New York by Gehry

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From the mind of Chicago’s Pritzker Pavilion architect, a sensuous first skyscraper

Frank Gehry’s new 8 Spruce Street apartment tower may be the most delicious piece of eye candy to hit the Manhattan skyline since the Chrysler Building. It is also a very expensive place to live. A 450-square-foot studio rents for at least $2,600 a month, and the asking price for a three-bedroom penthouse apartment is expected to be somewhere around $25,000 a month.

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A cozy bay window offers a window seat with an expansive view of the Brooklyn Bridge. (Scott Strazzante, Chicago Tribune)

The 76-story high-rise, Gehry’s first skyscraper, is wrapped in a sensuous exterior of stainless steel that ripples like folds of drapery and brilliantly catches the light. There is nothing else quite like it, though the building bears similarities to Jeanne Gang’s spectacularly undulating, 81-story Aqua residential and hotel tower in Chicago.

But to linger solely on 8 Spruce Street’s strikingly crumpled skin is to miss this skyscraper’s deeper appeal. Based on a recent tour I took, it also appears to be a welcoming, pleasantly quirky place to live. Gehry, in other words, has given us the total package, not a slick facade job where the architecture only runs a few inches deep.

Located on the east side of lower Manhattan and being marketed under the rather silly name of “New York by Gehry,” 8 Spruce Street has 903 apartments and a smattering of other uses. They include a public school that forms a five-story podium on which the rest of the building sits.

It’s an unusual arrangement, one that resulted from political deal-making, and it added to the challenge the Los Angeles architect faced in adapting to a skyscraper the neo-Baroque aesthetic he has used in his acclaimed cultural commissions — among them, Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

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He also had to redesign the building, which originally was to have condos on its upper floors, after it became apparent in 2006 that too many homes were coming onto the market in Manhattan.

“When you have a horizontal building, you can cut it in segments and make it like a train,” Gehry said in a telephone interview. “When you have a tower, it’s difficult to segment. It’s one kind of structure, thrusting upwards.”

He found his way with a tower that steps back in the wedding-cake style of classic New York skyscrapers, such as the nearby neo-Gothic Woolworth Building. But there is no attempt to mimic them with pyramid-shaped tops or other facile gestures prevalent among the postmodern towers of the 1980s.

Instead, Gehry added bay windows to the standard New York apartment layout, then arranged the bays in boldly curving stacks that will make it seem, to some eyes, as if he had one too many drinks at lunch.

The bays create the impression of sharply defined drapery folds, which the architect calls “Bernini folds,” a reference to the 17th century Italian sculptor, Gianlorenzo Bernini, a master at capturing human movement in marble. Yet building Gehry’s design required today’s most advanced computer modeling software. The facade, after all, curves both vertically and horizontally.

8 Spruce Street’s 7th floor features a dining room available to residents, with a Gehry-designed light fixture hovering over an oval table by the architect. A skylit, 50-foot swimming pool is visible in the background, along with an outdoor terrace.

8 Spruce Street’s 7th floor features a dining room available to residents, with a Gehry-designed light fixture hovering over an oval table by the architect. A skylit, 50-foot swimming pool is visible in the background, along with an outdoor terrace.

Only on the straight-walled, south side of the T-shaped tower did Gehry use a flat vertical plane — not as a cost-cutting measure, he insists, but to create a cleaved versus curved look inspired by a geode.

The results can be entrancing, particularly on days when bright sunlight accentuates 8 Spruce Street’s undulating, stainless steel skin. Its powerfully sculpted curves seem to swoop in and out, up and down, as though Gehry had taken a sheet of tinfoil, crumpled it and turned it into a skyscraper. The building seems especially luminous when glimpsed from the dark canyons of lower Manhattan. Even the tower’s stark south side comes off well, if only because it serves to contain — and contrast with — the building’s riotous energy.

