January 1, 2013

In the Loop: The Conrad New York Hotel

When Goldman Sachs bought the Embassy Suites in downtown Manhattan, it was a building without adjectives. The single notable feature in the nondescript brick-faced structure was a heroic 13-story blue and purple mural; painted in 1999 by Sol LeWitt, it commanded the towering atrium lobby. Initially consulting with Deborah Berke Partners for the hotel and retail concept, Goldman Sachs upgraded the existing property, entering into an operating agreement with Hilton Worldwide’s luxury chain, Conrad Hotels & Resorts.

Timur Galen, managing director of Goldman’s corporate services and real estate, orchestrated the renovation of Conrad New York by assembling a diverse team. An architect himself, Galen is a design strategist: For large-scale projects, he mixes voices— emerging talents with seasoned firms—a risk he takes in order to yield hybrid vigor and invention.

Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates worked as full-service architect for the 16-story exterior and executive architect for the 612,400-square-foot interior, coordinating the synergistic efforts of Monica Ponce de Leon Studio for the lobby, the conference center’s stairway, and Atrio, the restaurant; Jill Greaves Design for the guest and conference-center rooms; and Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects for the lobby’s furniture plan.

The building itself dates from the great style wars of the 1970’s and ’80’s, when postmodernists trumped modernists in Battery Park City, where they recreated the traditional fabric of New York via the city’s grid and its brick vernacular. Since then, the pendulum has swung back. KPF retrofitted handsome store fronts articulated in stainless-steel trim around the base to humanize the street scape and spatialize the facade at a pedestrian scale. Slowing the pace and inviting strolls, “The storefronts now reinforce and engage the arcade space,” says KPF design principal Josh Chaiken.

Inside, the impetus for the team was not the post modernist issue of historical context, but the free-hand LeWitt mural, its gestural squiggles cuing spirited, curvilinear designs. Energy was the message. What seem to be drawings hovering in space now greet visitors ascending the escalators or monumental granite staircases at either end of the lobby.

Monica Ponce de Leon suspended tubular triangles and rectangles on a veil of strings, distorting the hanging shapes into curving lines that look computer-generated. The strings themselves delineate beguiling conical volumes in the vast space. “The atrium felt quite vacuous, but we wanted to capitalize on its monumentality without killing it with something obscenely large,” Ponce de Leon states.“The strings connect the upper and lower shapes and themselves make the figures.”

The nonlinear geometry contrasts with the orthogonal footbridges at the front of the lobby, in a counterpoint of eras that pits the apparently irrational against the rational. The computer left its signature. Seen from the balconies, lines play against lines: The parallax rewards movement by making vision experiential. Ponce de Leon faceted the surrounding balcony rails to control the acoustics.

She transports the same idea of volumes outlined in space to the conference center beyond. Tactile walnut struts fanning at progressive angles suspend a grand staircase in a trapezoidal opening carved between previously stratified floors. “I thought of the staircase as a displaced veil, one that has gone awry,” the architect explains.

The LeWitt mural also suggested the approach for the lobby’s furniture, which KPMB partner Marianne McKenna choreographed as a handsome gray landscape of convex and concave curves moving people through the dedicated public area.“We configured the sofas for use and for sociability, whether working on a laptop, enjoying drinks, or having breakfast near the cafe,” she notes, “and adjusted the ergonomics of seat depths and back heights of each accordingly.”

Inheriting the Embassy Suites’s basic layout, designer Jill Greaves oversaw the upstairs corridors and 463 guest rooms. In all, a bathroom separates the bedroom and the sitting room. Having also inherited a distinguished art collection from the original program, Greaves responded with a warm, subtle palette of wood and light fabrics and carpets:

“The overall theme was comfort but with a business like atmosphere,” she says. Meetings could be held here. She paneled one wall of each room from door to window with white-oak millwork that gives the spaces a visual through-line leading to the Manhattan views. Sliding glass walls allow guests to compartmentalize the sitting room, bath, and bedroom. “With more than 45 room types, the coordination was challenging,” Greaves continues.

Indeed, coordination was the name of the game for Conrad New York. The dirty little secret of Battery Park City is that the master plan resulted in a boring enclave of look-alike buildings that blanket it in monotony and convention. But, no longer. The hotel avoids the chill of the corporate touch and, in so doing, claims a new list of adjectives: elegant, complex, smart, appropriate, unexpected.

Project Team
L’Observatoire International: Lighting Consultant. Poulin + Morris: Graphics Consultant. Viridian Energy & Environment: Environmental Consultant. Shen Milsom & Wilke: Acoustical Consultant. Gordon H. Smith Corporation: Curtain-Wall Consultant. Ken Smith Landscape Architect: Landscaping Consultant. Michael Raiser Associates: Technology Consultant. Thornton Tomasetti: Structural Engineer. Ambrosino, Depinto & Schmieder; Wsp Flack and Kurtz: MEPs. Hunter Roberts Construction Group; F.J. Sciame Construction Co.: General Contractors.

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