January 1, 2010
Voyeurs’ Delight: André Balazs’s High Line Hotel
At the Standard, André Balazs’s High Line–straddling hotel, the show occurs on both sides of the glass.
“Dear Guest,” began the general manager’s letter, which we found on the table of our room at the Standard Hotel. “As a reminder, please be aware of the transparency of our guest room windows and that activity in your room, when the curtains are open, may be visible from the outside.” The Standard—the skinny glass lozenge that stands astride the High Line, New York’s most fashionable new park—has become a favorite target of tabloids and gossip blogs since it opened last spring. The New York Post called it “exhibitionist-friendly” and alleged that “even hotel staffers and managers get in on the act, workers said, stripping down and posing provocatively in front of the massive floor-to-ceiling windows to draw attention to the hotel.” The Post viewed the supposed exhibitionism as some sort of marketing scheme that took the concept of “viral” to a whole new level. The paper even implied that a guest’s attempted rape of a hotel maid was connected to the hotel’s becoming “a hot spot for naked guests letting it all hang out.”
Perhaps the Post isn’t completely delusional. My boyfriend and I did, after all, check in there for purely romantic purposes. Our 11th-floor room—facing south and sitting almost directly above the High Line—had a stunning view of the Hudson River, the West Side Highway, and much of Lower Manhattan. We initially took the general manager’s letter to heart and kept the room’s sheer curtain at least partially closed. But later, transfixed by the view, we opened it and sprawled crosswise on the bed, staring out the window for hours at the people in the park below, the light on the river, the perpetual motion of the traffic. The scene was glorious, like real-life Cinerama. Granted, we were naked in the window, but we weren’t putting on a show; we were watching one.
Despite being off duty, I eventually began to notice the hotel’s architecture. Our room seemed weirdly shallow, separated from the corridor by the combined width of the toilet area and the king-size bed. Hotel rooms are typically deeper than they are wide, arranged perpendicularly to the corridor to maximize the number of what hoteliers call “keys.” Here the room was parallel to the corridor, with an extra-long window wall. It felt like we were inhabitants of a built-in aquarium. There was literally no place to hide. Someone preening in front of the window would be on display, but even a more demure guest scampering from the bathtub to the bed would be nearly as visible. The Standard’s notorious exhibitionism is not simply a function of the guests’ depravity but a quirk of the building’s architecture.
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“You stand there in the room with shades open and feel a little removed from the city,” admits the Standard’s architect, Todd Schliemann, of Polshek Partnership. “But if you’re down on the High Line looking up, you can see everyone.” Schliemann worked closely with the hotelier André Balazs to insert the building into the now fashionable Meatpacking District without disrupting the area’s feverish street life. “It came upon us early that we should lift the building up,” Schliemann says. “So, we have this building floating above sculpted legs.” At the same time, Balazs wanted the hotel to be well connected to the surrounding neighborhood. “André wanted to do away with the barrier between the city and people who would stay there,” Schliemann says.
Hence, the building’s floor-to-ceiling glass. But this isn’t just any floor-to-ceiling glass. It’s exceptionally clear, low-iron, “water white” glass. Other recent buildings have used this glass, most notably 7 World Trade Center, but there it’s fritted, coated with a white-dot pattern designed to block out some of the sun and make the curtain wall slightly less transparent. “From the inside out, the immediacy of the city is heightened,” says Schliemann, who postulates that when a conventional window is installed in an opaque wall, people tend to stand back a bit when they look through it. Floor-to-ceiling glass invites a certain closeness. “You walk right up to it,” he says, “and press your nose against it.” Right. Your nose. And it turns out I wasn’t imagining things: the rooms on the south side are shallow, only 17 feet deep, compared to those on the north side of the hotel, which are 25 feet deep. Schliemann and Balazs also decided to maximize the frontage on the south side—where the rooms are 17 feet wide, versus 10 feet wide on the north side—enhancing the power of the views, even though the arrangement resulted in fewer rooms per floor.
The Standard’s renown as the “Naked Hotel” is not merely a function of the architecture—or even sly marketing—but of an unusual urban condition, the close proximity of the High Line to adjacent buildings. You can also see clearly into the glass-walled apartments of Richard Meier’s Perry Street towers, but the closest view of them is from the West Side Highway, where you can’t stop to gawk. Or you could spy on the towers’ residents from the comfort of Hudson River Park, but then you’re at binocular distance. But if you’re walking on the High Line, not only do you traipse directly underneath the Standard; you’ve already been staring directly at it for close to the entire length of the park.
In fact, the whole neighborhood suddenly sprouting up around the High Line promises to be a hot spot for exhibitionism and voyeurism. Several of the residential buildings going up along the park—like Neil Denari’s HL23, which cantilevers over it—seem calculated to tease. HL23’s lower floors are virtually on the High Line. An apartment building designed and developed by the firm Della Valle Bernheimer is shoehorned between the High Line and a gas station. Apartments on the lower floors come within ten feet of a still uncompleted stretch of the park. Looking north from one of the building’s slanted windows, you can peer straight down a long, raw portion of the former freight tracks. “It’s like you’re driving down the High Line,” Jared Della Valle says. Shigeru Ban’s nearby Metal Shutter House is not so intimately connected to the park, but it does have apartments with sliding shutters and glass doors that allow the interiors to be opened to the outside.
Historically, luxury living in New York has meant a well-cultivated isolation from the hoi polloi, maintained by doormen, altitude, extra window glazing, and a spot in a quiet, genteel neighborhood. What these buildings suggest is a new urban luxury that embraces the city, its smells, noises, and peculiarities. And that inevitably means, either intentionally or by default, a degree of exhibitionism. Note that the bathrooms in many new luxury buildings, including some of those on the High Line, often boast floor-to-ceiling glass so that residents can look out at the world as they bathe. Some of the Standard’s swankiest rooms feature a bathtub out in the open, offering stunning river views (and equally stunning views in).
I happen to think a little overexposure is a small price to pay for the panorama the hotel affords. The building’s inherent nakedness is its greatest virtue. Schliemann suggests that what the Post labels “exhibitionist-friendly” is part of a broad set of cultural changes. He theorizes that a highly transparent building in an urban setting is the architectural equivalent of Facebook, a form of social networking.
And that’s true, up to a point. The border between public and private has become porous in recent years. But as someone who has resisted endless entreaties from friends and relatives to join Facebook because it seems relentlessly invasive, I see the exposure offered by the Standard as something more innocent and surely more anonymous. While some guests are, as the Post insists, behaving badly in public, most are just reveling in the uncanny, Edenic pleasure of being at once immersed in Manhattan and butt naked.