Thursday, September 21, 2006
“Condos of the Living Dead”
An explosion of high-priced glass-and-steel condos is being marketed to New York’s new rich. Inspecting multi-million-dollar marvels of sterility, the author wonders how any real living could possible take place inside any of them
By A.A. Gill
This new architectural catwalk of "high-design," "high-concept," and "high-priced" condo buildings doesn't only fail to fit the vernacular of New York, it looks like a clearance sale from Europe and the Middle East. The designs are the blueprints for the New New York, most of them foreign, international—like cheese and handbags—and they incite that residual cultural cringe: the cachet of being imported. What they all seem to have in common are their vast expanses of glass. Over in Europe, we're all a bit fed up with the answer to every urban architectural problem being a sheet of textured glass wrapped around steel. We've grown cynical about the metaphor of transparency, openness, harmony, and light. It's not like floating in the sky. It's like living in Pyrex. Like being the ingredients in some glutinous civic fruitcake. It's not that these new Manhattan buildings don't look very good. It's that they look lazily derivative, and they'll make New York look like every other grubbily transparent financial hub in the world.
... You look at these buildings and all the other imported bendy-glass-and-steel erections, with their tacky design features worn like second wives' engagement rings, and you wonder who the New New Yorkers think they are. Who's going to live here? Who are the new, insecure, design-anemic rich?
'Lifestyle is the way a person distinguishes himself or herself. It is the artistry of living. … Nationality and class have been replaced by lifestyle." Don't take my word for it. That's coming from Ian Schrager, the Buddha of disco, the Confucius of the dirty weekend. Consider that statement: heritage, achievement, geography, and history are all passé. Over. What really matters is your thread count, your iPod menu, and the table they give you. Schrager sent me the glossy self-published book of his gnomic thoughts in a box of Plexiglas wonder, complete with two DVDs. He sent it to my home in Chelsea. Chelsea, London. This tome of gravid aperçus was a brochure—though "brochure" seems too mean a word—for a building at 40 Bond Street that is as yet unbuilt. Prices start at $3.35 million for a 1,269-square-foot one-bedroom.
"This is what I did with my nightclubs and hotels and I intend to do with people's homes." Imagine that: coming home and finding a shrieking gay Cuban bouncer with a clipboard on the door; three peroxided trust-fund brats with added silicone bits, all talking at once, locked in the bathroom; and a family from Idaho in town to see The Producers asleep in your bedroom.
... The look book for hotelier André Balazs's 40 Mercer comes in the de rigueur box with an added hardback nursery story about Jacques and Jill, a pair of ratlike carry-on dogs who run away from their fashionable, svelte-but-dumb owners to set up home in a new apartment. If that weren't vomitous enough to make you throw up a Burberry check, the brochure comes with a bell. Now, who spends millions for an apartment on the strength of a fairy tale that goes ding-a-ling? The first thing that strikes you about all the promotional material for New New York is the corpulent waist, the embarrassing profligacy, the utter purple bollocks of it. This stream of smiley airhead literature for the property boom is everywhere, tumbling from the guts of papers and magazines, thudding into the mail, its tone orgasmically perky. The most ubiquitous word is "unique." Everything's "unique," usually decorated and qualified with "luxuriously," "shamelessly," "timelessly," or, my favorite, "one-of-a-kind uniquely."
The sales suite for 40 Mercer is in the Mercer hotel. The salesperson walks in with a humorless professional smile. She's not what I expect. Not one of those chain-saw-voiced, neurotically enthusiastic divorcées who have real estate instead of love. This one is the Realtor from a Raymond Chandler novella. She gives me one long, slow-burn look, like a social actuary. In a beat, she seems to sum up my net worth, potential income, status, and I feel myself fall short. No—collapse short. Then she does what we in the Old World call "French flirting," which is like regular, full-beam flirting, but done to show you what you're not going to get. Flirting with malice. She shows me her teeth, licks her lips, picks up the clipboard, flashes a wink of cleavage, and we go to see the building.
... The floor-to-ceiling windows are a popular design feature in most New New York buildings. In Europe, we're growing rather tired of living in hot-and-cold, steamed-up, hermetically sealed display cabinets. But in New York, it's imported. 40 Mercer has big red and blue strips on its windows that I thought were protective shrink-wrap.
"That's coming off, right?"
"They are a design feature of the artistic conception," she says without moving her lips, like she's talking dirty to a tramp. "On different floors, they're either red or blue."
"But if I buy one of these apartments I can take them out, right? I don't have to have a red window in my living room."
"Well, sir, for the conceptual integrity of the building, you're not allowed to remove them. You could, though, cover it up."
