The Real Deal New York

Virgin Hotel design will bring
magnificent to NoMad

Broadway’s newest hotel promises magnificence - if the builders
don’t cheap out
By James Gardner | March 01, 2015 07:00AM
From left: A rendering of the Virgin Hotel in Nomad and Brian MacFarland

From left: A rendering of the Virgin Hotel in Nomad and Brian McFarland

The Virgin Hotel New York that will soon rise at the corner of 30th Street and Broadway will change forever the stretch of Broadway that runs from Madison Square Park to Greeley Square. And, if the renderings are to be trusted, it will be a magnificent piece of work.

I am inclined, however, to hedge my bets. Two things can go wrong in a building like this. First, it can be so poorly made that, even if technically it conforms to all or most of the details of the rendering, the totality of the result will look surprisingly unimpressive.

Second, the skill of the artist who created the rendering may surpass the skill of the architects who designed the structure. The rendering looks wonderful, but in it the hotel is seen from below looking up — the sort of angle that cinematographers call an “epic shot,” pioneered in the early days of Soviet Cinema as a way to transform even the common man into a hero.

For now, however, I am optimistic, especially in the knowledge that however it turns out, this 38-story hotel will surely be better than what it replaces. Designed by VOA Architecture and developed by the Lam Group, it is destined to rise over the ghost of a featureless and unadorned three-story, mid-20th century building.

The Virgin Hotel arrives in an area that, likely because of zoning issues, has become far more welcoming of hotels than of the residential developments that have taken over the rest of the city. It is one block north of Ace New York (just off Broadway) and two blocks north of the Nomad Hotel at Broadway and 28th Street.

But whereas those hotels are distinctly boutique-y and were created by revamping preexisting Beaux-Arts structures, the Virgin will be an entirely new building. In fact, it promises to be one of the bigger hotels in the city, with 460 guest rooms, not including “concept suites.” Among its amenities will be a rooftop bar and swimming pool and a spa. At its base, it promises high-end retail, which, as of today, risks looking stunningly out of place across the street from the wholesale cosmetic and perfume stores and small-time importers that have defined the area for decades.

John Lam

John Lam

Surely this new hotel will stand out strikingly, perhaps awkwardly, among the far smaller and older buildings that will surround it. It is by no means a subtle or understated structure; rather, it announces itself with all the force of a polemic. It has a sort of “Mad Men”-era massing that revels in bulk and bullying presence, almost recalling the Pan Am (now MetLife) Building. In sartorial terms, this would be a zoot suit. If it were a car it would be — and I say this by way of praise — the sort that gets “really lousy mileage.” It might even have fins.

The hotel is conceived in two main parts. It has a five-story base, an intricate, transparent sequence of glassy squares and rectangles. By contrast, the upper levels (by far the bulk of the building), read as a shifting mass of deconstructed planes, such as can be seen in many developments around the city over the past 10 or so years. Yet if there is one building that serves as the direct antecedent to this work, I would suggest the excellent Standard Hotel on the High Line, designed by Todd Schliemann, now of Ennead Architects (at the time Polshek Partnership Architects) and completed in 2009. That much-praised building — although completely modernist in its vocabulary — was also aggressively historicist in its resuscitation of ’70s brutalism and in its domineering presence. It is hard to imagine that it was not fully present to the minds of the designers of the Virgin Hotel New York.

It is interesting indeed that both the interiors and the overall structure of the hotel, which is scheduled for completion in 2017, were designed by a firm that, apparently, has not built anything before in New York City. VOA Architecture, founded in 1969 by Wilmont Vickrey, does not seem, prima facie, to be the sort of firm to which New York developers usually turn these days when they are after something of a more cutting-edge nature. Heretofore, its buildings, mostly of a corporate and institutional — that is to say, anodyne — nature, have been decidedly safe, if not thoroughly cooperative with the tastes and ambitions of the developers. Among VOA’s hotels to date, the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, in Rancho Mirage, California, seems pleasantly contextual, as does the Westin Chicago North Shore.

At the same time, the firm’s projects can display a surprising sensitivity. In the House of Sweden Embassy in Washington, D.C., the firm showed an inventive use of wood, clearly used to foster a Scandinavian feeling, along with all the simple, organically flowing spaces long a staple of Scandinavian design.

But now, all of a sudden, VOA Architecture has come out with a powerful statement for the Virgin Hotel New York.

Assuming that I am not merely misreading their rendering, the structure promises to be so top-heavy that it looks as though it might keel over from the weight. The summit, 38 stories up, is appreciably wider than the base, its topmost bulk extending in a series of cantilevers north and south over the lower sections of the building. The result promises to be an unusually dramatic and imposing building in a neighborhood that, to date, has been surprisingly drab and colorless. Its volumetric assault upon the senses will certainly compel the attention of many a pedestrian who has become used to the oppressive drudgery of this stretch of Manhattan.

However, as so often in New York City, even good designs can go awry through the plague of value engineering. That VOA is not immune to such things is evident in their office building at 815 Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. That building is quite well designed, but the actual construction of its curtain-walled surface, arrayed with string coursings along its height and length, looks far less inspired in realty.

One can make the point, of course, that almost anything is better in that Broadway space than the drab building it will replace. And one can also point to other buildings — and rather bad ones — in the general vicinity.

If the Virgin Hotel New York is as prepossessing as it appears in the rendering, then it will be a notable addition to this neighborhood. But if it proves to be not as expert in the execution as in the conception; if it is, indeed, value-engineered, then the fabric of this part of the city will be damaged by a new building out of all proportion to its neighbors.