The 2012 Designer Dozen: New York’s Best New Architecture Is a Celebration of Public Space

The city is flush with hotels, it always has been, from the Chelsea to the Plaza, the Waldorf to the Morgan, but now this is truer than ever before, with a safer, more inviting city where tourism has become one of the top industries. The Wythe is not only the first truly high-end boutique hotel in the outer boroughs, but it also signals Brooklyn, and more specifically Williamsburg, as destinations in and of themselves. The hotel expertly cops the cutting-edge throwback aesthetic that is the calling card of the borough, with an sleekly industrial glass box set atop an old brick cooperage. The wood beams, the seafoam-colored tiles echoing the old institutional paint scheme, the graffiti and murals, all draw in some way on the factory and neighborhood that came before while feeling in no way dated. And the fifth-floor terrace bar boasts one of the best views of the city. Manhattan looks gorgeous and tempting, but after a visit to the Wythe, you may never want to leave the outer boroughs.
Preservationists and pantywaists be damned, when was the last time you set foot in the old Manufacturers of Hanover building at 43rd and Fifth before its supposedly sacrilegious transformation into a cut-rate clothing store this year? Joe Fresh, the chic Canadian Gap-meets-Uniqlo came in and freshened up this old SOM mainstay, celebrated for being the first truly clear-glass box of its time. So they moved the escalators. The Bertoia sculpture is still intact, and while it may serve as little more than the backdrop for a cash wrap, is that any worse than the pointy wallpaper of a bank teller? The modernist lantern glows once again, and gone are the big Chase signs, replaced by mannequins. Lower upper Fifth Avenue has become a hot retail strip, with H&M, Zara, even the deplorable Tommy Bahama desecrating the Fred F. French Building (a truer disaster than this). Perhaps this is what the naysayer object to, the coarsening of this bank building into a retail outlet. Tell that to the Ciprianis and the condos at One Hanson. We’re off to buy an orange blazer.
The park is already two years old, and it is only half complete, but this was a big year for it all the same. The ball fields on Pier 5 opened at the end of the year, bringing some active recreation besides jogging to park. On the eastern end, Jane’s Carousel opened inside Jean Nouvel’s giant jewel box, adding to the youthful excitement of this emerald necklace on the water. But what was really remarkable about the waterfront park was how it survived the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy. While wide swaths of neighboring Dumbo and Redhook totally flooded, Brooklyn Bridge Park functioned as intended, sopping up much of the water that came its way. This will be especially important as new development, fought for among some of the city’s top architects and developers this year, gets underway at Pier 1. It serves as an important example of how the city must develop its waterfront, with both hard and soft infrastructure, if New York is not to abandon its waterfront once again, as it had in decades past.
Another waterfront transformation, La Marina shows how old parks can be invigorated by small additions. At the elbow between Fort Tryon and Inwood Hill Park, La Marina introduces a lively and beautiful pavilion where water meets land, with views of the Palisades as good as from the Cloisters. So good, in fact, the bar, restaurant and clubhouse has attracted the likes of Jay-Z and Beyonce as well as Leonard DiCaprio and Mayor Bloomberg. When was the last time you saw such A-listers hanging out in a public park. At the same time, the sustainably designed structure sits lightly on the land, playing off its natural surroundings rather than overtaking them. It also shows that while not always perfect, commerce can work in public spaces, helping to fund them and attract even more visitors, who make the spaces feel safer and more vibrant. After all, what would Central Park be without the Boat House or Donald Trump’s ice rink?
The Barclays Center will never be free from the taint that brought it into the world, the backroom deals, the eminent domain disputes, the renegotiated deals with public agencies, the lack of promised construction jobs. It is unfortunate that the only piece of the massive Atlantic Yards project to open on time was an athletic facility, and not affordable housing, but what an arena it is. The rusticated façade could have a little more glitz, but its sweeping, serpentine shape helps mask the massive size of the structure, which is really scarcely larger than the awful malls across the street—in a city full of big buildings, let’s not forget. Inside, the concourses are generous, with unusual light fixtures that bend from the shell of the building inside. The offerings, obsequiously but still deliciously, are as local as they get. The place seems overly sponsored, until you realize this leaves the space free of the ads plastered everywhere at every other sporting venue, a trick that gives the designers full control of even this aspect of the venue. The black bowl of the arena itself, the ostensible reason for coming, draws the eye right onto the court, making 18,000 roaring fans almost disappear. Madison Square Garden, with its low-slung ceiling and oppressive lights, this is not. Rather, for better or worse, there is no other arena like it in the nation.
Between the garish post-war storefronts and the hawkers and barkers who wander the streets, it can seem at times like the Diamond District has barely changed since its rise in the 1940s and ‘50s as a hub for the global diamond trade. That is what makes Gary Barnett’s International Gem Tower such a startling presence on the street. Not only is it a glistening new office tower, striking enough in one of Midtown’s more wantonly threadbare quarters (to hide the riches within, of course), but the building is literally a giant diamond, and a 34-karat—make that story—beauty at that. Designed by SOM, who has been perfecting corporate glass skyscrapers since inventing them a decade ago at Lever House, the tower is remarkable for showing how a slight tweak to a tired old model can create something exciting and new. A slight geometric kink in the façade creates a faceted face that ripples glints like the finest engagement setting. The building has been controversial for trying to steal away neighboring tenants on the block, but really, it must be because it is an affront to this dowdy strip. As usual, Mr. Barnett has put his neighbors to shame.
