Oct 30, 2007

Designing Lifestyle in 21st Century New York: Starchitect Condos

The early years of the 21st century have witnessed a number of brand-name architects (henceforth starchitects) designing condominium buildings in downtown Manhattan. While the physical living spaces are not significantly different to, say, 1980s New York luxury loft-style apartments, what has changed is the imaging, or perhaps more correctly, the total design of luxury lifestyles. In this sense of design, the physical buildings comprise but a minor part of the package – indeed, even before a sod of earth has been turned to dig foundations, architects, designers, developers and branding consultants have already created a image-world that includes not just the physical building and its interiors, amenities and furnishings, but also available services (from a 24 hour concierge desk to dog walking services), as well as highlights from the surrounding neighborhood. In short, designing a luxury condo involves the creation of an entire virtual lifestyle long before the actual glass and steel have arrived.

The imaging process that creates contemporary starchitect condos begins with the website. Here, potential consumers can see not only projected images of the finished building and its interiors, but also an entire image-world of the designer lifestyle, including a soundtrack, video clips and plenty of both real and constructed images featuring people inhabiting (or perhaps simply posing within) the spaces. These Flash-heavy websites often take some serious bandwidth to download – and the general rule seems to be, the more Flash the better. Such websites are, after all, as much about entertainment as they are about communicating information. If you don’t have a good broadband connection, this can mean spending a lot of time staring at increasing percentage numbers – but then again, if you can’t afford a decent broadband connection and the accompanying high-tech hardware, you’re hardly in the market for a luxury condo. Presumably all of this sophisticated imaging is required so that the physical glass and steel structure will have already acquired sufficient magical qualities before people part with their money: the luxury condo enters the world of myth before it exists in reality.

21st century New York is characterized by its reliance on two industries, finance and real estate, complemented by a few secondary industries, most notably the media sector (TV, film and publishing) and the cultural industry (galleries, museums, music, dance, theater, etc). It is in recent starchitect-designed condos that these various sectors of the city’s economy clearly intersect – high design (culture) meets brand name architect (a media construct) meets developer (real estate) meets big price tag (finance). Culture, particularly culture that has been already mediated and confirmed by institutions and publications (“architect featured at MoMA”, “designer of iconic museum”, “as featured in glossy coffetable books”, etc), seems a particularly important selling point for a New York lifestyle.

Jean Nouvel, 40 Mercer Street

Value-added living via design

Richard Meier might be credited as the pioneer of the recent wave of Manhattan starchitect-designed condos, and his designs certainly set the scene for more recent variations. His 173/175
Perry Street buildings, started in 1999 and completed in 2002, are typical modernist high-rise buildings with concrete service cores and a steel structure covered with floor to ceiling glass panels. Nothing particularly innovative architecturally speaking, the apartments are essentially elegant modernist glass boxes. However, Meier created a design vocabulary based on a minimalist, or “pure” form of modernism for a newly wealthy and design-saavy New York audience. And it must be a successful formula, as Meier has designed others since, most recently his On Prospect Park in Brooklyn (due to be finished soon). Meier has reconfigured modernism to equate it with luxury – here, transparent glass boxes function as both sources of views and conspicuous images of “designer” lifestyles, complete with lobbies prominently featuring Mies’s Barcelona chairs (presumably “authentic” versions? – see also my previous post). Finally, it is important that Meier’s Manhattan projects were sold as “designed by Richard Meier”, with the architect’s name becoming an essential branding device that adds to the luxurious appeal.

More recently, the floodgates have opened on the luxury condo market, with globally-branded starchitects now in on the act. My survey here covers recently completed and under-construction projects, all located in downtown Manhattan (and this is not a comprehensive list, simply the biggest names). These include:
40 Mercer Street and 100 11th Street by Jean Nouvel; Blue by Bernard Tschumi; 40 Bond Street by Herzog and de Meuron; 80 South Street by Santiago Calatrava; 166 Perry St by Asymptote; Yoo Downtown by Philippe Starck; The Urban Glass House by Philip Johnson (?) and Annabelle Seldorf; 1 Kenmare Square by Richard Gluckman; and 1 York Street by Enrique Norton (TEN Arquitectos). One thing all of these developments have in common is the cost – most of the apartments on offer start at around $2 million (studios or one bedroom) and go up (and up) from there.

