Running along Manhattan’s skyline is a vein of private spectacle, accessible by invitation only. Mostly, it’s a place of generic luxury, where a fortune buys a bigger room, a higher ceiling, a better shower head. One couple, though, has turned four full stories atop an 1896 skyscraper into a palace of ideas.
At the 21st floor, the beaux-arts building culminates in grand arched windows and stone angels supporting a sharply pitched roof, Bloomberg Pursuits will report in its Spring issue. Inside this conventionally gracious shell is an utterly contemporary space, a 7,000-square-foot (650-square-meter) penthouse apartment that combines mathematical complexity with childlike playfulness and reduces privacy to an antiquated foible. It’s architecture for the age of social media.
Several designers blanched at the challenge of inserting a luxury residence inside the sloping roof of a landmarked building. The standard approach would have been to carve this inverted trough into room-sized boxes, leaving wedges of useless real estate. The owners wanted something more efficient, exciting and advanced.
Enter New York architect David Hotson, who -- eager to burst beyond his portfolio of sleek, understated interiors -- seized the chance to create an intricate three-dimensional puzzle. To help Hotson along, his mathematically minded client sent him his dissertation, about an algorithm capable of discerning the structure underpinning complex sequences of symbols: a Bach partita, a human genome, a sonnet.
It turns out that if you feed in enough data, a computer can deduce the principles of counterpoint, heredity and Elizabethan verse. Hotson similarly used raw computing power -- and a 3-D laser scan of the unfinished space -- to render a design that previous generations could hardly have visualized, let alone built.
The result is a place of inspired confusion. Walls splay outward and floors slope. Daylight flows in through hidden windows -- bouncing off walls, bleaching out shadows and wreaking havoc with all sense of depth. Wherever you stand, you can look through to other levels without quite comprehending how they relate.
The occupants -- a husband and wife who declined to be identified -- wanted their starship outfitted with the perks of perpetual childhood (although they have no children of their own): Ladders lead to hidden lofts, a swing dangles in front of a fireplace and a steel column rising 40 feet (12 meters) from the living room to the rafters is equipped with rubber handholds and a harness, so you can get in a quick climb before breakfast and rappel down before your cappuccino’s finished frothing. The two cats have a gym of their own, a series of secret passageways buried in the walls and leading to a window that looks down upon their masters’ bed.
Advanced Fun House
Even those of us who don’t have cats have learned to assume we’re under constant surveillance; that’s the price of our digital dependence. Hotson’s advanced fun house literalizes that idea. It’s full of glass floors, peekaboo walls and unsuspected watching posts. From the attic, there’s even a bird’s-eye view of a guest bed; visitors should consider themselves forewarned. Navigating the place requires dexterity and courage. On the spiral staircase, for instance, every step is different.
Fortunately, there’s a smoother route down: a great shiny tube that wends its way through the house like a stainless steel intestine. This folly -- which had to be installed first, before floors or walls -- has two separate sources. The first is a similar apparatus that the Belgian-born artist Carsten Holler showed at London’s Tate Modern in 2006 and 2007. The second is Wallace and Gromit, the animated series in which a machine tilts the human protagonist out of bed and propels him through a chute to the breakfast table, where his dog sits waiting.
The real-life slide runs a longer, more leisurely course. Starting in the attic, you grab a canary yellow cashmere blanket from a pile to speed your journey, hop in, and descend gracefully to the third floor. There you transfer to the next segment, rumble through a second-floor bedroom, slow as the slope flattens to clear a couch in the den, and pop out a few yards from the dining room table. This may not be the residence for lounging in sloppy comfort, but it’s ideal for the easily bored.
(Justin Davidson is the architecture and classical music critic for New York magazine. The opinions expressed are his own.)