Yes, the hipsters complained when their admittedly awesome and unique concert venue was shut down four years ago to actually be turned back into a pool, but that is a far more democratic use for this Robert Moses-built giant than a venue for art punk bands, neo-soul outfits and 80s indie reunions. Perhaps a little too democratic, as the violence and mayhem surrounding the pool’s opening shows, but that only underscores how desperate North Brooklyn was for some free summertime recreation, a dip in the pool of increasingly overheated city. RogersMarvel, masters of civic works, managed to carve Moses’ old aquifer into a more manageable three-pool configuration with plenty of room for sunning, as well as an ice rink at some later date. Inside the old WPA-era head house is community rec rooms and workout facilities, all available at affordable rates—an increasingly rare amenity on these faux-gritty, tony streets.
Planted in the base of the Related Company’s MiMA tower, an ominous, obsidian extrusion of some 62 stories, Frank Gehry’s Signature Theater Company is nearly hidden—a remarkable feat for one of the world’s most ostentatious architects. The only thing to signal the project is a curlicue awning on the far side of 42nd Street. But up a set of crooked-plywood encased stairs, and patrons, or the public, enter a generous lobby, meant to serve as a gathering point for the West Side. Don’t have a ticket? Fine, grab a coffee, pick up a book, or just take in the view down 10th Avenue. Inside both the main theater and the black jewel box, the spaces are exquisitely Gehry in their sculptural nature, yet when the lights go down, it is all stage and no distractions. For all the complaints about the Santa Monica Pritzker winner being a one-trick pony, the Signature shows he’s got a bag full of tricks, and the accolades are truly deserved. His New York by Gehry tower may be a gift to the skyline, but this is truly his greatest work in the city, one not only to be looked at but enjoyed by all New Yorkers. After all, tickets are only $25.
We don’t normally consider unbuilt work for this list. Architecture lives and dies by the brick and mortar by which it is built. If you can’t build it for one reason or another, did it ever really happen? But the plans for Grand Central presented by WXY, SOM and Norman Foster at this year’s MAS Summit never will get built, at least as presented, but that is why they are worth considering, and reconsidering, over the next century. That was the whole point of the exercise. As the city pursues a huge new rezoning around Grand Central, and East Side Access brings new trains into the station, the only great transit hub left in the city could find itself overwhelmed and undermined. From Lord Fosters, subtle, supple new entrances to WXY’s transformation of the MetLife Building and the Park Avenue viaduct to SOM’s grand vision for a floating donut of public space perched above the station and repedestrianization of Park Avenue, some version of these, great and small, must be implemented if Grand Central is to remain a vital part of the city through its bicentennial. And it must. For the city to thrive, so too must Grand Central.
Is there a more fitting place for a “green building” than a Botanic Garden? And they do not get much greener than this. Weiss/Manfredi nestle their building into the existing sweep of the historic gardens, creating a planted roof that is just another knoll among the grounds. Or a hobbit hole, with tons of exciting information inside for kids and families. The sweep of the old pathways cut in and out of the building, further weaving it into the landscape, which is still plainly visible through clear floor-to-ceiling windows. If the next century will be all about man learning to live with nature rather than fighting to conquer it, it is buildings like this that will show the way.
Yes, a parking garage. Another sign of the Bloomberg administration’s commitment to design excellence, the new parking garage for the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx was designed by Ennead Architects, experts in the field of civic architecture with projects ranging from the expansion of the Queens Museum to the giant Egg Digester solid waste facility in Greenpoint. With lighting designer Leni Schwendinger, the firm has created a brawny parking structure that almost looks primal, demonstrating that even the most utilitarian buildings can have flair. Naturally, ivy will grow up the building’s sides, masking the cars within while pushing the botanical aesthetic. The leaves ripple and bloom at night under Ms. Schwendinger’s direction. And located next to the MetroNorth station, it doubles as park-and-ride for the surrounding community, encouraging mass transit ridership over driving.
41 Bond Street: this throwback loft building is the latest addition to one of the city's most dynamic streets. The revamped Fifth Avenue Apple Store: With only 15 panels instead of 90, shows the revolutionary potential of structural glass design. Via Verde: Featured last year but not technically open until this year, this path-breaking affordable housing complex in the Bronx shows the promise of good design for all. Virgin America Club at JFK: Slade Architecture puts the fun and sex appeal back into flying with this sleek new lounge at Terminal 4. New York Historical Society: the august institution gets a cutting-edge revamp for the 21st Century. Michael Kimmelman: The Times' architecture critic puts an emphasis on urbanism over buildings, emphasizing what really matters to city dwellers.

