The Real Deal New York

James Gardner — Son of the New Museum

The play of volumes at 15 Union Square West is very good indeed

July 01, 2010 07:00AM
By James Gardner

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Buildings beget more buildings, and some buildings have a far larger
progeny than others. Between them, for example, the East River
headquarters of the United Nations and the Seagram Building begat many,
if not most, of the postwar office towers in Midtown. Gordon Bunshaft’s
Manhattan House of 1950 engendered, for better or worse (mostly for
worse), all of those white-brick residential buildings that took over
Second and Third avenues in the 1960s. More recently, Christian de
Portzamparc’s LVMH Tower at 19 East 57th Street sired everything from
Daniel Libeskind’s initial plans for the Freedom Tower to the Bank of
America Building at One Bryant Park, as well as Kohn Pedersen Fox’s 505
Fifth Avenue.

But who would have thought that the New Museum of Contemporary Art,
that silvery sequence of bento boxes at 235 Bowery, though scarcely two
years old, would already have brought forth illustrious offspring? And
yet it has done exactly that, in the form of a newly clad and
thoroughly reconceived structure at 15 Union Square West, developed by
Brack Capital. Architecturally speaking, this project is far more
successful than one might have expected. On paper it sounded like a bad
idea: transforming the erstwhile flagship of Tiffany’s into a
black-clad, ultra-modernist glass affair, the muscular massing of whose
top half channels the spirit of brutalism.

Now that the work has been unveiled after several years of
commotion, dust and noise, the result is very good indeed. It is 12
stories tall and comprises 36 units. The lower five floors adhere to
the general massing of the original structure, designed by John Kellum.
But the remaining stories, as conceived by Eran Chen, design principal
at Perkins Eastman, exhibit an energetic play of volumes whose clearest
and most direct antecedent is Sanaa’s New Museum building one mile to
the south. Surely the volumes are less dramatic, and the seismic shift
of the boxes along a central axis is less jolting, but there can be
little doubt that the Union Square building would have turned out very
different had it not been for Sanaa’s example. This is especially true
if you look at the early renderings, where the play of volumes is more
dramatic than that of the finished results.

In theory, this building should not look as right as it does on the
corner of 15th Street. Stylistically, it makes no concessions to its
neighborhood, which along the west, north and east sides of the park is
overwhelmingly pre-modern. True, the southern end of the park is
populated with a sequence of 1980s buildings, the Zeckendorf Towers,
designed by Davis Brody & Associates (now Davis Brody Bond Aedas).
But most of these newer structures are aesthetically so unsuccessful as
to discourage, rather than foster, a more modern idiom in these parts.

That said, they have not discouraged the architects at Perkins
Eastman, and now 15 Union Square West occupies its position with
authoritative ease. It is visible from every part of Union Square Park,
but at no point does it feel like an unwelcome intrusion.

One of the problems that confronted the developer and the architect
is that the original building, whose contours have been largely
preserved, had been created to serve a very different purpose from the
residential function into which it has now been pressed. The Tiffany
Building was, of course, originally intended as a sequence of
showrooms. As part of the southern end of what was once known as
Ladies’ Mile, which comprised most of New York City’s department stores
in the late 19th century, it was furnished with 18-foot ceilings. Some
of these heights have been preserved in the new project. But in most of
the units, those soaring spaces have more reasonably been sliced in
half to form two floors.

In addition, the new building is equipped with some stunning
interiors, designed by the firm of Vicente Wolf Associates. These
include a gym, a spa, and an adorable swimming pool that radiates
warmth through a skillful interplay of purples and blues, with some
yellow and chartreuse tones. From the renderings I have seen, the
bathrooms look to be a cool and elegant play of grays and whites, with
frosted glass partitions, and freestanding white porcelain tubs propped
up on silver lion’s claws.

In recent years, Perkins Eastman has been one of the most active
architectural firms at work in New York City. It has designed
everything from the Queens Civil Courthouse to the revamped Hall of
Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History and, perhaps
most visible of all, the new and expanded TKTS booth at Times Square,
together with the Jell-O-red stairway that rises over it at the
northern edge of Father Duffy Square. As regards the sort of
residential architecture that concerns us here, the firm has been
responsible for the Avalon Riverview in Long Island City, as well as
the Centria building at 18 West 48th Street, facing the southern end of
Rockefeller Center, and 303 East 33rd Street. Other than the generally
modernist idiom in which it works, Perkins Eastman does not have a
unified style and, undoubtedly, some of their projects turn out better
than others. At 15 Union Square West, however, this firm has hit upon
one of its better designs to date in the five boroughs. If the firm has
favored a somewhat tame variant upon mainstream neo-modernism in most
of its New York projects, such tameness is mercifully absent in Union
Square.

True, the result is not a complete success. Whether through
aesthetic preference or, more likely, through the dictates of the
Landmarks Preservation Commission, the darkened glass skin of 15 Union
Square West hangs over the exterior of the building in such a way as to
reveal the surviving arches of the original structure. But there is no
visual logic to the interplay of this boxy structure and the ghost of
its Beaux Arts predecessor, which can be partially glimpsed beneath the
darkened glass covering. The still-visible arches of the old Tiffany’s
read more as a distraction than as an adornment to the new development.

But then, you could argue that the secret of architecture in New
York is the harmonious collision of competing, jarring styles. In this
sense, 15 Union Square West performs a function similar to that of One
Madison Park a few blocks north on 23rd Street, another building that,
despite all the naysayers, has done far more for its neighborhood than
anyone would ever have expected.

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