"Hold on, I can spend a few million and then black out one of my own windows because some architect thinks primary stripes look cool from the street?"
"It is a unique feature of the building."
... All the undead Realtors are desperate for you to know the oddest things. They all begin with the ceiling height. Now, I have never walked into a room and thought, Hmm, 11 feet high! A big man must live here! Then they tell you the provenance of the washing machines and the door fixtures. Again, I've never thought, Wow! These people really know their stuff! They understand the importance of a good hinge! And then there's the wood, more exotic than a fusion-restaurant menu: bog-stained Irish elm, gnarled Honduran corset pine, smoked Austrian oak. Sounds lovely with a little horseradish-cream throw pillow.
Salespeople haunt the empty apartment, spinning a life made of brushed steel and 12 shades of Indian marble. After a time, the repetition of this lifestyle blends all the apartments into one apartment. They all have minute, $100,000 kitchens that no one will ever toast more than a bagel in, which is just as well because there's nowhere to sit and eat anyway. There are hardly any dining rooms, or even living rooms. New New York style has a "great room." A place to plug in your laptop, prop up your flat-screen, suck Starbucks, and surf soapy Asian babes. The bedrooms are for solitary fear and chemical unconsciousness. They seem to contain just enough oxygen for a single night's sleep. These apartments don't have space for a family, or dogs with hair, or lives that involve more than passive absorbing of electronic stimuli and e-mails.
There's an overriding sense of impermanence. This is a fashion choice, and, like all fashion choices, it's transitory—it's pleasure and cachet swiftly usurped by the next fashion hit. No one will buy one of these gloomy spaces and say, "I want to have kids here. I want to grow old and die here." This is simply an investment opportunity with sleepover possibilities. It's a silent, screaming, locked-away loneliness. They're building apartments for people who don't have anyone to entertain and wouldn't know how if they did. Their box is not for lifestyle, but for storing an unexplored, unused life. In one glass-fronted living space, I met a vague, rich young man. Every surface, every facet of his existence, had been taken care of by the building's designer. "Where are you going to hang your pictures?," I asked, and he pulled at a wall that slid open to reveal stacks of frames. "This is my art collection. Neat, huh?"
... Whatever these New New York lifestyle brokers tell you about the sales and occupancy of these buildings, they're lying. They're not lying because they're wicked—they're lying because they want you to be happy. They want you to get aboard this vertical trailer park because they want you to have a cool, imported, classy, unique lifestyle. When lots and lots of people have one, the world will be a better place. All the salespeople believe the brochure. They know this is the map for born-again Gotham. In truth, there is a swamp of unsold apartments. I'm told that many of the ones that are spoken for are speculative investments. They'll stay empty for long weekends, through the summer and ski seasons. These blocks are constructed to be ghost towns echoing with the hum of unappreciated climate control. Their gyms will have Fox News silently terrifying the unexercised machines. Their entrance halls, with their slinky, ergonomic space, will doze as the elevators wink.
This building boom isn't a great expression of design and architectural excellence. It's a massive speculation to relieve bankers of their bonuses, and bankers' money is sterile. It buys peace and quiet and second-rate ideas. New York is a city that was built out of risk and danger, with much more poverty and failure than riches and success. Fund managers kill the thing they crave. They want to buy their way into excitement and that old promise of the New York vista, but they drive it out and make it extinct. The final, unpalatable, zero-tolerance truth is that hedge-fund managers, bankers, cynical architects, and insecurity-exploiting designers are far more damaging to the unstylized life of a city than all the junkies, prostitutes, panhandlers, urban cowboys, bag ladies, homeless, and graffiti kids they replace.
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If people are buying these condo's then obviously they like living in them? Who are architects to tell people what they should and shouldn't live in? Opinions are fine but people buy what they want and what sells is what people want.
So what exactly is the argument here? That people are buying places to live in because they want to live in them? Doesn't ring very cogent to me. Design is a supply and demand, service industry; to serve the population, not dictate it. Can anyone elaborate on why people get angry at others for buying things they want. This is a democracy correct? Does anyone actually care besides architects?
Posted by: victoria at Oct 16, 2006 4:40:34 PM
There are several things you can say about this.
First, A.A. Gill is a journalist, not an architect.
Second, glass towers are changing New York; for the worse, most people think. The old line about places like the Sears Tower is that one of the best things about being in them is that you can't see them when you are. But there are more and more and more, making them harder and harder to avoid.
Third, most of the buyers seem to be speculators, who buy them as an investment rather than as a place to live.
Posted by: john massengale at Oct 19, 2006 8:35:49 PM