Enrique Norten gets his Big Apple break

After much heartbreak here, famed Mexican architect sees first building rise

May.May 29, 2009 06:32 PM

On a recent trip to Chicago, I was struck once again by the profound difference in the way Chicagoans and New Yorkers consume architecture. For our Midwestern brethren, architecture is a way of life and a source of ongoing pride.

The charming boutique hotel in which I stayed, the Burnham, was actually named in honor of the architect who conceived the building over a century ago, Daniel Burnham, the man responsible for our own Flatiron Building. In the hotel’s sumptuously restored lobby are panels illustrating the history of the structure (an early skyscraper once known as the Reliance Building), and a local publisher has released an entire book on the project.

Even today, astounding new buildings are going up all the time in Chicago, from the 100-story Trump International Hotel and Tower, designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill, to Renzo Piano’s newly unveiled modern art wing at the Art Institute. Both the buildings and the builders are the talk of the town.

In New York, by contrast, developments just seem to show up without any ceremony, and harried pedestrians rarely, if ever, make eye contact. Whatever brilliance the composite effect of New York might possess, its individual structures are all too often dull and unimaginative, the victims of building codes, bureaucrats and self-interested community boards. In the past five years or so, there has been some push-back from the architectural community, as is evident in Herzog and De Meuron’s 45 Bond Street or Frank Gehry’s Sails Building at 18th Street and 11th Avenue. But New York City has pushed back even harder and usually won. If you don’t believe it, ask Enrique Norten, the famed Mexican architect. He’s had more than his fair share of heartbreak in the Big Apple, first with a much touted Performing Arts Library in Brooklyn, which came to nothing, and then with a soaring hotel that was to rise at Park Avenue and 125th Street but has now been entirely scrapped.

Fortunately, Norten can claim one building in Manhattan — the estimable One York (1 York Street), at the intersection of York and Canal streets. Developed by JANI Real Estate, it has 32 condominiums. This odd composite of a building brings together in a shotgun marriage an abandoned 19th-century brick warehouse, painted white, and an ultra-modernist slab, clad in black glass, that rises above it.

Several things are going on simultaneously in this hybrid. One is what might be called the Soho ethos, that odd delight that the latest generation seems to take in resurrecting the factories and warehouses of the early industrial age and reclaiming them in the name of cutting-edge design. Given the way the newer addition squats atop the older structure, it is no mystery who is in charge here: The latest generation carries the day. Its aesthetic is the real one, while the older building simply provides the frame inside which it operates. At the same time, let it be said that Norten has treated the older building with supreme respect. Surely, in its entire history, it has never looked this good, with a fresh coat of paint and elegant single-pane windows.

Then there is the play of scale between the old and the new. Like most of the early architecture in this stretch of Manhattan, the older structure is low-lying, and rises only six stories. The newer building, with its expansive glass curtain wall, rests upon the older base like a hammer upon an anvil. As you look at the building along the Eastern façade, its complex array of plains and volumes stacks up to form a fairly coherent rectilinear mass, despite the fact that the newer addition is formed as a two-sided wedge that curves away from the street in a pronounced angle.

It is interesting to observe that, inadvertently, this irregularity is mimicked in the older base, part of whose façade is angled to accommodate the curvature of the street-line. Meanwhile, the modernist addition is scored with balconies that accommodate the older building by curving under and around it in an intentionally amusing and ad hoc fashion.

But seen from the sides, that mass quickly uncoils into a sequence of sharp angles that are expressive of the Deconstructivist idiom in which Norten often likes to work. Especially when viewed from the north, along Canal Street, there is a jarring incongruity between the pristine whiteness of the lower building and the tangle of spiked protrusions that form the upper part. Its grid is suddenly obliterated in a series of crazed balconies.

All New Yorkers who have any interest in architecture should take satisfaction in Norten’s only successfully completed building in the city to date. True, it is not his best building, which is probably his Insurgentes Theater or his Televisa Services Building in Mexico City, and the fault for that is partially the spirit of architecture in New York.

There is a tendency for even the most radical and original architects, whatever their achievements elsewhere, to become suddenly tamer and more modest when they set up shop in the five boroughs. To see Norten’s work in Mexico City, his home base and natural habitat, in comparison with this one completed structure in New York, is to have the feeling that he has been set free, that a certain weight has been lifted from his shoulders. The materials he uses, from glass to corrugated aluminum, are more evocative and rich, and the boldly curving, arching and fractured forms possess an energy that is largely kept in check on York Street.

Still, this is a hesitant first step in the liberation of New York from the timorous attitude that the city government and the local developers have always taken toward their built environment. Surely we can say of it, as Frank Lloyd Wright said of the now razed Coliseum at Columbus Circle, “It is good enough for New York.”

And as a testament to the sublimity of hope and optimism, in the face of so much adversity, Norten recently released plans for five other projects that may or may not rise one day in the five boroughs. In architect years, he is an extremely young man of only 55, and so there is reason to hope that we will be hearing more from him. In the meantime, it must be some consolation to Norten that this latest development proudly bears the title One York Enrique Norten, suggesting that New Yorkers will know his name and care about it. They should.


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