out the wel­come mat for a new class of no­madic bil­lion­aires, a New York whose land­marks are not thrum­ming with peo­ple and en­ergy but va­cant, full of noth­ing but eq­uity.

This a le­git­i­mate worry. Even after it sells out, 432 Park is ex­pected to rarely if ever be even half full. A tower that has come to dom­i­nate the Mid­town sky­line will typ­i­cally hold — and this is a gen­er­ous es­ti­mate — maybe 100 res­i­dents at a time.

Pho­to­graphs from DBox

THE 432 PARK AV­ENUE tower punches into the Mid­town Man­hat­tan sky. It will brief ly be the city’s tallest res­i­den­tial build­ing.

ON FLOOR after floor, win­dows march in stately pre­ci­sion. No cur­tain-wall glass on this de­sign by Rafael Viñoly. Its struc­ture is solidly ap­par­ent. The tower oc­cu­pies a small site yet looms large.

CON­DOS in soar­ing 432 Park Av­enue, when they first went on the mar­ket a cou­ple of years ago, were priced from $7 mil­lion to $95 mil­lion. That’s an av­er­age of nearly $7,000 per square foot.

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