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VIA 57 West by BIG: a pretentious clearance sale of architectural theory

Approaching the building from the west side is maybe the most interesting way to take a first look at it: from here, it is possible to see the ruled surface of the roof as a whole, facing the Hudson river. The friction that its triangular shape generates with the surrounding skyline is the most aesthetically evident aspect that stands out from a distance. The nearby buildings, with their orthogonal masses, can’t do anything but helping VIA 57 West to become the protagonist of the riverfront, and this is something very unusual for a residential tower. After a while, the attention skips to a less explicit but more prominent tension: the presence of a big courtyard full of trees in the midst of a tall residential building. It is the result of a declared hybridization of the tower and the courtyard typologies, at the center of BIG design proposal, which really affected the volumetric form of the block.

VIA57WEST, credit by G. Cozzani
VIA57WEST, credit by G. Cozzani

Getting closer, it’s possible to understand how the ground floor is clearly separated by the upper floors; here the building offers nothing more than what any other Manhattan blocks would do: a continuous tape of glass filled with (still unfinished) shops and retail activities. The courtyard of the building turns out to be completely invisible, as this does not come down to the ground level, bringing light and air to the commercial area (as you would expect from a faraway look). Instead it overhangs the ground volume, serving only the residential levels, fiercely denouncing its semiprivate nature. The pivotal theme of the architectural proposal remains enclosed in an anti-public sphere, and the non-residents can hardly notice its presence, barely seeing the top of some trees appearing from the roof. The ground floor of the building, therefore, acts, both volumetrically and materially, as a separate and distinct element over which the roof and the triangular façades are suspended.
The opportunity of giving back to the city some of the precious space occupied by the new development, opening it to the light and the urban interactions, is just hinted through the transparency of the coating, but never really accomplished.

Analyzing the roof then, it is possible to see how the aluminum film covering it is diffusely drilled in order to host a huge amount of balconies and terraces. They are arranged in order to offer differently orientated views of the river for the largest number of apartments.
The glass façades overlooking the courtyard, and the external triangular ones, are fragmented, turning into pixelated surfaces of glass volumes. This particular solution, at first, may look like an escamotage useful to add some architectural dynamism to the usually boring plain glass surfaces of the New York developments. But still, is possible to feel behind these choices the pressure of the river view as a dominant topic pushed by the most obvious real-estate dynamics.
Moving in to the apartments interior, the morphology of these spaces strongly denounces an unconventional configuration. The building presents a linear floor circulation, natural result of the presence of just one main elevators core. But the façades fragmented geometry show an incompatibility with the long and straight corridors. The result of these choices is a noticeable geometric friction: the apartments, standing in the midst of this friction, are forced to mitigate it. And that’s why we can find inside of them a huge amount of bulk spaces, unresolved corners and isolated pillars generating a diffuse feeling of hesitation.
Apparently all the problems of the interior configuration are related to the formal system of the envelope of the building, and it is evident how all the volumetric and architectural choices related to this formal system are driven mostly by the obsessive need of ensuring a perfect river view to the largest amount of apartments, and all the economical benefits that it provides to the properties value.

According to the architect, the celebrated design (that recently enabled it to be named “America’s best tall building of the year” by the CTBUH) was just the spontaneous result of a series of compositional operations, perfectly represented by the popular diagrams_ that distinguish BIG proposals. These operations are justified by the need of ensuring light, air, and the (repeatedly mentioned) wonderful river view to the apartments; all promises hard to keep if you are dealing with a massive Manhattan block.
But if we analyze the south east façade of the building (the one facing the tall Manhattan skyscrapers), for instance, the architects admitted that the dramatic diagonal cut of the roof it’s mainly driven by the aim of “graciously preserving the adjacent Helena Tower’s views of the river”. The Helena Tower is a residential skyscraper, owned by the same real-estate organization, Durst, that is also behind the VIA 57 WEST development. They could not let typological or architectural choices to drastically lower the market values and prices of their own preexisting river front apartments.
At the same time, the other cut does nothing but emulating what was done years ago in the very nearby Clinton Park by Ten Arquitectos, in which the number of floors gradually reduces getting closer to the river, generating a big amount of terraces for the apartments. This didn’t only unleashed the plagiarism accusations of Enrique Norten (Ten Arquitectos), but mainly showed how that particular solution was already used in other similar river facing buildings, in which realization of a system of terraces was clearly achieved in order to raise the market value of the apartments, rather than “bringing low western sun to the block”, as it is formally declared by the architects.
Furthermore, other recently built architectures facing the Hudson river have proved how opening themselves to the river view is often just a cliché. The new Whitney Museum by Renzo Piano Building Workshop for instance, even if offering completely different programmatic contents (but still sharing with VIA 57 West the same bold intention of emerging architecturally an visually from a monotonous riverfront), has shown how turning its back on the river and opening up to the city can be an even more powerful strategy, that allowed its system of terraces to become a terrific attractive and successful space.

In conclusion it is evident how the very intriguing and interesting aspects of VIA 57 WEST remained only hinted, and not completely developed. Behind these great potentialities, that could have allowed the building to become the first opened and socially innovative residential tower in Manhattan, are concealed very different interests, that have silently reached their purposes, realizing what ultimately proves to be a very ordinary, inaccessible, and repulsing tower.

Giovanni Cozzani

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