Rollerblading one day back in the mid-00’s, I remember coming to a screeching halt on the Hudson River Park bike path. My immediate goal was to avoid plowing into a crowd that had gathered. The latter had their eyes fixed on one of Richard Meier’s then new apartment buildings. Recovering, I thought ‘how cool…architecture is stopping people in their tracks’. But no, these folk were watching Hugh Jackman throw a cocktail party in his apartment there. Thanks to the floor-to-ceiling windows, every moment of this somewhat lackluster event was open to public scrutiny.
As we all know, Meier’s towers spawned a boomlet in all-glass facade apartment towers. Developers, charging considerably higher prices with their now name-architect branding, didn’t care about the ‘gawk factor’.
In the years since, some of these amateur gawkers have become skilled voyeurs. Look at the Highline, for instance. Who doesn’t want to walk along this new elevated park simply to look through the windows of the Standard Hotel and guests having sex?
This embrace of all-glass walled apartment also seems to assume that the residents of these supposedly groovy see-through apartments are happy to exhibit their lives, and interior choices, to the rest of New York.
Luckily, some architects, particularly those now building near the Highline, are re-evaluating the ‘benefits’ of all this glass.
The most sensitive solution has been dreamed up by Shigeru Ban and his American partner, Dean Maltz. Their Metal Shutter Houses on West 19th Street aim to create wonderful, light-filled but still private spaces. They do this by affixing double-height rolling shutters to the outside of each apartment’s two-story balcony. These can be rolled down when more privacy is needed. When all the apartments are shuttered the entire north-facing façade turns into a shimmering, metallic grill.
Of course, Ban and Maltz are competing with two other major players, each of whom has an artful take on the window. Next door is Frank Gehry’s IAC building. Its windows – soft white fading to clear on the upper half – add grace and a reflective sheen to the whole structure. And almost opposite Jean Nouvel’s new apartment tower makes its mark, displaying framed windows of different sizes, all pieced together in one, sometimes curving façade.
Nouvel’s conceit is that these window frames – indeed the building itself – makes such a statement that, in daylight least, we are no longer so interested in looking inside. Similarly on the interiors the geometric patterning of the windows acts as an artful barrier to the views beyond: a fractured framing device that reminds you of the space you are in, rather than urging you to look out and forget where you are.
Neil Denari is betting that the dramatic form of his 14-story HL 23 apartment tower just north of 23rd street – it leans wondrously out over the elevated park – will also be more eye-catching to the casual observer than the private life within. I’m not sure he’s totally right. While the windows on the east side, some of which tilt outwards, are smaller, the dramatic floor-to-ceiling glass walls on each apartment rise directly above the Highline. Still, the building itself has such an ‘awe factor’, people may be tempted just to look at the engineering involved, and walk on.
A much more traditional approach has been taken by the Tamarkin Company on their 456 West 19th Street ateliers. Drenched in light, these artist lofts – can artists actually afford them? – do not have floor to ceiling glass. Rather the multi-paned windows on these 22 units stop several feet above the floor. It seems such a simple choice but from outside and from within it cuts down the “viewing frame”, thus making it less enticing…though hardly less effective in terms of allowing light inside.
I write this sitting back from the window in a pre-war building. (It’s super bright today as they are filming an episode of ‘Damages’ next door and minor klieg lights blast my direction.) But even with considerably less window space between me and New York, I still feel the tension between my need for privacy and an equally potent, wintry desperation for light. I’m just glad in times when sheathing residential towers with glass became synonymous with ‘beauty’, others are being so inventive in dealing with the very same tension.