New York by Gehry

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Many New Yorkers have been following the construction of the new residential tower at 8 Spruce Street, just south of City Hall, with a mix of awe and trepidation.

Frank Gehry, the building’s architect, has had a rough time in this city. His first commission here, years ago, was for an Upper East Side town house that was never built; his client, an oil heiress, fired him over Champagne and strawberries. A more recent foray, the massive Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, drew the ire of local activists, who depicted him as an aging liberal in bed with the devil — a New York City real estate developer.

The Spruce Street project (formerly called Beekman Tower) would not only be Mr. Gehry’s first skyscraper, but it was also being built for the same developer, Bruce Ratner. And as the tallest luxury residential tower in the city’s history, it seemed to epitomize the skyline’s transformation from a symbol of American commerce to a display of individual wealth.

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Only now, as the building nears completion, is it possible to appreciate what Mr. Gehry has accomplished: the finest skyscraper to rise in New York since Eero Saarinen’s CBS building went up 46 years ago. And like that tower, and Philip Johnson’s AT&T (now Sony) building after it, 8 Spruce Street seems to crystallize a particular moment in cultural history, in this case the turning point from the modern to the digital age.

The tower, 76 stories high and clad in a rumpled stainless-steel skin, stands at the northern edge of the financial district on a tight lot hemmed in by one-way streets. The Pace University building, a wide, Brutalist-style structure completed in 1970, cuts it off from the rest of the city to the north; just beyond are the spaghettilike access ramps of the Brooklyn Bridge. To the west and north are two early landmarks of skyscraper design, Cass Gilbert’s 1913 Woolworth building and McKim, Mead & White’s 1912 Municipal building.

Mr. Gehry’s design is least successful at the bottom, where he was forced to plant his tower on top of a six-story base that will house a new public grammar school and one floor of hospital services — an odd coupling of private and public interests that was a result of political horse trading rather than any obvious benefit that would be gained from so close a relationship between the two.

The school is clad in conventional orange brick, with heavy steel frame windows that give it the look of a converted factory. Its main facade, with a glass-fronted lobby facing William Street to the east, is relatively straightforward, but it’s a letdown after you’ve seen the gorgeously wrought exterior of the tower above. (Mr. Gehry did not design the interiors of the school, which is still under construction, and students may ask why the pampered young professionals living above them get to live in apartments designed by an architectural superstar while they will have to make do with a no-name talent.)

Not surprisingly, the two groups won’t be mixing. Residents will enter through a covered drive that cuts through the block along the building’s western side. Framed by massive brick pillars and a glass-enclosed lobby, the space’s generous proportions will accommodate taxis and limousines ferrying people in and out of the building, making it feel more like a luxury hotel than a classic Manhattan apartment building.

None of this matters much, however, once you see the tower in the skyline, a view that seems to lift Lower Manhattan out of its decade-long gloom. The building is particularly mesmerizing from the Brooklyn waterfront, where it’s possible to make out one of the deep setbacks that give the building its reassuringly old-fashioned feel. In daylight the furrowed surfaces of the facades look as if they’ve been etched by rivulets of water, an effect that is all the more dramatic next to the clunky 1980s glass towers just to the south. Closer up, from City Hall Park, the same ripples look softer, like crumpled fabric.

The power of the design only deepens when it is looked at in relation to Gilbert’s Woolworth building. A steel frame building clad in neo-Gothic terra-cotta panels, Gilbert’s masterpiece is a triumphant marriage between the technological innovations that gave rise to the skyscraper and the handcrafted ethos of an earlier era.

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Mr. Gehry’s design is about bringing that same sensibility — the focus on refined textures, the cultivation of a sense that something has been shaped by a human hand — to the digital age. The building’s exterior is made up of 10,500 individual steel panels, almost all of them different shapes, so that as you move around it, its shape is constantly changing. And by using the same kind of computer modeling that he used for his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, more than a decade ago, he was able to achieve this quality at a close to negligible increase in cost.

But Mr. Gehry is also making a statement. The building’s endlessly shifting surfaces are an attack against the kind of corporate standardization so evident in the buildings to the south and the conformity that it embodied. He aims, as he has throughout his career, to replace the anonymity of the assembly line with an architecture that can convey the infinite variety of urban life. The computer, in his mind, is just a tool for reasserting that variety.

That mission is expressed inside the building as well. Mr. Gehry has sometimes been criticized for creating wildly sculptural forms that are nothing more than masks: elaborate wrappers draped over conventional interiors. Here the ripples that run up and down the facades form angular window bays inside, creating pockets of space that give the apartments an unusually intimate feel. They also provide dramatically angled views of the surrounding skyline. (Some apartments will even get occasional, unexpected views between neighboring apartments, a side effect that could be good or a bad depending on how many exhibitionists live there.)

But in some ways it is the building’s relation to yet another landmark — the twin towers — that makes 8 Spruce Street so stirring. Mr. Gehry won the commission to design his building sometime in late 2003, just as the competition to redesign ground zero was heating up. The battles that ensued over that site’s master plan seemed to reflect America at its worst: a volatile mix of government ineptitude, commercial greed and jingoism. Its main emblem, the building formerly called the Freedom Tower, which is only taking shape today, remains an emblem of national hubris that is hollow at its core.

Mr. Gehry’s building, by contrast, doesn’t try to dominate the skyline. Its aims (beyond the obvious commercial ones) are comparatively modest: to celebrate the joy that can come out of creative freedom and, by extension, to reassert the individual’s place within a larger social framework. His interest lies in the clashing voices that give cities their meaning; it is democratic at heart.

—Nicholai Ourousoff

Correction: February 11, 2011

An architecture review on Thursday about the new residential tower at 8 Spruce Street in Lower Manhattan designed by Frank Gehry misstated its location relative to three nearby landmarks: City Hall Park, Cass Gilbert’s 1913 Woolworth building, and McKim, Mead & White’s 1912 Municipal building. The park and the Woolworth building are to the west, and the Municipal building is to the north; they are not “to the east” of the new tower.