For These Designers, a Debut in NYC Became a Major Career Win
A dazzling, off-kilter pyramid has risen in Midtown, the ski-slope roof swooping down as if to greet the Hudson River. This 709-unit apartment building, called Via 57 West, isn’t just a coup for the real-estate developer, the Durst Organization, but also an advertisement for the wunderkind architect Bjarke Ingels.
The Bjarke Ingels Group, aka BIG, founded in Copenhagen, is now working all over the world. But Ingels isn’t taking his New York debut for granted, partly because it’s far more visible than the firm’s earlier buildings, many of them in Denmark. New York being New York, where money people and media people congregate, some of the thousands who see Via 57 West each day could become clients.
Even for an architect with international credentials, BIG communications head Daria Pahhota says, “The first building in this city means everything. If you mess up, it’s hard to get a second chance.” If you do well—and BIG seems to be doing very well—other work will follow.
Annabelle Selldorf went from renovating kitchens and bathrooms for friends to designing galleries for the likes of David Zwirner. Her big break came when she turned an Upper East Side mansion into the Neue Galerie New York, devoted to the billionaire Ronald Lauder’s collection of German and Austrian art. “It’s a very significant project for me on several levels. Our firm had worked on many art-related interiors, but this was the first major public museum. And it was a brand-new institution in a landmarked building on a prominent site,” the Interior Design Hall of Fame member says.
It then became a calling card. Thanks to the Neue Galerie’s success, Selldorf Architects won commissions to renovate the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts and the Stanze del Vetro glass museum in Venice. Stephen Alesch and his wife, Robin Standefer, moved from Los Angeles to New York to set up Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors. Most of their early projects were houses and apartments, often for famous clients and therefore out of public view. Roman and Williams was then asked to redo the Royalton hotel’s lobby. After that, the firm’s Ace Hotel and Standard, High Line, opened to widespread acclaim.
“We made a fairly large splash with those three projects, and that led to one thing after another,” Alesch says. He and Standefer are now designing multiple ground-up buildings and redoing the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s British galleries. “Sure, this could potentially have happened somewhere else, but I seriously doubt it,” he says. “Something about the city makes people enthused and devoted.”
A Barnard College student center brought increased visibility to Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi. “The Diana Center, our first freestanding building in New York, was especially seminal for us, because it’s part of the city as well as part of the college,” Weiss says. Manfredi adds that the site “gives us a legibility that would be elusive in other U.S. cities.”
Weiss and Manfredi’s earlier projects, including the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, were widely published but less accessible. Conversely, Weiss was able to take potential clients through the Diana Center to see the curved library carrels, translucent resin tabletops, disk-shape ottomans, and orange striped carpet. “It’s wonderful to be able to share a building in person rather than exclusively through photos,” she says. These days, Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism is on the short-list for seemingly every major institutional building in the country.
Someone else getting a boost from a notable New York project is Joshua Prince-Ramus. His architecture firm, Rex, is behind one of the city’s most remarkable transformations: taking a high-rise bunker, a brutalist ziggurat covered in beige concrete, and recladding it with a cascading glass facade. This high-tech curtain wall has transformed both the outward appearance of the building, now called 5 Manhattan West, and the performance of offices inside.
The last time Prince-Ramus used an innovative facade to reinvent an existing structure, it was for a fashion company’s headquarters miles from the center of Istanbul, not exactly on the beaten path. The 5 Manhattan West location, across from Hudson Yards, “makes it a kind of billboard,” he says, adding that, besides giving him exposure, New York serves as a proving ground. “The city is a fertile environment for adaptive reuse and for designing adaptability into new buildings, and both are the future of urbanism and sustainability.”
In addition, the local zoning, code, and infrastructural constraints all test architects’ mettle. Developers understand that, if you can build here, you can build anywhere. As 5 Manhattan West wraps up, Prince-Ramus is turning his attention to another high-profile, tightly constrained project, the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center.
Architectural endeavors there are likely to benefit from the local devotion to culture. Alesch calls New Yorkers “super-appreciators,” crediting their enthusiasm for the success of public projects. And that popularity, he adds, leads to more work.