Jean Nouvel, at his best, makes the world seem more exciting, intensive, glamorous, not exactly as we had previously pictured it. When budget and site and program align, the French master and his team produce habitable objects (the Saint-James Hotel near Bordeaux; the Fondation Cartier in Paris; the proposed National Museum of Qatar) that allow us reconsider our place in the world. These iterations of Nouvel’s constant engagement with contemporary life are descendants of Le Corbusier’s machines à habiter, at once functionalist and stylish. They signal not - as often feared by Anglophonic critics of Modernism - the industrialized constriction of freedom but rather the promise of visual and spatial liberation.
100 11th Avenue is already a landmark, a shimmering marker where the strict urban grid of Manhattan meets 11th Avenue, the busy West Side Highway, and the tassel-like fringe of piers jutting into the Hudson. The site is in Chelsea, home to key “white cube” art galleries. Away from the river, at the end of the block, the High Line - that skilful reuse of elevated railway tracks as a post-industrial park - crosses West 19th Street. Immediately across the street, the glass membranes of Frank Gehry’s IAC headquarters billow like the sails of a frozen schooner. Looking southwest, warmed by the sun, 100 11th Avenue enjoys unobstructed views of the Hudson, the New Jersey shore, and New York Harbor.
Nouvel has tapped all these contextual clues to benefit residents of 100 11th Avenue. The new building is essentially Janus-faced. One façade, the iconic one, stretches as a diaphanous mask across the west and south elevations. There is no emphatic corner between 11th Avenue and 19th Street; instead the 23-story screen curves to connect straight sections to either side in a contiguous gesture worthy of Oscar Niemeyer. To the rear, to the north and east (the façade seen from the High Line), the building rises from low warehouses in sheer flanks of taut dark brick, a resolutely orthogonal world punctured by a myriad rectangular openings, as homage, in Nouvel’s way, to everyday Manhattan and the somewhat surrealistic plot of its many normative windows.
If Le Corbusier wrote of machines à habiter, Nouvel’s best buildings are often machines for viewing, devices through which the city or nature is observed. Thus at 100 11th Avenue the facetted screen of glass and steel scrambles the identification of individual apartments from the exterior, yet offers residents an agglomerative panorama to the outside world, akin to an array of giant flat-screen TVs. The very different rectangular apertures to the rear, organized in multiple sequences or relationships, present vignettes or clips of the New York skyline to the interior: a green zip of High Line; the hypodermic Empire State building piercing the sky; a caged-in exercise yard of an adjacent women’s prison on West 20th Street.
These framed views recall both the isolated beauty found in Edward Hopper paintings and the hipness of Dennis Hopper photographs. Out there it’s a tough world. Obversely, views out through the curving glass façade evoke some high-tech resort, a luminous eyrie high above the Hudson. At sidewalk level, at the intersection of 11th Avenue and 19th Street, a lower screen follows the site boundary forward of the main building envelope. Thus a buffer is created between orthogonal and curved geometries, a kind of winter garden open to the sky, a cage of horizontal and vertical members that house balconies for lower level apartments and several trees held dramatically aloft in cubic tubs. This dissolution or interpenetration of planes is classic Nouvel.
Unlike many recent buildings in Manhattan, 100 11th Avenue is much more than a mere façade or massing model. Achieved in collaboration with Beyer Blinder Belle, an established New York practice known for significant restoration projects, 100 11th Avenue is a total work of architecture with foyer and apartments determined by the design team. One achievement, or trick (Nouvel’s architecture is, after all, close to conjuring), is to banish structural columns to the periphery, freeing up the usable floor plate. Another is to place the smaller units behind the convex facade, bookended by the larger apartments that extend east and north into the brick carapace. Thus each apartment benefits from exposure to sunlight and views of the river.
Just above sidewalk level, a restaurant is planned adjacent to the interstitial garden facing south. Below, the basement is allocated to such shared uses as a private gymnasium and a swimming pool that extends from the interior out into a sunken patio. Accessed from West 19th Street, the residents’ lobby overlooks this patio before turning through a black reflective hall to elevators that rise to narrow lobbies where floors, walls, and ceilings are entirely black. Entering the apartments, one is immersed in white light due not only to sunlight but to an almost uniformly white palette: smooth terrazzo floors with only a hint of grey aggregate; white walls, flush doors, air intake panels, and light fixtures; and white ceilings that taper up toward the great tessellated glass façade.
The apartments exude a Gallic flair for geometry and chic. Floors fold upward to create flush terrazzo skirting, emphasizing further the planarity of the interior. There are customized stainless steel kitchen units (by Valcucine) and, in each apartment, a small island made of terrazzo rising from the floor as a hollow monolith. In an overtly cinematic moment, a projector housed near the ceiling projects light out onto a raked mirror strategically positioned above the cubic work island. Communication between many principal rooms is via floor-to-ceiling doors subtly angled to accommodate skinny structural flanges attached to the exterior façade.
Also in this perimeter zone, the floor surface is specified with a slightly glossier finish in order to bounce light inward. Real estate is a business of numbers, as well as perception. 100 11th Avenue contains 72 apartments: one-, two-, and three-bedroom units, five penthouses, and one spectacular residence occupying the entire top floor.
Its iconic façade is assembled from almost 1,700 panes of glass, some the largest ever used for residential building in the United States. These panes are set in a steel frame of 165 mega panels such that the glass tilts in section and rotates in plan. Thus the cumulative effect of Nouvel’s creative inquiry produces an enigmatic puzzle, a membrane that reflects and refracts light and views like a giant chandelier or kaleidoscope. This mutability means that this newest New York landmark appears, like the city itself, to be in perpetual change.