Like the Art Deco Chrysler Building, which opened in 1930 and features such visual flourishes as gargoyles modeled on hood ornaments, 8 Spruce manages to be playful without being foolish. Yet if the Chrysler Building symbolizes the machine age, this skyscraper exemplifies the digital age. Here, aided by the computer, Gehry endows the tall residential building with the same emphasis on movement and feeling that characterizes his great cultural commissions.

Even so, there are faults. From certain angles, 8 Spruce Street’s silhouette appears more muscular than lyrical. Its blocky edges lack the graceful curves that race so fluidly around Aqua’s corners, weaving that tower’s different facades into a captivating whole. On cloudy days, when 8 Spruce is seen from a distance, its curves seem to flatten and it appears little different from a conventional high-rise.

One can also question Gehry’s decision to give the organic tower and its rectangular podium entirely different aesthetic expressions. In doing so, he sidestepped a major challenge of skyscraper architecture, which is to resolve a tower’s large-scale urban presence with the more intimate scale of the street.

Diagonal pavement patterns attempt to enliven the dark porte cochere that leads cars and pedestrians to the front door. (Scott Strazzante, Chicago Tribune)

Diagonal pavement patterns attempt to enliven the dark porte cochere that leads cars and pedestrians to the front door. (Scott Strazzante, Chicago Tribune)

Responding to this criticism, Gehry said he felt that covering the school in brick and giving it a more conventional geometry than the tower would offer a certain comfort to students. In any event, the school, which opens in September, does no harm to its surroundings, and two street-level plazas that flank it may compensate for its lack of architectural delight.

8 Spruce Street is equally appealing as a place to live, and that is largely because Gehry had control over the interior. At Aqua, which opened in 2009, Gang did little to shape the apartments, which were handled by the building’s architect-of-record and turned out to be rather conventional living spaces. In contrast, Gehry has designed everything from door handles to window seats.

His touch is evident in the lobby, with its vertically grained Douglas fir walls and a concrete reception desk that brings the warpy curves of the exterior inside. Even the elevator lobbies reflect Gehry’s hand, the off-kilter rows of lights on their ceilings evoking a sense of motion.

I visited several apartments, from a studio to a three-bedroom. While the units are small compared with Manhattan’s great prewar apartment houses, the apartments benefit from open floor plans, views of such landmarks as the Brooklyn Bridge and a delightful quirkiness created by Gehry’s bay windows, with their nooks and window seats. These, above all, break down the building to a human scale.

Wisely, Gehry kept most of his architectural moves to the perimeter, realizing that prospective tenants might balk if they couldn’t fit straight-lined couches and other conventional furniture into the apartments. And while his hand is evident throughout, it is not a heavy hand that forces inhabitants to adapt their lifestyle to his aesthetic, in the manner of certain houses by Frank Lloyd Wright.

“I’d never be able to live like that,” Gehry said. Indeed, he has ridden the building’s elevators during visits to 8 Spruce Street and says tenants have given him positive feedback. “The only negative I got was from a guy who said there were too many rules — things to do with security, things imposed on buildings since 9/11,” Gehry said.

It’s disappointing that the developers chose not to pursue Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design status, which is widely viewed as the green building movement’s equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. But 8 Spruce Street still has many energy-saving features, such as low-emitting paints that improve indoor air quality. Though not officially green, it’s at least green in spirit.

Of the 600 units now on the market, 450 have been rented, according to Susi Yu, a senior vice president for the developer, Forest City Ratner Cos. Overall, she estimated, it cost about 10 percent more to build Gehry’s design than a conventional apartment building with a steel and glass curtain wall. Yet the developer could profit handsomely if the building continues to command high rents. Among those living at 8 Spruce Street, Yu said, are people who work on Wall Street, internationals, entrepreneurs and celebrities, whom she declined to name.

In the end, though, what matters most about 8 Spruce Street is the magic it works on New York’s celebrated skyline. Perhaps, in light of the high rents that form the project’s economic underpinnings, it could only have been built here. Yet as cities around the country, including Chicago, experience a new surge of apartment building, Gehry’s skyscraper sets a towering yet playfully humanistic standard.

[Source: Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, August 26, 2011]