James Gardner: Open-and-shut case

<i>Shigeru Ban's elegant Metal Shutter Houses may lack coordination</i>

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From what’s been unveiled so far, the nearly completed project known as the Metal Shutter Houses, at 524 West 19th Street, should look splendid in both of its intended incarnations — “opened” and “closed.”

In the first of these incarnations, with its shutters open, the building, developed by Heea Development LLC, will appear to be a pristinely cubic presence, 11 stories tall, with retail at street level. There’s a two-story penthouse and, below, eight additional duplexes. Each of these eight units, which make up the bulk of the building, has a nice-size balcony, also double height. The balconies unite with the right angles of the façade to create what to the casual observer appears to be the sort of elegant, minimalist exercise in pure geometry that has become one of the trademarks of Shigeru Ban, the gifted architect of the Metal Shutter Houses, working here with Dean Maltz.

It is at this point that a gimmick kicks in to create the building’s second, “closed” avatar: A metal shutter (think of a hurricane shutter or a bodega gate) is installed to cover each unit’s balcony from its double-height ceiling down to its base, thus sealing up the aperture completely. What results promises to be a fully unified façade whose visually granulated surface, locked into an immovable grid, will be breathtaking in its cool perfection.

And yet it is also at this point that, if you stop to think about it, all sorts of potential problems begin to set in. To begin with, the closed incarnation will come about only if all eight of the owners concerned agree in concert to lower their shutters simultaneously. And something tells me — though I freely admit that this is pure conjecture — that a good number of these units will have been purchased by people who will not be there full-time and any coordination of the sort may prove elusive, even logistically impossible. Which is to say that the much-touted second incarnation, the headline and selling point of the whole project, may never materialize.

Then, of course, there is an entirely different question that any sensible person would ask, unless he happened to be either the developer or the architect. Why would anyone want to shutter his balcony in the first place, since the point of balconies, presumably, is to create an outdoor option in the context of a mostly indoor apartment? As for the shutters’ brise-soleil effect — that of limiting sunlight — I wonder if the revelation ever kicked in that, since the building faces mainly north, it will be getting little, if any, direct sunlight in any case for most of the year. (The southern exposures of the building do not have similar shutters.) There is a reason, after all, why windows in New York do not have awnings, as they have in Italy and Spain.

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It’s more likely that most of the time, the shutters will be raised and lowered only when one of the proprietors wishes to show off to guests that the contraption actually works, or when the proprietor is away and the children of the house lower and raise the shutters repeatedly for no particular reason. One other possible scenario is that the owners will be asked if in the name of high art — say, for the sake of a photograph — they would consent to lower all the shutters simultaneously.

They might well do it for that reason, if for no other. This is because, in a very real sense, the entire project has been conceived in the name of high art from start to finish. The Metal Shutter Houses project is in a starchitect district of far West Chelsea, flanked on one side by Frank Gehry’s The Sails building (the headquarters of Barry Diller’s InterActive Corp.) and on the other by Annabelle Seldorf’s 520 West 19th Street, with Jean Nouvel’s new high-rise all but complete down the street at 100 Eleventh Avenue.

The building has a wraithlike quality that is surprising given its metallic and geometric elements. That’s perhaps because the entire visual concept of the building, its cubic pristineness, is an idea that comes directly out of the two-dimensional arts. Ban, a graduate of Cooper Union’s School of Architecture, studied under men like John Hejduk and Peter Eisenman. Taking their cue from minimalist painters like Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt, they undertook to create an architecture that was formed from the endless permutations of pure geometry, especially the dispassionate arrangement of squares locked into a grid. In this context, the Metal Shutter Houses could count as the highest fulfillment of their aesthetic goals. Beyond that, even if the shutters constitute something of a useless gimmick, the building itself, with or without the shutters drawn, is to all appearances extremely well made and one of the better examples of new architecture in New York City.

Over the years, Ban, who was born in Tokyo in 1957, has proved to be one of the most relentlessly innovative architects around. His only completed project in New York was the 2006 Nomadic Museum, a thrilling basilica modeled on one of the buildings of the Arsenal in Venice. Fabricated entirely out of massive cargo containers and paper pylons, it rose for a few months on the West Side’s Pier 54 to house a traveling (hence nomadic) exhibition of the photographs of Gregory Colbert. This project fit in with one of Ban’s constant preoccupations, the very Japanese use of light materials, like paper and bamboo, in architecture, as well as the creation of architecture in shifting, and often perilous, conditions.

One of the more remarkable examples of both is the Takatori Catholic Church that he designed after the Kobe earthquake in 1995, in which he created a veritable colonnade fashioned entirely out of these paper pylons. Ban has also designed do-it-yourself refugee shelters that have been deployed in Turkey and Rwanda.

And now, it would appear, he has created on 19th Street an architecture similar to those projects in form but very different in function. The adaptability and visual fragility of the Metal Shutter Houses (suggested somewhat pointlessly in the plural “Houses”) certainly recalls the improvisational, shifting nature of Ban’s refugee shelters and his paper churches. But the clients for his latest venture are very different indeed from those whom he has served in the past. If any refugees wind up in these units — eight of which have sold for multimillion-dollar price tags — they will be fleeing the tedium of Malibu, Palm Beach or the French Riviera.