Starchitect Switcheroo! Will the Upper West Side Get Any Pritzker-Worthy Buildings at Riverside Center?

Pritzker Prize winner Christian de Portzamparc's jagged Riverside Center (far right) may not look quite the same once built.
Carlyle and Extell have sold the northeastern development site, known as building 2, to the Dermot Companies.
Building 2 was never clearly rendered by Mr. de Portzamparc, so it is hard to know exactly what he intended. The base of the tower can be seen here at right.
The dynamic base of another of Mr. de Portzamparc's towers.
Whether or not Carlyle and Extell will sell off the other four development sites is not yet clear, but if so, the development might well feel different than originally suggested.
The biggest issue may be the look and feel of the open space, an issue that generally concerned locals more than the look of the buildings, since they would actually be using the space.
One of the key features originally proposed was a water feature running through the center of the space down toward the river and Hudson River Park.

In a brief statement, Dermot principal and COO Stephen Benjamin, stressed that his tower was still under design and, given the zoning covenants, would still resemble what was originally proposed. “We are in the midst of the design process for a spectacular building that will be in full compliance with the zoning as is our obligation and right,” Mr. Benjamin said.

Ms. Burden raised the same point in her statement, that even if the de Portzamparc name is not on the final buildings, his master plan for the site remains, and the essence of his work will persist.

“The integrity of de Portzamparc’s work will be maintained because key architectural features—including, among others, building silhouettes, distinctive sloped and angled sculptural  forms, facets and sloping tower tops—are embodied in the land use approval and are a condition of developing the site,” Ms. Burden said. “De Portzamparc was instrumental not only in shaping the site but also in developing these design controls.”

“The City Planning Commission fully understands that a developer may decide to change architects over time for a number of reasons,” she continued. “De Portzamparc’s important contribution to this project will survive this developer’s decision to look elsewhere for design services.”

This is not to suggest that SLCE is necessarily a worse choice as the project’s architects, either. In fact, the firm is frequently brought on by developers to serve as the architect of record for more highfalutin designers like Mr. de Portzamparc.

The globetrotting architects (Gehry, Nouvel,Koolhaas and the rest of the designer jetset) are not usually experienced in the intricacies of jurisdictional buildings codes, idealized layouts and local tastes. It falls to firms like SLCE and Goldstein Hill & West—which has also done extensive work at Riverside Center and may well wind up designing some of these tower—to bring a strarchitect’s dream into the realm of the buildable, the inhabitable, the comfortable.

That said, some connoisseur’s counter that these firms’ work can be pedestrian and developer-driven, lacking the flair of some of their more renowned rivals.

Neither is this switcheroo exactly new. That is a big part of the reason the City Planning Commission works so hard to ensure certain design flourishes and details in ambitious projects like the Riverside Center.

Mexican master Enrique Norten was originally pitched as the architect of the Edge condominium towers on the Williamsburg waterfront, only to be swapped out for Stephen P. Jacobs and Associates when it came time to build. Richard Meier and SOM came up with the scheme for Sheldon Solow’s Con Edison development just south of the United Nations. Parcels have since been sold off, with more on the block, and it is uncertain who might wind up conceiving of the final projects.

Most famously, Bruce Ratner dumped Frank Gehry from his Atlantic Yards project after the recession led to a reevalution of the work of the Pritzker Prize winner, whose buildings are notoriously expensive and difficult to execute. Mr. Ratner tapped Ellerbe Beckett, a no-nonsense designer of sports venues throughout the nation, to replace Mr. Gehry on the Barclays Center. Even though she had no oversight of the project at any point, Ms. Burden was said to be so bothered by the switch that she successfully lobbied to have local wunderkinds SHoP brought on to help redesign the facilities.

The most apt comparison to the situation at Riverside Center might be what happened at the World Trade Center. Little remains of Daniel Libeksind’s masterplan but the outlines of the project, a crescent of towers stepping down in size along Greenwich Street. Granted, some of the world’s most famous architects have stepped in to replace Mr. Libeskind. At the same time, the strict design controls at Riverside Center will make any successors who are not Mr. de Portzamparc stick much closer to the French architect’s vision.

Ms. Sheffer points to an incident closer to home, Fordham University. The school was working on plans to redevelop its Manhattan campus near Lincoln Center, which included selling off some parcels for development. While there was a general consensus that a residential tower proposed by Douglaston Development was too big, people at least seemed to like the design created by celebrated architect Cesar Pelli, he of World Financial Center and Bloomberg tower fame.

“The deal seemed to be the deal,” Ms. Sheffer said of Fordham’s plan, “but then they made a deal with Glenwood, and suddenly it looks like everything else Glenwood has done and that’s not every interesting.”

She hopes this will not be the case at Riverside Center. “I think the feeling was, the de Portzamparc buildings, it was a vision, a particular kind of towers that related to each other and to the open space and the neighborhood, with the view down to the river,” Ms. Sheffer said. “In the renderings, it certainly didn’t look like the rest of Riverside South, and that was a good thing. But now, we can’t be so sure. Maybe it’s a lot of hype, maybe not.”

But would this be New York City real estate if that were not the case?

Update: This story has been changed to include details about other projects that have gone through similar design switches as well as other projects SLCE has worked on. Also, a previous version stated that Dermot was developing two towers on the site, rather than just one. The Observer regrets the error.

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