Urban theory becomes reality

Architect Rem Koolhaas recently unveiled renderings for a luxury condo tower, his first building in a city where he has been a longtime influence

Manhattan is the 20th century’s Rosetta Stone,” architect Rem Koolhaas argues in the introduction to his influential 1978 manifesto, “Delirious New York.” “Not only are large parts of its surface occupied by architectural mutations … but in addition each block is covered with several layers of phantom architecture in the form of past occupancies, aborted projects and popular fantasies that provide alternative images to the New York that exists.”

Nearly half a century later, Koolhaas’s urban theory is still a holy text for students of architecture and disaffected metropolitans alike. But until very recently, the Dutch architect’s theoretical work on New York was only that, theory.

This year, his firm, Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), unveiled renderings of an 18-story, 133-unit residential tower at 122 East 23rd Street in Gramercy. It will be Koolhaas’s first full building to actually rise in the city where he’s been a longtime influence.

Currently, there are 13 homes available, with prices starting at $1.5 million for a one-bedroom, $2.9 million for a two-bedroom and $4.7 million for a three-bedroom residence. Occupancy is expected in 2018.

Some may have been surprised that Koolhaas’s
first project here is a residential tower instead
of the bold institutional work on
which he’s built his reputation.

Images of the exterior show a dark glass building, and inside, a lush inner courtyard creating a private oasis. On first glance, it looks very much your standard all-glass, new-construction luxury tower. However, where the sides meet, a sort of bleeding of metal and glass occurs and the corners become almost pixelated.

“It starts with punched windows to be very contextual and seamless with the existing buildings,” Sho Shigematsu, the head of OMA’s New York office, says in a promotional video for the project. “You have this gradient from very classical to very contemporary towards the corner.”

“Manhattan has been the biggest stimulus of my entire career in architecture,” Koolhaas adds in the film. “For that reason it’s wonderful to actually build in a city that I’ve always tried to describe and that has really influenced almost every step I took.”

But it might raise the eyebrows of Koolhaas’s fans that his first project in the city would be a luxury condo tower developed by a megadeveloper like Toll Brothers — rather then the bold institutional work his reputation was built on.

For instance, he proposed a massive “ministry of self-promotion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a startlingly alien-like 11-story extension that would have haunted the Whitney Museum. In 2001, he hoped to build a super-development dubbed UN City — “new kind[s] of towers” eschewing “the programmatic stagnation that has rigidly shaped New York.”

“The end of the last century in New York City produced surprisingly little in the way of inspired or innovative architecture,” OMA said in the UN City announcement. “We believe that this project … offers a unique opportunity to reimagine a new kind of development for NYC.”

OMA designs are always a leap into the future — even when no one seems ready to go there. But perhaps luxury condos are actually a fitting start for an architect who has long been addicted to the utopian aspects of the city, like the skyscraper, Rockefeller Center and the United Nations.

“The Metropolis strives to reach a mythical point where the world is completely fabricated by man, so that it absolutely coincides with his desires,” he wrote in the conclusion of his manifesto. Finally, Koolhaas is part of that myth.