BY Eugenia Bell in Frieze | 21 AUG 08

Bringing Dowdy Back

When I was growing up, the vilified white-brick ziggurat-like apartment buildings of my Manhattan neighborhood were considered cheerless and dull. Initially designed as middle-class housing in a then-unfashionable end of an expensive zip code, by the ’70s the apartments were oft-said to belong to single women of a certain age who worked as secretaries in advertising agencies, or shop assistants in fancy Fifth Avenue department stores. In the ’50s, when many of them were built, their ‘self-cleaning’, glazed white brick and modest – some would say banal – facades were about as close as America came to Corbusian functional modernism. One of the earliest and more well-known examples of the form was called – rather grandly – Manhattan House, and designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Mayers & Whittlesley; in 1950 it won an award for ‘Outstanding Apartment House’ by the New York chapter of the AIA. The project was sponsored by New York Life, an insurance company, which bought the connecting property to ensure the building was not hemmed in by similar monstrosities (Manhattan House contains 587 units). Though I have always had a soft spot for them, the white brick apartment buildings quickly fell from fashion, and have never been well-loved by New Yorkers, despite the growing real-estate value of the neighborhood. Recently, however, the Landmarks Preservation Commission announced the first landmark restoration of one of these white bricks: a 1960 iteration at Fifth Avenue, at 71st Street (though I sense address has more to do with the designation than aesthetics).

Meanwhile, six miles downtown, the finishing touches are being put on a new luxury apartment complex in Tribeca. It’s been granted a new address: 1 York Street, since ‘the corner of Canal, Laight and Sixth’, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and is designed by Mexican architect Enrique Norton, who was pegged back in the glory days of 2005 as the architect of a new Guggenheim in Guadalajara. The press material for the building calls its Tribeca home ‘Manhattan’s most affluent neighborhood’ (some in 10021 may care to disagree). Located within earshot of the Holland Tunnel and eyeshot of a thousand Louis Vuitton knock-offs, the 32-unit building features no less than 47 parking spaces in a ‘Swiss-engineered’ wholly automated parking garage (sounds slightly dangerous), and—wait for it—a white glazed brick base. Is it having a comeback?

I’ve yet to inquire whether the $25 million penthouse comes with a hovercraft to transport your 1.46 cars over the Canal Street logjams. The building isn’t quite yet done and the reviews aren’t in; we’ll see if New York has some love to spare for the new white brick on the block.

BY Eugenia Bell in Frieze | 21 AUG 08

Eugenia Bell is design editor of frieze