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BIG's VIA 57 West, a formal extravaganza addition to the Big Apple's skyline.

Brief analysis on contemporary housing in a global metropolis. London, 30th November, 2020.

Bjarke Ingels is probably the most successful and acclaimed architect of his generation and “Yes is more” was the title that he chose to present the compilation of projects that his office – BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group - had produced during more or less the first decade of its existence. A catchy motto that emerged from taking and modernizing Mies Van der Rohe’s famous “Less is more”. A slogan that also describes their design methodology which involves an extensive data collection phase. The process continues by testing the knowledge gathered and filtering it through a rational thinking - decision making process that aims at obtaining a super specific solution to a given problem. Such process at its best produces non-evident and surprising results.

The culture of congestion 

From the mid to late 70s Rem Koolhaas, at the time an emerging architect and intellectual, was carrying out studies at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in New York. The result of Koolhaas research became the content of the famous book “Delirious New York”, where he described Manhattan as a palimpsest, a regular and homogeneous urban grid, on which anything and everything can happen.

In his view, such uniformity of the grid is what makes it extremely flexible and allows for the impredictable to happen without loosing consistency and urban order. It creates order by allowing chaos or caprice to occur in a  limited portion of real estate. Each block within the matrix becomes a city in itself and therefore can support a different kind of architecture. This is what Madelon Vriesendorp depicted in the image of the “City of the captive globe”, where a consistent series of zebra painted blocks acted as podiums of the most diverse range of architectural utopias.

The Courtscraper

Via West 57 is one of those formal extravagances added to the Manhattan grid. It evolves from the combination of two radically opposite typologies. On one hand, the european and  traditional low rise city block containing a courtyard and on the other hand, the american-born skyscraper typology. Situated on the river side block between West 57th and West 58th streets, it rises from the ground as a sort of pyramid by means of lifting the corner that sits the closest to the centre of Manhattan. It brings a new pointy addition to the skyline and joins the hundreds of steel and glass needles that form The Big Apple.

This geometric manouvre creates a south-west oriented surface that unites this corner peak and the bottom podium; coincidentally orientating the building towards where the views of the river Hudson are. It permits a big portion of the apartments to look towards the long distance views and brings sunlight into the elongated internal courtyard.

How to occupy an urban mountain

Perhaps, the weakest points of the design of this building are the repetitive nature of the planar façades and the conventional strategy to resolve the plan. Here, efficiency has been taken to the extreme. The central spine that serves the aparments located either side of it turns into endless dark corridors with very little interest. Possibly the only virtue of these corridors resides in maximizing the number of apartments served per core - happy days for the cost consultant...

But design is a continuous negotiation and balance of multiple forces and perhaps, these two weaker points from a design perspective were the key factors to make this whole real estate operation viable. It is hard to judge from the point of view of the audience. One can only guess what it actually drove these decisions. 

On the other hand, the complex geometry of the hyperbolic surface creates multiple singular opportunities to design a vast array of different layouts for the apartments. From studio apartments to the bigger 4 bedroom types. Different spatial arrangements are proposed throught the entire volume, achieveing a truly diverse mix of both real estate offer, and in turn, sociological mix – even if it is only in the number of occupants of each apartment. The courtscraper can cater for the single individual as well as for the conventional 4 members family.

20th century avantgarde concepts for the 21st century real estate market.

This urban mountain of apartments cladded in glass and light grey metal panels complements its residential programme with an ample array of amenities for its inhabitants, just like the Eastern Germany and Soviet Housing neighbourhoods did in the past. From the typical gym room and bycicle storage to the cinema theatre, basketball court, poker room, toddlers room and even library and co-working space. A glamorous community in the middle of Manhattan

It is curious to see how 21st century high end developers absorve ideas that were once proposed for the working class by the avantgarde architects of the 20th century. The often criticised residential experiments built across Europe to solve the housing crisis during the years after World War have found a new expression in the form of luxury condos. And Via 57 West occupies a block of Manhattan, the epicentre of the modern capitalist world. Rent prices for a studio apartment start at $3000 per month. Who’s in?

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