Architecture review: Moed de Armas & Shannon scores another victory with the Cubes

Apr.April 01, 2013 07:00 AM

A rendering of 120 West 42nd Street

Upon its completion in the next few months, the Cubes at 120 West 42nd Street will represent one of the most decisive modifications of 42nd Street since Mayor Rudy Giuliani shut down the porn palaces nearly two decades ago.

Developed by Equity Office, an affiliate of the Blackstone Group, and designed by the architectural firm of Moed de Armas & Shannon, 120 West 42nd Street is located on 42nd Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway. The 75,000-square-foot glass and steel structure consists entirely of retail space, and announces its mercantile intentions with flashing LED screens and boldly protruding blocks that define its architectural form. Just as crucially, 120 West 42nd Street does not inhabit the street itself, but extends back from it at a right angle, occupying a publicly owned, private space. (The Cubes looks from the street like two separate buildings, but the two sides are actually united underground.)

To anyone paying close attention to the New York architectural scene, it will come as no surprise that 120 West 42nd Street is the handiwork of MdeAS, a 22-year-old firm that has done more of late to improve the look of New York City —  especially Midtown — than any other firm. As conceived by the firm’s principals, Leon Moed, Raul de Armas and Dan Shannon, all of its recent projects have been exemplary illustrations of what is best in Neo-Modernism, a stylistic development that adds sophistication and elegance to the functionalist vocabulary of Modernism, even as it preserves the earlier movement’s insistent right angles and glass curtain walls.

MdeAS’s finesse is very much in evidence at 120 West 42nd Street. The building is a departure from the firm’s work in the five boroughs, which has been mostly high-rises. Rather, the Cubes should be seen as a commercial addendum to nearby 1095 Sixth Avenue, a 1974 office building that MdeAS transformed from a hulking, nearly windowless eyesore into the translucent wonder that you see today.

The Cubes is a bold exercise in shifting volumes that manipulates its building block masses to create an effect like that of the New Museum on the Bowery, but turned on its side. Because of this shift, the project’s two building masses — a fairly regular one-story, glass-enclosed strip to the east, and to the west a more dramatic, four-story structure — are spread out lengthwise rather than rising into the air. The more easterly building is contiguous to 1095 Sixth Avenue, and has been conceived in a more regular and conventional massing that recalls MdeAS’s General Motors Building at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, while the western building displays more volumetric pyrotechnics.

The two structures flank a 15,000-square-foot, privately owned public space formed by a through-block lot that stretches from 42nd to 41st streets. Landscape architect Abel Bainnson Butz is designing the exterior space.
In total, the project will contain 23,000 square feet of retail space above grade, 55,200 below grade in the cellar and sub-cellar, and 4,300 square feet of accessible exterior space. The project will be 85 feet tall at its highest point and occupy three floors (though the rendering makes it look like four). It is also possible that the façade will be enhanced by massive LED screens along 42nd Street itself, such as abound in Times Square, if the eventual tenant requires it. I fear, however, that such screens could distract, as they invariably do, from the architectural integrity of the structure.

The Cubes epitomizes what I have spoken of before as MdeAS’s “house style,” and, indeed, there are few firms whose handiwork is so easily recognized. Foremost among the firm’s defining qualities, apart from geometric and structural purity, is the cleanness of its use of glass — the way it sits in its frame, the perfect flatness of it and of the surface as a whole, all of which are exemplified at 120 West 42nd Street.

Who would suppose that the straight-forward employment of a grid could yield such variety or such individuality? There is rarely a curve in the works of MdeAS, one eminent exception being the Gotham Center in Queens. Instead, the firm’s architects invoke the grid to form pure, regularized patterns, often enlivened and varied by colored infill of gray or green. That is not the case at 120 West 42nd, however, where the glass walls have all the transparent clarity of spring water in crystal. With the Cubes, MdeAS has managed, yet again, to wring considerable variety, originality and beauty out of their grids, notwithstanding the severe reduction of their terms.

Both through the artisanal excellence of its manufacture and through the boldness of its forms, the Cubes is likely to fundamentally alter this stretch of 42nd Street, which has none of the classical beauty or greenery that you find between Fifth and Sixth avenues, with the library and Bryant Park, nor the pulsating drama of Times Square and the brilliantly lit theaters between Seventh and Eighth avenues. Instead it has been distinguished, to date, by high-rises like the Condé Nast Building at 4 Times Square and One Bryant Park, some of them quite dreary. Other than that, it was a throughway rather than a destination. But when this new, beautiful and vibrant retail space is finally completed, visitors to this block will finally have a reason to linger.

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