Chatham Square overhaul lacks historicism, but gains snugness

If all had gone to plan, Chinatown’s Chatham Square would look rather different from what you see today. The Department of City Planning wanted a design that would have made the area somewhat more gentrified and pedestrian-friendly. But this was met with considerable opposition from the locals, who felt that it would harm their businesses.

Although the mayor’s office has not entirely ruled out some modification of the important public thoroughfare, any such plans are on hold for at least the next few years. As things stand now, in any case, Chatham Square at the confluence of Park Row and the Bowery, with its noble statue of Confucius, remains one of the better conceived parts of Chinatown, a part of the city singularly lacking in any evidence of urban planning.

But it has recently started to look even better, as the on-again, off-again work at 2-8 Catherine Street, or 17 Chatham Square, finally approaches completion. The new seven-story office and retail building, a shimmering and well-made example of neo-Modernism, is entirely lacking in contextualism, in vivid contradistinction to the building it replaced, a fussily authentic-looking pagoda that housed a HSBC branch. That earlier building was razed and in its place rises a taller entirely new building consisting of a smoothly continuous crystalline curtain-wall. Though there is still work to be done on the interior, the outside is now complete.

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Earlier renderings suggested that the surface would be enlivened with broad horizontal bands of darker and lighter glass at intervals, but this design element, fortunately, was not implemented in the final version.

What the resulting building lacks in its predecessor’s historicism, it makes up in the snugness with which it occupies its highly irregular corner, something that the earlier pagoda never managed to do.

The building has been designed by David Hu Architect, a small firm that has worked primarily for clients in China and Taiwan as well as in Chinatown. Hu has completed one building to date in Manhattan, a modernist and somewhat pedestrian residential development at 208 West 96th Street.

Otherwise Hu has worked on the interiors of Chinese restaurants and wellness centers, and many doctors’ and dentists’ offices. No previous work, however, could have prepared us for the confidence and quality of the new building on Chatham Square.