Sometimes architects shake their heads at the decisions developers make, but their ideas can be just as baffling to the folks calling the shots. Architect Alexander Gorlin reaches across the divide, speaking with leading figures in both professionssdeveloper Ian Schrager and architect Gary Handell to find out what makes the relationship work. Portraits by Dan Bibb
The Developer’s Architect
Gary Handel launched his firm in 1994 after leaving Kohn Pedersen Fox, where he specialized in designing office towers. Handel Architects has since grown to 90 people, and now has offices in both New York and San Francisco. The bulk of the firm’s work is developer-driven, large-scale commercial and residential work in cities including New York, Philadelphia, Austin, Washington, D.C., and Miami. Handel is also an active board member of Friends of the High Line, and since Michael Arad joined the firm as a partner in 2004, has been involved in the design of the World Trade Center Memorial.
Alexander Gorlin: You started your own office in 1994 with a project for a developer [the Sony Metreon in San Francisco] and have done many more since then. What’s it like to work with large-scale developers?
Gary Handel: I think it is interesting to work with them. The core of our practice is an investigation into how cities evolve and how each building can be used as a catalyst to further positive change. If you look at who built 90 to 95 percent of most cities, it’s always been the private sector. In the model of modern urbanism we are operating in, I think the best we can hope for is intelligent public policy that has been fleshed out by enlightened self-interesttthe best of both private and public sectors.
Do you see a difference between developers in New York and other cities?
I think the difference is mostly one of perception. Chicago has an outstanding building culture, but in New York there is much more of an emphasis on quality design today than there was as recently as a decade ago. Developers have learned the lesson that design can pay off, and they have upped the qualityythey are now in the forefront as far as offering well-designed buildings. Up until 10 years ago, there was conventional wisdom about what an apartment building was, and no sense in the market that you were rewarded for good design. That has changed.
For our first residential building [Lincoln Square in New York, 1994] we had a great client. Metropolitan Housing Partners said, Here is your budgettwe’ll give you a little more than for a standard project; use the money wisely.. It allowed us to challenge a lot of rules. At the end of the day, we built the building for a slight premium over what a conventional building would have cost. The marketplace responded and the developer was rewarded.
Developers realize there is a risk in not taking any risks. If you stick with conventional wisdom, there is no way to differentiate yourself. There is a risk in providing something that is just a commodity with nothing special about it. Finding the right edge is the core of our practice and some clients embrace it more willingly than others.
Is that a curtain wall at your project 505 Greenwich Street? Some developers get nervous when you even mention it.
That is part of conventional wisdom. The two street faces [of the 14-story, 104-unit building] are curtain wall, and the two side party walls and interior court are precast windows. We were able to buy that curtain wall very economically, and knew what that company was capable of. That curtain wall was more expensive then brick and windows, but the precast was less. So the average cost of that faaade is not more than a standard exterior. The developers, Metropolitan Housing Partners and Apollo Real Estate, looked at it and understood it would give them something to sell.
The difference between your building on Greenwich Street and some others nearby is night and day. I also build, and I understand you have to know how things are built, that there is a process of give and take. Some architects obviously haven’t built anything and make big gestures without knowing how to put the whole thing together.
Doing developer work, you make a bargain, and have to be very responsible. Part of the reason why you get to do these explorations and challenge conventional wisdom is that there is a trust where you are committed to developing the program, perhaps in way the clients have not anticipated. If the developer knew the answers before they came to you, they wouldn’t need you quite as much. If you understand what they are trying to do, you can show them ways to do it better. You have to provide them with what they asked for, but also get to the heart of what they were trying to do.
How would you characterize the process of building in New York?
What’s interesting about New York is that there is zoning as-of-right for every site in the city. So it is possible to build your program if you are willing to live within the rules. New York is actually a relatively straightforward place to build.
I also think that this is a wonderful moment in the history of the city: It has sloughed off the decline of the 1960s and 70s and people have realized the possibility of reclaiming the waterfront. We really have the potential to transform how the city will grow over the next 20 years. I am a huge fan of what the Bloomberg Administration has done with zoning. We are working on projects in the Hudson Yards area and the Brooklyn waterfront, and are involved in the creation of the West Chelsea Zoning through the Friends of the Highline. Each of those rezonings is an attempt to capture what is unique about each place and to enable what it could be in the future.
How can younger architects convince a developer to hire them if they haven’t already done a building?
You need to find smaller, younger developers, and help them find a project. It is a tough world to break into you, so look for people whom you can help in the early stages.
