James Gardner — Rendering confronts reality at Cassa hotel in Midtown

Architect Enrique Norten steps out, but not too much, with favorable high-rise

The Cassa at 70 West 45th Street is set to open in about two months — though it may not look like that today. At ground level, the whole place is bristling with scaffolding and teeming with hard hats. But construction sites have a way of looking like war-torn Kabul only days before the wooden boards fall away to reveal the perfected results, so we shall see.

When it does open, the Cassa, which was designed by Enrique Norten and developed by the Miami-based Desires Hotels, the boutique division of Tecton Hospitality, will contain condos as well as hotel rooms. In this regard it follows the trend set by the Plaza and Mark Hotels, and like them, it promises to cater to the “privileged few who will call it home.” (I quote the remarkable claim of Cassa’s Web site.)

For some of us inveterate New Yorkers, it requires considerable imagination to see how such an elevated, even snooty tone could possibly apply to anything on West 45th Street. A stone’s throw from the Diamond District and some of the sauciest Brazilian restaurants in the five boroughs, Cassa, a good if not exceptional building, has hardly landed in what is traditionally one of the city’s more desirable areas. I say that even after acknowledging that the definition of what constitutes a residential area has proved vastly more elastic in recent years than ever before: Ten years ago, who would have imagined that Alphabet City or the Meatpacking District would ever become prime real estate?


From left: A rendering of the Cassa Hotel in Midtown, the Cassa Hotel

The main appeal of Cassa’s location seems to consist of its proximity to somewhere else: the Theater District, Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building and so forth. As for the street it occupies, there is little there that is worthy of comment — except, perhaps, for the Cassa itself.

As it rises over a treeless, commercial street, amid the towers of Midtown and some lower-lying buildings in its vicinity, the Cassa stands out because of its height, its whiteness, and most of all, the eccentric patterning of its windows. The fact that it was designed by Enrique Norten, perhaps the preeminent Mexican architect at work today, suggests that the developers were serious about high-concept design.

Norten has had his share of disappointments in New York over the past few years, but things are picking up for this talented architect.

A hotel that he designed for Park Avenue and 125th Street came to nothing, as did, thus far, the Performing Arts Library that was supposed to rise in Brooklyn. But he has seen to completion the well-received One York, which faces Canal Street, and he is nearing completion on 580 Carroll Street in Park Slope.

In fact, he recently won a significant architectural victory with regard to the latter project. Only a few weeks ago, when the developers wanted to axe his front-yard concept in order to include more housing, the Board of Standards & Appeals stepped in and insisted upon sticking to the original, and far more aesthetic, plan that Norten had devised.

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As for the Cassa, it appears to be good enough, but it reminds us that we need to approach architectural renderings with the utmost caution. Once upon a time, these renderings were only a little more developed than blueprints and they communicated, with scrupulous dispassion, a fairly precise idea of what the completed building would be.

In recent years, however, renderings and reality seem to have parted ways.

If Kate Moss is photographed looking beautiful in a Karl Lagerfeld gown, that attests more to the beauty of the supermodel than to the beauty of the design: When a retail customer wears the dress, it doesn’t mean she turns into the celebrity. Similarly, if the sky is blue in a given rendering of the Cassa Hotel, and if pale sunshine is shown filtering across its western façade or moonshine casting a mysterious glow over its southern side, such moody theatrics have no automatic connection with the cladding and steel I-beams that make up the finished building.

The renderings of the Cassa do indeed capture the specifics of the building, but the way in which they are framed, and the angles from which they are depicted, create an impression very different, I am afraid, from the realities on the ground. Thus far, the promised dazzle of the renderings is not really borne out in the finished results.

For the time being, the exterior of the building, which is essentially completed, illustrates yet again what happens to imaginative architects when they come from abroad to work in New York City. Norten’s strengths, to judge from the buildings he has completed in Mexico City, are considerable. That he is an architect who delights in volume is evident in the thrilling curves of the Televisa Services Building as well as in the National School of Theater, whose complex of geometric forms includes a cylindrical tube that makes up the main body of the building.

In New York City, however, he has taken a far more conservative tack. Because of the narrow plot of land at Norten’s disposal, he designed the Cassa to rise up as a slender structure.

Its silvery-white exterior, with a slightly metallic sheen to it, and modest bosses over the windows, rises to the seventh floor, at which point a cornice abruptly halts the upward movement of the street front. From there, the building continues on as a setback that tilts at a modest angle all the way up to the summit. The building reads and feels like yet one more high-rise in Midtown, admittedly with a distinctive pallor all its own.

There is also a syncopated placement of the windows that is somewhat unusual, but hardly original. These windows by themselves generally seem like something of a distraction, and are hardly sufficient to generate the hoped-for drama of the building as a whole.

All may not be lost, however. The building appears to be better made than the usual Midtown high-rise, and if it is well-executed at ground level, that would go far to spruce up the general dullness and fatigue that define this stretch of Midtown.

The public interiors, designed by Cetra/Ruddy, appear to be deft and clean executions of the latest modernist idiom. Let us hope, once again, that they live up to their renderings.