A touch of glass on Lex

The design for 229 Lex brings openness and elegance to a largely undistinguished strip

Dec.December 01, 2014 07:00 AM
A rendering of 229 Lexington Avenue

A rendering of 229 Lexington Avenue

The relatively small, but steadily growing, firm of C3D Architecture has a new building in the works whose renderings are promising enough to merit your attention. Whether or not it will live up to those renderings, however, is something that remains very much to be seen. Located between 33rd and 34th streets, 229 Lexington Avenue will rise over the demolished remains of two buildings in place for many years, one of which housed Da Ciro, an estimable Italian restaurant that is now looking for new premises.

Developed by Albert Shirian of the NY Lions Group, this latest project is expected to rise 14 stories and contain 40 residential units, together with street-level retail spaces. It will be built in a part of Manhattan that is already seeing a good deal of development, in such projects as 160 Madison Avenue and 172 Madison Avenue, both of which display the mainstream Modernist idiom.

To date, C3D Architecture, a decidedly young firm, has been relatively pluralistic in its choice of design idioms. The overriding slant of its atelier has been that of neo-Modernism, as can be seen in such projects as 27 East 61st Street and 308 East 59th Street. At the same time, there is a restrained Historicism, or at least a contextualism, in its design for 227 East 67th Street, with its elegant limestone façade, its demure cornice and its coursing line separating the street-level entrance from the upper floors.

For the most part, however, this firm has favored a restrained compromise between neo-Modernism and Deconstructivism. That is to say that there is little, if any, volumetric boldness to the buildings’ conception, let alone any sense that they and the world around them are on the verge of implosion, explosion or collapse.

Instead, C3D Architecture design tends scrupulously to respect the boundaries of its lot, and mainly rearranges or tactically intervenes in the placement of windows along its planar facades. One sees this in such projects as 237 East 34th Street and 19 Beekman Street, both of which feature largely curtain-walled surfaces, disrupted at several points by projecting or receding (but in any case, asymmetrical) window-work.

At the same time, the firm occasionally opts for somewhat bolder treatments of the façade, as evidenced by the residential development at 145 East 47th Street, where, somewhere around the sixth or seventh floor, the building recedes in a sharp, staggered setback. That feature, as well as a similar treatment at the Gotham Hotel on 46th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues, appears to be inspired by the nearby Austrian Cultural Forum, designed by Raimund Abraham.

But such works as these are the exception for C3D Architecture, and their newest project at 229 Lexington Avenue is more typical for the firm in its restrained compromise between neo-Modernism and a pared-down Deconstructivism. This new mid-block building fits in well enough with its neighbors north and south, even though it is cast in a decidedly different idiom. To the north is a lower-lying pre-war structure with Beaux-Arts details, while its southern neighbor is a post-war rationalist building, clad in bare and unadorned red brick over a limestone base.

The new building promises a sense of openness in its expanse of glass at street level. Above it, starting at the second floor, the windows are somewhat narrowed, and the dark metal partitions, each rising through two stories, are decidedly more pronounced. The style is strengthened futher by the visibility of the floor divisions at the mid-point of each level of the facade. Up to the eleventh floor, these two-story divisions have been arranged on an irregular axis that confers a sense of movement and restrained asymmetry to the façade as a whole.

At the summit of the building, however, a three-story segment completes the project with the resumption of the expansive glass passages seen at ground level. In traditional terms, perhaps the most daring part of the façade — though in truth, it is not all that daring at this late date — is the recession, a few feet into the building, of the last three windows to the south.

The result is a design that is elegant and restrained.

The rendering, which is all we have to go on at this early stage in the development, is certainly handsome, but one must assert that only provisionally at this point. With all buildings, but especially with the neo-Modernist designs preferred by this firm, so much depends on how well the building is actually made. The specter of value engineering, of cut corners and inferior materials imperfectly applied, haunts so much of the recent architectural fare of Manhattan, and it must be said that several of the projects that have come out of the studios of C3D Architecture have suffered from this fault as well.

Consider such buildings as 232 Seventh Avenue, 949 Park Avenue and the Gotham Hotel. In each case, the final product, structurally and stylistically, follows the rendering quite closely, but in each case the fulfillment is somewhat less inspired than the promise implicit in the rendering. Why is that? Quite aside from the power of renderings to choose angles and atmospherics that show off the development to best advantage, one senses that a certain economizing with materials, a flimsier grade of glass, an inferior quality of stone or steel, and a more perfunctory skill in the fabricating of the building through the use of these materials, all collude to create a sense of dreary adequacy in the finished result, despite the best intentions of the designers.

It is true that the ultimate responsibility for such deficiencies lies not really with the architects, but with the developers, whose ambitions are often more bottom-line in nature than they are concerned with the creation of something that will truly do honor to the streetscape of Manhattan. With that in mind, we can say that if 229 Lexington Avenue does succeed in realizing the promise of its renderings, it will be a worthy addition to an avenue that is hardly distinguished by its architecture.

If it instead suffers from the deficiencies of several other realized designs by this firm, then it will share with so many recent buildings in the five boroughs the sense of being “good enough,” but not much more than that.

James Gardner is the architectural critic for The Real Deal


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