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A Habitable Sculpture in Lower Manhattan

Neil Denari

A Habitable Sculpture in Lower Manhattan
By Michael Webb -

The High Line-an elevated freight track in Lower Manhattan transformed into a linear park-offers rustic illusions and thrilling views of the city. Eventually, it may be walled in by generic blocks, but for now the panorama - from the Empire State Building across the low-rise blocks of Chelsea and the West Village and down to the harbor - has few interruptions. Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry make fleeting appearances on the Westside Highway. The one significant neighbor is HL 23, a 14-story condo block sheathed in glass and steel, swelling out over the park. It’s the first ground-up building by NMDA, Neil M. Denari’s Los Angeles-based office, and it demonstrates how New York’s tough zoning code can be waived to advantage. “It’s easier to break out of the box in the Wild West of Manhattan”, says Denari. “This is still unsettled territory, with large warehouses and few residents to raise objections”. That will soon change as the area gentrifies, but two first-time developers seized their chance to exploit a tiny site alongside the High Line before the park opened, and commissioned NMDA to design something radically new. In spring 2005, the architects produced thirty schemes in six weeks, pushing the envelope to create a block that would have an elegant signature, while maximizing square footage and relating harmoniously to the park. “It had to fit in and stand out”, explains Denari. “The design was developed from the inside out, in an accumulation of small negotiated moves. We wanted the form to be a continuous surface rather than the conventional wedding cake with set-back floors”. In fact, it’s stepped out and back; with the top that is cantilevered 1,5 meters over the park to the east, and again to the south over a spur in the tracks. That sculptured form was submitted to the city planning department for prior approval, and they granted seven of eight requested waivers in the hope that this block would set a benchmark for future development. Such a complicated...

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