James Gardner — Nasty, brutish and tall

<i>42nd Street Yotel is cynically drab</i>

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In the past generation, few areas of the five boroughs have developed faster or more fundamentally than the three-quarter-mile stretch of 42nd Street that extends from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River.

Some of the high-rises that have sprung up along that stretch are fairly good, at least by the rather low expectations that one brings to New York real estate: among these are the Silver Towers, the Atelier and the Orion. But truth be told, as you pass in review of this entire thoroughfare, from one river to the other, there is no architectural firm that has done quite as much damage to its two-mile expanse as the firm of Arquitectonica. The parti-colored, Bozo the Clown façade that the firm designed for the Westin Hotel, completed in 2002 at 42nd and Eighth, is so incompetent in conception, and so poor in execution, that the only thing more astounding than its having been realized in the first place is the fact that the very same firm has now been suffered to design a brand-new hotel, the so-called Yotel, only two blocks west, at 440 West 42nd Street.

The hotel, whose official opening is planned for next month, is the major component of a 60-story mixed-use development undertaken by the Related Companies, between Ninth and 10th avenues. The project also has 151 condos, 500 rentals, 23,000 square feet of amenities and 13,000 square feet of retail space.

The results — in terms of quality — are exactly as one might expect from the architects of the Westin. The firm is capable of some very strong work, as attested in several residential developments that it designed in Miami, its home city, as well as at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, whose new façade, completed in 2006, is one of the more distinguished architectural events of Grand Concourse Avenue. And yet, when it comes to designing hotels, at least in Manhattan, something seems to come over the designers at Arquitectonica. As though hypnotized or bewitched, they abandon whatever taste they have evidenced elsewhere and begin to design monstrosities.

Whereas the Westin is outlandishly ugly, the Yotel achieves a similarly dispiriting result through the banality of its massing and details. It consists of a sequence of simple rectilinear forms: Its most conspicuous element is a high-rise slab, running parallel to 42nd Street and recessed from the street, that reaches 10th Avenue through the mediation of a lower-lying, cubic structure. This portion of the complex, like the slab itself, is clad in a distinctly unimaginative skin of darkened glass that reads in most light like a black surface.

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Although, in recent years, this sort of surface treatment has been rather effectively employed — in such developments as the Trump World Tower, designed by Costas Kondylis, and in the Millenium Hotel near ground zero, designed by Eli Attia, at the Yotel the surface feels entirely depleted. As such, it would not merit or provoke a moment’s interest were it not for the fact that the project is so large, completely dominating 42nd Street and 10th Avenue.

The squatness of its proportions, the sullenness of its black cladding, and the brutal simplicity of the forms that constitute the project make it one of the most bullying developments to be visited upon the West Side of Manhattan since the construction of the Columbus Circle Coliseum in 1952 (which has since been replaced by the infinitely better Time Warner Center, also developed by Related).

But even within the context of this new development’s severity and simplicity, the architects appear to have little faith in the internal logic of their vision. It has been fatally betrayed by the six-story base of the building. Though this is every bit as boxy as the rest of the development, it has been improbably clad in a tawny, porous limestone that would not look very good on any building, one suspects, but certainly is wrong, both chromatically and texturally, when placed in such close juxtaposition to the black boxes that sit atop it. With the possible exception of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, these two hues are not usually seen together. There is a reason for that, and only the people at Arquitectonica seem not to have discovered it.

Meanwhile, the stone surface of the base is interrupted by irregular lengths of ribbon window. Also, at street level, the building appears to be supported by gray concrete pylons.

As for the Yotel itself, which, according to the banner across the façade of the building, is “The World’s Most Radical Hotel,” it will contain some 669 rooms, making it one of the biggest hotels in the city. It is hard, however, to grasp what is so rad about the new hotel.

According to some accounts, its rooms may be more like those of a normal hotel than the pod-like compartments for which this chain is known. Also, its placement in the center of a major city is something of a departure for the chain, which was founded in 2002 by Simon Woodroffe, chairman and founder of YO! Company. The company, which is behind YO! Sushi and other brands, bases the pod concept on Japanese capsule hotels. The chain is best known for its hotels in London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports, as well as at Schipol, the Amsterdam airport.

Heretofore, the Yotel hotels have been patronized under some duress, due to missed or canceled flights, or the unpleasant obligation to be at the airport at the crack of dawn. As to how the concept will fare in the City That Never Sleeps, only time will tell.