Have Ariel East and Ariel West, both on 99th Street, destroyed the scale of Upper Broadway? Or was that accomplished as long ago as 1980, with the arrival of the Columbia three blocks south on 96th Street?
Whichever the culprit, there was an intense outcry from the locals when these two latest developments were announced, for the obvious reason that their great height would belittle everything in their vicinity. Their 30-plus stories constitute an even greater aggression in that their immediate neighbors are low-lying, a fact that underscores the jagged unevenness of Broadway's skyline. Unfortunately for the neighborhood, which fought so doggedly and so successfully against an extension of the Westside Highway and against a CVS pharmacy only a few years ago, it lost this latest battle, and the two towers, now topped out, represent a fait accompli.
And yet, for all that, I cannot bring myself to believe that the spirit of the neighborhood, that etherous abstraction the locals always invoke to thwart development, has been significantly compromised by the new intruders. Its scale was already compromised early on, and scale in general was never as important on Upper Broadway, with its fairly uneven building stock, as on, say, Park Avenue. You could even argue that Broadway and 99th Street would be improved if the two-story movie theater just south of Ariel East were developed so that it did not look, as now, like a gaping hole in the streetscape.
Beyond the controversy surrounding them, the two projects manage, by the standards of New York real estate, to be fairly distinguished. Both are the work of the Extell Development Company. Ariel West, designed by Cookplusfox, is 31 stories, while Ariel East, the work of Cetra/Ruddy Incorporated, is 37. As it happens, the two buildings are strikingly different in conception and in the specifics of their designs.
Ariel West is the more conventional, being a slab upon a base — there is no more polite way of saying it. What redeems it from banality is the sensitive detailing that has always been a hallmark of Cookplusfox, who are also the force behind the Bank of America Building now rising on 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue. In the Broadway building, the dominant formal conception — which is not especially challenging at this late date — consists in what has been called the collage aesthetic, the forming of a building through a composite of slightly or greatly discordant parts. It is interesting to consider that this aesthetic was largely formulated by one of the principles, Robert Fox, in the Condé Nast and Reuters Buildings on West 42nd Street.
In the late 1990s, when this idiom was in the ascendant, there was a whiff of daring to it. It grew out of deconstructivist style and was supposed to say something about the fractured epistemology of the world we live in. But how tame it has become in this latest project. Ariel West behaves itself with exemplary poise, a largely bipartite structure with a lower, detached component growing out of its southern side. There is also a hint of traditional contextualism to the building in the reddish, bricklike cladding that accounts for much of the façade. Still, there is no mistaking this for a Neo-Preo building (one of the many designed to look old or pre-war). It's reverence for modernism's rectalinearity is as fastidious as that of the Seagram Building.
The detailing of Ariel East, directly across the street is not as chaste and not as good, though the massing of the building is more daring and interesting. By my count, it rises in a series of seven setbacks from the street, all of them oddly flush to north and south, creating a jagged effect only in profile. It may be my imagination, but that effect, somewhat totemic and forbidding, recalls Raimund Abraham's Austrian Cultural Forum on East 52nd Street. On Broadway, however, it serves to accentuate the height of the structure. It just keeps rising and rising in a way that belies its 37 stories and seems to be rubbing the neighborhood's collective nose in the fact that it got itself built in the first place.
Nor is accommodation of the neighborhood's sensibilities in any way fostered by the detailing of the façade, which is striped and skewed at ground level and causes the sides of the building to resemble the interior of an integrated circuit.
Ultimately, the sum total of these two buildings is probably somewhere in the middle, as so often in Manhattan. They are not as awful as the neighbors feared, but they are also not as distinguished as they might have been. And while the honor and integrity of Upper Broadway have not been dealt a death blow, one must hope that such lofty towers continue to be the exception rather than the rule.