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Shining skyline: Inside the rise of 'Starchitecture'

200 West

200 West Credit: Andrew Hinderaker

Henry Cobb's 200 West Street, the headquarters of Goldman Sachs

In the mind of Rick Bell, the executive director of the American Institute of Architects’ New York chapter, all his fellow architects are stars.

It goes without saying, however, that the firmament on Gotham’s streets and skyline has gotten a lot brighter. As uncomfortable as architects may be with the term "starchitect," the word fittingly describes design masters who create buildings that “capture the imagination” and are simply superlative, Bell said.

Of course, New York historically has had no shortage of blockbuster stars: Frank Lloyd Wright and his Guggenheim Museum and Philip Johnson and his AT&T skyline “highboy” are among many examples. Multiple forces, however, converged to give rise to the ‘starchitect’ in the modern sense, observers told amNewYork.

One is heightened awareness of architecture after 9/11, said Carol Willis, director of The Skyscraper Museum. You can add to that, she said, a growing public appreciation for good design and star branding — Michael Graves at Target, for instance.

New York’s leaders also have embraced design consciousness in an unprecedented way, Bell said, setting a higher bar for new projects.

Further, the push to distinguish a building by a "starchitect’s" vision rises from competition during the real estate boom, said Joey Arak, the senior editor of the real estate blog Curbed. After all, if anonymous condos deep in Brooklyn have all the trappings of high design, a notable name-brand can break the mold of “cookie cutter luxury,” he said.

Indeed, starchitecture was once largely the reserve of corporate towers but now, some of New York’s most interesting work is strictly residential. The white brick tower, the picture of floor-plan efficiency, is hardly enough anymore.

A starchitect on board confers more than just marketing cachet. Developers are more likely to give a high-profile architect freedom to execute a vision. And the craft of the starchitect, Bell said, can inspire their peers to do better work.

“Star architects are empowered by the respect that they engender and the attention they deserve,” Bell said.

Architects with big talent, along with developers and other players are “creating a city that sparkles, a city that is the design capital of the world,” he added.

Here’s a look at a few starchitects who’ve left their impact on the city’s skyline. Some are heads of firms, while others are famous, such as Frank Gehry, for how they give expression to buildings. The work of all, however, has people talking — and looking up:

Europeans make their mark

Part of the excitement around starchitecture surrounds name-brand European designers making bold forays into New York.

Sir Norman Foster
Gotham goods: Hearst Tower, (57th Street and Eighth Avenue)
Why he shines: This British master took the classic Hearst Building and attached an iconic tower above it that juxtaposed beautifully the old and new. It “leapfrogged” Hearst into the 21st century, Bell said.

Jean Nouvel
Age: 65
Gotham goods: 40 Mercer Residences, 100 11th Ave
Why he shines: Bell praised the French Nouvel’s “daring spirit.” The issues of skyline are handled masterfully by Nouvel, with theatricality that meets the needs of his clients, Bell said.

Renzo Piano
Age: 73
Gotham goods: New York Times Building, Morgan Library expansion
Why he shines: The environmental qualities, symbolism, openness and inviting qualities of the New York Times tower make a notable example of starchitecture, Bell said. Further, he pulled off a “re-imagination of how people move through a building,” using stairs in places where corner offices might have gone, for instance.

Santiago Calatrava
Age: 59
Gotham goods: WTC transit hub
Why he shines: The role of Spanish architect Calatrava shows how a starchitect can take a project that could have been mundane and morph it into a “town hall, a symbol of resurgence,” Bell said.

Elder statesmen make a splash

Incredibly, Frank Gehry did not build in New York until later in life. While his designs for the Atlantic Yards and Guggenheim South Street Seaport were never realized., he has made up for lost time.

Frank Gehry
Age: 81
Gotham goods: IAC, Beekman Tower
Why he shines: His IAC is a presence on the West Side, Arak said.  Bell sees Beekman Tower as a bookend to Henry Cobb’s 200 West Street, with City Hall Park in the middle. Beekman isn’t just an innovative residential Gehry sculpture, it also relates well to surrounding towers, Bell said.

Henry Cobb (Pei Cobb Freed & Partners)
Age: 84
Gotham goods: 200 West Street
Why he shines: An unmistakable star, he’s created buildings worldwide, including Boston’s iconic John Hancock Tower. And after 50 years of practice, he finally designed a “spectacular” NYC tower, 200 West Street, for Goldman Sachs, Bell said.

Gotham stars

Gotham has much local talent. Names like Bill Pedersen (One Jackson Square), David Childs (the often overlooked 7 World Trade Center) and Richard Meier (Perry Street towers) come to mind. Here are other notables.

Diller, Scofidio + Renfro
Gotham goods: Lincoln Center renovation, High Line
Why they shine: The results speak for themselves. Taking the forlorn High Line, and transforming it into a cherished park and international attraction, coupled with tweaking without overhauling Lincoln Center, took star hands.

Bruce Fowle (FXFowle)
Gotham goods: 4 Times Square, Reuters Building
Why he shines: His work helped transform Times Square into a place where the architecture matches the vibrancy of the sights and the lights, Bell said.

Cook + Fox (Bob Fox)
Gotham goods: Bank of America
Why he shines: The former head of the U.S. Green Building Council New York chapter, Fox, with former partner Fowle, had a hand in crafting the Times Square towers and has made a significant skyline contribution in the green Bank of America Building near Bryant Park.


“There are younger architects that have gotten a lot of attention and justifiably so. Does that make them novas, does that make them stars?” asks Bell.

Whatever you call them, one of the most impressive in the young constellation is SHoP Architects. Consider their plans for the Nets stadium at Atlantic Yards, which engages its location in an exceptional way, suggests Bell. Another name Arak mentioned is Annabelle Selldorf, whose 520 West Chelsea is highly praised.



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