Fred A. Bernstein

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If I can make it there . . .

The importance of New York to architects' careers

Published in Interior Design, October 5, 2016

For years, New Yorkers have watched as a dazzling, off-kilter pyramid has risen on 57th Street, its ski-slope roof swooping down as if to greet the Hudson River. A 700-unit rental building surrounding a large rectangular garden, it isn't just a coup for its developer, the Durst Organization; it is also an advertisement for its architect, the Dutch wunderkind Bjarke Ingels, who founded the firm BIG in Denmark in 2006 and opened a New York office six years later.

Ingels and his firm are working all over the world. But they aren't taking their first New York project for granted. Called VIΛ 57 West, it is far more visible than the first generation of BIG buildings (most of which are in and around Copenhagen). And, New York being New York, some of the thousands of people who see it every day could become clients. Daria Pahhota, the firm's director of communications, says that for an architect, even one with international credentials, "the first building in this city means everything and if you mess up, it's hard to get a second chance." Conversely, architects say, if you do well in New York - and BIG seems to be doing well - work follows.

It isn't just visibility that makes Manhattan important to designers. "Something in New York makes people enthused and devoted, for fairly long durations too," says Stephen Alesch, principal of the design firm Roman & Williams. He and his partner, Robin Standefer, moved from Los Angeles to Manhattan in 2004 to set up shop. But most of their early projects were private residences, often for famous clients and out of public view. Then they were asked to redo the lobby of the Royalton Hotel, a project unveiled in 2007. In 2009, two other Manhattan hotels with Roman & Williams interiors - the Ace and the Standard - opened to widespread acclaim. "We hit the city with a fairly large splash. These three projects then were given a lot of attention - and led to one thing after another," Alesch says. The firm is now designing multiple ground-up buildings and even redoing a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Sure, this could potentially have happened in another city, but I seriously doubt that," says Alesch.

For Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, principals of Weiss Manfredi Architects, the completion of the Diana Center at Barnard College in 2010 brought a new level of visibility. "The Diana Center was our first freestanding building in New York - especially seminal for us because, with its prominent location on Broadway, it is part of the city as well as part of the college," Weiss says. Says Manfredi, the location "gives us a legibility that would be elusive in other cities." The firm's earlier projects, including a student center at Smith College and the award-winning Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, were widely published but less accessible to New York-based clients. "It is wonderful to be able to share a building in person rather than exclusively through photos," says Weiss, who remembers taking a number of potential patrons through the Diana Center, where they could see not only its architecture but the translucent resin tables, curved library carrels, disc-shaped ottomans, and custom carpets designed by Weiss Manfredi for the student center's interiors. These days Weiss Manfredi is on the short list for seemingly every major institutional building in the country.

After founding Selldorf Architects in 1988, Annabelle Selldorf went from renovating kitchens and bathrooms for friends to designing galleries for the likes of David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth. But her big break came in 2001, when she turned a mansion on Fifth Avenue into the Neue Galerie, devoted to the billionaire Ronald Lauder's collection of German and Austrian art. Visible on Manhattan's Museum Mile, it became a calling card that helped win her other public commissions, including major renovations of a glass museum in Venice and the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts.

Another architect getting a boost from a high-profile New York project is Joshua Prince-Ramus. The founder of Rex Architecture is behind one of the city's most remarkable transformations: The recladding of the former 450 West 33rd Street, long a "high rise bunker" covered in beige concrete, with a cascading glass facade. The high-tech glass enveloping the building, now known as Five Manhattan West, has transformed both its outward appearance and the performance of its interior spaces.

This isn't the first time Prince-Ramus has given new life to an existing building. But the last time, the building was a fashion company headquarters in a suburb of Istanbul - not exactly on the beaten path. This time, the project couldn't be more visible.

"The building's location makes it a kind of billboard," says Prince-Ramus. But New York is giving him more than exposure. The city, Prince-Ramus says, is also "fertile ground for adaptive re-use of existing structures and for designing adaptability into new structures, both of which are the future of urbanism and sustainability." In addition, he says, "New York comes loaded with zoning, code, and infrastructural constraints" that test architects' mettle. In other words, developers understand that "if you can build here, you can build anywhere," he says. As Five Manhattan West wraps up, is turning his attention to another high-profile, and tightly-constrained, project: The design of the Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center.

There, he is likely to benefit from the devotion of New Yorkers to culture. Says Alesch, "I see projects in other places that appear to fail for simple lack of participation." By contrast, he says, "New Yorkers don't seem to have a problem getting out and doing things." He calls them "super-appreciators" and says their enthusiasm leads to the success of public projects. And that, he says, leads to more work.