June 1, 2011
New York by Gehry
Our columnist gets a tour of Manhattan’s newest addition to the high-end, high-rise rental market.
New York by Gehry
8 Spruce Street
A funny thing happened when my boyfriend, Ed, and I went to look at the apartments at 8 Spruce Street, the 76-story tower with the shimmery, crumpled stainless-steel skin being advertised as “New York by Gehry.” Afterward, as we strolled home through City Hall Park, Ed started calculating. Could we rent his nineteenth-century Soho loft out for enough money to cover his overhead and the rental price of a twenty-first-century Gehry apartment? The apartments were on the small side, with shallow closets, so we’d have to transfer the bulk of our stuff into storage (including all the possessions that I’d recently moved into his place and have yet to completely unpack). Clearly, there would be no room for his drum set.…
“You’re serious?” I said.
“Yeah,” he replied. “It would be a different experience of the city.”
Understand: we didn’t go there to rent an apartment. I couldn’t imagine writing a big monthly check to Bruce Ratner, the man behind the odious Atlantic Yards development, in Brooklyn (where Gehry was the master planner until he extracted himself or was booted out in 2009). We just wanted to look at the place up close to see how much of the architect’s exterior bling had found its way inside. Would living inside this glittery new beanstalk of a building be any different from, say, in one designed by Costas Kondylis, New York’s most prolific residential architect?
From the outside, 8 Spruce Street is undeniably one of a kind. Gehry snatched the eye-catching gleam from the Chrysler Building’s crown and used it to sheathe the entire tower. He successfully translated his familiar horizontal extravagance to a more constrained vertical form. As with all real estate, however, the magic is the location. The 870-foot-tall tower, because of its low-rise surroundings, is hugely conspicuous from large portions of Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. From certain angles, the building is the biggest and best piece of eye candy on the skyline. The New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff anointed it the “finest skyscraper to rise in New York since Eero Saarinen’s CBS Building went up 46 years ago,” conveniently forgetting about Norman Foster’s 2006 Hearst Tower, which is every bit as gorgeous but is discreetly tucked away among the towers of midtown.
It’s important to note that the iconic New York by Gehry, the one seen on the skyline, is a completely different version from the building you
see at street level. Developer Ratner got about $370 million in tax-exempt funding (part of the post–9/11 initiative to revive Lower Manhattan) in a complex deal that included extra space for the New York Downtown Hospital next door (the site was the hospital parking lot) and a new public school. This shiny, attention-getting object is, for its first five floors, an ordinary orange-brick schoolhouse. (The relationship is as schizy as the one between Foster’s Hearst Tower and its Joseph Urban–designed 1928 base, except that in this case the two pieces were designed at the same time by the same firm.) The utterly banal base allows Gehry to avoid one of the most basic challenges of urban design: how Big Architectural Statements meet the street. Gehry’s soaring sculpture simply screeches to a halt 50 feet from curbside. So there’s a jarring disconnect between how the building looks from Spruce Street and how it feels when you’re up in the tower.
We showed up for our appointment on the first night of Passover and found the rental office largely deserted. The place had the spooky hush
of an architectural shrine. Like the reception desk in the lobby, the one on the 37th floor is conspicuously amorphous. A row of red, Gehry-designed Heller plastic seating cubes line the west-facing windows. One wall is covered with vitrines, each containing a different model of the building. A large flat-screen TV, with the sound off, shows a promotional documentary that includes a long close-up of Gehry’s weathered hands drawing wiggly lines on a notepad.
As our tour commenced, the eager young broker asked Ed about his price range. Ed thought for several long seconds and replied, “Three million.” There was an awkward silence. “It’s a rental, honey,” I said.
He thought again and suggested that a three-bedroom for about $15,000 a month might be about right. I raised my eyebrows. Alas, there were no three-bedrooms to inspect. They are found in the tower’s upper floors, which were still under construction. Instead we visited several two-bedroom units. While much has been made of how the irregularities of the facade have created a variety of equally irregular apartment layouts, the variations don’t seem that significant. Unlike Della Valle Bernheimer’s 459 West 18th Street or Neil Denari’s HL23—two of the architecturally assertive condos near the High Line, where the odd angles of structure create dramatically tilted walls and windows—the correspondence here between the architecture outside and the real estate inside is more discreet. Sure, some units are slightly rounded at the edges, and they feature special door handles designed by Gehry.
But from the inside, the most powerful aspect of the architecture is the building’s height and its big windows, which, in some places, bump out to meet the curves of the cladding. The interiors—white oak floors, stainless-steel appliances—are nice enough, but the unimpeded views completely seduced me. My nose was pressed so firmly against the glass that I forgot about Apartment Hunting 101: I neglected to test the faucet to find out if the building had adequate water pressure. Later, I wonder whether, in seeing the Brooklyn Bridge, One Police Plaza, and the Woolworth Building from way up here, I was looking at Frank Gehry’s framing of New York. Or was this view, and the marketing of it, the very thing that New York real estate development is all about? Was I really looking at New York by Bruce Ratner?
We were escorted to one of the private meeting rooms in the rental office, furnished with Gehry’s Hat Trick chairs. The broker told us if we could wait until July, we could get a three-bedroom on the 58th floor for $17,169 a month. This is what real estate ads call a “net effective rent,” where a free month has been factored into the price. (A free month at New York by Gehry!) Or we could get a two-bedroom on the 40th floor with one of the building’s rare terraces for $7,385. We sat there discussing which layout we liked best and whether we could afford a terrace and where we would put Ed’s kids when they stayed over. We sounded as if we meant it.
The strange thing is, we did. We’d been sucked in to the most powerful fantasy that real estate developers can offer our cluttered urban psyches: a virginal apartment, tabula rasa. Ed, a native New Yorker, a criminal-defense attorney by trade who has lived his whole life close to the street, literally and figuratively, suddenly grasped the insulating power of the high-rise. “It would be a more contemplative life,” he speculated, “an ivory tower.” For a few hours, we were ready to pack our current life into storage and start clean. The fantasy offered by this building is a powerful one. But then, we wouldn’t just be living a life of quiet contemplation in the clouds; we’d also be living in close quarters with the occupants of 902 other apartments. And we’d still be in Manhattan, which means the tower is subject to the same real estate forces that created it. Sooner or later, a low-rise neighbor—I’d bet on Pace University, directly across Spruce Street—will decide it’s a good idea to build skyward. And New York by Gehry will begin to resemble New York by pretty much anybody else.