James Gardner — Fogging up the vision machine

<i>Nouvel building shows that NYC is where the world’s best architects often create their least-notable work </i>

In theory we should all be happy that architect Jean Nouvel is designing anything in New York, and doubly happy that he is working on two projects at the same time, a high-rise next to the Museum of Modern Art and 100 11th Avenue in Chelsea, a building also known as the Vision Machine. Even if the finished product Uptown ends up looking very different from its initial renderings, it is still, at least for the moment, full of promise. As for its nearly completed Downtown companion, where some of the units have already been closed on, the reality is less inspiring.

Surely New York could do far worse than these two new projects by Jean Nouvel, considering how it usually welcomes high-profile architecture: Projects that start out with some fancy international star on the marquee often end up with the local talent inconspicuously taking their place.

Still, this latest project in Chelsea seems to confirm the reputation that Manhattan has been acquiring slowly over the past decade or so, as the place where some of the world’s fanciest architects come to create some of their dullest buildings. Aside from several good buildings, most of them, mind you, are not bad. Their only problem is that they exhibit far less inspiration and élan than these architects seem to summon when working in Europe or elsewhere. You have only to compare Sir Norman Foster’s Hearst Building on Eighth Avenue and 57th Street with his building for Swiss Re, a.k.a. the Gherkin Building in London, or Enrique Norten’s One York Street, just off Canal Street, with any number of his projects in Mexico City, to appreciate the general truth of this observation.

What causes this mediocrity? In New York, architects are forced to run a gauntlet of government agencies and community groups who like nothing better than to clip the wings of inspiration and to round each advanced idea down to the nearest available triviality.

Neither the Uptown nor the Downtown building will represent Jean Nouvel’s first foray into Manhattan. While his entry in the 2002 competition for the Brooklyn Visual and Performing Arts Library didn’t win (that honor went to Enrique Norten and is now on indefinite hold for lack of funds), Nouvel’s was easily the best entry. Nouvel also distinguished himself in designing the 40 Mercer Street Residences for André Balazs. In its geometric purity, this latter building is more typical of Nouvel’s work than is either of the projects now being completed, given their deconstructed aesthetic.

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A 64-year-old Frenchman, Nouvel first rose to prominence in 1981, when he was chosen by French President François Mitterand to design the Institut du Monde Arabe on Paris’s Left Bank. That exquisite structure, which so charmingly combined a modernist sense of structure with a Mozarabic sense of decor, was a relatively rare instance of contextualism in Nouvel’s long career. What is more conspicuous is its geometric rigidity, making the architect one of the pioneers of what is now called Neomodernism, the enhanced reenactment of midcentury geometric purity that informs works like his Fondation Cartier in Paris and 40 Mercer in Soho, not to mention his Dentsu Building in Tokyo. At the same time, he has proved that he can free himself from the tyranny of right angles through such lyrical whimsy as the Torre Agbar in Barcelona, the new Musée du Quai Branly in Paris and the not-yet-completed Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Unfortunately, his footing is less sure when it comes to the Deconstructivist idiom, and that is what he has given us at 100 11th Avenue, located on 19th Street beside the West Side Highway. This 23-story, LEED-certified building contains 72 units and has been developed by Cape Advisers with Alf Naman Real Estate Advisers, both based in New York. An irregularly shaped high-rise, it relates to its shorter and squatter next-door neighbor, Frank Gehry’s equally iconic IAC Building, the Sails, like Abbott to Costello. Though the two clash rather than harmonize in form, color and ambition, they are united at least in their unabashed use of the Deconstructivist style.

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100 11th Avenue

Admittedly, with no hard evidence, I find it hard to believe that Nouvel, who is a serious man, came up with the name Vision Machine for this building, and yet that appellation, suggestive of Californian experiential enhancement, is its semiofficial title. In any case, whatever that name is worth, its suggestion of vaporous, touchy-feely indeterminacy has nothing to do with the finished result.

Apparently the great selling point of the facade of 100 11th Avenue is the irregular use of window plates in its curtain-walled façade to form a mosaic of hews and sizes and forms roughly set into their steel matrix. This device has not often been tried before, and the results on 11th Avenue give us a good sense of why. Seen in detail, the window panes have a certain syncopated jazz that has reminded more than one observer of the abstractions of Piet Mondrian. But as these plates extend across the entire façade of the building, they come to lack all sense of context. Furthermore, although such things are of course a matter of taste, the roughness and irregularity of the façade seem to go against the grain of a certain deep-rooted human need for smoothness and order and consistency. At the same time, the form of the building, considered in isolation from its cladding, is entirely undistinguished, something that could never be said for the latest renderings of the building that Nouvel is designing beside the Museum of Modern Art. In the curvature of its façade, oriented toward the south, this building is hardly distinguishable from many another high-rise in Lower Manhattan.

It is at this point that we come upon a supreme irony of this building. Whereas great thought and effort seem to have been applied to the southwest façade, that is, to the front of the building, the back appears to have been at best an afterthought. But perhaps for that very reason, the back is so much better and so much more original than the front, especially when seen from the newly opened High Line Park. For the entire back portion, facing east, is clad in something that from a distance looks like brick painted a solid black. Despite its conceptual simplicity, this color rarely makes it onto the façades of buildings, even at the back, and the results are jolting and refreshing. Better still, that blackness is relieved by a very liberal and very syncopated array of windows embedded in their masonry context. Unlike the distressed and irregular curtain wall that makes up the front of the building, the result here is a rich sense of patterning in the back, one that recalls this architect’s earlier experiments in a more austere geometry. If the entirety of 100 11th Avenue had taken its cue from the back, it would have been a far more compelling building than it is today.