As we are soaring ever higher into an era of ever taller and ever thinner skyscrapers reaching into the sky, the real innovation is happening with structures that forgo the easy gesture and the absurdly elongated box in favor of more complex and more open designs. Via 57 West—the official name of the 32-story Manhattan building that its designer, Bjarke Ingels, has called “the love child of a skyscraper and a courtyard building”—is the best case in point I have seen in a long time. The Diller Scofidio + Renfro design for the EcoIsland Resort in Hainan, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, is another example, as are some of the last projects the late Zaha Hadid designed to contain combinations of housing, culture, and retail, such as Dongdaemun History Park and Design Plaza, the cultural complex in Seoul I wrote about last year.
The wedge that Ingels and his firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), designed for the Hudson River side of the last block between 57th and 58th Streets sweeps up from the Westside Highway in a continuous curve to accommodate 709 rental apartments before peaking in a pinnacle at its northeast corner. I love when buildings manage to do what this structure accomplishes, which is to take the existing landscape, both natural and human-made, and condense and reshape it into a single form. Via 57 West goes from a curving apron that recalls the shore line and the spread of the Hudson, past forms that are commensurate to the jumble of low- and mid-rise structures that line the highway, all the way to a peak that begins the battle of spires clashing down Manhattan’s spine. From the front, its height is difficult to understand because of this continuity, leaving only the sliver you see from the west to show how large it is.
As the building rises, the courtyard in the middle lightens its appearance, while bringing in the echoes of the apartment buildings that are New York’s basic constituent elements. The Via reveals its inner nature and makes it clear that this is not just a piece of sculpture, but a complex of programs stacked up to create one of those compacted masses of humanity which Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, praised in Delirious New York and that we explored in Rear Window.
Once you go inside Via, the push and pull between levels—as well as between formal expression and functional (and even banal) reality—continues. You enter along the side and slide into a low lobby area, but split wood staircases lead you at curving angles up to the landscaped courtyard on the second level. The communal spaces reserved for those who can afford the hefty rents that the building charges include a swimming pool and basketball court as well as meeting and “community” rooms. BIG has carried them out in a minimal, but luxurious palette of materials.
Lower level corridors, which are quite large, just present you with a march past endless doors under fluorescent lights. It is the upper floors, where both rents and light levels rise, that stir the drama of the views and give you the sense of being perched on top of the slope of a human-made mountain.
The Via is not a form that you can replicate, and thus does in itself not offer an answer to the problem of residential skyscrapers, which is that they celebrate and house the rich while leaving the rest of us in their shadow. Instead, if we could mold the blocks of space available for development into forms that combine functions and social classes (the Via does have a number of subsidized housing units) and have them respond to their specific sites, while showing how they are made and what they contain, then we would go a far way to making our downtowns have more character, clarity, and the kind of metropolitan excitement that draws us to these compactions of human activities.