Capitalist Vernacular:

160 Leroy street & 2015 Chrystie street, Herzog & de Meuron

published in Frog magazine
Issue No. 17
Fall/Winter 2017-18

  It’s not so much that the 2016 US Election physically changed the world, as architecture does, as much as it revealed a different side of it that we had not, or did not, want to see before. Especially within the context of a global city like New York, the weeks and months following November 8, 2016 felt like everyone was in a zombie-like state of gradual, slow realization–about something which was there all along but required a sudden paradigm shift, a jolt of unfamiliarity, to understand. Along with this political malaise came a kind of brooding in the atmosphere too. Aside from heightened security around a single skyscraper at 57th street and 5th Avenue, this wasn’t a physical change but more of a realization that architecture’s hangover in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis had subsided, and the election of a real estate developer-turned-reality show star became a catalyst for understanding architecture’s perpetual dance with capital, power and marketing in a new way.

There are many possible architectural analogs that could illustrate this narrative, but one notable marker of this political tide can be observed in the evolution of the work of Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron in New York from the early 2000s to the present day in 2017. Two nearly-complete buildings in particular–215 Chrystie street and 160 Leroy street–are exhibits A and B of this new understanding. The design of these two buildings, thought about in relation to two earlier buildings the firm has realized in the city, provide a way of looking at the contemporary state of architecture in post-Trump-election New York, and how they reflect our true cultural values back at us.

    I’ll primarily discuss the 160 Leroy street project, though nearly everything applies equally as much to the building at 215 Chrystie street. The thing about these buildings is that they have perfected a capitalist vernacular to a repeatable formula, in simultaneously brutal and nuanced ways. The alignment of a political ideology with its architectural equivalent is by no means an objective conflation, but by way of comparison: the sense of what someone’s talking about when they say “Socialist Housing Block” is one that has come to embody a particular cultural signifier. You imagine a prefabricated concrete slab with apartments on each side of a central corridor, longer than it is tall, with small punched windows and all the signs of neglect you would expect from post-Soviet disrepair. If your mental image is more generous or idealistic: the slab of apartments may be raised off the ground, and perhaps includes balconies with plants. The form, materiality, and tectonic logic of these buildings are byproducts of the socioeconomic conditions in which they were conceived and constructed, and there is a nearly century-long history of their form.

    One can trace the history of the slab housing block to Moisei Ginzburg’s 1928 Narkomfin building in Moscow (commissioned by then-Finance Commissioner and amateur architect himself Nikolay Miliutin), through Le Corbusier’s Unité d'habitation in Marseille built from 1947-52, and during the following decades across Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain, in post-war US urban renewal projects, and throughout Latin and South America, Africa, and Asia. This building form became so prevalent as a type of state-led housing project that it became synonymous with progress and modernity, and eventual decay and disrepair. To this day one can find this building type all over the developed world and identify the key ingredients that existed at the time in order to realize them: a strong state, an architect with a social vision and/or support from an enlightened bureaucrat, a desire to incorporate technological and material advances in a way that broke from previous vernacular forms of housing, and an idea of modernity that proposes the standardization of humans into discrete, repeatable units. While their specifics vary widely in design, climate, context and success or failure—as shown in the music video for musician Koudlam’s See You All

—the underlying political conditions that give rise to these housing blocks have become a new kind of vernacular aligned with a 20th century ideal of Communism, Socialism, or at the very least religious appeals to welfare state social democratic politics.

    It is in contrast to this Socialist housing block type that one can begin to understand what a “capitalist vernacular” architectural form might look like and how it might come to be.

    In this case, 160 Leroy and 215 Chrystie best illustrate the capitalist vernacular due to their initial conception as speculative investment opportunities, their raw, minimal concrete-and-glass structure, and the ways in which they are designed, marketed, and imagined to occupy a particular popular aspirational consciousness.

First, the tectonic qualities of the building are its most obvious and appealing quality: the simplicity of the concrete square frame-as-facade, delicately glazed with a floor-to-ceiling glass panel slightly inset from the protruding vertical and horizontal grey matte grid, is a way of stripping away skin deep vanity that pines for authenticity. In its place is an honest expression of the structural and material qualities, on full display, an idea of “display” which is crucial to their capitalist logic. The capitalist vernacular aesthetic has become a signifier of conspicuous consumption, rather than an indication of quality or utility, form or function, despite the facade functionally having the spatially liberating consequence of eliminating any potential interior columns. Unlike prefabricated concrete facades on socialist housing blocks which have smaller windows, the proportion of transparent glass to solid concrete is a way of saying: I have nothing to hide, look into me and know that the physical separation of material and structural forces has been calculated and optimized for my ability to look at you, the bystander on the street, and for you to just barely see and aspire to my space and the lifestyle it represents. If one were to chart this openness, it would look like a straight line increasing from less glazing to more glazing on an axis as you went along the spectrum from socialism to capitalism.

    But what’s also important is that the same simple concrete frame is what’s underneath a majority of speculative luxury condos being designed and built today. Leroy and Chrystie street don’t bother with a veneer-thin stone cladding, ornamental brick faux-facade or metallized composite in tidy clip-on curtain-wall panels. They expose the underlying logic of everything else around them as if to say “see, this emperor's got no clothes, you can see everything.” The phenomenon of the all-concrete skeleton was not always the case, as it has only recently become cheaper than steel framing for most buildings (within the last two decades) coinciding with our economic maturity into late capitalism. 

