Putting starchitects on a tight budget

Pinched by downturn, Cassa designers sacrifice elaborate materials
By Steve Cutler | May 01, 2009 12:33PM

Even A-list starchitects are on a tight allowance these days. Case in point is the Cassa hotel and condominium tower rising at 70 West 45th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues with a design influenced by the economic downturn.

Architect Nancy Ruddy, co-principal of Cetra/Ruddy architects, who designed the skyscraper with Ten Arquitectos, led by legendary Mexican architect Enrique Norton, points out, “The success of this building will be that it will be built very economically, both on the interior and the exterior.”

The condominium apartments have just opened for pre-construction sales.

Indeed, recalls Norton, “the budget was quite reduced because it was at the end of the boom.” With the developer feeling pinched by an economy in decline, “We were getting value engineered, with cutbacks all the time. We decided to bet on the form, the proportions of the tower, rather than the detailing of the façade,” Norton says.

That is, the architects labored to compensate for the lack of overly elaborate and expensive materials with bold design.

A sliver of a building, rising 48 stories from a 60-foot-wide footprint, Cassa will be a sculptured white obelisk with punch windows, a stark contrast to the glass office buildings that define its Midtown location and the low-rise stone buildings on its east and west sides.

While appearing to be made of light-colored sandstone, the building will actually be covered in giant prefabricated composite metal panels, which, says Norton, “are affordable, easy to install, durable and low maintenance.”

Of course, value engineering was not the only consideration in planning the façade. “The interesting thing about doing a tall building in New York City,” observes architect John Cetra of Cetra/Ruddy, “is the zoning requirement on how the building sets back.”

When the developer, Assa Properties, acquired the site for Cassa in 2005, it bought air rights from surrounding buildings, but the owners of the two adjoining buildings would not sell their lots. So the architects were left to plan a massively tall, yet narrow building with deep setbacks.

“Instead of doing traditional setbacks and little roofs we created an iconic look by tilting the façade a few inches per floor. The effect accentuates the verticality of it. The building slopes back slightly as it rises from the base,” says Cetra.

The panels, which come pre-built with the punched windows, were a natural if painstaking choice, made after much experimentation, says Cetra, in terms of “speed, cost, the look for us and the economy for the owner.”

The panels also offer the benefit of being light enough to be lifted by crane 48 stories straight up within a tight footprint. “Each panel is two floors high,” says Solly Assa, co-founder of Assa Properties, “and will have to be delivered by a 120-foot truck almost a full block long.”

The 166-suite boutique hotel on Cassa’s lower floors will be operated by the upscale Desires Hotels chain, which runs nine contemporary-design hotels, mostly in South Beach, and also San Juan, Milwaukee and New York City. While rates have not been set for the Cassa Hotel, rooms at Desires’ Hotel Mela just a block away at 120 West 44th Street start at about $300 a night.

Starting from the 28th floor, the 57 studio to three-bedroom condominium apartments, each with a corner window and sweeping, unobstructed views, sell for an average of $2,000 per square foot. The four-bedroom, 3,500-square-foot duplex penthouse sells for $15 million.

The modern-design apartments will have blonde oak strip floors and kitchens with white lacquer cabinetry, stone countertops and Miele, Liebherr and Wolf appliances. The bathrooms will have glass walls, limestone floors and Travertine marble vanities.

The only public space in the building is on the ground floor, which will contain a subterranean restaurant and bar visible from the lobby through clear glass flooring. Light and pristine, the 28-foot-high lobby will have polished concrete floors and walls and a petite fiberglass hotel check-in desk in front of a freestanding lava stone wall. Through the lobby, beyond large glass walls, the rear garden is also open to the public.

Even with the lobby, “There’s an intelligent way to create beautiful design without using highly expensive materials,” says Ruddy. “It’s about form, volume, juxtaposition. People are looking for an elegant, fun place to be. You don’t have to have silk tassels hanging from the walls.”

The first seven floors of the façade on 45th Street are covered by a metal mesh screen with a window wall behind it. The building has a private balcony on the eighth floor on the north side for hotel guests and another on the south for condo residents.

Despite opening for sales in a difficult market, says Monica Klingenberg, vice president of the Marketing Directors, which is marketing the apartments at Cassa, “We only have 57 homes to sell, and 12 are already sold” to private clients. Those sales were made before the sales office opened at the end of April. One buyer bought three apartments, which he will combine into a three-bedroom duplex.

“It’s going to be challenging,” acknowledges Assa, but he figures the Midtown center-of-the-universe location will attract affluent buyers wanting a pied à terre in the city.

Besides, he says, “we still have a year to finish. The economy is affecting everything at the same time and everything will get better at the same time.”

At Ten Arquitectos, which he founded 25 years ago, Norton says, “a lot of the private work has gone on hold for now.” Yet, he adds, “we currently have five buildings under construction in New York City, and we’re involved in public work — institutional, governmental, educational.”

“It’s not the best of moments,” he says, “but I shouldn’t be complaining.”