Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mired in Meier--Part Four

For this series of posts, I went down to see three of only five buildings Richard Meier has standing in New York that he built from the ground up, and the first he ever built in Manhattan. They're 173 and 176 Perry Street (2002):
Click images for larger views.

And immediately to the south, 165 Charles Street (2006):

--All 166, 173, & 176 Perry and 165 Charles exterior photos ©2010, Ryan Witte.
These buildings are actually quite interesting in terms of the Meier canon, because he really hasn't built all that many towers with these very New York proportions, with a small footprint and great deal of height. In fact, he seems to prefer to arrange spaces horizontally wherever possible, or at least make them wider than they are tall. On the one hand, if we're talking about pure aesthetics, a movie screen is the proportions it is for a reason. Human sight works horizontally, evolved to scan the horizon for predators, prey, and edible flora. In that sense, there is something inherently more pleasing about a structure that stretches out before us on the horizontal.

On the other hand--and you know what I'm going to say--even if a building isn't squeezed into the limited space of the island of Manhattan, building horizontally is as much irresponsible as the lack of (or bad) city planning that results in unchecked suburban sprawl. It uses and impacts far more land than is necessary. This is something we're trying to avoid these days. So I'm torn between the inescapable mechanics of human vision and the needs of the planet.

In any case, I approached from the south. The most recent of them, 165 Charles, is not unexpectedly different from the first two, but they still work beautifully as a trio. Meier's oeuvre is so well tailored it'd have been hard to imagine a building by him that would look wrong next to two of his others, but obviously this was intentional.

The buildings more or less tell the following story. First, narrow, solid concrete slabs--referred to as "bustles"--at the eastern end of the sites have had thin ribbon slots sliced out of them to form windows but very much maintain their solidity.

That's the service core or, in Meier parlance, the "private" zone. Then a larger glass box breaks through and surrounds the concrete slab on the north, south, and riverfront sides and becomes a new, open, transparent façade.

Keep in mind that it isn't a trick of the camera angle: the western façades remain parallel to the West Side Highway, and the various other volumes run either perpendicular to that or cant off to match the ENE angle of Perry Street. It becomes somewhat more obvious at the canted entrance to the Perry St Restaurant, incidentally run by one of the greatest living chefs, Jean-George Vongerichten.

But now there's two glass towers the same height, but of different widths, too flat and uniform to speak much to one another for any other reason but the same orientation to the highway. So to the riverfront façade of each is attached matching white steel frames with horizontal beams that draw the eye back and forth between the two towers.
At the very top of the trees there, you can see the triplex Joy Apartment in 176 Perry, designed by Meier himself. The strange looking object on the left is its impressive spiral staircase.
--Photo courtesy architect's website.

The river and its views, however, are pulling on the west façades, and therefore also on the steel frames. So the river pulls the frames out to the west, extruding part of the glass wall with them, with the rest of this exposed cavity filling in with exterior living space--i.e., balconies--which responds even more acutely to the natural and scenic qualities of the riverfront property.

Notice on the south façade of 176 Perry how a vertical white fin clearly partitions the main glass box from the section that's been extruded out from it:

Finally, the frames have only been forceful enough to extrude a central section of the glass box. But the junction of the two buildings, and also the negative space of Perry Street between them, needs to be emphasized more so that the buildings can read as a cohesive pair. So the steel frames have been shifted toward each other so they butt up against the adjacent corners of the two buildings.

This forms a screen of privacy and blocks the wind from the balconies on the northern tower and reveals more expansive views for the balconies on the south tower:

Above all, this sense of movement and contextual dynamism is, I believe, the sign of a true master.

The third and final building does many of the same things. Only here, it's the glass façade itself that has been pulled west by the river. In contrast to the horizontal beams in the frames of the other two, here the glass extrusion is contained by two thin vertical piers, emphasizing both the verticality of this façade, which would otherwise read as the widest, and at other moments, the ethereality of the glass wall.

This accomplishes a few different things. First of all, it necessarily has to read as a sheet of glass pulled off of the regular glass box. In one place where the curtain wall extends down below the rest of the building punctuates this further.

Secondly, it works wonderfully with the balconies, which now read much more as external rooms.

Furthermore, it blocks the winds off the river and the blazing sunlight on the balconies, but not the exceptional views.

But now this façade is too flat and uniform to initiate dialogue with the other two. So to draw a connection to the pair of buildings to the north, the glass façade is split into two perfectly symmetrical sections.

This isn't just a stylistic maneuver, though. The center line is actually the end of a spine that divides the building's interior in half for most of its floors, with one line of apartments on the north, and slightly larger ones on the south.

The symmetry becomes a bit too bland and orderly, however, so--in a truly exquisite detail--the slot aligning with the pier in the center is canted off to one side, made parallel with the south façade which matches the slight ENE angle of Charles Street.
Unlike the first two buildings, with their free open loft spaces, all the interiors of 165 Charles were designed by Meier.

I decided I may as well ask if there were anything inside the buildings that I could get in photographs, like a model apartment or something. I seriously doubted it, but it can't hurt to ask. The first guy, in 165 Charles, was downright rude. It wasn't at all that he couldn't allow photography, that's totally understandable. It was how he needed to be all authoritarian about it. I've discussed security guards before; I suspect doormen are cast from a similar mold. The hostess of the Perry St restaurant was very nice, but the interior was not by Meier, she informed me. The doorman at 173 Perry was very friendly and helpful, and while there was nothing of the interior that I could or necessarily would want to photograph, he told me about the square footages of the floors (1800 and 3750 square feet, 176 Perry being the larger of the two), and a little bit about the going prices.

I'd also like to quickly mention another building which is very close to being finished. It's 166 Perry Street by Asymptote, right next door.

While wholly distinctive unto itself, their building works so beautifully with Meier's, both in its interaction and its adjacency:

It also has what would appear to be gorgeous apartments, and what will be a very cool, space-age lobby.

--Renderings courtesy Asymptote.

On my way back to the subway, I managed to pass by Cooper Classics. I might not have gone in, as much as I love checking out old cars, except that they had a 1971 Ferrari Dino by Pininfarina, which I had only just mentioned in an email a few weeks earlier.

--Credit there in the photo.
It's one of the most beautiful cars ever designed, in my opinion, so I had to take a closer look. In their garage across the street, they also had an early prototype for the Porsche 356 that is the only one of its kind in existence.

©2010, Ryan Witte

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