At first glance, Herzog & de Meuron's 56 Leonard St. looks for all the world like the sort of high-concept, radical design that is often planned in New York and never built: In the renderings, its tower reads as a warped honeycomb bristling with dense clusters of windows and cantilevered balconies.
It will not be this Swiss firm's first completed building in Manhattan. Last year saw the opening of their residential development at 40 Bond St., a very different affair from this latest project. This summer, however, their Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing was the centerpiece of the Olympic Games, which transformed it overnight into the most famous example of new architecture in the world. As the stadium's trellised and fretted exterior made abundantly evident, Herzog & de Meuron have an imaginative flair for surface treatments, more than for volumetric thinking. This was borne out as well on Bond Street, which flirted with kitsch in its embrace of flatness, especially in the spun-sugar filigree arrayed across its entrance.
In their project for 56 Leonard St., however, this team has exhibited a sudden propensity for volume, or more precisely, they exploit volume as a means of achieving a textured surface. Put in still other words, in this, their first residential tower, they have created a design that may well have been intended as a parody of volume.
Each level of the 57-story building is different, rotated at its own angle from a uniform axis, so as to create a total of 145 residences, each with a balcony. In one sense, the result can be interpreted as one of the most virtuosic acts of volumetric design in the history of architecture. In another sense, however, its thousands of tiny coves and runnels, each a volumetric assertion, are reduced in their collectivity to yet another of the surface treatments for which this firm is famous.
Over and above that specific tactic, Herzog & de Meuron are implementing here, far more than either on Bond Street or in Beijing, the calculated irregularities and asymmetries of the Deconstructivist style. There have been any number of projects in New York that have avowed their fealty to this architectural idiom — most recently the entrance to the September 11, 2001, memorial, which was unveiled last week. But notwithstanding a few irregular facets along their façades, most of these projects end up looking a little tame.
Part of the plan of 56 Leonard St., according to the press material, is to design each of its units, or at least each of its 57 floors, as though it were a distinct one-story suburban house, but of a specific kind. We are talking about the sort of California houses designed by Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler in the 1950s and '60s. The renderings seem roughly to bear out that association. And yet, the overall conception of the tower on Leonard Street is entirely different from anything that either of these architects, or any other 20th-century architect, would or could have designed. It is the logical consequence of the introduction of computers into the design process, and with it the ability to spin far more elaborate and fantastical forms than were ever dreamed of by the modular architects of the mid-20th century.
To judge from the renderings, the overall conception of 56 Leonard St. is inspired, even if its ultimate success will depend on the quality of handiwork, which obviously cannot be judged until the very last scaffold has been removed. Still, talk of satin-etched glass, pale woods, travertine pavers, and high-gloss black lacquer accents certainly sounds promising.