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Gehry’s $875 Million Tower Ripples High Above Brooklyn Bridge

8 Spruce Street
The exterior of 8 Spruce Street. The building was designed by Frank Gehry. Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

Feb. 12 (Bloomberg) -- At 8 Spruce Street, just east of City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan, I stared up at a 76-story wall of stainless-steel panels and bay windows that rippled and curled like a zipper run amok.

No mysterious force sideswiped the walls. Los Angeles Architect Frank Gehry, 81, designed the 903-unit rental apartment building that way. At 870 feet, it is by a nose New York’s tallest residential building.

Developer Forest City Ratner Cos., notorious for the controversial Atlantic Yards megaproject (where Gehry was once the architect), will start signing leases this month on the first completed apartments. The topmost apartments won’t be ready until 2012.

In contrast to the dumb, boxy towers clad in murky glass that have defaced New York City’s skyline during the past decade, Gehry has produced a gawky beauty that captures the open-ended energy of the city. It fascinates rather than ravishes.

I moved a good distance back, gazing at that glittering rumpled surface from the Brooklyn Bridge. In the stretched wedding-cake profile I see a bit of Rockefeller Center romance struggling to get out. Gehry slims the tower so that it frames the surroundings rather than obliterating them.

The building is most powerful close up, where its draping creases evoke veins pulsing beneath the smooth surface -- a cockeyed echo of nearby 19th-century facades covered with pistoning columns and muscular cornice brackets. The surface has a willful strangeness in the mold of the Barcelona mystic Antoni Gaudi.

School of Blandness

The tower rises from a chunky new five-story orange-brick public elementary school of utter blandness that deserved more architectural energy. It will open next fall.

The school was part of a complex development deal orchestrated by the New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Gehry designed and Forest City Ratner built the shell of the school. The architect Swanke Hayden Connell is fitting out the $65 million interior. The great height is thanks to air rights sold by the adjacent Downtown Hospital.

The tower was financed when markets were crashing and at one time it looked as if it would rise only 38 stories. Its $875 million cost benefited from $204 million in government-backed post-9/11 Liberty Bonds.

I had feared the building’s great size would cast the surrounding streets into gloom. Yet a recent late-afternoon visit revealed that the reflective surface and deep setbacks draw light in. Two small tree-shaded plazas will bring patches of desperately needed greenery.

Bay Windows

Though the rippling exterior suggests apartments laid out in lava-lamp blobs, you mostly get a familiar functionality. (Gehry’s firm laid out the units, which is both fortunate and a rarity. Almost every developer hires from a triumvirate of specialist local firms that favor inexplicable mazelike plans or highway-hotel dreariness.)

The plans, ranging from studios (lower floors start at $2,600 monthly) to two-bedroom units (from $5,895), are unpretentiously appointed and gracious if not spacious. The exterior curves scallop the rooms, which loosens them up pleasingly. Some of the large glass expanses kink in and some kink out to form bay windows, one of the great architectural inventions almost never used in New York.

There’s plenty of city on view: the Gothic extravagance of the Woolworth Building, the gold-statued grandeur of the Municipal Building, an assortment of East River bridges, and your choice of Lower Manhattan or Midtown skylines.

No Balcony

The high units are more generous but you won’t find the hangar-sized living rooms and pools set into outdoor terraces of late-boom condos. You won’t even get a balcony. Prices at this level have yet to be set but $15,000 isn’t unlikely.

Self-appointed style cops decry Gehry’s fanciful architecture as the gaudy emblem of the last decade’s excess. Yet nothing about this tower is gratuitous. It shows how to put a very large building into a heavily built-up city.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in New York at jamesrussell@earthlink.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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