It seems like forever since a new building went up on West 57th Street, at least between Fifth and Eighth avenues. Thus we must take notice when the Hilton chain completes a new hotel, as it did this past summer, at 102 West 57th Street. Rising over the ghost of the old Horn and Hardart automat that, for much of the 20th century, was a defining feature of this major Manhattan thoroughfare, the new 28-story building houses not just any Hilton, but a Hilton Club, comprising 161 timeshare studios, one-bedroom suites and a spa, similar to Hilton Clubs that have sprung up in Las Vegas, Orlando, South Beach and elsewhere.
102 West 57th Street
However pleasant it may be to inhabit one of these timeshares, the architecture of the building is surprisingly dull. It was designed by the firm of HLW International, which has been working under various names in New York and beyond for over 100 years. Despite its glory days in the early 20th century, more recently the firm has been most conspicuous in New York for its designs of the corporate offices of Google and MTV.
As for the 57th Street project, it has been conceived as an expansive curtain-wall rising in three tiers of set-backs. At street level, it occupies its site with a broad and unapologetic expanse of glass that is emphasized by a metal canopy stretching from one side to the other.
Overall, the building is rigorously rectilinear and modernist. In this regard it is, to superficial inspection, quite similar to several Midtown projects by the firm of Moed de Armas & Shannon Architects, which I have previously praised in my columns. But a comparison between the projects of the two firms reveals those subtle shifts that separate artistic vision from mere journeyman work. What distinguishes Moed de Armas is the exquisite craftsmanship with which they realize their sheer and perfectly proportioned structures.
At 102 West 57th Street, by contrast, there is little sense of craft in the creation of its curtain wall of windows and pale green infill. As with most work in the modernist idiom, the problem is not so much that there is something wrong with 102 West 57th as that there is nothing especially right about it.
In the dullness of its boxy, uninflected setbacks, it also bears a superficial resemblance to Flank Architects’ 520 West 27th Street, which I praised some months ago. But there was a true and vigorously postmodern irony to the Downtown building that made palatable, even charming, the boxiness of the façade. You may be sure that there is none of that on 57th Street, which, alas, is dull through and through.
James Gardner, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Sun, writes on the visual arts for several publications.