Pier won

Toll Brothers’ Brooklyn Bridge Park project is a boon for the waterfront, even with a mediocre design

Nov.November 01, 2013 07:00 AM
A rendering of Pierhouse at Brooklyn Bridge Park

A rendering of Pierhouse at Brooklyn Bridge Park

The problems visited upon the area now occupied by Brooklyn Bridge Park go back far more than a century, to the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge itself in 1883. That landmark rendered largely obsolete the ferry services that once occupied this part of the waterfront. Seventy years later, the area suffered the further indignity of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, which, like so many infrastructure developments by Robert Moses, severed the community from the waterfront. Finally, with the so-called container revolution of the 1970s and ’80s, the cargo trade that had sustained the many piers in the area moved away to places like New Jersey, leaving this stretch of waterfront largely abandoned.

But recently there have been hopeful signs. Over the past 30 years, parts of the New York City waterfront have been reclaimed in the name of leisure and domesticity, and the latest evidence of this trend is the selection of a development team to build a 550,000-square-foot hotel and residential complex just behind Brooklyn Bridge Park. The project is to be a collaborative effort between Toll Brothers City Living and Starwood Capital Group, two firms that had formerly been competitors for the project. Contrary to that newfound harmony, Robert Rogers and Jonathan Marvel, the two principles of Rogers Marvel Architects, the firm that designed the project, announced this summer that they are going their separate ways. (That decision is not expected to affect this project, however.)

Toll Brothers and Starwood beat out six other firms competing for the project: Extell Development, Two Trees Management Company, RAL Companies & Affiliates, SDS Procida and the Dermot Company.

Before the breakup, Rogers Marvel had been active in New York in recent years. The firm designed the Studio Museum in Harlem, the elevated park at 55 Water Street in Lower Manhattan and, most recently, the remodeling of the Moses-era McCarren Park Pool and bathhouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Rogers Marvel’s winning design for Brooklyn Bridge Park includes a five-story residential section, to be called Pierhouse, which will contain 120 “townhouse-style” condominiums, several restaurants, a fitness center and a garage. The 10-story 1 Hotel, meanwhile, will have 193 rooms. Construction is underway and sales are set to begin this fall. Once built, the project design is projected to generate, through revenue from the hotel and the sale of the condominiums, just under $120 million, and the proceeds will go to Brooklyn Bridge Park.

If the truth be told, however, neither the hotel nor the condo design is especially successful. First of all, both structures are too busy, and not in the ruckus-rodeo sense of much Deconstructivist architecture, to which style the present design owes its allegiance in a general way. The various parts do not coalesce into either a harmonious whole or a charming dissonance. The facade of the hotel is a series of rectangular modules fashioned from glass and steel and stacked into 10-story bays defined by pale stone partitions. These bays, which protrude from the facade and roof like flanges, appear to be fragile and extraneous. The sense of clutter is accentuated by the stepwise progression of trees and greenery clumped together at various intervals. There is probably some successful way to integrate greenery into architecture above ground level, but I am not sure that anyone has figured out exactly how, and I am confident that (in this instance at least) Rogers Marvel has not.

As it is, the trees here, as in most cases, seem to serve no other purpose than to symbolically suggest the environmental aspirations of the building, which, as the developers are proud to proclaim, will be LEED-certified.

The hotel and residences are hardly unsightly, and the charm of the location and the view should counterbalance the mediocrity of the design. The development will offer commanding views of Brooklyn Bridge Park, with its swirling, lozenge-shaped fields, and beyond that, the great skyline of Manhattan.

Yet the general drabness of Rogers Marvel’s design is especially regrettable given that some of the other developers offered more interesting proposals. The Dermot proposal, designed by FXFOWLE Architects, was Deconstructivist in style, like most everything else these days, but its massing had a certain volumetric drama and a muscularity to it that do not appear to be in the offing with the Rogers Marvel design. Perhaps the best of the proposals was the one submitted, ironically, by Toll Brothers’ new partner, Starwood. A collaboration of three firms — Bernheimer Architecture, Alloy Development and nArchitects — created a pure, rectangular structure clad in a glass-and-steel curtain wall, one that recalls the Seagram Building and the best years of the International Style.

With regard to both the hotel and the lower-lying residential section, the initial designs that Rogers Marvel submitted seem a bit cleaner and more austere than the latest ones. The earlier versions, lacking the halfhearted Deconstructivist bells and whistles of the present designs, were more strictly rectilinear, and what they lost in drama, they made up for in clarity and, for lack of a better word, presentability. True, their surface revealed a more dominant presence of stonework in the window surrounds, which were arranged in the syncopated rhythms that many recent New York projects have favored (one thinks of Jean Nouvel’s 100 11th Avenue or Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s 101 Warren Street). But there was a general neatness to the design that I think is absent in the one that will ultimately be built.

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