Franky Gehry’s first skyscraper shimmers on New York’s iconic skyline. Photography by Piotr Redlinski
Here in New York, there’s a tradition of branding apartment buildings with somewhat ludicrous aspirational titles, often of British origin: The Claridge. The Ascot. The Dorchester. I was raised, and my parents still live, in a brown-brick tower called the East View House, never mind that the building has windows looking out to the north, south and west, and an immense blank wall facing in the titular direction. We are, no question, a city of arrivistes.
In the annals of this history, however, there has never been anything quite so absurd as the christening saga of Frank Gehry’s new luxury residential tower that stands at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan. This 76 storey spike began life as the Beekman Tower, but for reasons unspecified – either confusion with the uptown enclave of Beekman Place or the taint of its construction history - the developer, Forest City Ratner, has chosen to rename the tower by its address, 8 Spruce Street.
This is how the city’s old money buildings on Fifth and Park Avenues do it - the more anonymous the better, thank you.
However, the strategy proved to be a little too self-effacing for the developer’s sales team, which landed on a more maximal locution, with its numeral spelled out: New York by Gehry at Eight Spruce Street. The name is unprecedented, and so has been the marketing blitz attendant with the tower’s public unveiling in March.
I can’t think of another development with a film trailer, which can be viewed at www.newyorkbygehry.com. ‘The tallest residential building in the western hemisphere, by the world’s most celebrated living architect,’ reads the advertising copy. Gehry, throughout, has been a visible component of the tower’s promotion, even standing for an extended interview in Playboy magazine.
In this article, he declared, ‘I hate the celebrity architect thing.’ The Playboy reader of Hugh Heffner’s imagination - that is, a virile young Wall Street bachelor with a taste for the good life - would appear to be the target demographic for the building’s 903 rental units.
New York by Gehry is being sold not so much as a building, but as a lifestyle, with a range of amenities. These include a skylit swimming pool, a spa facility, a fitness club, a private dining room, a screening room, and even indoor golf. If you walk at a brisk pace — and we all do in this city — it takes no more than seven minutes and fifteen seconds to cover the distance that stretches from the residential tower’s brick-clad lobby to the entrance of the New York Stock Exchange.
Sheathed in torqued panels of stainless steel, Gehry’s first skyscraper is certainly the kind of icon that speaks to a clientele with a bullish sensibility. When the morningsun animates the tower’s metal exterior — Gehry has compared its folds to the drapery of Bernini — it is surely a spectacular sight to behold, especially when it is viewed from Brooklyn.
But on those many overcast afternoons when New York’s flat light drains the building of its sculptural magic, it reveals itself to be what it truly is: a very large developer tower with a dressed-up facade. Whether it augments or injures the New York skyline is a matter of opinion, although it’s worth noting that the building’s exaggerated height is only possible due to the purchased air rights of a neighbouring hospital.
The purpose of the exterior pleating, according to the architect, is to give the building some 200 unique apartment layouts, and to allow for projecting bay windows that enhance the tower’s exceptional views. The apartments are indeed commodious — the Gehry office has even designed integral hardware but the effect of the bays is mitigated somewhat by the fact that theorthogonal windows are inset and not flush with metal exterior panels, as was originally intended.
Manufacturing so many panes of curved glass was apparently too expensive for Forest City Ratner. Indeed, a south-facing facade appears to have been ‘value-engineered’ out of its folds altogether - it is simply a flat plane - though Gehry has stated that this was actually intended to give the building a kind of visual variety. That is accomplished, in any case, by the base of the building, a similarly unremarkable, five-storey orange-brick box from which the steel stalk of the tower grows. This is actually typical for Gehry, who is a more pragmatic architect than the public is often led to believe. Service areas of his buildings, as opposed to their more photogenic primary faces, are often simple and unadorned.
Here, an industrial-looking structure contains, in addition to thelobby and amenity spaces of the residences, a public school with a separate entrance - a product of the political horse-trading that made the tower possible in the first place. The interior of the school is to be designed by another architectural firm, Swanke Hayden Connell.
Gehry’s previous collaboration with Forest City Ratner, on the controversial Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, led to widespread criticism that the architect was merely being used for his reputation by the developer to push through an over-scaled project. An open letter by the author Jonathan Lethem was particularly biting.
Is the architect once again being used as the lipstick on a developer’s baboon, or has he this time leveraged his name to gift the city a shiny new landmark? This is a question that New Yorkers will argue about for years to come. In the meantime, from a distance, when the light is good, it’s an awfully pretty primate.