Sunday, 5 May 2013

Herzog & de Meuron's tower under way

In a current architectural zeitgest where it is much more likely that a skyscraper will look like a single monolithic polished shard, smooth skinned twisted stalagmite, or up-scaled zucchini, it is confronting to consider the virtues of the opposite: a tower of bits, apparently with lives of their own. 

Back in 2006, we were treated to images of Herzog & de Meuron's 56 Leonard Street in New York, a proposed 57-story residential in the Tribeca area, designed to house 145 residences, each one with its own unique floor plan and private outdoor space.  The marketing blurb described the $3.5 million to $33million apartments as “houses stacked in the sky.”  Then the GFC hit, and we heard no more.

But now, 56 Leonard Street is definitely under construction, the site bought by that perennially cashed up Australian construction giant, Lend Lease.  Predictably, progress is taking some time. Lower levels are typically the most complicated, but 56 Leonard has significant variations between each floor, complicating the structure and sure to lengthen the construction process. Completion is currently slated for 2015.

Philosophically, I am genuinely pleased to see such a building being realized.  A capacity to accommodate variation and identity was there in Corbusier's project for Algiers, surfaced often after and was given theoretical backbone by Habraaken's Supports. But those approaches envisaged the variation within a bounded structure. And they never really happened, except as squatter settlements in abandoned shells, such as the “Tower of David,” a 45-story uncompleted skyscraper, and the Confinanza Tower, both in downtown Caracas, Venezuela.

Herzog & de Meuron's building makes a virtue of almost removing organising boundaries, celebrating the irregular silhouette and bold cantilevers.  By exaggerating the transparency of the floor to ceiling glass, the tower becomes even less reassuringly solid.

That is where I find myself surprisingly ambivalent.  Feeling comfortable with the horizontality of Corbusier's vision, and the modest heights of Habraaken's Dutch models, I am actually quite viscerally uncomfortable about the dissolution of the high-rise form.  Mind you, the night rendering shows an exceptional, scintillating vision that is easy to be thrilled about.  In my terms, I guess light fills out the missing voids, and adds an illusion of bulk, even while the whole sparkles.

Finally, I find the only test I can think of is to mentally multiply Herzog & de Meuron's tower and compare it with a vision of many singular forms.  The former ends up a texture, a grain almost of organically adjusted adjacencies, a 3D textured background against which a few landmark buildings would stand out.  The latter will inevitably be a cacaphony of competing 'me, me, me' object buildings.  I prefer the prospect of the former.  Pity it's unlikely to happen.

Keep up with construction updates from NY on New York YIMBY.
For lots of images, and to register to buy, go to the project web site here.


Ren Jie Teoh said...

Seems to parallel with OMA's Mahanakhon Tower (google that) in Bangkok - also under construction. Where the "pixellated" glass boxes of various cantilevering carves a dissolving spiral around a stark glass monolith.

With both 56 Leonard St NY and Bangkok's Mahanakhon, the one thing I still can't seem to get over is the extensive glazing for the apartment units.

They seem to be challenging what I hold dear as an ideal of a home - a place where you really own; where you can shape and customise and/or interact with with your own two hands (e.g. able to open your own windows rather than flicking a switch for air conditioning or a mechanical device to open your window). A house that grows on you over time, and a place where you can retreat into your own private world.

In contrast, the (nearly) all-glass house, whether as standalone Mesian box(es) or incarnated in the "dissolving" hi-rises like 56 Leonard St and Mahanakhon, has always felt very exposed to me - like a being on a fleeting theatre stage. Little or no sense of ownership; of customising; of me being able to interact with the house with my own two hands, and no sense of it being able to grow on me.

Perhaps then, this trend of residential design simply reflects the current aspirations of homebuyers (or housebuyers?) - the house as a consumable, as a high-end commodity. (Both 56 Leonard St and Mahanakhon certainly are for the higher end markets!)

Steve King said...

Ren Jie,
I do agree with you. I don't think there is actually a good justification for such transparency if you are trying to create a 'dwelling'. I am not even sure that in NY most of the year you could survive the outdoor spaces at the higher levels.
All of which raises some suspicion that at least some of these apartments will not be permanently occupied, but may rather be the pied-a-terre, or merely trophy home of a certain excessively rich elite. Of course, I am in no position to predict all that, merely to speculate.

Fernando Cortez said...

The extensive glazing happening in Herzog & de Meuron's 56 Leonard Street’s apartments units is definitely what draws the most attention. The glazing facade can be found in every unit regardless of its solar orientation.

For the rendered images (such as this one: the architects try to show us that the insulation issue can be dismissed by using curtains as a protection element. What I cannot understand is why use mitigating elements when you have a building still in its project phase. Besides, the curtain’s properties should only minimize the excessive brightness not the thermal problem that probably will occur. The use of high-tech glasses is required in this case. The lack of environment concern can be only minimized with high-cost materials, and we know that the owners of these units can afford it.

The architecture office “idea! Zarvos” built the Fidalga 727 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, ( the same design concept of unique floor plan in each level, but the difference is in the social concept. The architects designed the building together with its owners, which made the final proposal a lot more interesting. Also, the building has some glazing parts itself but these parts are well orientated, prioritizing their owners privacy and comfort.

As Steve King said the function of Herzog & de Meuron's project may only be to show how wealthy the residents are, so maybe its glazed facade is intended simply to make this fact transparent.