SCULPTING THE SKYLINE
architecture,” he says, “what you’d call somewhere between neoclassical and Art Deco.”
Harris emphasizes that, as with the great prewar apartment houses, the design was dictated by the floor plans. “There are quite a few different apartment configurations that interlock almost like a Chinese puzzle,” he says. That complexity is reflected in the building’s varied fenestration and massing, which achieves a kind of balanced asymmetry, a characteristic common to the work of Stern, Pennoyer, and others that adds character to the silhouette and an appealing sense of idiosyncrasy. It can be seen in Sofield’s latest New York residential development project as well, the 30-story Beckford Tower and 19-story Beckford House, a pair of complementary buildings that stand a block apart on Second Avenue, at 80th and 81st streets.
“One of the things I love about old apartment buildings is how people over the years have screwed them up,” says Sofield, a self-described modernist by temperament and historicist by training. “Some rich person said, ‘Damn it, I want a bigger window,’ and they put in a bigger window—creating all these what for an architect would be considered mistakes. In both buildings, I kind of built in intentional idiosyncrasies, which I think makes them feel more authentic.”
The façades of both the house and the tower mix gray brick and limestone with buff brownstone, all hand laid in subtly asymmetrical patterns with varying color and texture, while window styles and dimensions shift with an unpredictable elegance. For Sofield, who is well-known for designing boutiques for luxury brands like Tom Ford, Gucci, and Bottega Veneta, distinctiveness and craftsmanship and channeling “emotional experiences” are paramount. He believes any revival of classically informed architecture is foremost a response to “the erosion of the character of neighborhoods,” resulting, in part, from “developers who saw an opportunity to throw something up quickly and with very little thought to craft.” ULTIMATELY THE DISCUSSION around architects looking to the past has everything to do with a renewed emphasis on quality, refinement, and thoughtfulness, as well as creating a connection to history and place. “Architecture is really emotional—we want people to react emotionally to what we do,” says Lagrange, who is based in Chicago. He recounts the story of a woman who approached him at a party to tell him she makes a point each morning of walking by his building 65 East Goethe, featuring a mansard roof and other Parisian-inspired neoclassical details. “It’s amazing,” he says. “Just walking by the building makes her feel good because of the detail, the ironwork, the doors, the finishes.”
Lagrange’s current projects include an 18-story high-rise in Dallas called One Turtle Creek and a 34-story limestone-and-granite tower in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood that will recall, he says, the preeminent Art Deco–era apartment buildings on Astor Street. Having worked on plenty of glass buildings over the years, Lagrange notes that buildings with masonry walls and punched windows can provide a greater sense of domesticity. “When you go home, you want to be sheltered, in a cocoon almost,” he says. “In a glass tower, it can be a little scary or uncomfortable at the edge and you lose privacy. To me I want a wall, to contain the room and to have artwork and lighting.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by other architects, including Harris, who says he has seen among his clients “a desire that an apartment be, if not refuge, at least an escape in some way.” Peter Lyden, president of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, sees a COVID-19 connection. “I think the pandemic has pushed some people into wanting to live like where their grandparents did. I know that sounds kind of funny, but they want familiar surroundings, private and really cozy rooms. It’s going back to this beautiful, gracious kind of living.”
Could the pendulum of taste in the urban real estate market be swinging toward more traditionally inspired architecture, at least at the top end? It’s interesting to note the classical design elements in a number of high-profile new apartment buildings that no one is going to mistake as anything but contemporary. Take SHOP Architects’ 1,428-foot, dramatically tapering 111 West 57th Street—heralded as the world’s skinniest skyscraper—which rises out of historic Steinway Hall with two of its four sides clad in alternating bands of undulating cream-colored terra-cotta tiles and graceful bronze scrollwork, nodding to an earlier era of New York architecture.
Some 20 blocks away, in the Nomad neighborhood, Cetraruddy’s 45-story Rose Hill tower has a glass façade ornamented with chevron-patterned metal ribbons and a shaped crown that echoes Art Deco landmarks like Rockefeller Center. In the Financial District David Adjaye’s 66-story 130 William adopts as its primary motif one of classical architecture’s most fundamental forms, featuring arched windows in gridded rows across its walls of dark textured concrete. And in Boston, Höweler + Yoon designed the 20-story 212 Stuart Street with a façade of glass and fluted precast panels of varying sizes arranged in a rhythmic pattern of variation and repetition.
None of this is rote classicism, of course, though there are connecting threads in the references and design language. It’s really about the aspiration to create something of quality that is distinctive—not entirely new but worthy of standing alongside the historic precedents that serve as inspiration.