Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

The Towers That Will Be

The refrigerator is Sub-Zero, the cooktop is Thermador, and the dishwasher tucked under the granite countertop is Miele. The dining-room table, with its homespun linen tablecloth from Bergdorf Goodman, is set with iridescent Calvin Klein glass bowls and white chargers. Smoky goblets glinting behind the glass-fronted cabinets are also by Klein. The votive candles on the Kohler sink in the marble-tiled bathroom are from Takashimaya. All this — and a 10021 address — can be yours for $600,000 to $6 million. (Did we mention the restaurant downstairs that will be manned by a star-spangled chef, the Equinox gym-spa that will have its own resident acupuncturist, and the valet bike service?)

But “all this” is currently a three-story-deep hole on the corner of 65th Street and Third Avenue, where the Related Companies is building a superluxe postwar building with prewar amenities like crown moldings, Juliet balconies, and multipane windows. The hole has a name: The Chatham. And a name architect: Robert A.M. Stern.

Such upscale product placement in the Chatham’s showroom shouldn’t come as a shock. The Related Companies’ goal, in building this 94-unit condominium, was to burnish its superluxe new building with the added equity of superluxe appliances and the considerable skills of Stern. But Related didn’t think it could sell million-dollar apartments without something for buyers to see and feel and touch — hence the showroom’s fully equipped bathroom and kitchen in a nondescript brownstone on East 66th. “People judge the quality of the building by the attention to detail,” explains David Wine, president of Related’s residential-development division, walking a visitor through the spec kitchen. “We didn’t want to do a complete stainless-steel thing — it would be too expensive — so we decided to use top-of-the-line products instead. We’re saying, ‘This is important.‘ “ Pointing to the Sepco faucet in the gray-and-white marble powder room, he notes, “Brushed nickel is in.”

Call it a trend-in-progress: developers asking big-name architects better known for single-family homes or billion-dollar commercial complexes to work their sorcery on condos and rentals. The architects see it as an opportunity to grab part of the celebrated Manhattan skyline. The developers see it as a way to hitch their names to a glammy product and a serious architect. Stern’s office is also designing two additional high-rises, which are shaping up as less-luxe rentals: the cast-iron-style Tribeca Park, a massive 400-unit rental building in Battery Park City, and the Seville, on 77th and Second, for rival developer RFR/ Davis. RFR/Davis, led by former architect Trevor Davis, also has the Impala, a rental at 76th and First that will be blueprinted into existence by fellow postmodernist Michael Graves. One person involved in the development quipped that you could call these buildings “the Disney Collection,” given both architects’ affiliation with the Magic Kingdom. (Stern co-planned the oldfangled town of Celebration, Florida; he also designed the cartoonish Feature Animation Building in Burbank, California, and the Casting Center in Lake Buena Vista, Florida; Graves executed the Fantasia-worthy Dolphin and Swan Hotel there.)

Suddenly, developers are growing a collective aesthetic conscience. It’s a by-product of booming residential sales and the plethora of well-designed goods for the home. A few years ago, a rumor went around that Ralph Lauren was going to offer model-home plans — the only surprise is that the idea never turned into reality. Postmodernists Stern (known for his gray-clapboard, white-columned mansions) and Graves (known for his overblown classical vocabulary and Tuscan palette) are stepping into the breach, trying to turn themselves into equally recognizable brands. Stern has been designing a line of “classically styled” original furniture for years, and Graves realizes he’s better known for his Alessi teakettle than for, say, the Portland Building. The teakettle is considered the apogee of the eighties kitchen status symbol, and he’s taken the concept into the nineties with his recent line for Target. The swoopy new kettle costs $29.99 instead of $112. And Graves, who earlier in this decade designed a pricey South Beach condo development, is back in populist mode with this competitively priced luxury rental building.

But will people actually pay more for the architect’s name?

“I know it helps to sell teakettles,” says Graves, laughing immodestly. “I think people might be more curious, at least to go and look at the place, and then it should sell itself without anybody’s help.” Graves has been at the forefront of architectural branding — and he’s clear about his reasons for wanting his name on a building: “To get better work, to get an article in your magazine, to get people to buy apartments, to engage us all,” Graves says, only semi-facetiously. “It’s a bit like what Gerry Hines did in the seventies when he hired I. M. Pei and Philip Johnson to design office buildings. Gerry said he had to pay the architects a little bit more but he got it back in spades — the office-building-design stakes were raised almost overnight by Gerry’s success.” By contrast, developers tend to get too used to working with one architect, putting up building after building using the same formula. That’s how the city got its fleet of (justly unappreciated) white-brick buildings.

