When architect Hugh Ferriss mapped out The Metropolis of Tomorrow in his 1929 book, he drew a city of stepped towers with deep shadows and dramatic skies — Babel-like cliffs of carved stone that both reflected the emerging New York skyline and influenced it.
But in one drawing he gave a more literal rendering of the strange envelope mandated by Manhattan to ensure the new generation of skyscrapers would not turn the streets into lightless canyons populated by mole people wandering around in a blacked-out underworld. In this drawing, he portrays the literal shape of a crystalline tower, its walls tapering as it rises, its strange blackness seemingly more the product of some geological force than a simple building code.
It is this drawing that seemed to predict the latest of the city’s skyscrapers, emerging 90 years after Ferriss’s remarkable rendering. Residential tower 53 West 53 is a built expression of the maximum envelope, its sides sloping, its dark diagonal grid structure forced to its edge. Rather than steps, it has smooth, angled facets; a stealth bomber of a building designed to fit the code like a glove.
It is also, arguably, a bit of a masterpiece. While the rest of the city is obsessed with intense skinniness or is lost in the dim, expressionless glass curtain walls of corporate extrusion, French architect Jean Nouvel has sneaked in to show the native New Yorkers how to do it.
The building rises 1,050ft beside the Museum of Modern Art (it was originally meant to be 200ft taller, the same height at the Empire State Building minus its antenna) and, at its lower levels, embraces the museum’s interior. It accommodates the huge new galleries designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Gensler for the museum’s $450m expansion, which opened last month.
Set amid the glassy, blocky commercialism of Midtown, Nouvel’s dark bronze tower looks like something from Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” films. In fact, it looks more like Batman’s car — a dark, rumbling monster.
When I visited Nouvel in his studio as he worked on the designs a decade ago, he explained the shape by holding up his three middle fingers. Its top is asymmetrical, which gives it a curious presence, as if responding to the buildings around it — in particular Eero Saarinen’s wonderful black-clad CBS Building opposite.
New York towers are usually self-contained, standalone objects. This one is something slightly different. It seems to have imbibed some of the gaping maws of the parking garages, the darkness of the bedrock, the cool of the clubs, the spikiness of a ruthless city.
Then there are the struts, the diagonal bracing that zigzags its way up the tower. In the galleries the architects have artfully hidden this structure behind pristine white walls. In the apartments, the diagrid is a visible reminder of the forces acting on the building, manifesting gravity and wind-loads in the otherwise eerily silent interiors way above the city.
There is something shadowy and expressionist about the struts, which intrude on the rooms like dark shadows, disrupting the spaces just a little, just enough. Another Frenchman, Thierry W Despont, who worked on the renovation of the rather different Ritz hotel in Paris, has done the interiors. They are a little more conventional than they could have been, but I guess they are designed to appeal to as wide a spectrum of the super-wealthy as possible.
From the street you enter a vast lobby that passes right through the block. Clad in clubby timber, and with an illuminated waffle-grid ceiling, it feels nothing at all like the spiky exterior. The lift lobby, meanwhile, with its gold vaulted ceiling, nods to the very Art Deco glamour that the exterior seems to be denying.
The 145 apartments themselves are as luxurious and louche as you might imagine. Thick mullions and those angled struts intruding on the view conspire to make the floor-to-ceiling glazing less vertiginous than it might otherwise have been. The views are, of course, astonishing, the prices likewise — from around $6m.
To one side, the extruded corporate cubes of Midtown (and the pinky postmodernism of Philip Johnson’s pedimented AT&T Building, now 550 Madison Avenue). To the other, Central Park and its line-up of super-skinny towers poking up but not spoiling the view.
At the apex is the villain’s lair you might have expected. The sloping sides make it feel like an expressionist dream, the inside of a crystal, drawing the sky into the interior. At $63.8m, this penthouse is high end.
The residences have access to the usual upscale accoutrements and facilities: wine vaults, a golf simulator, dog walking, a “library” — which is a lovely room (it does not have many books, which I am told is standard for the most luxurious libraries — and a gym with a landscape of rooms designed with an echo of the white kasbah of Nouvel’s Louvre in Abu Dhabi.
There is one extra benefit: a free pass to the museum next door, where the paintings might be even more expensive than your apartment.
Photographs: Giles Ashford; Stephen Kent Johnson