New York by Gehry

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Standing on the just-released-for-rent upper floors in New York by Gehry has a profound effect on the human mind and body. Your ears pop on the way up to the top. The views from the under-construction penthouse floors beat a landing airplane.

The tallest residential building in the United States at 76 stories, 8 Spruce St. is so giant it feels like you can reach over from a high window and pick up the Statue of Liberty between your thumb and pointer finger. When you step into any bay window formed by the tower’s angled curtain wall, all you can say is: “Whoa. Whoa.”

This building makes you stand on your tiptoes. It makes you want to kiss the glass and see more. From the highest terrace on the tower’s 52nd floor, where developer Forest City Ratner set up a three-bedroom model apartment available for $21,000 per month, looking up at the building might be the closest thing local architecture fans could call a thrill ride. With your head back, moving inch by inch along the low guardrail, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry’s upper floors move flamelike into the sky. If Jack in the fairy tale were still looking for a beanstalk, he’d start here.

It’s at this height where man’s great achievements meet the inner peace that comes with it. The city below looks calm.

“I still pinch myself every time I come up here,” says Forest City Ratner Companies Chairman and CEO Bruce Ratner, looking over the city from the building’s top floor.

Ratner, the building’s developer, dressed in a simple, short-sleeved, pinstriped button down and black pants, is not like other developers who give cities $800 million projects like this one. He’s charming because he’s smart. He’s admirable because he gets things done. He’s controversial because he thinks big. Best of all, he’s human.

Bruce Ratner, Forest City Ratner's Chariman and CEO (Jeanne Noonan for News)

Bruce Ratner, Forest City Ratner’s Chariman and CEO (Jeanne Noonan for News)

“I was riding the elevator the other day, and the person riding up with me kept thanking me,” says Ratner, who developed MetroTech pushing Brooklyn as America’s top downtown destination 25 years ago. “He wasn’t thanking me because he loved living there or loved the building; he was thanking me for the job. A job is the beginning and end of how a person feels about themself. I am thankful we can give jobs, and I’m thankful what this building means to lower Manhattan.”

Already a destination for architecture pilgrimages and tourists, New York by Gehry has taken on cultlike status. Before any official marketing photograph was released, more than 3,000 pictures could be found on Google Images. On YouTube, amateur and professional filmmakers chronicled the building’s construction by taking time-lapsed video of the sun hitting its steel curtain wall.

Having just released the Couture Collection, larger two- and three-bedroom apartments for rent from the 40th to 76th floors, Forest City reports the building as 40% leased. Prices on the upper floors start at $3,600 for an alcove studio, $4,100 for one-bedrooms, and $7,200 for two-bedrooms.

Last weekend, more than 80 residents moved in, each receiving a light-blue Tiffany box with a custom-made key chain of Gehry’s famous torque. To let people know just where they’re standing, the leasing gallery has a wall of quirks explaining that the 903-unit tower contains 2,400 windows, 160 miles of electric cable, 280 million pounds of concrete and 10,500 curtain wall panels weighing 1,000 pounds each.

The curtain wall alone is better traveled than most people. The steel comes from Japan, where it was pressed and rolled. Then it was packed and sent by container ship to Detroit. There, the same company, Italian-based Permasteelisa, shaped the steel panels into the ripples you see now. Each floor of the building took a week to install. The window-washing machine had to be custom-made in Italy to slide in and out of the changing window depths.

Views from a terrace on the 52nd floor, the highest level of outdoor space on the building, show how the ripples increase at the tower's highest point (Jeanne Noonan for News)

Views from a terrace on the 52nd floor, the highest level of outdoor space on the building, show how the ripples increase at the tower’s highest point (Jeanne Noonan for News)

A staggering amount of detail went into the vast number of decisions that had to be made to complete the structure. Even the doorknobs are hand-designed by Gehry. The hallway lighting, by L’Observatoire Int’l, the same company that lit the High Line, goes north to south and illuminates apartment doorways from above moving east to west. The exterior lighting along the east and north facades lights the building like ancient sites or monuments, the Pyramids or the the Eiffel Tower using shadows to glorify the tower’s subtle turns.

The most important decision was the architect. Ratner wanted to work with Gehry since a project the two considered fell flat years back. After thoroughly walking the area and contemplating at length the almost full-block project, Ratner picked up the phone to call Gehry because he saw a unique advantage to the site.

“We saw the opportunity to do great architecture,” Ratner says. “I thought about it a lot. People would be able to see this building from all around. During the tough economic times, we could have built a lot shorter, but Frank thought from the beginning we had to go high because of the proportions. He kept putting blocks on top of blocks to show me. What the eye sees was very important to Frank. This site needed someone with a good eye. Frank has a very good eye. It would have been a shame had an ordinary building been built here.”

A view of the building at dusk from Brooklyn (dbox)

A view of the building at dusk from Brooklyn (dbox)

Ratner has strong feelings about New York City architecture, and what a building can do for a neighborhood.

“No matter where you were on Sept. 11, downtown has a greater significance for us all now,” Ratner says. “Great architecture can make the fabric of a place feel different, whether someone lives near it and sees it every day or doesn’t. Consciously or unconsciously, they feel, ‘My God, this is a better place to live now.’ … It makes people feel better about themselves and their city.”

According to Susi Yu, a senior vice president with Forest City who worked on this project from the beginning, slightly less than half of the building’s residents come from walk-ins. Normally, 70% of renters in luxury developments come from brokers. Led by Cliff Finn’s Citi Habitats Marketing Group and Nancy Packes, leasing for the building has been ignited by Gehry’s celebrity.

Handpicked by architect Frank Gehry, the floors are white oak and the cabinets are Douglas fir, his choice of wood for years (dbox)

Handpicked by architect Frank Gehry, the floors are white oak and the cabinets are Douglas fir, his choice of wood for years (dbox)

Standing in the building, one feels closer to the legendary architect. Yu thinks it’s because his footprint is everywhere.

“Frank chose every interior material,” says Yu, a trained architect. “He chose the Douglas Fir kitchen cabinets and even the amenity spaces were designed by him. The bleacher cushions in the screening room are inspired by the curtain wall’s shape. He’s everywhere you look.”

Gehry calls the tower his “love letter to New York City.” Early on, only select brokers were allowed to see the units. Tourists, brokers and architectural buffs tried to sneak in, filling out prospective renter applications. Museums asked for and have been granted private tours.

Sitting in a 52nd-floor model, in an angled study facing northwest, Ratner and Yu discuss the wallpaper in the room. Ratner isn’t sure he loves it — etchings of little triangles angled up and down like the city structures below. It’s probably the only thing he isn’t ecstatic about in all 870 feet and 1.1 million square feet. Walking through the building, he and Yu didn’t stop smiling. They like it here.

“Is it a home run?” I ask, still on a natural high and slightly reeling from staring up at the building’s top 24 floors from the terrace outside.

Yu nods. This building, she told me earlier, had five lives, was almost chopped in half and almost lost financing after the crash of September 2008. On the way, it became the greatest New York skyscraper in the past 25 years and an emblem for the resurgence and vitality of Lower Manhattan now and forever.

“A home run?” says Ratner, smiling. “Yes. We’re very proud of this.”

By Jason Sheftell (Friday, August 5th 2011)