James Gardner — A legacy modified at Setai Fifth Avenue

Gwathmey's compromise at new condo-hotel <br>

Now that the grand Setai Fifth Avenue is finally open, this seems like a good occasion to consider not only that building, but the architect, Charles Gwathmey, whose firm designed it.

These days, in America at least, the apprenticeship of the average architect usually lasts well into his 50s before he is fully fledged and the bigger, juicier commissions start to roll his way. As a result, if an architect does not live to be 80 years old, one is apt to feel that his career has been cruelly cut short. And yet, even though Gwathmey succumbed to cancer a year and a half ago at the age of 71, he started so young, and had been a distinguished presence for so long, that his death, though a sad loss for the architectural community, does not feel quite as untimely as it otherwise might.

Gwathmey, the main force in the firm of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects, had been famous since the 1960s, when he designed a stunning cube of a house for his parents on the East End of Long Island. He was one of the fabled New York Five, those young Turks (the others being Richard Meier, Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman and John Hejduk) who reinvigorated Late Modernist architecture starting in the 1960s. Like many successful architects before and after him, Gwathmey, for all his relative precocity, began as a designer of houses, before he graduated to the larger residential and institutional projects for which he is better known today.

One would like to imagine that it must have been profoundly gratifying to him, in the final five or so years of his life, to suddenly receive more commissions than he could ever have hoped for. Among these are his controversial Astor Place building, near Cooper Square, and 240 Park Avenue South, not to mention the new United States Mission to the United Nations and the W Hotel Downtown, at 123 Washington Street.

The Setai Fifth Avenue
The Setai Fifth Avenue
Residents of New York City will also admire his highly visible interior work in such public spaces as New York Public Library’s Science, Industry and Business Library, on Madison and 34th, as well as his work on the International Center for Photography on Sixth Avenue and 46th Street. And let us not forget that he acquitted himself of the daunting task of building an annex to Paul Rudolph’s Yale Center for Art and Architecture, one of the most hallowed buildings in the annals of American Modernism. From this abbreviated list it should be clear that Charles Gwathmey’s copious legacy of buildings in New York, and beyond, was immense and likely to endure.

But it is the duty of criticism to acknowledge that he paid a price for his newfound fecundity, and that that price has been partially exacted at 400 Fifth Avenue. If that great and early house he designed for his parents had the distinction of being a flawlessly faithful translation of his architectural vision into the raw materials of building, the latest work on Fifth Avenue was predictably a compromise with the developers, Bizzi & Partners, as well as with the architectural context of Fifth Avenue around 36th Street, not to mention the building codes of New York City. One suspects that, given a little more freedom, he would have designed a more resolutely Modernist building.

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Unlike Michael Graves, a fellow member of the New York Five, Charles Gwathmey never made the transition from Modernism to classical Neo-Modernism. And yet, across the external surfaces of 400 Fifth Avenue, the architect comes closer to Graves’s kind of improvised contextualism and historicism than ever before in his long career.

As he did at 240 Park Avenue South, Gwathmey was more or less compelled by local laws and traditions to conceive 400 Fifth Avenue as a tower rising from a base, which itself curves around the northwest corner of 36th after the manner of many a building from the 1930s. The entire façade was covered over in limestone cladding (with granite accents at street level) after the fashion of such nearby landmarks as the Empire State Building. A strong sense of the stone is conveyed in the thick, four-sided pylons that rise over the first three floors of the hotel and carry on as bays all the way up the height of the 11-story base. In between are windows that have been installed at a tilt, and that, whatever their utility, do not enhance the contextual effect that the developers and the architect were seeking.

From here the building continues on as a tower, whose similarly tilted windows are divided into five bays on the northern and southern sides, and eight on the other two. As a result, this part of the structure has a lighter and glassier feeling than does the base of the building. The building is crowned by what is, for Charles Gwathmey, a surprisingly contextual motif, a sequence of tilted facets that vaguely suggest the Art Deco style, as seen through the prism of the mid-1980s style known as Memphis, with its vaguely Egyptian, vaguely Pharaonic intimations.

The hotel is entered on Fifth Avenue. The bar and restaurant have a dedicated entrance at the corner, while the condos are entered on 36th Street. Both of these entrances are enhanced by a cantilevered metal canopy that strongly recalls the main entrance to Gwathmey’s building on Astor Place.

The 60-story development contains the Setai hotel, which comprises 157 rooms, 54 suites and three penthouse apartments. In addition, starting on the 31st floor are 190 condo apartments which, like the interiors of the hotel itself, were designed by the firm of DAS Concepts Inc., whose principles are Don Siembieda and Francisco Jove.

The bar has been conceived in earth tones that come across as simultaneously swanky and muted, while the reception area is a minimalist affair of stone gray and light panels set into a strictly geometric matrix. One of the more dramatic touches is the swerving white staircase to the restaurant on the second floor, which has been put to good use as a design element since it’s abundantly visible from across the street.

What the Setai Fifth Avenue confirms is that, in his many completed projects, as in his own person, Charles Gwathmey was a diplomat among architects. His refined sense of style never calcified into a dogmatic insistence on purity for its own sake, and he was able to accommodate a multiplicity of styles without ever losing his own punctilious sense of elegance and propriety.