Sublime Insanity

­Herzog & de Meuron’s 40 Bond is Ian Schrager’s latest over-the-top attack on the cultural status quo.

Maybe he was just one of those New Yorkers who freak out when they see construction. Every neighborhood has them, micro-local ac­tivists bent on reviling each new thing in a city built on change. It must make for hard, angry days. But there he was one sunny afternoon in September, this self-appointed guardian of Noho, harassing the elegant black-suited doorman at Ian Schrager’s newest entrepot of hip living, 40 Bond. “Why is this building so ugly?” the suitably wild-haired and -eyed citizen asked at high volume. “Why did you have to make it so ugly?”

The doorman, of course, had very little to do with determining the tics and taste of the new building. He looked like he might have just been transplanted south 20 blocks or so from Schrager’s Gramercy Park Hotel, a trendsetter from the hotelier-cum-developer’s fall 2006 collection with which residents of 40 Bond enjoy a sort of sybaritic cross-registration (including 24-hour concierge service and, amazingly, access to the gated Eden of Gramercy Park itself). As it hap­pened, two of the people responsible for the alleged ugliness of this glassy low-rise condominium block, Schrager and his endlessly glamorous design director, Anda Andrei, were standing about three feet away. The other two, architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, were overseas and missed the moment. But when they do visit the building—their first residential job in the United States and their first of any type in New York City—it’s possible the celebrated Swiss will catch a similar show. Just passing by a few days before, I had come across another public loosing of anger and confusion, this one courtesy of a local harridan who spared the doormen but did manage to gather a small crowd around her as she decried the building’s poor looks.

It needs to be said: everything about 40 Bond is nuts. A three-bedroom unit purchased in July for $4.8 million was being flipped in October for $5.95 million. The remaining one-bedroom is on the market for $3.5 million. The list of amenities includes turndown service. It’s like an extended-stay hotel for the Monocle set when they tire of Beijing and need a shot of the Bowery. Schrager himself has taken the top two floors and a chunk of another to build an 8,500-square-foot John Pawson–designed sky-manse that will be, when it is completed next year, one of the most wonderful and perverse residences ever constructed in Manhattan—certainly in recent years and certainly downtown. Stand­ing in the empty concrete shell of his future aerie, Schrager raised and spread his arms as if to frame an infinite expanse of pure space. “This will be the master bath,” he said.

Only with that spirit of commence de siècle excess in mind, along with the wider context of New York City’s starchitect-condo arms race, does the design of 40 Bond begin to make sense. And it makes good sense. Schrager has lived around the corner on Lafayette Street for years; he knows the neighborhood, and as his record of winning calls in clubs and hotels and now condominiums should attest, he knows what he’s doing. Inside, it’s clear that he and Andrei—the secret ingredient in so many past collaborations with name-brand designers—know exactly what they’re doing. The apartments are gorgeous, and the smallest feel huge. One group, the two-bedroom B line, spans nine bays across the front of the building. Services—bathrooms, kitchen, closets—are packed in a fat L along the inside wall, achieving a rare and welcome sense of distance from the corridor. What’s left is a long open space, about 52 by 15 feet, which one enters on axis like the king of all creation. Bedrooms are at either end, just barely segregated from the main living area by sliding doors that retract away from the core and windows into freestanding gallery walls. It is a plan unlike any other I have seen in New York—it feels like one of those accidental Paris apartments carved out of the public rooms of a forgotten palace—and it is without a doubt one of the most urbane interiors ever to be peddled by a Manhattan broker.

But that’s all hidden away, up an elevator at the back of the strange deep crevasse of a lobby. What has all the local sidewalk sheriffs in such a tizzy is the building’s signature exterior move, the one we’ll see on postcards and T-shirts someday: a facade-long stretch of cast-aluminum fencing that separates the tidy little trapezoidal entry courts of the building’s integrated “town house” units from the street. Derived from graffiti letterforms through some sort of silicon magic and fabricated the old-fashioned way in sand molds at a foundry upstate, the fence piles up from the ground, no two sections alike, to poke at the bottom of the building’s overhanging third floor. Though it can’t claim the same outsider-artist spontaneity, 40 Bond’s scribbled metal skirt still shares the incongruous exuberance of the messy and often illegal street sculpture that used to make walking downtown such a joy: the now lost Statue of Liberty crown on the old El Teddy’s restaurant in Tribeca, say, or the guerrilla mosaics that can occasionally still be found on the bases of streetlamps in the East Village. Then there was that guy who clamped weird metal bugs to the perforated posts of the “No Parking” signs. I always liked those.

With so much in our new New York so thoroughly sterilized, and with the current wave of pricey condos themselves such a force in and measure of that sterilization—Gap, Nouvel, Starbucks, Meier, Starbucks, Nouvel, Gap—it is heartening that the architects of 40 Bond saw fit to remember how weird things once were downtown and how essential that dose of weirdness was to the perception of New York as a place where creativity can occur. The total disconnect between the facade of the lower floors, which picks up the graffiti theme in bas-relief on metal plates, and the upper floors, with their elegant-beyond-impeachment grid of bowed green glass, only works to heighten the impression that the fence is an aberration, an addition, a spontaneous work of public art. And truly, with things as they are in Manhattan, this is no time to quibble about authenticity.

Who cares if it’s ugly? What good would beauty bring to this street of broken Belgian blocks, around the corner from the corpse of CBGB? Across the way and a few doors down, two other condo buildings are almost complete. They’re pretty enough. But no one’s living on Bond Street for pretty; they live there, I hope, because it’s alive, and the new building at No. 40 will help it to remain so. When it has settled in for a few years, when the neighbors have calmed down and learned to love it (as they will), the building’s over-the-top ornamentation is going to be as much a local landmark as Forrest Myers’s recently restored Gateway to Soho or skate punks spinning the Astor Place cube. The complainers, if they’ve lived in the area long enough, should know better than to impugn an attempt, however grafted to luxury, however nuts, to reconnect to the neighborhood’s dark and nearly vanished sense of whimsy.

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: December 2007

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