520 West 27th Street: Dullness is deceptive in new design

New commercial building in Chelsea offers surprising dose of irony, style

Jan.January 29, 2009 09:57 PM

In its modest way, the recently completed 520 West 27th Street is an unusually skillful and imaginative piece of work. When so many new buildings draw clamorous attention to their ever more brazen shapes, the team at Flank Architects, which designed this new commercial development for architect-turned-developer Peter Moore, has gone in precisely the opposite direction: They almost embrace dullness with austerely flat, uninflected walls that form a stolid rectangular slab rising over, and set back from, an equally rectangular base.

But that dullness is deceptive, the architectural equivalent of the faux-nerd geek-chic of the Talking Heads and similarly minded rock groups. At 11 stories tall, 520 West 27th Street in Chelsea is one of the more sincerely stylish buildings to rise in Manhattan in some time, and every pane of glass and every metal brace has been carefully calibrated for the fullest effect.

An example of the neo-modernist idiom so prevalent in contemporary New York architecture, this building’s seemingly conservative use of the slab-on-base typology devotedly invokes such midcentury masterpieces as Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House at 390 Park Avenue. But what makes it fundamentally different both from that building and from other neo-modernist buildings in New York — Jean Nouvel’s 40 Mercer Street being an exemplar of the style — is that it has a degree of self-awareness, even an irony, that we usually associate with more radical aspects of the deconstructivist style, not to mention the classical post-modernism of the 1980s.

But if 520 West 27th is about postures and jokes, it is also about quite a bit more. At this late date, the people at Flank Architects do not appear to feel that they can employ without irony the inveterate modernist language of 60 years ago. At the same time, however, they seem fully to appreciate what was best about that earlier style. And yet, like the best of their contemporaries, they have learned from the mistakes of their grandparents: There is a degree of finish, of quietly intelligent competence to the choice of glass, of concrete and metal along the bare sides, of the metal mesh that holds in place the curtain wall that expands so confidently across the upper part of the building. All of this stands in marked contrast to the vast majority of modernist practice throughout the city. As a result, I feel quite certain that, when this new structure is 50 years old, it will feel far fresher and will be far better preserved than most modernist buildings are today.

Despite the building’s modernist austerity, however, there is also, curiously, an almost baroque quality to it. On the surface, that statement would seem ridiculous: The baroque, after all, is about curves, curlicues and emphatic volumetric jolts, the very opposite of what Flank Architects set out to achieve at 520 West 27th Street. And yet one of the favorite tricks of such baroque masters as Francesco Borromini and Pietro da Cortona was to play games with the interaction of flatness, protrusion and recession. And that is precisely what has been vigorously achieved on the ground floor of this new building.

Consider that the base of the building is every bit as flat as the slab above it, but it has a more solid, wall-like feel. Though arrayed with a delicate pattern similar to that of the curtain wall above, the lower façade is made up mostly of concrete infill surrounding small windows so flush with the surface of the façade as to form an almost seamless continuum. But all of this, it turns out, is a setup for the exterior entrance, which recedes sharply and suddenly in two paths from the street deeply and directly into the heart of the building, where a door is finally found. As though to emphasize the boldness of this conceit, Flank Architects has exploited the incongruity by making the entrance wider at the street than at the actual doorway. It is hard to imagine that they were not thinking of a famous and very similar trick of perspective found in Borromini’s Palazzo Spada in Rome.

One other noteworthy feature of the entranceway is its emphatic signage, a man-size panel bearing the number 520, in strictly utilitarian sans serif type turned on its side. There’s a message in the choice of that typeface. The architects are signaling to the public that they are “design-conscious,” a virtue held in highest regard by the denizens of Chelsea and of the art world that is centered around this new building and for whose galleries and businesses, ultimately, it was built in the first place.

If there is one thing about 520 West 27th Street that is even more incongruous than the entrance, it is the water tower on the top. In the entire building, there is not a single curve or so much as the suggestion of anything organic to temper the fastidious machinelike aesthetic of the whole. But there at the summit of the structure is that most common and emblematic fixture of New York rooftops, a water tower, painted white and made of wood. Presumably it is as new as the building itself, and yet it appears to have weathered several generations of New York winters. Did the developer go out looking for a used water tower? Or was it intentionally distressed to give it that worn-out feel that so many Chelsea residents require in a new pair of designer jeans? And why have or expose a water tower in the first place, since it would have been so easy to convey water to the building by other means?

The answer, I submit, is the pursuit of style at all costs. The water tower may be a defining attribute of Gotham, or at least seem that way to the French and German tourists who form the backbone of the international art scene centered in Chelsea. These are the folks whose overvalued euro brought them over by the planeload as recently as this past summer to buy up all the condos freshly minted in Chelsea. It is not an exaggeration to say this building, with its style and its ironic flourishes, was, like the condo developments that surround it, designed with them in mind. One suspects that it will be some time before they come back in such great numbers, but when they do, that water tower, as well as the building beneath it, may well serve as their beacon. 


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