On Charles, in charge

CookFox gives a block of the West Village a new past

Jun.June 01, 2015 07:00 AM
150-Charles-Street

150 Charles Street

It is almost hard to imagine that the firm of CookFox, which gave the world One Bryant Park, could have produced a building like 150 Charles Street, whose aesthetics are so vastly different.

One Bryant Park is, of course, that towering, gleaming white monument to Deconstructivist asymmetry that sits on the northwest corner of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue. The 150 Charles Street development is a hybrid building that is largely new, but incorporates a pre-existent structure, the long-abandoned Whitehall Storage Building, a gargantuan warehouse that stretches for much of the block between Washington and West streets and was created mostly out of brick and glass, but with some concrete as well. And although it surely stands as a large visual intrusion upon the ecosystem that is the West Village, its architects have deployed all their skills to incorporate it respectfully into its built environment.

That, however, has not stopped local activists from protesting this intrusion on what was called the largest undeveloped property in the West Village. An 11-minute video was posted on YouTube to oppose the project. Its title, “The Rape of the West Village,” denotes the spirit of the piece.

And yet, buyers flooded into the salesroom. As the project gets set to open, it is sold out. When the developers, the Witkoff Group, put the project on the market more than two years ago, prices started at $3.95 million for two-bedrooms, and rose all the way up to the $34 million for one of the penthouse apartments. (That’s roughly $7,000 per square foot, which by this point in the luxury market cycle may seem almost a bargain.)

To say that Richard Cook, the architect, has been sensitive to the preexisting context would not be entirely accurate. His work surely looks sensitive, but the context in which he placed his building was very different from what was. This part of the city was arguably one of the most charmless in Manhattan. While it is technically part of the West Village, that name seems to suggest quaint 19th century houses draped in ivy. But the realities were very different. This was storage warehouse country, and the storage warehouse, with some exceptions, is one of the dreariest building typologies this side of an airport hangar. Occasionally it tries to get fancy, but this leads to even drearier results.

Steven Witkoff

Steven Witkoff (Photo: Guest of a Guest)

In 2005, neighborhood preservationists won what seemed like a rare and important victory, when the city council approved a law to “downzone” the Far West Village, thus effectively preventing the construction of out-of-scale new developments in from West Street. Unfortunately for the advocates of this law, the two exceptions to the zoning change were the site of the former Superior Ink factory (which has now been converted to pricey, celebrity-attracting condos) and the Whitehall Storage Building.

Whitehall Storage, as originally built, was not outlandishly bad, only excessively banal. Its three-story bulk — without the new addition of a recessed penthouse — was confected of brick and broad mullioned windows, with bizarrely unappealing concrete surrounds. This was and remains the base of the new development, which Cook has tastefully and tactfully redesigned. In the process, the unsuspecting pedestrian may be inclined to think that Cook deserves credit for respectfully preserving what is already there. In fact, confronted with an unusable past (to invoke a phrase dear to Robert A.M. Stern), Cook created a new, greatly improved past. Abolishing the drab, mid-century concrete trim, he has extended its brick facing throughout the façade, while preserving and even enhancing the mullions that define the windows along Charles Street.

Richard Cook Architect

Richard Cook

In any case, the present development has preserved the footprint of the older building, which occupied almost three-quarters of the block, but not the ends of the block along West Street at one end and Washington Street at the other. The planning of 150 Charles Street has conscientiously retained the street wall — usually a good thing — in contrast to the general thrust of modernist buildings, which seem to want to disrupt the street wall so that their towers can rise up in relative isolation. A case in point being Richard Meyer’s 165 Charles Street across the street, as well as his two nearby towers at 173 and 176 Perry Street. That tendency has bedeviled, and weakened, many a New York City street.

To maintain the liveliness of the street, or more precisely to invest with liveliness a street that for generations was entirely lacking in pedestrian traffic, Cook has created what he calls “individual” residential entries at several points along Charles Street, thus creating a neighborhood feeling that seems historical, even though it is a largely new development in these parts.

As for the rest of the development, it rises above that mid-century footprint in a complicated, but harmoniously unified group of forms, specifically two towers, largely covered in brick cladding in the center of the block that are joined by a steel-clad interstitial area that, because it recalls the mullions used throughout on the windows, feels as historicist as the rest of the development. Toward the west, these towers are abutted by smaller, but similarly articulated buildings that come up to their knees, so to speak. Rising to about eight stories, they descend in a step-wise progression as they approach West Street.

The one vaguely modernist interlude is the design of the penthouses, which are more emphatically articulated with glass and steel. At various points, at least according to the renderings, trees and foliage are essential to the design, and are intended to occupy each of the staggered terraces facing west, as well as the penthouses. But this would not be the first time that CookFox Architects have integrated greenery into their design, only to find that it is unenforceable, presumably through the non-compliance of the owners of the units. For instance, on last view, there was no greenery along the façade of the Lucida, at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 85th Street, even though that was one of the main aesthetic terms of that development.

The building that Richard Cook designed that comes closest to 150 Charles Street is the Caroline at 700 Sixth Avenue at the corner of 23rd Street, which is similarly conceived in contextualist red-brick, with a somewhat historicist articulation of the surface. Both that development and the present one are a far cry from the Deconstructivist massing of One Bryant Park, but the treatment of the details on Charles Street may prove to be more refined than that of either of those earlier works.


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