It’s almost difficult to tell the story behind Via 57 West, the new Bjarke Ingels Group-designed residential high-rise now welcoming its first tenants on Manhattan’s west side. The building — as with many of the cleverly warped architectural forms that have vaulted out of Ingels’s office — practically explains itself, with a brashness that speaks over the advertisements, the trucks, the sirens, and the jackhammering that make up Midtown’s daily cacophony.
For those who haven’t driven past or caught a between-avenue glimpse of the first BIG project to be completed on American soil, here’s the prefatory spiel: taking up nearly a full New York City block on 57th Street between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues, Via 57 West announces the evolution of a new architectural type, a hybrid of the curtain-walled Manhattan skyscraper and the insulated European housing block. In this dramatic union of forms, a single corner of an otherwise squat, rectilinear volume is extruded upward, tapering to a point that surpasses the tops of neighboring high-rises. From this seemingly effortless gesture, the entire structure is distorted into a sort of tetrahedron, warping the tower’s facade into a sloping roof, mutating its window openings into open terraces, and giving the finished result the easy nickname of Manhattan’s “Great Pyramid.”
With this marriage of forms comes, supposedly, a marriage of connotations. As this twisted pyramid wants to suggest, the profit-maximizing ambitions of the skyscraper can be reconciled with the concern for collective quality of life associated with the European housing block. Taking cues from the latter, Via 57 West boasts a civic-minded heart: at the center of this scooped-out superblock is a 22,000-square-foot courtyard inscribed with a winding, gradually inclining promenade. When fully flushed out with its 50 varieties of native plants and 43 different species of trees, the “VIA Garden” promises to provide renters with their very own, miniature Central Park.
Like other features of high-density living, Via’s courtyard plays with distinctions between private and public. The verdant oasis is picturesquely landscaped and enclosed enough to feel quaint and protected, and yet it is almost entirely encircled by a glass grid of apartments (a whopping 709 units are wedged into the building), which could end up giving the space an exhibitionist atmosphere not unlike that of the High Line. That the building swoops to its nadir at its southwest corner, ducking out of the way, so to speak, to give courtyard strollers a vista overlooking the Hudson and its waterfront park, further complicates the distinction between enclosure and exposure. As in the case of Manhattan’s gated Gramercy Park, renters at Via will have private access to a space that rather uncannily wields the charm of a public space.
If one subscribes to the best-of-all-worlds philosophy that undergirds much of Ingels’s practice, Via 57 West is a veritable jackpot. Much like how the aloof skyscraper is expressly tempered by the unpretentious housing block, the building’s glazed, crystalline exterior is softened by a lobby accented with textured brick walls and light wood finishes. This Scandinavian touch is most pronounced in the lobby’s central staircase, a spacious, stone-and-wood affair that mixes grandeur and warmth, giving residents and visitors a place to catch their breaths after what might have been a 15-minute walk from the subway. Meanwhile, the central courtyard, much like the proclaimed source of its inspiration — Central Park — suggests that the claustrophobia of urban development can be allayed with the right dosage of nature.
In a similar vein, the list of amenities at Via 57 West is fantastically long, evoking a cruise ship padded with programming to keep its guests entertained. A basketball court, a swimming pool, a screening room, a poker room, a golf simulator, a cooking demo kitchen, a “tot spot,” and other designated areas and their custom furniture fill the enormous base of the pyramid, indulging the eccentric needs and desires of contemporary city life. Here, renters are exposed to the playground aesthetic that characterizes some of BIG’s civic interventions, like the firm’s explosively multicultural Superkilen Park in Copenhagen or the competition-winning Dryline, for which the regular flooding forecasted for Lower Manhattan is reimagined as an expanded opportunity for populist waterfront recreation.
In essence, Via 57 West bundles the functions of the individual home with those of the neighborhood — and arguably the surrounding metropolis — offering an attractive, single package designed to enrich the lives of its lucky inhabitants. To cater to its theoretically diverse community of renters (20% of the apartments have been allotted for affordable housing), the building offers an astounding array of individuated apartment units: studios and one-, two-, and three-bedroom residences come in 178 different floor plans, many of them further distinguished by balconies and terraces. Not surprisingly, the results seem mixed. While some studio apartments benefit from articulated alcove offices and sleeping areas, the layouts of some larger units can feel jumbled, their rooms abutting each other in tangram-like arrangements. For better or worse, the views framed by floor-to-ceiling windows can also be strikingly miscellaneous, ranging from broad vistas of the Hudson and lofty bird’s-eye views of Manhattan to cropped glimpses of empty streets, the backsides of neighboring buildings, or panoptic surveys of the central courtyard and its surrounding apartment units.
Most prioritized, it seems, are the views of rather than from the building. Perched at the edge of Manhattan and facing the Westside Highway, Via 57 West postures itself as an experimental prototype, at this stage more symbolic than pragmatic. It remains to be seen how the project will size up to its founding principles, whether some qualities of the socially conscious housing block can survive the formal and contextual transformations pulling it toward the Manhattan sky. What is already visible, however, is the deliberate maneuvering of its developer, the Durst Organization, which not only chose a characteristically youthful firm to build on its prized Manhattan lot (and provided more than $465 million to execute its vision), but also recognized an opportunity to commission a new public work of art — what will be an eight-story-tall sculptural relief by artist Stephen Glassman on the building’s eastern facade.
As Glassman explained in a presentation of his work at Via 57 West earlier this month, the Dursts see themselves as patrons of the arts, businessmen taking cues from “creatives,” looking to move and inspire rather than march directly in step with the market (an extreme expression of this latter impulse being the unapologetically abstract 432 Park Avenue). Indeed, we are well aware that private developers wield enormous influence on the everyday lives of the public. Less knowable are the potential outcomes of this seeming renaissance of the Renaissance, in which landed elites operate as creators of culture, not just builders of things.