Another look at Herzog and de Meuron's shark-jumping condo

condo tower
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ 56 Leonard

When I first wrote about Herzog and de Meuron's design for the 56 Leonard St. condo in New York back in 2008 I complained that it was going to be impossibly expensive to heat, cool and maintain, that they seemed to do everything that they could to maximize its surface area. I thought it was just too much, and wrote Condo Design Jumps the Shark.

56 Daytime56 Leonard Tribeca/Promo image

The developer bumph at the time wrote:

Herzog & de Meuron has replaced the usual extrusion of standardized skyscraper floor plates with a staggered progression of structural slabs turning slightly off axis by degrees as they ascend, creating constant variety among the apartment floor plans. This structural arrangement of floor plates at 56 Leonard Street will create an irregular flurry of cantilevered terraces up and down the building, making plays of light and shadow that give the tower a shimmering, animated appearance on the skyline and widely varying interiors.

The project epitomized everything I thought that was wrong about architecture, an example of the kind of wretched excess that actually contributed to the great recession.

full building56 Leonard tribeca/Promo image

It was shelved in the crash and I thought it was gone for good. Then it came back, and I really went on a rant, writing Shark-Jumping New York Condo is Back, and is as Wrong As It Was Five Years Ago

from WTCLloyd Alter/ From 63rd floor of the World Trade Center/CC BY 2.0

After Chicago architect Jeanne Gang rationalized her Aqua building by claiming that "The most important thing we can do for the environment is live in compact cities" I wrote:

She's right. But that doesn't give architects carte blanche to ignore energy. But that doesn't mean that architects should design those dense buildings as if they were trying to maximize the surface area and heat loss. Not only do the units at 56 Leonard all have floor to ceiling glass, but there are so many pushes in and out that there are top and bottom surfaces for almost every unit as well. It is almost an intellectual exercise in how much extra surface area can you design into a building.

56 leondardLloyd Alter/ 56 Leonard/CC BY 2.0

So now that it's built, is it as bad as I thought it would be? Is it " a shimmering, animated appearance on the skyline?" Yes and no. It is still an all-glass building, and no matter how good the glass is, it is still not as good as a wall. It also appears to be not quite as full of jogs as the renderings were, but has some big pushes in and out at the base and at the top, with a long stretch of what looks like a conventional square glass box, with big chunky cantilevered balconies, in between. It seems that either the builder cheaped out and simplified the building, getting rid of most of the jogs, or I just read too much into those original renderings.

baseLloyd Alter/ 56 Leonard/CC BY 2.0

Four years ago I concluded:

Urban density is a wonderful thing, but it is not a Get Out Of Jail Free card, you still have to design like you give a damn, to borrow a phrase, about the problems we face, even if the purchasers of these units are rich enough to throw money out the windows. We can't, as a society, afford to build like this any more.

So much glass, everywhere I look. Apparently I was wrong.

Tags: Green Building | New York City


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