January 1, 2007
Skin and Bones
Winka Dubbeldam balances substance and style beyond a dazzling glass curtain wall in a New York loft.
At 497 Greenwich Street, on a booming stretch of Manhattan real estate along the Hudson River west of Soho, an 11-story glass curtain wall cascades down a narrow L-shaped structure wrapped around the top and one side of a former warehouse. The contrast between this sleek 10,000-square-foot glass waterfall and its drab brick neighbor is exciting in a city where glass residential towers are increasingly commonplace, even banal. But then this particular facade is exciting in itself: to meet code, the building steps back as it rises, and the overlaid skin buckles against the resulting geometry in a particularly beguiling way. It manages to seem both angular and smooth—nice to look at, but not too nice.
Which is about what you would expect from Archi-Tectonics, the New York–based firm headed by Dutch architect Winka Dubbeldam. Initially known more for her computer-based sculptural designs—and her association with formidable theorists Bernard Tschumi and Peter Eisenman—than for actual buildings, Dubbeldam has in recent years completed a string of built projects, including several residences (see “Winka’s Riff,” August/September 2004, p. 92). Since finishing the Greenwich Street project in 2004, Archi-Tectonics has also designed 3 of the 24 interiors, the most recent of which is a 3,200-square-foot loft for artist and photographer Peter Schein. Completed last March, the interior deals with the building’s most distinctive feature—the massive glass curtain wall—through a clever reversal of materials. “I thought it would be nice to internalize the glass,” Dubbeldam says, “but with something that feels like the lining of the outside.”
The lining she chose is bogwood, a rare type of petrified wood—in this case, oak—occasionally discovered in peat bogs, gravel pits, and marshes in the British Isles and Northern Europe. Once exhumed, the centuries-old wood has a distinctive appearance—a warm tan streaked with dramatic black ripples that Dubbeldam says “look like landscapes.” The loft’s central corridor, which connects the bedrooms on the east end with the living room and entryway to the west, is clad in an angular arrangement of bog-oak veneer panels that mimics the geometric modulation of the curtain wall. But where the glass is cold and minimalist, the wood is warm and variegated, crisscrossed by steel reveals that hint at the structural members beneath.
The bogwood-lined corridor is the aesthetic centerpiece of the loft, but it’s also the main organizational structure, cordoning off the master bedroom and an adjacent guest bedroom—without closing up the space. “The idea was that these walls negotiate the flow in a loosely configured way,” Dubbeldam says. “And the private areas are kind of connected to the whole space.” This open connection also allows for daylighting and natural ventilation—two key measures in an overall bid for sustainability that includes locally sourced stone and concrete; a sophisticated HVAC system with built-in humidifier and air-purification unit; Lutron lighting controls that minimize energy use; and highly insulated and ventilated interior and exterior walls that further reduce energy costs and insulate the loft from noisy streets and neighbors.
But it’s important to note that the loft’s success as a green interior is largely a function of the building rather than decisions Dubbeldam made on the inside. (Indeed with a west-facing curtain wall, the problem is not ample daylight but an excess of it—mitigated in this case by automated sunshades and a low-E film to block solar heat gain.) The interior capitalizes on the building conditions in a smart way, but to some extent it’s just styling—bogwood veneers, local materials, and sophisticated electronic controls would have been moot without a successful green envelope.
Dubbeldam traces her commitment to green building practices to the Netherlands, where sustainability is an integrated part of architecture. “The buildings I build are always way above New York standards for insulation—sound insulation, temperature insulation, acoustic values, the whole thing,” she says. “I guess for New York it’s a very unnatural building.” But green building methods are becoming less exotic in the city as more architects, developers, and contractors gain hands-on experience. “For an industry that is capital intensive and risk averse, the rate of change has been remarkable,” says Rafael Pelli, of Pelli, Clark, Pelli Architects, who designed the Solaire, the country’s first green high-rise residential building, in 2001. “And I think there’s really an opportunity to change the way we do buildings that five years ago wasn’t imaginable.”
The Greenwich Street project is clearly a rarified example: a lapidary architectural one-off with an experimental glass curtain wall, located on one of the most expensive strips of real estate in the world (units sold in the $2–6 million range). But it’s also unusual for the way the building forces the green issue, a practice more common in workplace projects with relatively uniform usage. “The hard thing in residential is to apply standardized systems to a building that inherently has a wide variation in the use of space,” Pelli says. Perhaps what makes the Greenwich Street project successful is that more than anything else the interiors react to two equally powerful conditions: an inherently green envelope and a dramatic curtain wall that raises the bar for aesthetics—even, it seems, for the architect herself.