The New Residential Vernacular

Cities are shaped by their vernacular as much as their monuments, and New York has always been a city of masonry. Whether the brownstone and terra-cotta and redbrick of the nineteenth century or the limestone and white brick of the twentieth, the ordinary workaday buildings of New York have been solid objects first, exemplars of architectural style second. They are masses, and the streets along which they line up are voids. Philip Birnbaum’s garish white-brick residential towers from the 1960s are hardly the equal of Rosario Candela’s sumptuous and understated limestone apartment buildings from the 1920s, but at least the cheap arriviste and the self-assured aristocrat always had one thing in common: their masonry facades had the quality of dense objects.

Now the vernacular is shifting again. This is no surprise—after all, the white-brick apartment towers of the postwar decades have grown as old as the great buildings of the 1920s were when they were built. Some are even older: Manhattan House on East 66th Street, the first of that breed and still the finest, opened its doors 56 years ago. So it is more than time for something else. But this change is more striking than the shift from brownstone to limestone, or from one kind of brick to another. We are now seeing for the first time the end of the notion of the building as solid object. There is a new residential vernacular in New York: glass.

It’s a bizarre moment in the city’s architectural history. Glass is nothing new. The United Nations Secretariat Building is so old that it is all but falling apart, Lever House has already had its entire curtain wall replaced, and the Seagram Building is as revered as the Dakota. But the city has never before embraced glass towers as a way of making ordinary residential buildings. Of course, we have had a few high-end exceptions: Harrison & Abramovitz’s United Nations Plaza towers in the late 1960s came first, then the Olympic Tower and Trump Tower and Museum Tower and the handful of elegant slender buildings erected by the developer Sheldon Solow on the Upper East Side. By and large, however, New Yorkers were much more likely to work in glass towers than to live in them.

No more. In fact, I suspect there are now plenty of people for whom the opposite is true: they live in new glass buildings in Soho or Tribeca and work in old converted industrial buildings. Glass has become the new brick. You see it everywhere, and not just in small highly touted and precious examples of starchitect marketing: Richard Meier’s pristine boxes on Perry Street, Winka Dubbeldam’s rippling facade on Greenwich Street, Gwathmey Siegel’s undulations at Astor Place, and the promise of Jean Nouvel on Mercer Street. This is the high-end stuff, and a lot of it is quite good—especially Meier’s buildings and Nouvel’s renderings—but these projects represent a cultural phenomenon as much as an architectural one, driven more by the selling power of a handful of architects’ names than the allure of glass.

But that isn’t the case with the glass residential slab on West 34th Street—so huge you think it is an office tower. This isn’t innovative design but the architectural equivalent of trickle-down aesthetics. So too with the Orion, a huge new tower on West 42nd Street. These are standard-issue boxes with standard-issue apartments inside them, and there seem to be more of them all the time. The Durst Organization has put up the full-block Helena on Eleventh Avenue and 57th Street, sheathed entirely in glass; there are also glass buildings on 99th Street and Riverside Drive. Glass is not just the new brick—it is the new white brick, the default symbol of Manhattan banality.

The new condos by Meier and Nouvel and Gwathmey Siegel have the same relationship to these buildings that Manhattan House—the masterwork by Mayer, Whittlesey and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—had to the white-brick buildings that followed it, or that the Seagram Building and Lever House have to the ordinary office towers of Third Avenue. New York has a long tradition of starting a genre with a first-rate work, and then instead of building upon its example, watering it down in ever plainer, less imaginative versions for a broader market. And so the list keeps lengthening, to include not only the glass mega residential buildings on the West Side but projects like Place 57, on Third Avenue between 56th and 57th streets, advertising a “sophisticated Baccarat crystal lobby and garden,” which is a clever way to use associations other than architecture to establish a connection between glass and luxury; and the Hudson, in Midtown, which urges young professionals to “parlay your bonus into a sound investment just two blocks from the Time Warner Center.” The Hudson sells itself as the starter version of the high-end glass condo, promising “state-of-the-art” apartments with “floor-to-ceiling windows,” not for zillions but for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while we’re talking about marketing, we shouldn’t forget the Urban Glass House, the downtown building that Philip Johnson’s firm produced at the end of his life, with apartments by Annabelle Selldorf—notable mainly for the brazen attempt to promote it as the city version of Johnson’s masterwork in New Canaan.

Since even a mundane curtain wall looks fresher and more elegant than a white-brick facade, most of these new glass buildings are better looking than the brick boxes of the last generation. So in what passes for market-rate housing, New York now produces a higher grade of mediocrity than it used to (progress of a sort, I suppose). But the improvement tends to be limited to the facades. Most of these buildings are designed by pedestrian firms that follow the aesthetic directions set by others (some are even produced by SLCE Architects, which is the contemporary name for Schuman, Lichtenstein, Claman & Efron, one of the firms most responsible for the old brick boxes). The new interiors are straightforward. While the lobbies lack the imitation Louis Quatorze furniture of the white-brick buildings, they aren’t exactly crisp Miesian spaces either. There’s no imagination to the floor plans, and in some cases there aren’t even the floor-to-ceiling windows that the glass facades would suggest. In the Helena, for example, many of the facade panels are spandrel glass, covering solid portions of exterior wall.

When glass residential buildings were rare, they had a graceful effect on the cityscape: light objects playing off against masonry. But just as the Seagram Building lost some of its luster when its masonry neighbors on Park Avenue were replaced by inferior glass buildings, we are beginning to run the risk of seeing glass become not the appealing counterpoint to the stone city but the new standard. And it doesn’t work well at that. The allure of glass—its brittleness and precision, the way it seems to bedazzle and at the same time keep you at a distance—can sometimes make beautiful buildings, but it’s less likely to make appealing street-scapes. This is not the place to get into Modernism’s urbanistic failings, which involve far more than material choices, but walking alongside a glass building doesn’t provide the subtle embrace that richly textured stone or even brick does. It is a paradox: stone, heavy and opaque, pulls you closer; glass, light and transparent, keeps you at a distance. I have tried to avoid using words like warm and cold, but it is hard not to conclude that glass is cold and masonry warm. A cold object can be stunningly beautiful, but one cannot make a whole street out of them, and streets are the mortar of civilizing cities. Masonry buildings make streets; glass buildings make objects.

There is, of course, a counterrevolution, and it began even before Modernism had completed its trickling down to the vernacular. Thanks in part to pressure from adjustments in the city’s zoning intended to discourage setback towers, and in part to the prestige of architects like Robert A. M. Stern—who brings as much marketing clout to neo-1920s buildings as Richard Meier does to Mod-ernist ones—there are a fair number of structures designed to look as much as possible like the great buildings by Candela, Emery Roth, and others from 80 years ago. Some of these, such as 515 Park Avenue by Frank Williams, are as mediocre as the ordinary glass ones; others, such as Stern’s Chatham or his immense planned double building at 15 Central Park West, are more subtle. All of them respect the street. But what does it say when our choice for new housing seems to be between huge towers that look vaguely like office buildings and huge towers that knock off the details of the 1920s at gargantuan scale? Our residential architects seem to alternate between defying their pre-decessors and bowing meekly before them. °

Categories: Arts + Culture