The Architect’s Developer
IAN SCHRAGER COMPANY
Ian Schrager founded his eponymous company last year when he decided to expand beyond the design hotel businesssa category he pioneereddand move into residential development. He currently has eight projects in development, five of them in New York (all joint ventures with RFR Holdings), including 40 Bond Street, a condominium designed by Basel-based Herzog & de Meuron with Handel Architects, and 50 Gramercy Park North, a condominium designed by British architect John Pawson, adjacent to the Gramercy Park Hotel, whose interiors are being renovating by artist Julian Schnabel.
Alexander Gorlin: I always loved the Palladium [a Schrager nightclub which opened in 1985]. Did hiring Arata Isozaki lead to your interest in architecture?
Ian Schrager: I always had an interest in architecture, but it was the ability to put anything in a nightclubbit’s a stage settthat drew me deeper into the field. You’ve always encouraged people to push their own boundaries. Philippe Starck had never done interiors to the extent that he did at the Delano Hotel [Miami, 1995]. Now, you are working with Julian Schnabel at the Gramercy Park Hotel. I think I’ve taken the design hotel as far as it can go, and it really doesn’t interest me anymore now that it has it’s been adopted by the mainstream. It doesn’t represent an alternative to the status quo, so [for the Gramercy Park Hotel] I wanted to come up with something else. The converted industrial loft artists have embraced has become a prototype for living, and it is a link with what they do and how they impact us. So I wanted to do a public place that was evocative of an artists’ colony or studioonot an art hotel but something evocative of that kind of singular and personal expression that could just come from one person’s brain.
Artist’s studios have always had great allure, like Brancusi’s studio in Paris.
Brancusi’s studio is part of the inspiration. It looks haphazard but for some reason, the canvases on the walls and the water vases turned upside down all just sort of work. That was the inspiration for this new hotel.
With 40 Bond Street, you have what is actually not an extraordinary site, with views of a park, for example, but have nonetheless created a very powerful environment. What was your thinking?
We went to Herzog & de Meuron, with whom I had worked beforeewe hadn’t completed the project, but had worked with them and Rem Koolhaas [on an unrealized hotel project for the Astor Place site where Gwathmey Siegel’s curved tower now stands]. I think they are just brilliant in the way they put things together and their use of materials. They realized that there wasn’t much opportunity [with the 40 Bond site] because it couldn’t be a freestanding building and the zoning envelope is limited. The opportunity was in the apartment’s function, the street facade, and the opening of the windows, so we just kept pushing the envelope. It was Jacques’ [Herzog’s] idea to take the cast-iron architecture of Louis Sullivan’s Bayard-Condict Building around the corner on Bleecker StreettSullivan’s only building in New York and a masterpieceeand redo it with modern technology and materials.
Do you regret that [the Astor Place project] didn’t work out between Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron?
Yes, of course.
What happened? Did they not work well together?
No. I got frustrated working with Rem [Koolhaas]. And I wanted to continue on with Jacques and Pierre [de Meuron], but they couldn’t. It was unfortunate, really, because I looked at that site as the gateway to downtown. Charles Gwathmey is a friend of mine; I like him very much. But people come down here to get away from buildings like that. It’s in the wrong placeeand maybe its developer messed it up. If the building was transparent, it would have been okay, but I think they were concerned about people seeing in the windows.
There are so many missed opportunities in this city for great architecture.
What do you look for in an architect?
A sparkle in the eyeeI like architects who don’t have a signature style, because you never know what you’re going to get. I actually want the same thing architects want.
In all venues, your work has always been about changing the status quo, and I think that’s also the definition of great art, because it changes the way we see things. It’s very illuminating that you always see what you do as art.
Well, I don’t see it as art, but I do see it as subverting the status quo. It is the same thing I was doing with my hotels. I couldn’t compete with Marriott in terms of efficiency, or the Four Seasons in terms of service, so I had to come up with something innovative that would give me something to market. I looked for my little opportunity within the existing infrastructure. If it’s not subverting the status quo, it really doesn’t interest me. Then it’s just about making money.
Why do you think New York is so conservative architecturally?
I have a weird theory about that: I think it goes back to when Robert Moses tried to build a highway up Hudson Street and Jane Jacobs was ableethank goddto stop it. It empowered the local community planning boards, and now you have amateurs commenting on professional’s work. It made the process very arduous and difficult. That, combined with the pressure of interest rates, and the fact that the process itself doesn’t encourage the latitude that a good architect really needs to design. But good architects aren’t helping themselves, either, because they are not sensitive to those pressures, so they scare away developers. There has to be some meeting ground so you don’t end up with banal boxes. What good architects need to do is to try to be a little more sensitive to that process, and then developers won’t be put off by them.
Alexander Gorlin is the principal of Alexander Gorlin Architects, which has just completed a tower in Miami Beach, large homes in Houston and Southampton, and has just broken ground on 550 affordable town houses in Brooklyn. He is also the author of Creating the New American Townhouse (Rizzoli, 2005).