Architecture review: 25 Kent — ‘artificial’ but ‘charming’

Design powerhouse Gensler melds brick and glass in ‘Old Brooklyn’
meets ‘New Brooklyn’ style

Feb.February 01, 2016 11:00 AM
A renderings of 25 Kent Street in North Williamsburg and developer Toby Moskovits

A renderings of 25 Kent Street in North Williamsburg and developer Toby Moskovits

Developer Toby Moskovits has received much attention for her planned eight-story building at 25 Kent Street in North Williamsburg. That’s largely because it will be Brooklyn’s first speculative office tower in nearly a century.

But less ink has been spilled about the design itself, which is being masterminded by the astonishingly prolific global architectural firm Gensler and aspires to reproduce the redbrick aesthetic that prevails in Brooklyn, or at least the mythic Brooklyn of the silver screen.

The 400,000-square-foot project — which received a key zoning approval last month and is now headed through the final municipal approval process — achieves a fair amount of stylistic modernity with its curtain walls and contoured irregularities.

At the same time, the building, which will target tech tenants, recalls the maximalist footprints of a bygone age in the way it occupies the entire block. (It’s bounded by Kent and Wythe avenues from North 12th to North 13th streets.)

In architecture, as in literature, there are the darlings of the academy and then there are those who, year after year, crank out product to the general satisfaction of their long-standing customers and to the complete indifference of everyone else.

If Costas Kondylis and the late Frank Williams could stand as eminent examples of those less-exalted New York City architects, Gensler is the pre-eminent example of its tribe. It will not be the subject of breathless, glossy monographs from Prestel or Taschen or other trendy European art book publishers.

Yet while it may not be taking home prestigious awards, Gensler will nonetheless continue to turn out respectable buildings that flatter developers with the notion that they are interested in design rather than simply the bottom line.

It’s been a half a century since Gensler was established in 1965. In that time its success has been astonishing. In terms of income generated, it was the most successful architectural firm in the United States in 2011 and 2012, according to the magazine Architectural Record. It also employs over 5,000 architects in 46 cities and 16 countries around the world.

Gensler’s practice is overwhelmingly corporate and commercial.

It’s designed everything from Facebook’s 1.1-million-square-foot Silicon Valley headquarters to stores for Japanese clothing company Uniqlo to the Jet Blue Terminal at JFK International Airport to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at the Dubai International Financial Centre. That’s not to mention the massive 2,000-foot-tall Shanghai Tower, the tallest building in China and the second tallest in the world. This project, unlike so many others from the firm, really does attain an iconic identity, at once elegant and powerful. New York would be lucky to have as distinguished an addition to its skyline as that tower.

Still, over the years, Gensler has proved to be the workingman’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, providing clients with post-modern contextualism in the 1980s and something between deconstructivism and neo-modernism today.

The buildings it designs are roughly similar in style and typology to those of the legendary SOM, even though it cannot claim the vast historical consequence SOM achieved as the foremost architectural firm in America in the post-war years.

However, in more recent years, Gensler, like SOM, has been something of a follower rather than a leader of fashions.

Such is the case, it would seem, at 25 Kent Avenue, with its tasteful but fairly conventional design.

Gensler co-CEOs Andy Cohen, left, and Diane Hoskins

Gensler co-CEOs Andy Cohen, left, and Diane Hoskins

The project, where Moskovits just brought in Philadelphia-based Rubenstein Partners as an investor, appears more like two buildings than one. It’s designed as two parallel slabs, each eight stories tall, conjoined in the center by an elevated passage. That passage is suspended at a sharp angle two floors above a large stretch of that interstitial space. I am not sure that this configuration of spaces counts as a recognized typology, but one eminent precedent for it is surely the Paribas Marché Saint Honoré in Paris’s 1st Arrondissement, as conceived by Ricardo Bofill in 1997.

The sidewalls of the intermediate space at 25 Kent, like the outer walls of the complex, are clad in what appears to be glazed two-tone brick, according to renderings. This is surely a nod to the early 20th-century brickwork of the warehouses that once occupied this part of the city. And it promises to be carried out very nicely.

Other details also enhance that sense of familiarity. Throughout the length of the central space, between those two slabs — which in renderings is graced with outdoor cafes — the windows at street level are mullioned with rounded tops. The result, if seen in isolation, seems to convey a very persuasive sense of Old Brooklyn. But the rest of the building is conceived in a very contemporary, largely neo-modern idiom.

In direct contrast to the almost organic feel of the red brick along the sides, most of the surface of the development is a gleaming curtain wall, interrupted at regular intervals by gray metallic infill that serves to define each floor of the building and gives special emphasis to its impressively high ceilings.

It’s hard to say whether the building is entirely modernist, deconstructivist or something else entirely. Seen in profile — that is to say, as you stand in front of the building and look west toward the Manhattan skyline — the outline of the structure takes on a jagged edge, like a stepped pyramid or a ziggurat of glass etched in a fine line of red brick. But even here the progression from one level to the next is slightly irregular, as the odd floor will recede into the building when we might expect it to jut out. The visual consequence of this rather original measure is that the entire structure is experienced by the pedestrian as a vast glass box covered in a thin carapace of red brick. There is something novel and artificial about it, but charming nonetheless.

As is so often the case with architecture in the five boroughs, the ultimate artistic success of the building will be
determined by how well it is made. But for now it looks like an elegant plan,
especially the brickwork of the main entrance, where the bricks are arrayed in varied competing but harmonious patterns, surrounding an inset glass entry in the best modernist tradition.

If the renderings are to be trusted, Gensler will have made an important contribution to the development of Brooklyn.

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