It has been an exciting year for architecture in the city, with bold projects unveiled and getting underway: the new Cornell tech campus by Thom Mayne and SOM, a vastly re-imagined (and boldly so) Hudson Yards and modular housing getting off the ground at Atlantic Yards.

But in terms of actual new, completed projects, 2012 has been a lean year. This is largely the fault of the recession. Downturns tend to stifle development generally, but especially when the heart of the slow down is a real estate bubble. Design can actually be at its best just after the bubble bursts, and the gaudiest visions are getting wrapped up. And so, there are no Frank Gehry towers or Diller, Scofidio + Renfro cultural confections this year.

Still, there are surprises to be found in the city, as always. Maybe a little humbler, a little less showy, but also perhaps better for New York’s character, its peace of mind, its future. This is sensible architecture for a wiser time.

In many ways, this was the year of the public space and the park, a development that makes all the more sense in light of Zucotti Park and the opening of Louis Kahn’s Four Freedoms memorial. Whoever knew what a POPS was until now, or that a grand vision from 40 years ago could ever get built, and be one of a celebrated architect’s best works, at that? And continuing a trend throughout the Bloomberg era, many of these public spaces are on the waterfront.

Another Bloomberg hallmark? Many of these notable projects are public works, civic architecture on the highest order, and an important reason the quality of life in New York continues to rise.

In line with the post-bubble brunt of design in the city at the moment, no housing projects made the list this year, after dominating it in the past, New York by Gehry, Jean Nouvel’s 100 11th Avenue and Neil DeNari’s HL23 among them. Another major development is the continued pull of gravity across the East River—barely half of the projects are in Manhattan, with five of them in Brooklyn. If there were any doubt the borough has arrived, look no further than its bold new buildings.

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