Robert A.M. Stern has long been associated with the historicist strain of contemporary architecture. But he would likely insist that his goal is contextualism — the creation of buildings that harmonize with the environment into which they are set.
This distinction is especially pertinent in regards to one of his latest New York City projects: 500 West 30th Street, which is being developed by the Related Companies.
Related — which is headed by CEO Jeff Blau and is, of course, developing the massive Hudson Yards site nearby — is planning to have the nearly 390-unit tower ready for occupancy this spring. The building, which as of my visit last month had already topped out and been mostly clad, is by any standards an historicist building, in the sense that, to superficial inspection, it looks as though it was built in an earlier age (sometime in the 1920s, perhaps). And yet it avoids the more overtly ornamental feeling that we usually associate with Stern’s historicist style, whether in the vaguely mannerist details at the base of 15 Central Park West, or in the Anglophile idiom, derived from the royal palace of Hampton Court in London, that marks the red brick Chatham at 181 East 65th Street, with its fastidious accents in white limestone.
That may be because, unlike those other buildings, 500 West 30th is a rental and is located in the gritty (though gentrifying) area around Hudson Yards. In addition, it aspires to resemble the general building stock in its vicinity on the Far West Side.
At 500 West 30th Street Stern invokes commercial and industrial buildings of the early 20th century, and those buildings were conceived in a rather spartan style. But because of the dominant aesthetic of those times, such buildings do not display the denuded functionalism that would come to define post-war architecture.
At Stern’s West 30th Street building, he seems to strive to reproduce, and to make a virtue out of, that pared-down language of early 20th century functional architecture, even though that functionalism did not preclude a few classical flourishes.
It may be that the grittiness invoked here is an artificial construct, but it remains the dominant aesthetic and one of the main selling points of this part of Manhattan. And 500 West 30th Street is a 32-story monument to that aesthetic. It is a broad-shouldered building, with little of the self-conscious refinement of the Chatham or 15 Central Park West.
In some respects, it recalls Stern’s more recent Harrison at 350 Amsterdam Avenue. But whereas that building’s aesthetic remained one of residential architecture, this new building, despite being residential, is inspired by the functional language of commercial and manufacturing buildings.
The volumes of the West 30th Street building, especially on the south-facing side, are extremely spare and simple — and only a little more complex on the north side. The building rises over a six-story base, which is perhaps the most self-consciously designed part of the project.
At ground level is about 7,200 square feet of retail space surmounted by a two-story passage characterized by the spare geometry of vents and regularly protruding bricks. Above that are three floors of mullioned windows that charmingly recall, once again, an office or an institutional building rather than a residential structure. These, in turn, are topped by somewhat medieval-looking merlons (vaguely recalling a rook in chess), an ingenious touch since this is precisely the sort of “historicist” detailing that might have shown up on a building of this type and in this place a century ago. The windows are the best part of the design, and continue from the base all the way to the top of the building, which is crowned by a perforated and decorative brick summit.
But if Stern is famously a student of architectural history — his nearly 1,100-page book “Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City” was just published — he has always been somewhat idiosyncratic in his use of earlier vernaculars. This is seen at various points in the treatment of windows in the new building, especially along the northern side. Almost without warning, even arbitrarily, darker metallic frames appear around four clustered windows at a time. And as so often with Stern’s buildings, the result somehow succeeds in looking traditional, even though it is without any real architectural precedent.
It’s difficult to look at Stern’s latest building without marveling yet again at the revolution in taste that it represents, together with all the other luxury residential buildings that are planned for this neighborhood or that have already been completed. As recently as 15 years ago, maybe even 10, few people, if any, would have chosen to live in this part of Manhattan. What is now the High Line was the rusting and defunct remains of an elevated rail track. Then, with the opening of the park, what had been an eyesore became a thing of exemplary beauty, and some of the most adventurous architecture of the past decade (if not necessarily the best), clamored to rise up around it.
Of these new buildings — such as Neil Denari’s HL23 and South African architect Lindy Roy’s 519 West 23rd — few, if any, occupy as privileged a position as 500 West 30th Street, which stands over the point where the tracks curve sharply westward to form the loop that ends at 34th Street. Indeed, the yet-to-open third phase of the High Line includes plans for a small bowl-shaped amphitheatre of sorts called “the Spur,” covered in lush plants, at the point on 30th Street where the tracks take a brief and sudden detour to the east. This striking addition will lie at the base of Stern’s new building, and there is every reason to suppose that, in their striking contrast, they will play well together.
Indeed, 500 West 30th Street is not a striking building that attracts attention to itself, as some of Stern’s other buildings do. Rather, it aspires more modestly to appear as though it had always been at the corner where it now rises, and with regard to that more modest ambition, it has succeeded.