New Yorkers can be forgiven if their appreciation of Shigeru Ban, the prolific Paris-based Japanese master architect revered throughout much of the rest of the world, is a bit ephemeral: Ban’s last major work in the city was torn down after just three months.
Of course, it was designed that way. Ban’s dramatic 45,000-square-foot Nomadic Museum, a temporary structure erected at Pier 54 in the spring of 2005, contained walls made from 148 cargo containers stacked 34 feet high, a roof and columns made from paper tubes (a signature material for Ban), and an interior curtain made of 1 million pressed tea bags (with the tea leaves removed).
Now, however, New York is getting a permanent Shigeru Ban building — an 11-story boutique condominium named the Metal Shutter Houses. The condo is under construction, appropriately, in far West Chelsea, an incubator for cutting-edge architecture. Bringing new meaning to the term “gated community,” the Metal Shutter Houses — named for the urban-style, metal roll-up gates that inspired them — will be just a stone’s throw from new buildings by Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and several other world-class architects.
“We’re introducing Shigeru Ban to New York City,” says James Lansill, managing director of the Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group, which is marketing the project. “He’s one of those architects whose work a lot of people know, but they’re not aware it’s his.” Take, for example, the Nomadic Museum. “They know about that as a spectacle,” says Lansill, “but they don’t know the man behind it.”
Ban is celebrated by architecture aficionados for his innovative use of prosaic materials (such as paper tubes), and for his devotion to humanitarian causes — he has designed cheap yet lasting domiciles for disaster victims. “But he’s done more than 35 private residences,” says Lansill, “many of them very famous, like the Paper House or the Curtain Wall House.”
Ban’s homes typically take the name of the material most prominent in their construction — hence “Paper House.” At the “Curtain Wall House,” the curtain wall, which surrounds the large terrace of a private home in Tokyo, is made of fabric.
Apparently, far West Chelsea “deli grates,” used by small shopkeepers to protect their storefronts, inspired him. “When I was walking the vicinity,” recalls Ban, “there were many shutters covering the industrial buildings. The industrial shutter is a kind of contextual material in the Chelsea area.”
The concept for the Metal Shutter Houses began to take shape in 2005, just as the Nomadic Museum was ending its run, when expatriate German gallery owner Klemens Gasser figured the time was right to convert the building at 524 West 19th Street that housed his art gallery. He planned to renovate the gallery and turn the rest of the building into luxury condos, taking one for himself.
Gasser had acquired the property in 1998, when, he recalls, “there were 20 galleries in West Chelsea. Now there are 200 or more.” A longtime admirer of Ban, Gasser contacted Dean Maltz, a New York-based architect who is a partner in Ban’s New York City office. Maltz introduced Gasser to a boyhood friend, Jeff Spiritos, who had just left Hines, the international real estate developer, after more than 25 years with the company, to go out on his own. Having handled primarily commercial development for Hines, Spiritos was itching to do a residential building.
“Two weeks later,” recalls Gasser, “Shigeru was standing on the roof of the building looking out. Nothing was built around there yet. Shigeru said yes.”
“Once Shigeru was clear,” adds Gasser, “the whole deal came together — old friends, a very nice team.”
The northern façde of the building facing onto West 19th Street is composed largely of metal screens made of motorized roll-up perforated security shutters. The screens allow owners of each of the nine floor-through duplex apartments to control the light and peeping eyes coming into their glass-walled, double-height living rooms. Also, the screens assure that the dynamic façde will rarely look the same from day to day. “Anyone on the street or living across the street,” notes Lansill, “will see a building that changes virtually every day. The façde will be a different permutation that is driven by the whims of the owners.”
In renderings, with all the shutters closed, the building seems to take a defensive posture; it is a structure capable of going into complete shutdown. But, Ban insists, the building will have an essentially open disposition.
“If I had used the usual metal shutter,” says Ban, “it would look very closed. But the perforated shutter, even totally closed, is translucent — and in the evening it is even more translucent.” The shutters filter out half the incoming light, and, adds Ban, “in the evening they can close to work as a mosquito net.” Equipped with nylon rollers and brushes, the screens will move quietly and will not rattle when blown by the wind.
To further the sense of expansiveness, the 20-foot-tall glass outside walls of the double-height living rooms pivot upward, opening completely to erase the divide between the outdoor terrace and the living space.
As far as layouts, Spiritos and Gasser had envisioned a renovated building full of one- to three-bedroom, full- or half-floor apartments, but that plan went out the window fast once the design was put into Ban’s hands.
“The site is very small and next to a very aggressive building [the Frank Gehry-designed IAC headquarters],” says Ban. He was able to squeeze an extra floor into the allowable building volume, he recalls, by creating just nine floor-through duplex apartments, with “ceiling heights of the bathroom and other rooms lower,” and offering double-height, 20-foot great rooms and spacious, open layouts.
“He has the concept of complete openness between the rooms,” says Spiritos. The apartment is totally unobstructed on the lower level between the movable glass walls on the southern and northern ends of the apartment. “We had to figure out how to fit necessities like closets and bathrooms into that in a way that didn’t disrupt the linearity or the openness but provided the functions a buyer is going to want.”
“Privacy,” says Spiritos, “is done through internal sliding walls — acoustic and translucent sliding glass panels that slide into pockets in the wall. When they’re open you don’t know that there is a wall there.”
When employed, he says, “It looks like they’ve always been there.” “It’s all about the serenity of the space,” adds Maltz. “It’s the kind of space that I think if there’s feather blowing it will just blow to the other side without dropping down because of the lightness that’s created in the space.”
To help residents tuck away belongings without detracting from the minimalist interior, Ban has designed a continuous line of floor-to-ceiling, built-in white lacquer cabinetry, running 60 feet north to south, room to room. The cabinets, according to Maltz, “metamorphosize to have different functions, from a coat closet cabinet, to a pantry cabinet, TV cabinet, storage cabinet or kitchen cabinet.”
“Often,” notes Gasser, in new modern-design developments, “you have these wonderful minimal environments, but there’s no place to put your glasses. Here we have storage room. I would call it an aspect of humanity: you have the beauty of the minimal but you can still have kids, and put all their toys in a cabinet, and pull them in and out.”
The sales office, designed by Ban and Maltz, opened on October 22. While the project hadn’t announced prices as of press time, Spiritos says apartments will probably range from between $2,000 and $3,000 a square foot — in line with nearby buildings by Jean Nouvel, Annabelle Selldorf and others. But the size of the residences should push the average price points to upwards of $4 million per unit.
The duplexes are family-sized, with four 1950-square-foot three-bedrooms, four 2,700-square-foot four bedrooms, and one 3,200 four-bedroom duplex penthouse. All the units have three separate outdoor spaces.
Completion is expected by fall, 2008. “I think we’re going to sell a majority of the building to what I call architectural collector types,” says Lansill. “Ban fans.”
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