This is VIA 57 West in New York. It’s the brain child of Danish architect Bjarke Ingles who is the reigning global wunderkind du jour. He calls the hybrid structure a courtscraper – part traditional courtyard building, part skyscraper. Ingles sometimes describes this as a “bigamist” form where you don’t have to choose between an apartment in a tower or a suburban home with a garden. You can marry both without cheating. (It’s also a play on the name of his firm Bjarke Ingles Group – or BIG.) He insists the novel form isn’t a starchitect stunt, but rather a rational response to the site constraints, budget, and program.
To one side of the block is a city sanitation garage with a continuous flow of garbage trucks. That’s a real special neighbor especially come August when the trucks are extra ripe.
To another side of the block is an elevated highway and off ramp. Who doesn’t love endless exhaust fumes and traffic noise?
And a third side of the block is a legacy power plant. So the building needed to insulate itself from these unsavory elements while simultaneously creating value in some other way.
The base of the building contains parking, retail space, a theater, mechanical systems, and common amenities for residents which look inward. Above that plinth is a landscaped park at the core of the building. The shared garden provides views of “nature” to the lower and inner units while the higher apartments enjoy city and water views. The asymmetry of the building preserves views (and therefore property values) for neighboring buildings. At the same time the triangular white form reads as a sailing ship from a distance.
The overall frame of the building is standard concrete, steel, and glass that’s no different than any medium grade apartment block. But the twisty, curvilinear, triangular panels that make up the skin of the structure are each custom fabricated using complex computer aided systems. Traditional architecture used armies of skilled laborers to craft intricate details. Today algorithms and automated manufacturing do all the heavy lifting.
While Ingles is clever and produces unique and fashionable designs, it’s possible to draw a straight line from VIA 57 West to Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 in Montreal.
Safdie was looking for a way to make high density urban living more humane by ensuring that each apartment had an attached private outdoor garden area. By stacking and cantilevering Lego-like units together the roof of one space became the garden of another. His “bigamist” approach of suburban homes assembled in a lumpy pyramid tower was deliberate and successful before Ingles was born, although Safdie used the metaphor of the Mediterranean hill town rather than polyamory.
Custom computer fabrication wasn’t available in 1967, but Safdie took full advantage of off site prefabrication of uniform fungible concrete components. His more recent work is more nuanced. However, neither Ingles nor Safdie delivered anything that’s easily replicable due to cost and complexity. Each demonstrates that for certain projects in specific locations it’s possible to create unique and satisfying human environments. That’s to be celebrated. But there are limits.
For me, none of this is as good as an actual Mediterranean hill town or plain vanilla Main Street town of the kind that was built everywhere in North America a century ago. These mega structures are so large that only giant corporations and massive construction firms can build and maintain them. And only oversized investors can gather the required funding to finance them. A real hill town or Main Street can be continuously inhabited for centuries and endure the vicissitudes of history since each little part can be managed and maintained at the household level. These mega structures only hold up so long as nothing ever goes wrong.