    There are other binaries to contrast the two types: the socialist housing blocks thrust horizontally in a nod to neighborly communal bond (Alison and Peter Smithson called these “streets in the sky”), while the capitalist vernacular is vertical, maximizing the profit potential of a given site through the sheer act of multiplication, as high as economics and local zoning contexts will allow. While socialist housing slabs are usually anonymously designed (with some notable origin-myth exceptions), the capitalist vernacular relies on branding a starchitects name to produce surplus value through reputation and rumor, regardless of whether the design actually offers any unique physical value propositions. These are by no means new or revelatory observations, but by juxtaposing these two extreme forms and tracing how Herzog & de Meuron arrived at an emerging capitalist vernacular language of building, we gain a more sophisticated understanding of our current moment, and perhaps a glimpse at what’s to come. But first it’s important to contextualize the evolution of Herzog and De Meuron’s work pre-2008, in the economic aftermath, and in our current political climate.

    40 Bond street, a collection of 33 ultra-luxury residences, was completed in 2006, at pretty close to the height of the building boom which crested in 2008. Rentals in the building were $8,500-30,000/month and condos were selling for anywhere from $2-23.5 million: the building is so gaudy that it looks like it should command those prices. The official yadda-yadda is that the graffiti-inspired ground floor gates and cast-glass reference the cast-iron SoHo/NoHo buildings and “reinvent loft living in the place that invented loft living.”

OK, sure.

    The building is supposed to do this through architecturally ambitious tectonic flourishes and obsessive attention to detail on a facade that is ostentatious in the way some old Haussmannian stone buildings eventually become fixtures of a streetscape but you know they were proud of using the latest sterotomic stone-cutting technologies and fashionable aesthetic trends and ornamentations of the day for some door eve, stepped balcony or wrought iron gate. 40 Bond is the pre-smartphone, pre-Obama but post-9/11 definition of branded architecture by “starchitects,” a resurgent New York not afraid to show off again, brought to you by Ian Schrager of Studio 54 and Palladium and, yes, tax evasion fame. The cocktail of hedonism, money, and why-not attitude was barely more than ten years ago, yet it is from another era of Herzog and de Meuron’s oeuvre.

    The next building in this narrative is 56 Leonard street in TriBeCa, a jenga-like 57-story tower initially unveiled in Fall 2007, and officially put on hold for nearly five years, remaining a hole in the ground until 2012. Therefore this project chronologically straddles the pre-2008 boom and the post-2008 crisis and recovery, starting to point in an aesthetic direction of the two most recent buildings on Chrystie and Leroy streets. It’s like a bridge between the naive, opulence of youth and the wisdom of a more sober adult: combining the brash exuberance of height and sheer verticality (it has 10 penthouses! which makes no sense…) with the restrained, almost boring, coolness of well-detailed concrete slab edge details. And if you thought 40 Bond was pricey, it may surprise you that the most expensive apartment is less than just the profit made when speculative condo-flippers bought and sold apartment before they even existed–before the apartment is built. This phenomenon extends further to looking at the aesthetic and financial situations that are 215 Chrystie and 160 Leroy.

    I say situations, because once one reads them as objects made in the capitalist vernacular it’s misleading to call them buildings, for that doesn’t capture the full nuance of their existence when they are vehicles for financial investment for most intents and purposes. Like financial vehicles, these buildings come with a marketing package that contains facts about the building (square footage, amenities) as well as less-fact-checkable claims and assertions, lifestyle marketing imagery and aspirational aesthetics or copy. In the financial world, this might be called a Prospectus, the main difference here being that floorplans and renderings are included.

    The more subjective statements such as the building’s location “set on a plinth of white concrete and floating on a bed of light” are where we really get into the post-election mindset of “alternative facts” and “truthful hyperbole.” One starts to get the sense that despite the exquisite massing reminiscent of two merging industrial grain silos, insanely high quality concrete detailing, and carefully considered spatial sequences from the entrance to the upper floors, all of that is too much detail to bother understanding.

Instead, we get the contemporary internet click-bait-y equivalent of reading a headline and not realizing the essay is a satire: we are told the buildings curves are inspired by the philosophy of the late Brazilian (Communist) architect Oscar Niemeyer, as if he is somehow relevant to New York’s West Village. We are told the building is “curvaceous, sensual, free-flowing, seductive and sexy” and we expect a Donald Trump voice to continue with “it’s the biggest, curviest most seductive building ever made, more free-flowing than you’ve ever seen, the sexiest building of all time.”

Nevermind that 215 Chrystie street is a very similar design concept, albeit with slight tweaks, in a box-y self-contained tower set back from the street. This simple difference becomes the differentiating factor by which the two buildings manufacture difference, while really being the same underlying capitalist vernacular strategy on different sites in the same city. While the marketing lingo can be eye-roll-worthy, it perfectly complements the stripped down concrete and pixel of glass design approach, perhaps it is even necessary, because the Niemeyer reference on its own make one realize it could be misconstrued as a kind of favela chic, or aggressively spartan to the point of not embodying any “luxury.” 

    This is the fine line which Herzog and de Meuron deftly straddle at the moment, because while the functional and aesthetic choices can be replicated elsewhere to spread the capitalist vernacular style, only time will tell whether these constructions, consciously or consequentially, will further entrench the system that brought them into being, or whether they become the crack in the system that points out its hypocrisy. ︎