SOM’s East 57th Street project a matter of perspective: Architecture review

250 East 57th Street
250 East 57th Street

Getting things built in New York City is rarely a straightforward affair, and the development that is set to rise at 250 East 57th Street is one of the more elusive in recent years.

It consists of two parts: One a recently completed High School of Art and Design, which replaces an earlier incarnation of the same school on the same site, and the other a residential development for which ground has been broken, but which has yet to rise, at the corner of East 57th Street and Second Avenue.

Both halves of the development were designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill and developed by the World Wide Group, in conjunction with the New York City Educational Construction Fund.

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As for the residential development, reports and renderings are so fluid that one hesitates to offer more than the most provisional assessment. The latest renderings that I was able to find — the developer and architect did not respond by press time — reveal a 59-story curtain-walled tower on an expansive base, angled and facetted to form an hourglass configuration.

From the privileged angle of the renderings, that seems like a powerful design idea. The problem that I anticipate, based on other projects inspired by the deconstructivist idiom, is that the building will most often be seen from less favored perspectives. And from those it will likely seem bent out of shape, precisely in order for the structure to stack up impressively from the one privileged perspective that truly concerns the architect. Whether this will be the case with 250 East 57th Street will only be known once the building is completed and that, according to a notice at the construction site, will not be before 2016.

In the meantime, there are reports that changes to the design have made it more curvaceous and less insistently angular. Also, this 59-story, 715-foot tower will have only 270 condo units, 50 fewer than were announced in 2006, when plans for the building were first announced. In truth, given that the building, if it adheres to the new schedule, will have been completed fully 10 years after its designs were first published, it is likely that there was a strong incentive to address the fact that its bold facets and angles seem — as the saying goes — so ten years ago.

Even if we had better renderings, however, there would be reason to doubt their accuracy. The public high school that is part of the development appears, from the renderings, to be boldly volumetric, geometric and also dramatic in its stark contrasts of what is black and white. But the reality is very different. The School Is Entered On 56th Street, While Its 57th Street façade at street level is given over to a Whole Foods branch. But the bold volumes of the façade, as well as the interchange of black and white on the façade, end up seeming so very pallid and undistinguished.