A survey of the websites reveals many additional common features. While the exteriors generally assert their difference from the surrounding context (especially Tschumi’s
Blue, for example), the interiors follow Meier’s lead and reproduce minimalist downtown “loft”-like open plan spaces with high ceilings. These are not, of course, recycled industrial buildings as one might find in SoHo, but mimic the same interior aesthetic as 1980s lofts. The interiors all feature quality brand-name bathroom and kitchen fixtures and appliances, usually imported (read “European”) and some offer designer furniture options. In addition to private apartments, all condo buildings include some kind of recreational spaces – a gym or an indoor pool, and most feature a private lounge or bar. These, combined with the 24 hour concierge service desk which can arrange everything from grocery shopping to housekeeping, ensure that the owners’ designer life is almost self-contained within the building. The image is of effortless living with no domestic work necessary – a postindustrial Manhattan lifestyle that solves the old “servant problem” by outsourcing services – from grocery shopping to dry cleaning to cooking to dog walking. While Martha Stewart seems to have convinced middle America that domestic chores are fun (or at least that’s the fantasy she’s sold them), the really wealthy evidently haven’t bought this idea. In a designer lifestyle, domesticity is equated with drudgery that others can do, leaving more time to see and be seen.

A couple of further distinctive aspects of the websites worth commenting on are the music and the press page. Many of these websites feature music – it seems to be essential to create an aural ambience for a designer condo building – this is usually some kind of electronic ambient music, although Tschumi’s Blue, for example, features a short section of an old soul classic, “At last, the skies are blue…” by Etta James (I think?). Finally, and no less important, most designer condo websites feature a “press” page. The media publicity machine is already at work long before building has even started, with success measured in column inches and the number of feature articles (here design meets the media industry). Santiago Calatrava’s 80 South Street is the best example of this, with 18 articles collected on the website, that is, 18 articles about a proposed luxury condo building that hasn’t been built yet (and may never be built).

Bernard Tschumi, Blue, conspicious distinction

Buying a part of history

The most important aspect of starchitect-designed condos is that they have been designed by a famous architect. Calatrava’s 80 South Street, a speculative tower designed in 2003, features the following quotes on its website: “As featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York” and “own a part of architectural history”. The building is thus promoted as already part of the narrative of architectural history and already certified by a major museum as a significant cultural object, even though it doesn’t yet exist. And given the development comprises only 10 apartments starting from $29 million, it may never be economically viable. However, if it is never built, will it still be included in architectural history?

Meanwhile, The Urban Glass House certainly relies on a particular history of modernism in its promotion, making direct references to Philip Johnson’s original Glass House in Connecticut and suggesting that this new tower is destined to become a modernist classic in the same vein. The large billboard advertising the development in 2005 featured a split image, with half of Annabelle Seldorf’s face matched with half of Johnson’s face (Johnson’s half in black and white of course, to signify “history”). The tagline underneath read, “Modernist luxury as evolved”. PJ’s actual role in the design of The Urban Glass House is unclear to me, but my sense is that he simply lent his name to the project and Seldorf did the designing (though why, at his age, he would bother is indeed a mystery). Following Meier’s lead, modernism has continuing luxury appeal in Manhattan with The Urban Glass House and, as with the Calatrava development, buyers are not just buying a place to live, but a significant piece of architectural history.

While the language of modernism continues to appeal, Yoo Downtown by Philippe Starck, offers a slight variation on the starchitect-designed condo. Here, Starck has created a kind of postmodern gestamkunstwerk, designing not only the lobby area but also the pool, gym, theater and open-air terrace (“Starck Park”), in addition to providing a catalogue of furnishing options for the apartments. Starck’s best known projects in New York are a series of hotels designed for Mr Lifestyle himself, Ian Schreger, including the Royalton (1988), the Paramount (1990) and the Hudson (2000). With Yoo Downtown, Starck is extending his postmodern hotel aesthetic into spaces you can actually own. He has not only designed the public spaces, but is also presented as your personal interior design consultant, with four Starck furnishing options to choose from: Nature, Culture, Minimal or Classic. Each features a series of mix and match furniture and lighting choices from various designers (including Starck himself) so you can own your very own Philippe Starck-designed stage upon which to live out your designer fantasies.