Stern, who worked for Mayor John Lindsay’s housing department after he graduated from the Yale architecture school, remembers that “there was no market for my skills or the skills of any architect of my generation” in the late sixties. “Battery Park City, if it does no other thing, was the key to changing it. Amanda Burden, Richard Kahan, David Emil, and Stephanie Gelb some of the authors and enforcers of Battery Park City’s architectural code realized that neighborhoods are going to be made by buildings that have some distinct qualities. In the early days of BPC, they made the developers and architects live in the buildings for a month after they were finished. Often we design these buildings and we never experience them for ourselves.”

And now they can. Graves, who already owns a unit in a Miami Beach high-rise he designed (he also appeared on a billboard for the building), says, “When I don’t have a specific client, I do everything as though it was for me.” If this project turns out well, he says, he’ll consider renting one of the apartments himself.

And even Wine couldn’t have imagined the additional publicity value of Stern’s moving into one of the Chatham’s most coveted spots — a sixth-floor apartment overlooking the Joneswood Garden, which is maintained by the brownstone owners of 65th and 66th Streets. Stern is moving only because the view from his 77th Street apartment (where he’s lived for nearly twenty years) is being ruined by Davis and his partners. The Empire is obliterating half of the Cottages, a picturesque thirties development that Stern the preservationist labored to keep from being torn down. Stern is sanguine about the change: “RFR/Davis is building a very nice building. I am not the architect, but looking at it I think, Oh, this isn’t going to be so bad.

Both architects see these buildings as a chance to redress some of the wrong done to New Yorkers (including themselves) over the years. “I’ve always been interested, as most good architects are, in the prewar buildings,” says Graves. “What I most like about those buildings are their plans. It’s always striking to me when people in prewar buildings make SoHo lofts out of them by stripping them of detail and knocking down walls. In the anonymous towers, the plans are awful. They are often turned on the bias so when you open the front door — boo! — there’s the view of the East River. There’s no mystery to it whatsoever.” You can almost hear Graves shaking his white head. “People don’t understand pacing — how to hold back and give it to you in smaller doses.”

The building’s entrance also consumed much of Graves’s attention. Although the building isn’t luxurious, the lobby will be maple-paneled, with a limestone floor. He’s also planned an outdoor courtyard between the front desk and the elevators. Davis plans to fill it with bronze statues of impalas — the African antelopes, not the Chevrolets. “Coming to your house is an important event in anyone’s life, and this reflects that,” he says. The outside of the building also plays with childhood notions of home: Graves has arranged the windows in four-square groups, like a child’s drawing of a windowpane, which makes the building seem much shorter (two floors read as one) and gives the edifice as a whole a building-block appeal.

Stern also stresses the point of entry; at the Chatham, he’s installed a modest oval lobby reminiscent of the one in the Carlyle. The black silk throw pillows at the sales center — they’ll make their way onto one of the lobby’s settees eventually — have been sewn up in a diamond pattern that matches the ornamental grillwork on the front door. “I said to both clients, ‘Let’s have a quiet lobby; let’s prepare people for their apartments,’ “ Stern says. “It shouldn’t be a broken-field run through a marble hall. Lobbies should be small and intimate, like living rooms for the buildings.”

Stern tinkered with the developer’s standard plans, adding details that his mansioneer clients appreciate. He picked a neutral palette for the bathrooms, adding the wide molding that rings the rooms, and started the living-room windows a foot below the ceiling line (so that curtain rods and valances can’t be seen from the street).

“The kitchens reflect the kind of kitchen I’ve done in people’s houses — nicely appointed, white and black, not an assault by all the different kinds of marbles you can buy in the world. I want the most important thing in the room to be you, and if not you, your vegetables,” says Stern.

As soon as the Chatham is finished, the brownstone housing the restrained kitchen-and-bath showroom will be demolished to make way for the Chatham’s garage. But the faux home seems to be working — in one month, 50 percent of the Chatham’s 94 units have sold, and while no one has actually offered to buy the sample kitchen’s striking black-and-white wicker table and chairs, or the Calvin Klein glasses, Stern’s carefully styled stage set is doing half the agents’ work for them.

Until the late sixties, when funding dried up, an architect’s first commission was occasionally federally funded housing. Le Corbusier did it in Marseilles; Richard Meier did it in the Bronx. It’s a building type that Stern and Graves undoubtedly studied in school, but they were unable to find anyone who wanted to pay for their thoughts — until now. If the Seville and the Impala rent swiftly, Davis says, he’ll hire more name architects. The Related Companies may soon be branching out from postmodernists: The company is talking to a list of modern architects, selected by Cooper Union’s architecture faculty, in a competition to design a boutique-hotel-and-cinema complex that will go up in the parking lot next to the Public Theater.

In this brave new, celebri-designed world, “the buildings will have different personalities and aesthetics,” Stern says. “To quote Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, ‘Not only do they have names; now they have faces.’ “


Originally published in New York Magazine