Architect Soo K. Chan creates a Postmodern marriage on the High Line

Condo project at 515 West 29th Street brings together elements of neo-Modernist and Deconstructivist architecture
By James Gardner | September 01, 2014 07:00AM
A rendering of 515 Highline and Soo K. Chan

A rendering of 515 Highline and Soo K. Chan

The renderings of 515 Highline look very promising indeed.

This luxury condominium, which is being developed by the New York–based firm the Bauhouse Group, has been designed by Soo K. Chan of Singapore, the 52-year-old founder of SCDA Architects.

This project aspires to distinguish itself from the many others along the High Line, starting with its very location, which is right at the sharp bend that the elevated promenade takes at West 29th Street. This vantage point offers a relative rarity, the developer notes: views of the High Line on two sides.

Costing $125 million to build, its 12 units, described as “loft-style,” will each contain between 2,100 to 4,400 square feet and cost from $5 million to $25 million. There will be three penthouse apartments that boast substantial private outdoor space, as well as ceilings 22 feet high, and, at ground level, generous space for retail and galleries. It is scheduled to be completed in late 2015, with sales beginning this fall.

More than just an architect, Chan is also something of an entrepreneur. He designed and owns Alila Villas Soori, a luxury resort in Bali featuring Soori Living, a spa, and also holds a stake in Bistro Soori, a restaurant he designed that is next door to his firm’s Singapore headquarters. He is also, quite suddenly, a very busy man in Manhattan. In addition 515 West 29th Street, the architect designed the nearby Soori High Line, which is being built at 522 West 29th Street by a joint venture of Singapore-based Oriel Development and New York developer Siras.

Together, the two projects will represent the architect’s double-billed U.S. debut.

In some of the renderings of 515 West 29th Street, we see the building rise up behind the distinctive benches of the High Line, those simple wooden seats that set the hearts of many Realtors racing. The setting sun’s rays ignite the southern exposure of the façade with a blast of almost halo-like light.

The building itself is a curious hybrid, a cross between the neo-Modernism and Deconstructivist styles that dominate so much of Manhattan’s contemporary architecture. It consists of two main parts: a base, which is unimpeachably boxy and rectilinear, and an upper section that is flush with the base to the east but that recedes in the form of two setbacks along the north and south axis, representing a more intuitive and perhaps daring approach to architecture.

A one-story strip of windows mediates the transition from one section to the other.

The lower half of the building appears to be in the best neo-modernist tradition, with straight vertical lines articulating the sheer surface of the structure. Behind this, one glimpses — not exactly a curtain wall, but rather an unexpected and more traditional division of the windows into glass and infill, over which is laid a curtain wall.

More unexpected still, half of the eastern façade seems to be blocked out by a slate-like monolith, not quite centered, that will apparently limit views from what one would seem to be the most marketable exposure.

As with all neo-Modernist structures, the strength of this building’s pure linearity will depend entirely upon the quality of the workmanship: this consideration alone will cause the final result to look either radically reductionist or simply boring. I’m optimistic, however: Earlier works by Chan that were conceived and realized in a similar style reveal an excellent taste. I am thinking especially of his National Design Center in Singapore, which, despite its greater operatics, exhibits the same rich modernist detail, while its interior windows recall those of 515 West 29th Street.

While the lower half is the more traditional part of the building, it is the upper half that will define the project.

Along the sides of the upper section, a layer of glass is superimposed over the surface of the windows like a sheet of that gaudily colored cellophane dear to children’s art classes the world over. But in aggressive opposition to the flawless geometry of the lower portion of the building, here the surface extends beyond the structure on either side, in irregular wave-like patterns. These continue throughout the upper section, as though they were piercing it in so many slices, even though most are merely flanges affixed to the surface.

These flanges are somewhat irregular, such that, when seen head-on, they have a moiré effect, the incessant kinetic energy of watered silk seen under a strong light. When seen from the sides, however, they bring to mind the form of soundwaves.

Given that the bottom half of the building is resolutely neo-Modernist (in the sense that it uses the pared-down language of post-war architecture), and that the top half is somewhat Deconstructivist in its embrace of asymmetry, what possible connection or harmony could be found between the seemingly irreconcilable styles?

It turns out that Chan is one of those contemporary architects who, following in the footsteps of Herzog & DeMeuron and Stephen Holl, explores the creative possibilities of surface as surface. This invariably leads to an embrace of, literally, superficiality and insubstantiality. There is, therefore, none of the forthrightness of Modernism about this project, or the spirited aggressiveness of Deconstructivism, with its forced asymmetries, despite the way the two halves were conceived.

Rather one senses, at 515 West 29th Street, an indulgence in artifice that is primarily intended to charm and seduce the viewer through delicacy, rather than to overawe through its unimpeachable honesty and integrity.

The way in which Chan has conceived his latest project has, in addition to that element of irony and insincerity, an embedded historicism to it, hearkening as it does back to the mod art of the 1960s. Put it all together, and you have something approaching Postmodernism (even though, of course, that is a term that no self-respecting architect of today would ever want to apply to himself). And yet, this term probably comes closer to defining what Chan is creating on the Far West Side, than any other in common usage.

(Editor’s note: In an updated rendering, above, the “slate-like monolith” referred to in the review is revealed to be rotating art installation on the east wall of the building.)