New New York (Quintessentially)

The World knows Manhattan the same way it knows the oeuvre of Abba: It seeps into your consciousness from passive exposure. There are ten year olds in China who know the elegant silvered deco arcs of the Chrysler as well as anybody – New York City has been frozen in a period of 1930s skyscrapers for decades, and used to sell everything from Die Hard plotlines to King Kong and Diet Coke. Changes are afoot, however. One of the after effects of 9/11 has been a revaluation of the physical as well as the emotional make up of Manhattan. Superstar architects are being drafted in to bring sparkle to the Big Apple and, whilst stopping considerably short of reinventing the city, they look like they’ll certainly remodel and invigorate it for the 21st century.

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Walking westwards towards Chelsea Piers, where New Yorkers come to jog, play ice hockey and learn trapeze skills, Frank Gehry’s IAC building appears just before you hit the river. While diminutive compared to many of his other buildings scattered across the globe, it’s an arresting addition to the landscape: Eminently Gehry-like in its abandonment of squared-off form, it has a façade that appears frosted in broad horizontal lines, as if by a vast aerosol. It’s a building of sensation, quite literally. It looks like it might taste nice if you were to lick it, and it couldn’t be further removed from the industrial deco of midtown, or the simple chic glass box 50s modernism of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building and Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House.

Without in any way meaning to diminish the human tragedy of 9/11, the loss of the World Trade Centre towers was a shocking blow to the architectural balance of Manhattan. Approaching the island by car while the Towers stood, it resembled a kind of ocean liner. Without its 1970s parallel masts – the last significant additions to New York City in the 20th century – the south end of the island seems adrift. From this loss a new kind of freedom has arisen, spurred on by hedge fund wealth and the demand for the flashiest possible apartments.

Jean Nouvel’s apartment block in SoHo, developed by celebrity hotelier Andre Balazs, is strikingly modern and yet works with, rather than against, its surroundings – Nouvel’s muscular, masculine grey steel building is very much informed by the industrial wrought iron facades of neighbouring buildings. Nouvel’s planned 75-storey tower to be erected next to MoMA in Midtown, not far from the Renzo Piano’s dramatic and imposing New York Times building, is also contextual – with its tapered peaks and gleam, it represents a natural progression of the area’s sky-reaching, bold capitalist statements. As inventive and as downright sexy as Nouvel’s projects are, neither building could be described as outlandish, something which Nouvel’s planned opera house for Dubai looks set to be; a building that still exists solely as renderings which resemble illustrations for a sci-fi movie storyboard, and an accompanying poem. But New York isn’t Dubai. It isn’t starting from scratch. It’s a real city. It’s also not about to demolish itself to update, as Beijing is in the process of doing. There are few blank canvases in the city – the Lower East Side and the area east of Wall Street are currently the focus of a lot of new construction as they presents fewer demolition issues – you can bulldoze a tenement and fuel the diaspora of down at heel bohemians further out into Brooklyn, but you can’t really move a midtown Emery Roth a few hundred metres to the left. The Bernard Tschumi BLUE residential tower on the L.E.S looked wild as a rendering, sketched as a kind of immense upright robotic hand covered in blue pixels, and looks just as wild now in real life. The times they are indeed a-changing and it won’t be long before it’s not the only show-off on its block. Down towards Seaport and just three blocks away from Ground Zero, Frank Gehry is to build his Beekman Tower, a 75 storey undulating behometh that has been described by critics as ‘Gaudi in Titanium’.

Much of what is going on in the city is driven by a demand for more and more statement making housing. The planned One Madison Park building being part designed by Rotterdam-based star architect Rem Koolhaas may seem sedate next to his more grandstanding work elsewhere (and its 22 storeys will be dwarfed by 60 storeys next door, complete with $45 million penthouse), but then many of the more conservative hedge funders in the city want to buy into the label but don’t want it too edgy – it’s like buying your suits from Comme des Garçons, but avoiding any of the really directional stuff.

Some of the most interesting new New York projects are on far smaller scales. Shigeru Ban’s Metal Shutter Houses in West Chelsea are low rise but with their sleek motor-retractable floor to ceiling silvered blast-shield frontages, look like the most modern homes on earth. When the shutters go up, the interiors – all zen and white – are flooded with light.

Then there are the public spaces that are being reworked – the Stairway to Nowhere TKTS booth in Times Square is changing the dynamic of the city’s entertainment centre. The Choi Roipha practice designed a set of glass red steps, fashioned into an amphitheatre, with the neon-blazing heart of Manhattan as the 24-7 show while the TKTS booth itself sits in a pod underneath.

The only downbeat note in New York’s current symphony of architectural rethink is, ironically, Ground Zero itself, with plans, including those for the Freedom Tower, continually bogged down by red tape. Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Centre Transit Hub at the site may be well underway, and due for completion in 2009, but its design, meant to resemble a soaring bird in exoskeletal sculpture form, which beams natural daylight down to the PATH platforms 60 feet below, has been tempered by concerns over potential terrorist attacks. At least it’s going ahead – New York remains a hard place to create new architecture; just ask Daniel Liesbkind whose original, much heralded, contribution to rebuilding at Ground Zero has been crushed and diminished to the use of the word ‘Freedom’ in the towers name, and its height. But then as they say, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

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