Two Trees' Dumbo development: Slab and drab

17-story residential project at 60 Water Street is complex without being interesting

Oct.October 01, 2014 07:00 AM
60 Water Street

60 Water Street

At a time when every developer, it would seem, is reaching for the stars (or at least for the starchitects in his Rolodex), it is somewhat reassuring that the people at Two Trees have taken a decidedly different approach at the development formerly known as Dock Street Dumbo, now rechristened 60 Water Street.

Which is not to say that we should take comfort in what they are building: Rather, they seem to be channeling the anonymous and anodyne four-square white-brick mediocrity of 50 years ago. The present project consists of two fairly low-lying and interconnected slabs that make not the slightest effort to prepossess the viewer. There is also a commercial area that is integrated with both. Taken together, what these structures deliver is pure real estate, pure development: a roof over one’s head, a valuable location, marketable views and a few amenities … but absolutely nothing in the way of architecture.

This is by no means to be confused with the spare, minimalist architecture that has gained a certain following over the past few years. It is, rather, the programmatic desertion of any artistic ambition or any architectural commitment to the neighborhood.

As a critic, I am constantly beset by renderings of buildings that may one day become a reality. Half the art of these renderings is to take an essentially mediocre concept and — through perspective and composition, through vivid colors and meteorological enhancements (the late afternoon sun slanted across the façade, for instance) — to infuse with drama and beauty a building that, more often than not, is entirely bereft of both. It is rare indeed that renderings are published that appear to be entirely unadorned. And yet, I do not believe that I have ever seen renderings as drab as the two that have been released relative to the 60 Water Street development in Brooklyn.

In substance, these renderings appear to be nearly identical. The atmospherics of an earlier version, released in 2008, seemed to present an overcast, menacing, even Gothic air of foreboding, which imparted to the generally modernist vocabulary of the building in question all the charm of Albanian public housing under Enver Hoxha, the last of the Stalinists.

The more recent rendering is a slight improvement: The sun has come out, humans can be seen in proximity to the site, and there are even trees in the street, suggesting that the development is not entirely incompatible with life. Now one might indeed think of living in this development, which effectively provides shelter and is located in a newly desirable section of the city, not far from the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge. In fact, you can even make out the reflection of the Brooklyn Bridge in the glass curtain wall that clads the building in the rendering.

But whatever charms the neighborhood might possess, it will not be found in the architecture itself. The construction of 60 Water Street (which is scheduled to contain 290 units, of which 58 will be affordable housing) is now proceeding apace. While the glazing of the façade is hardly complete, already we can gain a decent idea of what the finished structure will be. Unfortunately, it fully bears out, rather than giving the lie to, the renderings.

The overall structure, with its several interconnected parts, is fairly complex, but it is hardly an interesting complexity, such as has been sought in recent years by architects of a Deconstructivist vein, like that of Cook + Fox’s One Bryant Park, whose faceted and torqued façade creates a striking profile from a number of angles. The dominant component of 60 Water Street is a slab, 17 stories tall, that, if the renderings are to be believed, promises to be clad in a curtain wall that will permit us to see into the underlying structure of the building. This appears to be divided into something like bays. There is no inflection or qualification of the fundamental form, other than the two-tiered mechanical core on the roof.

Perpendicular to the building is a lower, secondary slab conceived in the same style, with a slight inflection in the two terminal bays, which are a few stories lower than the rest of the structure. Finally, filling out the square footprint of the development is a commercial center that appears to be largely of a piece with the rest of 60 Water Street, except for a slightly irregular treatment of the ground floor, which rises and descends in a shape that vaguely resembles a boomerang; and yet, one suspects that its entirely gratuitous nod to Deconstructivism will do little or nothing for the development itself or for the neighborhood in which it is rising.

And although one hesitates to pass judgment on the material quality of a building that is still under construction, it certainly looks to be the beneficiary of value engineering, of a certain level of adequacy that one fears will hardly improve the overall effect of the project.

The general dreariness of 60 Water Street is especially surprising, given the architectural firms behind it, LEESER Architecture and Ismael Leyva, who are usually capable of more interesting fare. LEESER Architecture tends to work in the Deconstructivist mode, with which it concocts such curious forms as the Helix Hotel project, conceived for Abu Dhabi, and the Rockwell Hotel Tower, intended for Brooklyn. As regards the latter, it appears, in a rendering, to be cracking up before our very eyes.

Ismael Leyva, I suspect, was the driving force behind this latest design as it is being built, since his work of late — as can be seen in his designs for 155 West Street in Brooklyn, One Carnegie Hill and 85 Flatbush Avenue — combines a low-key mainstream modernism with a few of the bells and whistles of Deconstructivism. The rendering of 155 West Street, for instance, is essentially a mainstream modernist affair, with the slight irregularities in the windows and a slight bulge around the middle, that one associates with Deconstructivism.

But however committed he and LEESER Architecture may or may not be to the cause of Deconstructivist architecture, none of its real or assumed rebellion is anywhere to be seen at 60 Water Street. The main selling point of the development will be its proximity to the Brooklyn Bridge and to the picturesque warehouses that abound in that part of the borough. And in supplying that commodity, it will doubtlessly satisfy a large number of its occupants. But the architectural style of the development (not to mention the tedious use to which that style has been put) more or less insures that it will not fit in famously with its new environment, whose appeal, if anything, will be weakened by this massive new arrival.


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