West 57th, Manhattan


View facing east from Hudson River,  Source

View facing east from Hudson River, Source

Architecture is no media darling. Despite its influence on our everyday happiness and hordes of loyal devotees, architecture is seldom discussed in the everyday news and media. Why is this? Why is this facet of our culture and a huge industry so minimised in the media? 

It may partly be to do with project time frames. The 24-hour media cycle to an architectural project timeline is like a mayfly to a tortoise. Online news content is sexy and instantaneous. There’s nothing sexy about reporting that an architectural firm has decided to put in a proposal for a project and within 3-4 years we’ll have a finished product that may or may not look anything like the original design. I mean…how long does it take to film a single episode of Grand Designs? Years and years. Kevin McCloud ages before your very eyes, like a time lapse of potato! That’s not sexy architecture. 

To combat this, the media will often take a very shallow look at the finished product. Well-composed ‘hero’ shots of great lighting and clean spaces and everybody oohs and ahhs and imagines what it would be like to live there before resigning themselves to going to Ikea for storage solutions. 

While there’s nothing wrong with looking at the finished product aesthetically and finding inspiration, this approach fails to capture the heart and soul of architecture and make it accessible: the three virtues of architecture as set by Vitruvius - beauty, durability and usability – as well as the myriad social, economic and physical parameters that inform design. Despite this, I’d like to draw your attention to certain interesting projects with a focus on the social and design issues that are being addressed (and yes, we’ll also be perving on the form). 

A project currently under construction on West 57th street in Manhattan is a residential/commercial tetrahedron designed by starchitects Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) for the clients The Durst Organization. 

View of the courtyard,  Source

View of the courtyard, Source

Bjarke Ingels, the man behind the firm, says the new building is a fusion of two previously unsuited archetypes – the European low-rise apartment block centred on a courtyard and the Manhattan high-rise. The building is angled towards the Hudson River and Hudson River Park, maximising views of both with saw-tooth window blocks sticking out from either side of the building. A large green courtyard in the centre creates a light-well and makes a stab in the direction of environmental sustainability. 

Look the building is all nakey!  Source

Look the building is all nakey! Source

BIG architects, a firm who originated in Copenhagen, are renowned for their simple but bold architecture and on their wacky design scale West 57th barely rates a mention (check out their website to see some crazy minimalist architecture). But some socialist ideas are at play here. 

The council brokered a deal with the Durst Organization to ensure that 173 apartments of the 709 apartments in the block remained affordable for a span of 35 years. This is in keeping with New York City’s 80/20 housing program, which aims to create quality affordable housing and curb gentrification in wealthy areas. Tax incentives are offered to developers who retain 20 percent of their multifamily dwellings for “low-income earners”. 

As an aside, according to the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development , to be considered a low-income earner on this program you need to be earning only 50% of the median income for the area. Therefore in an area with a high median income, a low-income earner may not necessarily have a low income. Yay for social housing although whether or not the 80/20 divide is reasonable is a matter for internet debate in comment sections around the world. 

Another relevant social quandary debated was the responsibility of the residential design to maintain the viability of the street façade. A suburban apartment block can prioritise peace and quiet but is it reasonable to ask an urban residential block to do the same? Hustle and bustle is an inherent characteristic of an inner city block and limiting the site use to residential may create security issues for the residents. West 57th addressed this concern, at the request of the council, by incorporating retail spaces along the river front façade.

And now finally, let’s ogle the renderings. Mmm that’s some tight architecture.