March 23 (Bloomberg) -- “This building belongs to this site,” says architect Jean Nouvel, removing a black fedora from his huge bald head, as he settles down for a talk on the 19th floor of a condominium building he designed for the west side of Manhattan.
Seen through floor-to-ceiling windows, the Hudson River and an expanse of Lower Manhattan formed a stunning backdrop.
Down below on 11th Avenue, onlookers have been scratching their heads watching a jigsaw-puzzle jumble of rectangular windows rise from the street. As the 23-story 100 11th Avenue nears completion, those 1,700 windows coalesce into a curving, glittering, reptilian skin.
Developer Cape Advisors Inc. made a late-boom bet that the celebrated Nouvel could sell apartments at peak prices to art-world mavens in Manhattan’s scruffy-chic West Chelsea gallery district.
Nouvel, 64, once told me he sent an assistant scurrying after a passing car because it was precisely the blue he wanted to use on the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
Cape Advisors’ bet on quirky design looked iffy for a while as high-end housing plummeted, and costs rose (to $190 million from $150 million). Now more than half the apartments are sold, including a $22 million duplex. Prices for available units run from $2 million to $10 million.
Unlike many Pritzker Prize architects, Nouvel likes to design housing. He has also built a finely machined steel-blue condo at 40 Mercer Street for Andre Balazs.
“From this side of the building you can see the Statue of Liberty. On the other side you have Midtown with its fantastic skyline.” Not to mention the golf balls whacked from the Chelsea Piers driving range, across the West Side Highway.
I asked, why the overcomplicated façade? Within the elaborate frames, the glass is variously tilted, tinted, and mirrored.
“I imagined the building to shimmer,” he says. It sparkles, “because only the windows angled toward the sun pick up the light. It is like the eye of an insect that can see more than 180 degrees around.”
In stark contrast, the sides and back of the building are clad in black brick.
“It’s sculpted, like a cliff.” The dark surface has rectangular windows of various sizes in an apparently random pattern. “They frame the city beyond. When you are inside, it is as if you have paintings of New York City hung on the walls,” he thinks.
At the still-unfinished street level, a secondary wall -- built the same elaborate way -- rises like a jagged five-story-high fence. Terraces, glass rooms and some potted trees will hang in the spaces between the two walls. “You have to see it! I can’t describe it.”
Nouvel said he would stay for a few days in a model apartment fitted-out by artist Jean-Charles Blais, who painted black accent walls and brought in spare modern furniture.
“This kind of architecture is made simply to enjoy, to feel. I generally hate the luxury modern apartment with too many things out of sight and so clean you cannot touch. You are not inhabiting an esthetic process, this is an apartment to live in.”
Nouvel doesn’t stay put much, these days, though the changing economy reduced his atelier.
“We were around 200 people a year ago. Now we are 100.” He’ll follow his muse, he says, but with smaller budgets and more emphasis on the environment.
A rippling wave-form concert hall for the Paris Philharmonic was delayed, but construction will start soon.
“It will probably be one of the monuments of the city,” he said. His confidence stems from a string of praised theaters, including the Guthrie, and halls in Lucerne, Lyon and Copenhagen, where a home for Danish Radio has just opened.
In skyscraper-phobic Paris, the Signal Tower in the district of La Defense was controversial, and it has been shelved.
He’s reworking a 75-story tower proposal in New York next to the Museum of Modern Art. It’s the bottom that’s too beefy, but New York City’s Planning Commission demanded that he lop 200 feet off the top.
“It’s too early to talk about it,” he says, curtly.
Elsewhere, things are looking up for Nouvel. Today his design for the National Museum of Qatar was unveiled, along with his selection as the latest star architect for the prestigious, albeit short-term project of designing the Serpentine Gallery’s temporary summer pavilion in London’s Hyde Park. And building has begun on what might be a career-capping project, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, roofed by a 600-foot-diameter dome. “They don’t even know there is an economic crisis in Abu Dhabi,” says Nouvel.
(James S. Russell is Bloomberg’s architecture critic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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