Andi Schmied is a Hungarian photographer living primarily in Budapest. But while in New York for a short-term artist residency in 2016, she began to go by her middle name, Gabriella. For snatches of time, she would slip into another identity—that of a billionaire Hungarian, newly arrived in town—to gain access to the heady world of Manhattan’s elite. Not to mingle with any of her would-be peerage, mind you, but to get a better look at their homes.
Almost immediately after landing in New York, Andi-as-Andi did the “biggest cliché thing” one could do as a first-time visitor: go to the top of the Empire State Building. From those heights, she noticed even taller buildings, nearly all of them made of plate glass and sharp-edged and lined up in a row along Central Park. At the uppermost registers of these supertall luxury residential towers, she realized, were even better viewing points. “But none of them were public,” she said. “I wanted to figure out a way to get in and document them.”
Hence the prénom. Andi-as-Gabriella was a mother and an architect (albeit one with a lot of time on her hands) charged by her husband, Zoltan, with scoping out a Manhattan aerie for parents and toddler son (nameless). She drew up a list of addresses and scheduled viewings. She carried her vintage film camera, ready to snap photos of these mysterious spaces. But beyond the initial gambit, she discovered that her wile was superfluous. The only people she might have needed to convince or impress—real estate agents—were disinterested, distracted or hesitant to break with their own character roles. “Some of them were very good actors,” Schmied recalled.
As for the architecture, which generally conformed to the same formula of monstrous living rooms and tucked-away living spaces, she was relatively unimpressed. The views were soon drained of their stimulus. Agents would drop the names of architects, sometimes to pit one of their creations against another: “432 Park is great, but here [at 277 Fifth Avenue], there are no columns blocking your view,” one said to Schmied, referring to two Rafael Viñoly buildings.
After briefly resuming her alter ego, on a whirlwind visit to New York in February 2020, Schmied returned to Budapest with hundreds of photographs “and two kilos’ worth of promotional materials, mostly hardcover books with really expensive paper,” she said. In its design, Private Views: A High-Rise Panorama of Manhattan (VI PER Gallery, 2021) mimics this literature, but its contents (including critical essays from the likes of geographer Samuel Stein and the late critic Michael Sorkin) depart from the format. The pictures themselves are matter-of-fact, not touched up.
In a fitting end to the project, Schmied said her gallery has reported sales from some of the 25 luxury buildings included in the book: “I like to imagine my book on a coffee table in one of those penthouses.”