Architecture review: Too short for Billionaires’ Row?

The new Roger Duffy-designed tower at 252 East 57th may not top out at 1,000 feet, but its elegant style gives it a clear place on the tony corridor

TRD New York /
Sep.September 21, 2017 07:30 AM

A rendering of 252 East 57th Street

From the September issue: If you happen to be a developer constructing a residential tower on Billionaires’ Row, it would seem to be a simple matter of decorum and good manners to top out at 1,000 feet — at the very least. In other words: Go big or go home.

But not everyone on the 57th Street corridor is abiding by those unspoken rules. Case and point is 252 East 57th Street, the new (and nearly completed) tower, that clocks in at 65 stories and a relatively puny 712 feet.

So, it seems reasonable to ask whether the building should be considered part of Billionaires’ Row or whether it just happens to be on Billionaires’ Row. That question is particularly pertinent given the softening luxury market and the fact that the developers, the World Wide Group and Rose Associates, have offered incentives and lowered prices to seal deals amid reportedly slow sales.

The new building — designed by Roger Duffy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill — contains 169 luxury rentals on the lower portion of the tower and 95 condos (some in contract for nearly $15 million), starting on the 36th floor.

The entrance to the condo, which is being referred to by its address, Is On Tony 57th Street. The rental, which has been dubbed Aalto57, meanwhile, sits along Second Avenue, where the tower occupies the entire block between 56th and 57th streets.

The name Aalto57 is a clever play on an iconic design by the famed Finnish modernist architect Alvar Aalto. The form and footprint of the tower appear, with a bit of good will, to resemble the widely reproduced undulating vase that Aalto and his wife, Aino, designed in 1937 for a restaurant in Finland’s capital, Helsinki.

To be honest, I can’t really say that this new building brings that vase to my mind, and I doubt whether anyone would see the connection if it had not been spelled out in the marketing materials. But a subtle resemblance exists.

A far closer relative to the vase, surely, is Gwathmey Siegel’s Astor Place Tower condo, further downtown.

But if Duffy had Aalto’s Vase in mind when he was designing this latest project, the inspiration appears to have had a beneficial effect, resulting in an elegant and honorable building.

The one element of the tower that most invokes Aalto’s Vase is the modulated, curving grooves. Although the grooves surely don’t hinder the design, it’s unclear whether they contribute anything either. In addition, the building doesn’t quite deliver on the curvaceousness depicted in the renderings.

It’s hard to conclude anything other than that the groves and modulation were included to avoid yet another simple, four-square footprint that everyone at SOM (Duffy being perhaps the exception) seems to like best.

But the tower has plenty of virtues — not least of which is that it harmonizes the grooves and cantilevered balconies nicely.

Furthermore, it appears to be a solid building. The very facture of the facade, with its steady alternation of curtain wall and infill and fritted glass panels along the strictly geometric entrance way, is an object lesson is professionalism and the refusal to surrender to the temptations of value engineering. The building next door, which houses the High School of Art and Design, has somewhat comparable ambitions, but achieves a far less admirable result because it, like so many buildings in Manhattan, has been made on the cheap.

In addition, 252 East 57th Street also seems to be a higher-caliber building than Duffy’s New School University Center at 14th Street and Fifth Avenue — not to mention a far more appealing design.

The creamy white infill imparts a pleasantly pale cast to the entire facade.

Based on SOM’s renderings, the interior designer, Daniel Romualdez — who has reportedly designed interiors for Mick Jagger and several prominent heiresses — has also done a creditable job creating a classic postwar design. He seems especially at ease in the application of stone, steel and dark wood accents, which create highly controlled studies in grays, blacks and dark browns. Often arrayed in bilateral symmetric arrangements, they appear both opulent and austere.

At the same time, Duffy introduces striking curvilinear elements that bring to mind Art Deco design from the period between World War I and World War II. This can be observed in the three-ringed light carved into the ceiling of the tenants’ lounge and most of all in the brilliant, swirling, pristinely white form that stands, as beautiful as it is illogical, at the center of the entrance to the garage. With this folly, which recalls some of the most exorbitant motifs of the French Rayonnant architecture of the 13th century, the tower will, however, be a positive addition to the luxe Manhattan corridor. And despite the building’s height, it may just deserve the Billionaires’ Row moniker after all.

Correction: A previous version of this story suggested that Romualdez designed the white, swirling column at the entrance to the building’s garage. It was Duffy.

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