Architecture review: NYC’s alien spaceship makes landing at 130 William

The David Adjaye-designed 130 William takes ‘out of context’ to the next level, but it’s not entirely unwelcome

From the March issue: There are architects, there are starchitects and then there is David Adjaye, for whom the term “rock starchitect” may need to be invoked.

The telegenic Bjarke Ingels may be his only rival for the title.

A native of Ghana who moved to England when he was 9, Adjaye was recently knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He was also named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential people of 2017.

And that fairy dust is certainly not being lost on the marketing of 130 William — a 66-story, 244-unit condo tower being developed by David Lichtenstein’s and Mitchell Hochberg’s Lightstone in Lower Manhattan.

With its massive arched windows, the building — which is under construction and is expected to wrap at 800 feet in 2020 — will look something like an alien spaceship coupled with Rome’s famed Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana. That’s especially true given that it’s located in the Financial District, where it will stand near a number of postwar, rationalist high rises.

Adjaye, for his part, has characterized his design as a departure from today’s typical new development and as an embracing of the past.

“Understanding that rich history [of the Financial District], I was inspired to craft a building that turns away from the commercial feel of glass and that instead celebrates New York’s heritage of masonry architecture,” he was quoted saying in a news release announcing the project. But other than the fact that the windows curve at the top in the same manner as some of the other prewar structures in the area, it’s hard to see the connection between 130 William and Lower Manhattan’s “rich history.”

In the United States, Adjaye — who acted as the design architect and worked with Hill West Architects on the project — is perhaps best known for designing the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 on Washington’s National Mall.

While his latest project at 130 William, which sits between Fulton and John streets, is his first New York condo, it’s not his first Manhattan commission.

In general, he can be safely classified as a Deconstructivist architect.

He shares with other proponents of that style a quest for boldness and originality as the highest aim of his art, a goal which — almost by definition — seeks to decouple its buildings from their surrounding context. In Adjaye’s case, however, this Deconstructivist tendency is expressed less in frivolous asymmetries than in the bold volumes that are usually manifested in sharply rectilinear forms.

An evocative example is Adjaye’s Sugar Hill housing development at 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.

Formed of neo-Brutalist raw concrete, this earlier project consists of two equal and massive blocks, with the upper level resting on the lower in a manner that creates a setback to the south and a cantilever to the north. In no way does the Sugar Hill building fit into the charmingly prewar building stock of that part of the city. Nonetheless, there is real energy and expressiveness in the design.

The same cannot be said for the Washington museum, where Adjaye created a three-tiered structure intended — in its form and in the earth tones of its metal façade — to recall traditional African architecture. The design on that project, at least in this critic’s opinion, is lackluster.

Both of those projects produce a very different effect from that of 130 William. While it’s impossible to fully critique the Lightstone project — the existing renderings don’t show the full building from top to bottom — the project does seem to find something approaching classical balance that is new in the context of Adjaye’s career and not entirely unwelcome.

But other than the upper windows, the overall profile of this building reads as a fairly standard Manhattan high-rise. It’s seemingly another instance of a New York developer tapping a vanguardist architect — and the prestige that comes with it — and then neutralizing their true force and novelty.

Frank Gehry’s nearby 8 Spruce Street is another example of that phenomenon.

Perhaps the most immediately striking thing about 130 William is its dark earth tones, which have become something of a signature style for Adjaye. But the hues make no sense in the context in this area of Lower Manhattan.

As noted, the arched windows recall the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, which — notwithstanding Mussolini’s patronage — is a fine piece of work. You’d think that simply copying it would be a step in the right direction. However, the problem here is that the upper portion of the building has balconies tucked into those arches, even if they lead to double-height ceilings for the penthouse units. The decision to alter the orientation of the façade from a vertical to a horizontal axis, with a bizarre curvature at the base of each of these balconies, doesn’t work, in my view. Instead, Adjaye should have continued the arches up the entire façade and incorporated the balconies. But even then, the vaguely organic feel of the textured concrete and bronze seems at war with the more classical serenity of those parts of the curved design.

A word of praise, however, goes to the interiors, which were also designed by Adjaye. The amenities include a health club with a spa, basketball court, pool, lounge, game room, playroom and private IMAX movie theater, in addition to other high-end trappings.   

While the renderings don’t show all of those areas, the pool, in particular, with its dark, even menacing vault and arches, looks striking.

If the interior results live up to those images, the inside of the building will be, at least in parts, memorable — even if the outside is apt to be at odds with the surrounding area.