Mercedes House: A driving force

Enrique Norten’s latest project helps transform Far West Side

Slowly but surely, the great work of the latest generation of Manhattan developers — the colonization and gentrification of the Far West Side — proceeds apace.

If proof of this process were needed beyond the incremental additions to Trump Place and the sundry projects that Costas Kondylis has built along 42nd Street between Ninth Avenue and the Hudson River, it could find eloquent testimony in Mercedes House, a massive new residential development that the Mexican architect Enrique Norten has designed for David and Jed Walentas of Two Trees Management on a plot of land covering almost the entire block between 10th and 11th avenues between 53rd and 54th streets.

Rising opposite Dewitt Clinton Park and the Hudson River, this two-fold project, a combination of rentals and condos, was originally supposed to be called Clinton Park. But the name was changed (according to what I was told by a source in the sales office) because the 11th Avenue front is occupied by a titanic 330,000-square-foot Mercedes-Benz showroom, and because it was therefore assumed that New Yorkers would end up referring to the development as “the Mercedes building” anyway.

A moment in the sun

Although Norten is an internationally renowned winner of a number of prestigious prizes, for a few years he seemed to be engaged in a Sisyphean ordeal as he tried to get anything built in the five boroughs: Winning a commission was easy enough, but having the thing built was another story entirely. A library for the performing arts in Brooklyn was announced about nine years ago with much fanfare, but, after protracted dithering and revision, the project finally came to nothing.

An equally prominent commission that was announced shortly thereafter, a Marriott that was to rise up over Harlem at 125th Street and Park Avenue similarly came to grief.

But in the last few years, the architect’s fortunes have turned in the city.

The exterior of the Mercedes House up close

Norten has carried to completion the well-received luxury condo One York on Canal Street. He has also designed the Hotel Americano in West Chelsea, and a daring (though not yet commercially successful) condo building in Brooklyn, at 580 Carroll Street, not to mention the Cassa Hotel and Residences, a luminous white high-rise tower in midtown Manhattan.

And yet, surely his biggest achievement to date in New York has been Mercedes House, a massive 1.3 million-square-foot building that will ultimately contain 696 rentals and 162 condos.

This is a two-tiered project, whose first and smaller section consists of a stepped progression of stories, 16 in all, along 11th Avenue and 53rd Street. Containing 222 rentals, it was completed and opened for business in April of last year.

The second, and far larger, portion of Mercedes House is 32 stories and is connected to the first through an even bolder step-like progression that rises up as it snakes back toward Tenth Avenue. This part of the project is scheduled to open on May 1, according to Two Trees officials. It will contain the 162 condos and 474 rentals, which will be housed on the 22nd through 32nd floors. In addition to these apartments, the complex will include bocce courts and pit fires, an amphitheater and a gym.

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A craftsman

Born in Mexico City in 1954, Norten is the founder of TEN Arquitectos, an acronym for “Taller Enrique Norten,” taller being the Spanish word for studio or atelier.

Among the projects he is now working on, further afield, are a Guggenheim Museum branch in Guadalajara, Mexico, a reconceiving of Rutgers University’s College Avenue Campus in New Brunswick, N.J., and a plan to recover a 4.5-mile stretch of riverfront in New Orleans.

As for his completed buildings, some of the most memorable can be found in his native Mexico City, where he’s distinguished himself with the National School of Theater at the National Center of the Arts, the Televisa Mixed Use Building and the Habita Hotel, which was voted Latin American Building of the Year in 2002.

If there’s a theme in Norten’s work, it’s that he can’t simply blend into the background. In several ways, Mercedes House is a striking building, especially considering the general conservatism of New York architecture.

Certainly it doesn’t harmonize especially well with the buildings in its vicinity. But that won’t strike most observers as a problem, since this section of the Far West Side is hardly one of the lovelier parts of Manhattan. If Mercedes House stands out for its quality and ambition, so be it for the buildings that neighbor it.

One of the dominant features of the complex is a metallic cladding in two tones of gray — or whitish gray. Although Norten has introduced that chromatic inflection in the interests of visual variety, it adds little to the success of the overall result, despite the fact that the two tones are repeated throughout the length and height of the dappled façade. The desired sense of variation is more successfully fostered by the syncopated windows that seem to float almost arbitrarily across the building’s surface, rising above a two-story, street-level façade enlivened and defined by giant pylons along 11th Avenue. Surely the most distinctive feature of the project, the one that will set people talking, is the passage work — to use a musical analogy — that connects the 16-story structure along 11th with the 32-story structure closer to Tenth. Not only does it represent a highly unusual diagonal movement within the context of Manhattan’s strict grid, it also manages to provide drama to the project, rising like an arpeggio that reaches its crescendo on the 32nd floor of the taller building.

At the same time, this structure accomplishes its effect without losing sight of the practical advantages of opening up two large patio spaces that provide far more light and air to the residents than is typical in massive developments of this sort.

Let it also be said that the entire project is far more successful in the realization of its details than we’re used to seeing in Manhattan architecture. There is no sense of value engineering here: One cannot help but appreciate the quality with which Norten has designed the glass-and-steel curtain wall, covered in one area with brise-soleil sun shading that defines one of the courtyards created by the diagonal structure.

But it is a mark of Norten’s great inspiration that the diagonal structure doesn’t represent a sharp or simple movement. There is an almost willful and organic arbitrariness to its progression, which corresponds to the syncopated rhythms of the windows.

Its sense of organic life is carried further by the abundance of greenery already starting to reveal itself at each level of the stepped progression of the façade along 11th, no less than atop each level of the diagonal section, or finally atop the 32-story structure that is about to open.

The promised plant life in the two courtyards will enhance this effect still further. The result is a green and most welcome addition to what, heretofore, has always been one of the least hospitable areas for architecture in Manhattan.