Asymptote Takes On New York

The architecture firm's first large-scale N.Y. project is a Modernist condo building in Greenwich Village.
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The developers who brought architect Richard Meier's glass apartment-house bookends to New York's Greenwich Village waterfront -- a move that led Manhattan to the leading edge of residential design and helped start the push of condominium prices to their own leading edge

-- are moving that edge another step forward. They are preparing a new project abutting one of the Meier buildings that will be designed by a firm a generation younger than the Modernist master.

Developers Richard Born, Ira Drucker and Charles Blaichman have hired architect firm Asymptote to design 166 Perry Street, a nine-story, 26-unit condo. It's the first Manhattan building design for the New York-based firm.

Asymptote's husband-and-wife team Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture are known for their theoretical, technologically sophisticated but largely inbuilt projects as well as their interiors for clients such as Alessi and even the

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. Asymptote already has large-scale projects under way or in planning in Abu Dhabi, Malaysia and South Korea, but 166 Perry will be its first in Manhattan.

"We had the feeling that they were going to be acknowledged as great architects, even though they hadn't built anything yet," says Born about his group's choice of Asymptote -- made after watching them for some five years. He liked their "out-of-the-box" design thinking, which he felt would be an asset in dealing with the precedent that the Meier projects, completed early in the decade, had set for residential architecture in New York.

In the Footsteps of Greatness

"It's a little bit of a challenge," says Born. "There are three edifices of Meier's on West Street, and we wanted to do something new." The site, says Born, "is a transition in height and neighborhood, so we are trying to transition the architecture, too."

At the same time, the developers and Asymptote are striving to avoid the virtually unavoidable: "One of the things we've been grappling with is that we did not want 166 Perry to be a comparative statement" to the Meier buildings, Born insists. "We didn't want to copy Meier, but instead to build something we think is harmonious with its surroundings."

Indeed, that's why Born and his partners came to Asymptote in the first place, says Rashid. "They were timing the approach." The site, project and architects meshed around Born's chief design concern: "He wanted to see if we could push the architecture equation in that part of town," says Rashid.

Meier's "elegant" Modernist statement sits along the city's West Side Highway, a glass-and-steel transparency that turns up its nose -- gracefully -- at the masonry facades of Perry Street. Rather than try to outdo that, says Rashid, Asymptote's building "starts to blend in and have a dialogue with Greenwich Village. It's the legacy of Meier not to play those kinds of games."

By contrast, adds Rashid, his firm's work shows "the power of what Modernism offers with sensitivity to the neighborhood, without pastiche or cliche."

To create that dialogue, Asymptote designed a facade of "diamond-cut" glass panes that angle inward and outward as they cascade down and encase the building, in which each unit occupies a corner. Unlike most new high-end buildings in the city, this one has multistory ground-floor units, which are fronted by a screen that Rashid describes as "a piece of computer-generated sculpture."

With its logarithmic design, it is a nod to the art-world projects that Asymptote undertook early on. The lobby, too, he says, is "a kind of half-installation piece, an extreme upgrade" -- centurywise, that is -- "of an Upper East Side doorman-building lobby."

The building is definitely a giant step away from that district's white-brick monstrosities and limestone palazzos. But the development team very much hopes that 166 Perry will fit neatly but distinctively into the gritty-genteel low-scale masonry of the Greenwich Village street front.

Rashid hopes the vehicle for that call-and-response relationship will be the building's chamfered glass windows with their tilted reflections. "They will give it a painterly facade and reflect the grain of Perry Street," he says. "Hopefully the neighborhood will see it as another Modernist building, but one that has sensitivity and responsiveness."

A Design That Sells

The developers and their brokers, the Sunshine Group, are also hoping for responsiveness -- from buyers. Born's group acquired the site, including where the Meier buildings now sit, in 1999. It had intended to build out 166 Perry Street -- formerly occupied by a garage -- earlier in the decade but was stymied by the market downturn following the dot-com bust and then simply waited for the neighborhood to mature.

Now, though, Born believes the timing is right. "We bought the site a little early and were resigned to keeping it as a garage," he says.

If the still-hot Manhattan condo market holds up as the project nears completion in summer 2008, the builders should see a handsome return for their patience. Through the first quarter of 2007, according to data from real estate firm Terra Holdings, Greenwich Village condos sold for an average price of $1,317 per square foot -- well above the Manhattan average of $1,118 a foot, and a small bump up from the average price for the Village of $1,239 in the first quarter of 2005. The average price for Greenwich Village in the same period in 2003: $762 a foot.

The Effects of Great Design

Where did that near-doubling in market value come from? Some of the credit certainly belongs to Born & Co. for having the nerve to hire a master design architect for the first phase of the build-out. At the time, New York residential design was dominated by a handful of production architects known for their ability to please developers by squeezing as many units to a building as the zoning would allow.

"It was very difficult to build those buildings," recalls Born, "particularly because of the banks." Lenders, he says, just didn't believe that there would be "a premium for a better-looking building."

Born says his group "forced ourselves" to presell 25% of the units before going to a lender. It also took an approach generated by the cultural ambience of Greenwich Village. "We didn't sell apartments -- we sold floors. We wanted buyers to buy a piece of art," he says. "That was a lot of heavy lifting."

But their muscle showed, he says, when they were able to repay their lender, Fleet Bank, with the sales of the first Meier tower. This time, he adds, "financing is not a big deal."

The proof in Born's pudding can be seen not just in the designs for 166 Perry Street but also in the expected cascade of high-design residential projects that are beginning to take shape around the anticipated restoration of the High Line elevated rail link as a pedestrian park, as well as elsewhere in Lower Manhattan. These include condo projects by architects ranging from Jean Nouvel and Shigeru Ban to Annabelle Seldorf and Renzo Piano.

Of course, these projects all spin off of Frank Gehry's InterActive Center, also the headquarters for Barry Diller's

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. Opened earlier this year, it's another new Manhattan landmark marking the arrival of meaningful contemporary architecture in a city whose skyline often reflects its deeply commercial heart.

But even hearts can change if the price is right. As Hani Rashid notes, "We're part of a bigger story."

At the time of publication, Peter Slatin was long had no positions in stocks mentioned.

Slatin publishes the independent real estate newsletter theslatinreport.com. He has written extensively about real estate and architecture for publications ranging from Barron's to The New York Times, and is on the editorial board of Real Estate Portfolio, published by the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts. He was the founder and editor of Grid, an award-winning real estate business magazine.