Ribbons in the Sky

Ribbons in the Sky

UNStudio’s Five Franklin Place.
Courtesy Archpartners 2008

Though famous for the winding and unwinding Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart and the iconic Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam, until now Dutch firm UNStudio, led by Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, had not had an opportunity to build in New York City. On May 7, they unveiled the design for a 20-story residential tower in Manhattan, Five Franklin Place.

Situated amid the cobblestone streets of Tribeca, Five Franklin Place has 55 apartments and three living types—lofts, city residences, and penthouses. As in so many other high-end condominiums, the developer, Sleepy Hudson, will lure future residents with amenities like a well-designed gym, a private spa, an elegant lobby, and lip-smacking 360-degree views over Manhattan. As far as slick and sexy renderings in sales brochures can give a reliable idea of future spaces, these will be beautiful: operable walls in the bathrooms, floating mezzanines, internal glass cab elevators for the penthouses, and walls connecting libraries, kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms that make one’s thoughts drift to delightful visions of Bond Girls and secret service devices.

But it is the facade that will grant Five Franklin Place a special place among the architectural ranks of the city. Whereas most new apartment buildings either hide behind ostentatious gift-wrap or are wallpapered with generic patterns of glass and concrete, UNStudio promises a combination of contextualism and a subtle displacement of typical expectations. Inspired by the strong but often overlooked decorative horizontal elements found in the historic cast-iron buildings of Tribeca, the architects are wrapping corners, balconies, and terraces in swirling, reflective black metal bands of varying widths. Whereas a horizontal line in a facade typically indicates a new floor, Van Berkel and Bos lightheartedly play with the sense of scale that the passerby uses to read the city on a day-to-day basis. Their horizontal ribbons placed at varying distances give no indication of floors, and will leave us questioning the height of Five Franklin Place. Once completed, these bands could give the building the strange and pulsating energy of an accordion at standstill—anytime, one could expect the building to stretch itself up to greater heights or come down to the level of surrounding buildings. By redefining Tribeca’s notion of decorative horizontality, UNStudio’s Five Franklin Place might effectively straddle the historicizing and the blingification most new condominiums appear to struggle with these days.