Meier turns to the dark side

A change of palette brings new subtleties to the architect’s work

Rendering of 685 First Avenue
Rendering of 685 First Avenue

As everyone who has followed the illustrious career of architect Richard Meier knows, the Pritzker Prize winner favors a white, or at least a pale, palette for the buildings he designs. And as everyone who has followed the career of developer Sheldon Solow knows, he prefers a black, or at least a dark, palette for his buildings. Solow is best known for commissioning 9 West 57th Street, an inky skyscraper designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. What, one wonders, would happen if you brought these two men together in a single project?

The answer, it turns out, is 685 First Avenue, a decidedly dark building but one that is conspicuous in the attention to detail that has been the hallmark of  Meier’s career for the past half century. He has already distinguished himself in New York with his three towers on the Hudson River — 173 and 175 Perry Street and 165 Charles Street — as well as 1 Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Jubilee Church in Rome. But if 685 First Avenue is a decided departure from Meier’s previous work, he has managed, at age 82, to create what promises to be one of the subtlest and most exquisite designs of his career.

In an interview with The Real Deal, Meier said Solow approached him with a specific mandate. “He said to me, ‘I love your buildings downtown but I want something different. I want a dark building.’” But more than the color scheme, the architect stressed the project’s context as the daunting design parameter. “Being about a block away from the United Nations is a real challenge. It’s such a great building,” he said. As such, Meier said 685 First Avenue was designed to relate to its iconic neighbor as well as to take advantage of the views of the East River and Manhattan.

The 42-story tower has already started to rise on a small parcel just west of Solow’s prize land holding, a six-acre plot between East 38th and East 41st streets on First Avenue. Solow is seeking to build five buildings in all, with four residential buildings and an office tower designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. In addition, there will be a small park, immediately to the east of 685 First Avenue, that is being designed by James Corner Field Operations.

As yet, only 685 First Avenue has been commissioned, and it remains to be seen whether the three other residential towers will also be designed by Richard Meier & Partners. The building has already risen to the fourth floor, and by the end of the year, according to Meier’s firm, the structural work should be finished and the glass panels of the curtain wall will start to go up. Completion is expected by the end of 2018 or beginning of 2019.

The first 26 floors will consist of 408 rental units, while the remainder will be reserved for 148 condominiums. As for the interiors, these are where Meier has been able to express his love of translucence and light. The darkness of the exterior will have no effect upon these spaces — from inside, the glass will appear colorless and transparent. The rooms themselves have been designed in those pale whites, grays and earth tones, with wood, plaster and glass surfaces, that we have come to expect from Meier.

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Richard Meier

Word of Meier’s first black building in New York broke last May. To judge from the chatter on the internet, some New Yorkers are worried that 685 First Avenue will look like all those other dark and dreary late modernist towers around Manhattan, among them Costas Kondylis’ Trump World Tower a few blocks to the north, or the Millenium Hilton, designed by Eli Attia and overlooking the World Trade Center site. They need not worry: 685 First Avenue promises to be of an entirely higher order of design. It will consist of a sheer glass curtain wall throughout, far smoother in its surface than the great Seagram Building but revealing its underlying structure as honestly as Seagram. As with that masterpiece by Mies van der Rohe, the drama and delicacy will be in the details: the double-height windows on the first two floors and the elaborate glass cage that forms the entrance along First Avenue and wraps around the northern facade, along with the incised row of terraces on the 27th floor that define the transition from rental to condo. In the interests of modernist purity, there will be no real differentiation between base and shaft, or shaft and summit.

On the Second Avenue side, however, there will be a little more diversity, but not in such a way as to challenge or disturb the geometric purity of the design. The facade will be defined by a layering of curtain wall that appears to have been superimposed upon the original building. At regular intervals along the sides, there will be a serried sequence of balconies that may be among the subtlest and most elegant ever seen on a modernist building. Finally, at street level, separating the development from its neighbors to the west, will be a fine, modest wall, only a few feet high, that serves to assert the integrity of the development while also recalling the articulation of the plaza in front of the Seagram Building, not to mention the plaza in front of Meier’s own Ara Pacis Museum in Rome.

The great test that Meier faces with his design for 685 First Avenue is the vivid possibility that it will look like an office building. But such is the delicacy and warmth of the details that this development feels completely domestic rather than corporate. This is late modernism, or indeed, neo-modernism at its most inviting. It has learned from the mistakes of modernism the first time around, and it is determined not to repeat them.

For now, of course, we have only the renderings to go by. And ultimately, no description, no rendering or photograph can tell you what you need to know in assessing the finished product. Whether the project bears out its considerable promise we shall not know for a few more years, but there is abundant reason to be optimistic. I, for one, would venture to predict that 685 First Avenue will be one of the best buildings in New York, and in Meier’s portfolio.

“Every building is a challenge,” Meier told TRD. He added: “I think this building is going to have a beauty to it, not only in terms of the external skin of the building but the quality of all the spaces inside.”