Morris Adjmi’s torqued 837 Washington is bold and new: Architecture review

Sep.September 01, 2013 07:00 AM
837 Washington Street

837 Washington Street

The resurrection of the High Line and its rebirth as a park have effected a wondrous change on an area of the city that was already in the throes of frantic transformation. With excellent buildings such as Stephen Jacobs’ silvery Gansevoort Hotel as well as the Standard Hotel, designed by Ennead Architects, the area from Chelsea to the Meatpacking District has become one of the most vibrant architectural nurseries in Manhattan. And that’s even before the 2015 arrival of the Renzo Piano–designed new Whitney Museum of American Art.

Into this mix comes 837 Washington Street, a new six-story, 55,000-square-foot office and retail space that promises to be one of the best buildings in the area. Developed by Thor Equities and Taconic Investment Partners, it was designed by Morris Adjmi Architects.

Morris Adjmi is a New Orleans native, but came of age in the Milan studio of the esteemed late Italian architect Aldo Rossi, who is famous for the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa and the Quartier Schützenstrasse in Berlin. By joining Rossi’s firm in 1981, Adjmi was exposed to some of the sanest and most sensible applications of the postmodern idiom that dominated architecture everywhere at the time. Rossi’s main contribution to New York City, the Scholastic Building at 557 Broadway in Soho, is really the work of Adjmi. With its tubular articulation and the introduction of whites and reds into its surface, the Scholastic Building is one of the more creditable examples of postmodernism in Manhattan.

In the three decades since then, Adjmi has evolved, divesting himself of most of the historicist elements of that early work, even as he continues to show a consistent respect and sensitivity for the past. His newest work, 837 Washington, is one of his boldest. Located on the southeast corner of 13th Street between Ninth and 10th avenues, the structure stands out from the other new buildings in the area by virtue of its irregular and slightly torqued rhomboid massing. While still under construction and not scheduled for completion until next year, 837 Washington has been topped out. The most distinguishable element of its design, the twisting steel structure, is already in place.

When 837 Washington is completed, it will be decked out in a dazzling curtain wall of tall, mullioned windows that will give pedestrians on the High Line a clear view inside the building, exposing all the interior doings of the retail and commercial spaces in the interest of luring passersby inside.

The premise of the building’s marketing is that there will be one tenant per floor; the “exoskeleton,” as the developer is calling it, has been conceived along engineering principles that partially recall those of a suspension bridge, making it unnecessary to divide the interior with load-bearing walls or columns, thus yielding wide-open spaces. The five stories of exoskeleton are superimposed upon a pre-existing building, two stories tall in the front and one story tall in the back. This basic (and entirely utilitarian) structure, once used in the meatpacking trade, has been lovingly preserved and spruced up, from its two tones of brick to the sort of cantilevered metal canopy that is one of the signatures of this part of Manhattan. Its roof, according to the developers, will be transformed into a restaurant space directly opposite the Standard Grill, and with an enviable view of the High Line itself.

Above and behind the original structure rises the exoskeleton, which manages to fit very sensitively within its context. The metal structure, though entirely unadorned, is clearly well-constructed and immediately awakens rich associations of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Specifically, the exterior awakens associations with the Crystal Palace, the vast exhibition hall that used to occupy what is now Bryant Park, as well as with the Brooklyn Bridge and the High Line.

The twisted dimensions of 837 Washington Street are surely inspired in part by the dominant deconstructivist style, which is especially popular in this part of town. But Adjmi has managed to square that style with a spirit of order — almost classicism — that makes it stand out from other buildings. Although it is torqued, the sharpness of 837 Washington’s design expunges all sense of that willful arbitrariness that so often characterizes deconstructivism.

This orderliness has by now become a hallmark of Adjmi’s style. For example, his 250 Bowery, with a modular sequence of four square, unadorned windows set into a concrete core, brings a welcome sense of order and decorum to an otherwise dreary stretch of Manhattan. Another Adjmi project that has not received the respect it deserves is NYU’s Wilf Hall, which may look to the unwary like a group of four old row houses, so respectfully and modestly does it fit into the preexisting architectural context. In fact, these four buildings exhibit an unerring taste in the way the windows are arrayed across the façade. Even though the punched windows are surrounded by red brick, they fully realize the spirit of modernism at its best.

At 837 Washington, Adjmi has created his most original work to date. It is compelling and harmonious at the same time, proving how well Adjmi has learned the lessons of Rossi.

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