Baccarat New York doesn’t sparkle

By James Gardner | August 01, 2012 07:00AM

Just opposite the Museum of Modern Art, a new hotel and condominium is set to rise over the site of the former (and future) Donnell Library. The project is to be called the Baccarat New York.

Following the lead of the Bulgari hotel chain, it seeks to invoke a storied name from luxury retail — in this case, one that has been synonymous with elegant crystal products since before the French Revolution. But the building, judging from a recently released rendering, promises little beyond its name to suggest the beguiling brightness that we associate with crystal.

A partnership between Starwood Capital Group and Tribeca Associates, the project is scheduled to be completed and ready for business in 2014, to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the crystal maker’s founding in 1764.

CEO of Starwood Capital, Barry Sternlicht.

And yet, certainly there is a point beyond which branding can be stretched too far: Surely, the simple fact of sticking a name on the side of a building is not enough to establish any important connection between two domains as disparate as luxury crystal and luxury hotels. In any case, Barry Sternlicht, the CEO of Starwood Capital Group, and his partners have decided to give it a try.

According to a news release issued by the developers, the factories that produce Baccarat crystal are so intent on attaining perfection that 60 percent of what they produce is melted down and recycled, even for the slightest irregularity.

In much the same spirit, the developers claim, their new ultra-luxury hotel, which is reportedly costing $403 million, will rise to an equally exacting standard. Indeed, to quote Sternlicht, Baccarat is an “iconic European luxury brand,” and the hotel will be “sensuous, luxurious and discreet.”

The hotel will include a bar on a garden terrace that is to be heavily blinged out with crystal as well as an on-site store selling crystal from Baccarat, a brand that Starwood acquired in 2005, according to the Wall Street Journal. But it’s hard to imagine the crystal brand leaving much more of a mark on the project.

A rendering of the Baccarat New York, which is being developed by Starwood Capital Group and Tribeca Partners.

The 605-foot-tall building, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, will rise 46 stories, with interiors by the high-concept French designers Gilles et Boissier, who are responsible for, among others things, the restaurant Buddakan in the Meatpacking District.

The hotel — which will reportedly take up floors four through 12 — will contain 114 rooms and 26 suites. This being Manhattan in the new millennium, there will also be 64 luxury condos in the building. The condos, which will reportedly reside on the floors above the hotel, are scheduled to go on sale at the beginning of 2013.

At the base of the new building there will be a four-story public library, the inclusion of which was essential to acquiring the rights to build the Baccarat project.

The new 29,000-square-foot Donnell Library will look very different from the original both inside and out. Up until it closed its doors in August 2008, the Donnell felt like a time warp from the 1950s.

Designed by Aymar Embury II, — the court architect of Robert Moses — and opened to the public in 1955, its drab linoleum floors and free-flowing spaces recalled, in the dreariest way imaginable, that stale end of postwar American Modernism that dominated American institutions for over a generation.

Although the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was responsible for many new developments in Manhattan after World War II, and although it’s remained remarkably prolific in more recent times, it has been known — with only a few exceptions — for its work on office buildings and the occasional bank.

That SOM has at least some skill with residences and hotels was proved a few years back by its distinguished work on the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago. Here in New York, however — with the exception of Manhattan House from 1950 and the mixed-use Time Warner Center (which has condos, a hotel, offices, retail and cultural venues) from half a century later — this firm has built precious few residences.

It should come as no surprise, then, that their newest building looks like one of the square, remorselessly rectilinear office towers for which the firm is mainly known.

What the renderings for the Baccarat New York indicate is that, if ever there were an architectural firm that was square — in the sense of not being hip — that firm is SOM.

They are square, not in the sense of being eagerly establishmentarian — as one might say of Robert Stern’s 15 Central Park West, which caters to the neo-stodgy aspirings of today’s plutocrats. Even when SOM throws in a few curves, like it did in the Time Warner Center or chamfers the corners, as at One World Trade Center, or attaches opalescent flanges to the façade, as at 300 Madison Avenue, the firm still seems distinctly uncomfortable any time it has to stray far from the safety of its Euclidian box.

That is proved in SOM’s nearly completed office tower at Boston Properties’ 250 West 55th Street, as well as in the renderings for the Baccarat New York.

In an earlier rendering, the entire façade looked dark and forbidding — almost as though its cladding were destined to resemble that of the Millenium Hilton Hotel, designed by Eli Attia, beside the World Trade Center, or the Trump World Tower at 845 United Nations Plaza, designed by Costas Kondylis.

The latest rendering, however, mitigates that severity with what looks to be a clear glass curtain wall. But the sides and summit of the structure appear to have been surrounded by a severe black jacket that recalls, with differences, this firm’s work, over 30 years ago, at 9 West 57th Street and at the Grace Building on West 42nd Street. Even the division of the building into a base, a shaft and a summit recalls an earlier era. Near the top of the structure, one of the side-walls has been perforated with an opening in an attempt to make the building seem a little less boring, but it is unlikely to help.

In the past decade, any number of architects — from Jean Nouvel at 40 Mercer Street to Shigeru Ban at the Metal Shutter Houses to Kohn Pedersen Fox at the office tower 505 Fifth Avenue — have rediscovered the joys of Modernism, even as they have had the grace and the imagination to soften and energize the Modernist idiom. SOM, as well, despite their brief flirtation with historicism in the late 1990s at 383 Madison Avenue, has now returned with a vengeance to the Modernist fold.

But if Nouvel, Ban and KPF are practicing a kind of neo-Modernism, an improved and more elegant Modernism, the architects at SOM, with some notable exceptions like 7 World Trade Center, are still designing as though it were the 1970s.