Bernard Tschumi, Blue, billboard marketing designer interiors

But who are these fantasies designed for? Who needs a designer lifestyle anyway? A short essay on lifestyle from the website of Herzog and de Meuron’s, 40 Bond Street (developer Ian Schreger), provides some clues:

“Lifestyle is an expression of the life well lived. Lifestyle is the sum of our individual choices. It is the way we make our lives our very own. As old institutions fade and social structures fall away, the world is a smaller place. We are more mobile, jetting from one side of the world to the other, moving from one role in society to another. Nationality and class have been replaced by lifestyle. People find their place in the world through intelligence and taste. There are tribes of taste today. They recognize each other by their style. Lifestyle is the way a person distinguishes himself or herself. It is the artistry of living.”

Designer lifestyles are here equated with exclusivity and membership of a particular cosmopolitan class with good taste. However, only for an extremely small and select group of people has nationality been replaced by lifestyle – extensive passport controls at international airports and the erection of walls along the US-Mexican border suggest otherwise (imagine at a border crossing someone saying to the guards, “Hey, I’ve got lifestyle, let me in!”). Class, meanwhile, remains a key defining feature amongst of life in New York, and “lifestyle” and “taste” continue to be key determinants of class. The artistry of living, meanwhile, has been reduced here to consumption, as wealthy consumers are convinced to buy a lifestyle ready-made from famous designers. The “artistry of living” can be achieved without effort, creative input or even individuality, simply purchased as a prepackaged fantasy that seems like simply an up-scale version of Disney’s fantasy lifestyles on offer in Celebration, USA.

Finally, designer lifestyles, as presented in the image-world of the luxury condo, are centered around individual pleasures and individual consumption rather than any concept of community (where are you Jane Jacobs?). The surrounding neighborhood exists solely as a site of consumption, with the publicity material highlighting spaces such as cafes, restaurants and designer boutiques (rather than, say, public libraries, parks, schools or swimming pools). There is never any mention of interacting with the neighbors or participating in any kind of community life – the designer condo building is a sealed, exclusive enclave for a select “tribe of taste”.

But wait, there’s more

Pandiscio company, a contemporary “brand creation and marketing” company create what they call “branded addresses”, and currently represent 40 Mercer, The Urban Glass House and Cipriani Club Residences. It seems that luxury living is now in the hands of brand consultants as much as developers or architects. Incidently, Pandiscio are located, appropriately enough, in the Meatpacking District. Their latest gimmick is a series of handmade soft toys called Cuddle Me Condos. These include characterizations of luxury condo buildings, including 40 Mercer (above left) and The Urban Glass House (above right) as well as Cipriani Club Residences and One Kenmare Square.

Finally, for his 40 Mercer St condos, developer/hotelier Andre Balasz (he who bought the Maison Tropicale), commissioned a children’s book as part of the marketing program. “Jacques et Jill” is a charming tale of two chihuahuas who fall in love in Soho and watch the sun set from the glass balcony of 40 Mercer St’s penthouse suite. Of course, the irony is that while chihuahuas (at least quiet ones) might be tolerated at 40 Mercer St, children certainly do not feature in luxury condo ads. Indeed, 40 Mercer St’s publicity does not feature childcare or babysitting listed under the amenities and features no playroom for children – it’s quite clear that children are not part of the “adventurous, sophisticated lifestyle” portrayed at 40 Mercer St. But everyone knows that adventurous, sophisticated people love reading a good children’s book and cuddling up with a soft toy of their designer condo, especially right after they’ve visited their therapist.

Designing Designer Designs

So how is it possible to address the role of design in this imaging process? Is it still possible to separate the physical building from the associated branding and marketing? Or, is the physical building really significant without the imaging process? Does the contemporary architect simply provide a distinctive veneer on a fantasy developed by branding experts? Beyond the hype, it is important to note in conclusion that the starchitects involved in these condo projects have not substantially redefined urban living. There is certainly never any mention of the condo’s connection to society as a whole – the complete absence of the issues of sustainability or environmental design principles confirm that the designer lifestyle is not only a self-centered fantasy, but one that may prove to be ultimately socially and environmentally unsustainable.

Photos of Nouvel's 40 Mercer St and Tschumi's Blue by D.J. Huppatz


Sondra Fein, “
Condo Cool: Starchitect Branding and the Cost of “Effortless Living, or, Another Episode in the Continuing Quest for Social Status Through Design”, Harvard Design Magazine, Spring/Summer 2007. An excellent article about starchitect condos in Manhattan that I only just discovered when I was finished this entry. A must read.

An extensive list of luxury condo developments in Manhattan by Corcoran Sunshine Group


Julie V. Iovine, “Jack and Jill went up the private elevator”, New York Times, November 6, 2005. Includes a page from the children’s book for 40 Mercer St.

1 comment:

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