dowtown Skyscraper for the Digital Age

 

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

8 Spruce Street. The tallest luxury residential tower in New
York City, was designed by the architect Frank Gehry.
More Photos »

 

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

The tower’s contoured steel facade appears to flow up into the
Lower Manhattan skyline.                            More Photos »

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Luxury apartments have curved
windows.                            More Photos »

February 9, 2011

Downtown Skyscraper for the Digital
Age

 

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.
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 east, across City Hall Park, 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 flat south facade is comparatively conventional, and some may find
perverse enjoyment in the fact that the building presents its backside to Wall
Street.)
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.
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.
 
Copyright. 2011. The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved

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