It is not often appreciated that, in addition to the usual choice between “conventional” and “unconventional” architecture in New York City, there are, in fact, two further options: the “unconventionally conventional” and the “conventionally unconventional.” Both can be found in the design plans put forward for 22 Thames Street in Lower Manhattan.
For $150 million, Fisher Brothers acquired the site, where a 10-story, decidedly conventional Beaux-Arts building circa 1900 stands. Fisher Brothers and the Witkoff Group now plan to tear that building down and erect a 400-unit residential high-rise, a stone’s throw from the World Trade Center site.
From the beginning, there was no question that the developers of 22 Thames Street would build something tall. The question was whether to build something super-tall and super-thin, or something slightly shorter — but still lofty — and broader. Initially the developers were leaning toward the latter option, in the interests of harmonizing with the surrounding architecture. The design they floated was by Annabelle Selldorf, a renowned and sought-after architect who has been most active in Chelsea in recent years.
But a few months ago, the developers changed architects and enlisted Rafael Viñoly to design something very tall and very thin. In fact, the massing of this new project, which is still pending approvals, so closely resembles that of Viñoly’s high-profile under-construction 432 Park Avenue, which is already near the half-way point of its ascent, that it is hard to imagine that the Uptown building did not weigh heavily on the developers and cause them to rethink the design.
The choice of Viñoly is clearly the right one. He is, in the case of 22 Thames, unconventionally conventional, whereas Selldorf has proven herself to be just the opposite: conventionally unconventional.
Each of the architects’ blueprints for 22 Thames includes a tower on a base. But the base seems weightier in Selldorf’s design, and the tower that rises above it is squatter. As is usually the case with her designs, the principal interest resides in the treatment of the external surface. Her sense of décor is decidedly unconventional, in the simple sense that most architects have not chosen to follow her lead, and also in that she often seems to be pulling some sequence of formal motifs out of her hat in the hope that they will all coalesce into something wonderful.
Unfortunately, that does not usually happen. At 22 Thames Street, Selldorf devised a surface treatment that looked rather too much like a two-tone accumulation of beads, some glazed, some solid, all of them irregularly deployed across the surface and rising over a glazed and luminous base. Most of these beads were one-story, though some, for no apparent reason, were two. The result looked odd and quirky and so “unconventional,” but in a way that somehow remained comfortably within the confines of licit rebellion.
Put another way, the design looked the way conformists might imagine architectural rebellion to look.
By contrast, Viñoly’s design turned that equation on its head. If you are not really paying attention, you might think that the design, like the one he created for 432 Park, was — in every respect except its height — a conventional, even boring, specimen of Neo-Modernism. The pattern is simple and geometric; there is no trace of that syncopated rhythm that so many contemporary architects favor. There are no curved lines to be seen, and the cladding looks as though it could have been conceived for any number of Skidmore Owings and Merrill office towers conceived from 1970 to the present.
But there is far more to the building than that. In a certain sense, one can best understand Viñoly’s designs by applying to them the standards of art criticism, especially those of sculpture, rather than the more usual criteria that apply to architecture.
The closest analogies to 432 Park and 22 Thames are the sculptures of Sol LeWitt and Jackie Windsor, as well as the paintings of Agnes Martin, acts of conceptual art from the 1970s. Or, from slightly earlier, the Minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd and Tony Smith. In the latest design — which could be modified depending on input from city officials — the Downtown building rises up in almost freakish slenderness, a monolithic tower as pure, in its way, as that alien artifact that descended to Earth in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
That is to say that Viñoly has purged his surfaces of all adornment or distraction, until the very pertinacity and discipline of his design — in one sense so conventional — bursts through to a design as strikingly original as anything built in Manhattan in over a generation.
Immediately to the east of the main tower is a slab of almost wafer-thinness that looks as though it provides some structural support to the tower. It rises from the ground all the way to up the tower’s summit and then surpasses it by about 100 feet. And yet, I am willing to wager a good amount of capital that it serves no structural function at all: it has been included entirely on the basis of the way it looks, and it looks very good indeed. If that shaft surpasses 937 feet, it will make 22 Thames the tallest residential building in Lower Manhattan, surpassing Silverstein Properties’ 30 Park Place, which is now under construction.
At its base is a structure that resembles the one Selldorf designed, even though it is more perfectly cubic, and thus more satisfying to the eye. The shaft of the tower, to judge from the renderings, is striated by the long rows of windows that rise in uninterrupted bays from the base to the summit. This element as well adds subtle visual interest that belies that initial sense of conventionality that the building eagerly projects.
In the most general terms, the formal elements of 22 Thames recall those of 432 Park in their uniform simplicity. And both projects achieve great and memorable beauty through their obedience to those premises. But whereas the Uptown building is almost Neo-Brutalist in its joyous parade of raw concrete, the Downtown building, perhaps out of respect for its architectural context, embraces the conventionality of the glass curtain wall that abounds in this part of the island. If only the other buildings in its vicinity looked as good as this promises to be when completed.