Brick and Glass in New York Apartment Buildings

The history of some changing uses of traditional materials.

Click here to see a slide show of New York apartment buildings.

The Perry Street Towers, by Richard Meier, 2003

This pair of new apartment buildings designed by Richard Meier is the rarest of things in Manhattan: distinctive, original residential architecture. One of the last of the Modernists, Meier here has dropped his usual preference for solid-white buildings and instead designed see-through ones. Meier has taken Modernist patriarch Philip Johnson’s “Glass House” and stretched it into apartment buildings. The Perry Street towers doubtless have their flaws. Their chic residents such as Nicole Kidman and Calvin Klein are completely exposed in their full-story apartments until they add some curtains. But the building’s emphasis on views fits its location overlooking the Hudson River. The apartments sell as unfinished concrete shells for several million dollars; Klein paid a reported $14 million for the three-story penthouse.

The Porter House, by SHoP Architects, 2003

In the hip Meatpacking District just north of the Meier building, architect Gregg Pasquarelli of SHOP architects has placed a six-story, gunmetal-gray box at an off-angle on top of a renovated older brick building. The juxtaposition of styles is jarring and original. The most daring touch is the placing of flat, rectangular electric lights at irregular intervals on the exterior of the building and in the hallways. These make the Porter House one of the most visually distinctive buildings in the city.

The Campiello Collection, 2002

Unlike the Porter House and Perry Street buildings, most new apartment buildings in Manhattan are flat brick boxes, virtually undistinguishable from one another. They have gone up all over Manhattan. As is the case with suburban McMansions, these buildings’ developers eschew distinctive architecture and prefer to put their attention and money into interior “hot button” finishes like “Brazilian granite countertops and stainless steel appliances,” as one ad for a particularly dull building described its kitchens.

425 Fifth Avenue, by Michael Graves, 2004

Current construction techniques also influence form, as they always have. At architecture’s highest end, advanced software has enabled architects like Frank Gehry to build swirling, rotating buildings that seem to spring straight from their imagination to the ground. But most developers of “average” luxury apartments use poured concrete or “slab” construction. Workers create floors and supporting pillars by pouring concrete into wooden molds filled with iron strands of rebar. Once that process is finished, so is the building, just about. Slap a carpet down on the horizontal concrete slab and you have a finished floor. Brush some white paint on the underside and you have a ceiling.

Unlike in older, steel-frame construction methods, workers do not have to add floors and ceilings as a separate step. In the older method, it did not cost a lot more money to add a bay window or other details. In addition, thick steel girders left a foot or more of space between floors that could be used for soffits, interior arches, domed ceilings, and other decorative touches. But construction techniques do not invariably dictate how buildings will look. The Perry Street apartments are made of poured concrete, but Meier chose to shape the buildings into off-angled, four-sided towers, and to face them with glass rather than with more conventional solutions like red brick over cinder blocks.

The Tate, by the Rockwell Group, 2003

Despite their plainness, the brick-and-glass blocks have become icons of style. In the hit show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the camera usually pans on a classic brick-and-glass structure—the Tate apartment building on 23rd and 10th Avenue (shown here)—just before the show’s five fashion experts gather in a living room to watch how their makeover victim fares. The implication seems to be that this building is something to be envied. What’s amazing is that would-be fashionistas are paying $4,000 a month to rent tiny one-bedroom apartments whose exterior is so unremarkable and whose nondescript interiors look stolen from the nearest budget motel.

The Westminster, by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, 2003

Timid developers, standard construction methods, and undiscriminating buyers push even famous architects to design what are essentially modified brick-and-glass boxes. Robert Stern, dean of the Yale architecture school and the country’s reigning classicist, designed “the Westminster” shown here at 7th Avenue and 21st, Street. From a distance, it resembles a stack of children’s blocks, which is a nice effect, and its large windows make the small apartments feel bigger. But the appliqué of Art Deco doodads on the exterior doesn’t change its conventional brick exterior and standard rectangular form.

425 5th Avenue, by Michael Graves

Michael Graves, now almost as famous for designing teakettles and toasters as buildings, has produced the 54-story “425 5th Avenue” apartment tower at 38th street in Midtown. A yellow stick in the sky, it recalls the lean brick Art Deco office towers from the 1920s nearby, like the original General Electric building on Lexington Avenue and 50th Street. But given the possibilities open to architects today, cladding the building in standard brick and using almost nothing but right angles is pretty conventional. The apartments, which cost from $500,000 for a tiny studio up to $10 million for the penthouse, have relatively low ceilings and boxy dimensions.

The Ansonia Building, by Paul M. DuBoy, 1904

The luxury apartment house was actually invented in New York in the late 19th century, when it used to embody a tradition of bold design. Pictured here is the Ansonia, an “apartment-hotel” at Broadway and 73rd, built in 1904. It originally had 2,500 rooms, a ballroom, a dining hall that seated 550 people, and an indoor swimming pool, at the time the world’s largest. To live here was to take part in a radical transformation of the city. Elizabeth Hawes in her book New York, New York: How the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the City (1869-1930), describes how in 1870, 90 percent of upper-class New Yorkers lived in townhouses and other styles of single-family homes. By 1930, 90 percent lived in apartments. To lure potential tenants, developers borrowed the word “apartment” from the French to make the new buildings sound more fashionable. The word and the lifestyle stuck.

The Dakota, by Henry J. Hardenbergh, 1884

The Dakota, pictured here, was another of the early grand apartment houses, built amid the then empty fields of the Upper West Side in 1890. Each apartment had 15-foot ceilings, mahogany paneling, and chandeliers. One apartment had 17 carved-marble fireplaces. This Beaux Art style architecture, which emerged from the French academy and was popular in the late 19th century, is hardly subtle, but it had a sense of theater and fun that’s missing from most new buildings. Apartment-house living spread from New York to the rest of the country. The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk in 1911 reported that “The age of the apartment house life has come here to stay,” and that “any stigma that might be attached to a tenement dweller, any social descendency that be held against the flatite, has no reflection upon the apartment house family.”

London Terrace Gardens, by Victor Farro and Richard Watmough, 1930

But times changed. There was a nice Art Deco interlude between the wars, as exhibited in the London Terrace Gardens, constructed in 1929 on West 23rd Street and 9th Avenue. But after World War II the New York apartment building started shedding its complexities until it was reduced to its bare essentials: flat panels of brick and glass, lacking shape, color, texture, and ornament.

But things may be changing. Meier’s Perry Street and Pasqarelli’s Porter House buildings have sold out at prices per square foot considerably higher than average. This may prompt more developers to realize that adding creative, original architecture can mean more money in their pockets, and this may eventually improve the skyline and streets of this city and others.