The one-bed apartment I am being shown around by a super-cheerful estate agent has a stunning view across the East River, but I can't help noticing the citrus juicer on the counter. "And this apartment is for a couple who have just moved to Manhattan from California; they don't have kids yet, young professionals," my guide says, as if this explains why everything is in tones of white or pale pastel, and why there is a breakfasty looking dining set on the table by the full-height windows with that view of the Brooklyn Bridge.
This is Eight Spruce Street (originally known as Beekman tower) in Lower Manhattan, designed by Gehry Partners, or to give it its proper name: New York by Gehry at Eight Spruce Street. The estate agent has just released the first phase of apartments in this entirely residential tower; the first occupants have just moved in. But the upper floors still have an army of workmen completing their interiors. At 870ft high, this building has 76 storeys and contains 903 apartments; you can't expect them all to be finished at the same time. This is a dormitory village in a single Lower Manhattan edifice.
Its immediate context contains some of New York's most revered landmarks: the Woolworth Building is just around the corner and New York City Hall is at the end of the street. City Hall's strange walled gardens are so unlike the rest of Manhattan, somehow suburban and stranded on a traffic island feeding cars on to the nearby Brooklyn Bridge.
But the real context of Eight Spruce Street is the skyline, and the competition for attention at the upper end of the New York residential market. As the building's name suggests, Gehry is a key part of the marketing story, and the estate agent showing me round thinks of the building as a kind of total artwork. Everything from cladding to corridor carpet was specified by Gehry Partners. It designed all of the eight show apartments down to the selection of books on the shelves, each themed around a different archetype of the building's possible inhabitants – the couple with young kids, the bachelor who wants a view of the skyline from his bed, and so on.
credit Gehry Partners
The most important part of all this is the cladding, of course, the billowing stainless steel that gives it a graphic undulation on all the facades except the distinctly flat southernmost. It's undeniably a change from the textureless, slick towers that Lower Manhattan is gaining these days, such as the now complete Seven World Trade Center, now occupied just north of Ground Zero, and One WTC, the Freedom Tower, which is swiftly rising. But whether you find the Gehry building interesting or not, it's just form, pure form in space. Reading the many New York critics flailing around in their attempts to either praise or abuse the tower reveals the difficulty this kind of building poses. How can we begin to understand an architecture where scale, orientation, typicality, ornament, structure and even function don't matter? An architecture that is only skin?
"These are the working models, really the story of the project," the estate agent continues. "Originally Frank wanted it to be three torqued towers, because he was really into this idea of torquing towers. But the problem, when we all looked at it together, was where do you put the core?" We wander across the marketing suite to the kitchen where my guide smiles broadly: "And this is a Gehry Partners kitchen. We spent ages working out how the tiles meet the rest of the floor."
In the marketing suite of Eight Spruce Street is a wall of perspex boxes, containing iterations of the tower, all working models from Gehry's office. They are artfully related to each other; cardboard models describing a host of options, a developing form. Most of them play with a configuration of three bunched towers, twisting around each other and breaking up the 76 storeys into something more sinuous. In fact, one of them looks a lot like Gehry's Tiffany candlestick, and I can see what my guide means about the core. You can't have a lift core that torques. So Gehry's sculptural intent, through the series of models, becomes more and more pragmatic, and to inhabit more and more just the steel skin of the building, as the three towers beneath gradually settle into a T-shaped configuration, with three corridors on each floor connecting the apartment doors to the lifts.
The original intent must have been similar to what Gehry actually built (on a very much smaller scale) at the IAC building on the West Side highway (2009). IAC definitely torques, but its hideous white panel cladding looks cheap and won few fans. Eight Spruce Street loses the torquing, but gains steel, accented all the way up the building with Gotham-like uplighting at night.
"Frank says that the folds in the steel skin are inspired by Bernini's folds. He talks about the difference between Bernini's folds and Michelangelo's. It's a sharper fold. You know the difference?"
The night before my visit to Eight Spruce Street, Mirko Zardini, director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, said to me: "The thing with Gehry – he always sorts out the plan. You look at any of his projects. He always gets it right for the client first." This is absolutely right, of course. We may be a bit blinded by the sculptural zestiness of it all, but we know it's window dressing for a sophisticated understanding of the commercial demands of a tower like this. The developer is Forest City Ratner, which is currently also building the controversial Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, although the buildings around there are so far of significantly less architectural ambition than this one.
The tower does change shape behind the steel veil, though, with different bay window depths. Each apartment has subtly different glazing configurations, a sense that each one is unique, if not radically different in character. The windows are a mixture of full height and nearly full height, the sills deep enough to perch on. There is very little blank wall space in the smaller apartments, the theory presumably being that if you have Manhattan to look at, you don't need a TV.
My tour continues. "And this one is for the young, female architect, just starting out. We always called this after the architect at Gehry Partners who designed it."
The cheapest apartment in the building, a studio, will set you back $2,650 a month. According to the estate agent, you should divide your annual salary by 45 and that's how much you can afford to spend monthly on rent. That means this young female architect is earning $119,250 a year. It makes me wonder about the pay grades at Gehry Partners. The most expensive apartment is $20,000 per month.
The building's 903 apartments are all for private rent. This is mind-boggling to me since I spend some of my time in the arcane world of London housing policy. There is no requirement for social housing, no mix of tenure, no large family-sized units and no city-set limit to the size of the building or the number of apartments. In Downtown Manhattan, there is no height restriction, and Gehry's building is thus the tallest residential building in the western hemisphere. It's a huge economic unit, an incontrovertible, diagrammatic spike of the Manhattan rental market, dressed in a flowing gown. It's fatuous to argue for anything else, but for Europeans, it's an interesting phenomenon – a tower of 900 rich people and small families.
There is one concession to the civic: a public school (in the American sense), occupying the first five floors of the building, and some office space for the hospital next door. This is all housed in a kind of podium building, in beige brick which, if you were being generous, echoes what Gehry did at the back of DG (now DZ) Bank in Berlin, but without the craft or the sculptural strangeness of those billowing brick bays. This is just an orthogonal brick grid, with large openings and retail at the base which is completely and unapologetically unrelated to the steel-clad tower rising above.
The final leg of the journey through the dramatic series of themed marketing apartments leads to the pièce de résistance,a lesson from the master on how to live well: "And this is Frank's apartment. Everything here is designed by Frank."
His taste is interesting. All the Gehry merchandise is present and correct: the Tiffany candleholders, furniture, and so on. A couple of Aalto pieces add accent, but the principal furniture – sideboard, bed – are custom-designed and made of very thick plywood. They are somehow rough, and with the distant memory of Gehry's own house in Santa Monica – that nailgun architecture still thrills. The same roughness, and a degree of humour, is there in the corridors, too, with a strange brown rattan-like material covering corridor walls, standard fluorescent light fittings arranged in comical wavy lines. The best details of all, though, are the polished stainless steel insides of the lift cabs which are scored in a diamond pattern – the same pattern you find on the steel shell of a standard New York hotdog stand. A bit of shabby chic, perhaps, reminding us of Gehry's pre-Bilbao guise as a consummate creator of collage and collision.
But those days are long gone. Now, Gehry is the genius sculptor with his picture on the marketing brochure. The difference is that the practises sculpture in a way that no real visual artist does today. It's about form, about eye, about conoisseurship. It has nothing to do with the city.
credit David Sundberg
© David Sundberg/Esto