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The Upside-Down Building Is No Longer Novel

Eagle + West, on the Greenpoint waterfront. Photo: Jason O’Rear

For decades, two armies of high-rises have been executing a slow-motion pincer movement along the East River, marching south from Long Island City and north from Williamsburg. They have finally met at Greenpoint Landing. That swell of shoreline still looks relatively sparse, so the new rental apartments called Eagle + West stand out against the horizon. Seen from a distance, or in a schematic 3-D model, they look like Lego pieces that click together, the cantilevers of one fitting neatly into the other’s setbacks to form a seamless slab. Designed by OMA and built by Brookfield, they stake high design’s claim to this stretch of shoreline: not just another rote glass shaft or two but an unmissable concrete-clad cromlech.

The arrangement of one 30- and one 40-story building, joined by a low-rise connector, seems like a pleasant enough place to live, with 745 apartments, nearly a third of them rent-regulated, an extensive amenities menu that includes two pools (one indoor, one out), and a row of garden units backing onto a broad public esplanade. A grid of large square windows frames un-blockable, wide-angle views of Manhattan (plus more provisional and grittier vistas of upland Brooklyn). Precast concrete shingles rotated in various directions texture the façades like corduroy. As economy-size waterfront developments go, this one rates high for comfort and drama (though it’s a hike to the subway). To achieve it, however, the OMA team, led by Jason Long, smushed together a handful of familiar ideas into a form that’s more clunky than novel.

Dancing Towers

Eagle + West is a single complex named for an intersection, but its two towers come as a pair. They pull apart just far enough that you can sense the magnetic attraction. Where one steps back, the other leans forward, maintaining a tense but chaste 60-foot gap. The triangular projections (and matching recesses) point in alternating directions so the choreographed balance reads as a synchronized shimmy. In their physical rapport, OMA’s partners recall Frank Gehry’s small Fred and Ginger in Prague, where one wing hip-checks the other. Closer by, just across the East River from Greenpoint, is another swinging couple: SHoP’s twisty American Copper towers, conjoined by a skybridge that extends from waist to waist. But where Gehry’s Prague project is a showcase of swirl and delight and American Copper has a certain burly grace, Eagle + West look stiff and galumphing, like people who have heard of dancing but never tried it themselves.

Photo: Ossip van Duivenbode

The Out-of-Whack Stack

The pile of misaligned boxes has become a popular form of mild rebellion against the basic block and shaft. Sanaa executed it with formal flair in its design for the New Museum. ODA, a suddenly ubiquitous supplier of New York condos (and no relation to OMA), has turned the trick into a house style. For the extrovert of the two Greenpointers, the architects stacked seven- and eight-story trapezoidal prisms in ascending size order, so that the whole arrangement looks queasily lopsided and top-heavy. Even the low-rise portion looks precarious; the glass-sided box that contains the gym seems to hang in mid air, pinched between adjacent masses.

Around the time the New Museum opened in 2007, OMA designed a graceful bouquet of cantilevers for a site a block south of Madison Square. The recession knocked that project onto the list of never-built New York landmarks, which is a shame because it represented an apotheosis of its type: the upside-down setback tower. Shooting above a narrow site, it widened at the waist and tapered at the top, progressing through a series of jutting-out-and stepping-back moves to produce a few glass-bottomed rooms (at least in theory) and matching balconies. That mirror design worked because it was small enough to be playful and because, inserted into the pincushion of Manhattan, it looked like a tipsy twist on a century-old convention, the kind of thing that might elicit a startled smile on a walk around the neighborhood. The lateral shift also had a site-specific logic, allowing the building to snag views by leaning past CetraRuddy’s One Madison like a theatergoer craning around a giant in the next row.

The far more massive new development in Brooklyn doesn’t fit into its neighborhood so much as dominate the promontory and broadcast its virtuosity. That look, Ma, no gravity! trick requires hanging the slabs from Vierendeel trusses big enough to carry truck traffic and transferring loads with huge, tilted steel columns. The easiest way to understand why is to hold out a laptop at arm’s length: It takes just a few minutes before your shoulders, back, and thighs start to ache. If you were a structural frame gripping an overhang, those pain points would indicate the need for a stronger core: more concrete, more steel, more money.

The Great Cantilever Show

The beauty of the cantilever is that it looks at once powerful and implausible, a self-evidently heavy mass appearing to levitate. It also creates a space under its floor, throwing shade, extending shelter, and providing cover for an assortment of activities. At its worst, passing beneath one can feel crouching under like a highway overpass; at its best, it leaves the ground level feeling spacious and open.

Propping up a horizontal chunk of steel at one end and letting the other stick out over nothingness is a well-worn kind of magic. In Mexico City’s 1963 Museum of Anthropology, by Pedro Ramirez Vázquez, a single column, seemingly made of water, supports an immense great concrete canopy over the entry court. A similar technique has been deployed to offer views of the Alps, span rivers, defy earthquakes in Malibu, and bridge adjacent towers in Dubai. Steven Holl used the technique to flip a skyscraper on its side in China and create one long, continuous form that hovers above the ground. In the past few decades, architects have used extreme engineering to break out of the concrete confines and make their buildings (literally) more expansive. At Herzog and de Meuron’s 56 Leonard, the upper stories appear to be making a run for it, each one shooting off in a different direction. That firm is cantilever-smitten: It stacked long houses crossways like pickup sticks at Vitra House in Basel, Switzerland, and did something similar with office slabs at the Actelion Business Center on the other side of the city. New York has rules to protect us against that kind of exuberance, but even in this city’s restrictive environment, Diller Scofidio + Renfro was able to trick out Alice Tully Hall and Juilliard with a more restrained version of the monster canopy it installed at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

In New York, the cantilever as spectacle meets the cantilever as cheat. Developers appreciate the option of spending less on land and hoisting as much square footage as possible up to where the views (and the money) are. A mushroom-like spread has become a common way to cope with zoning restrictions, snake around a protected landmark, or take advantage of previously unusable aerial real estate.

The Actelion Business Center, by Herzog & de Meuron.
OMA’s unbuilt 23 East 22nd Street.
From left: The Actelion Business Center, by Herzog & de Meuron. Photo: Michael Buholzer/AFP via Getty ImagesOMA’s unbuilt 23 East 22nd Street. Graphic: Rendering by OMA
From top: The Actelion Business Center, by Herzog & de Meuron. Photo: Michael Buholzer/AFP via Getty ImagesOMA’s unbuilt 23 East 22nd Street. Graphic:... From top: The Actelion Business Center, by Herzog & de Meuron. Photo: Michael Buholzer/AFP via Getty ImagesOMA’s unbuilt 23 East 22nd Street. Graphic: Rendering by OMA

All of that depends on the distinctively, though not uniquely, New York maneuver of transferring air rights. Say you own a 100,000-square-foot building which by law could grow by another 50,000 square feet. It’s impractical to plunk a new addition on the roof or to tear it all down and start from scratch, but you can sell the right to build that bulk to someone who will actually do it. Those extra square feet can yield another few stories next door, or, in areas where the height is capped, the new construction can instead expand outward, growing over or around an existing structure like a tenacious tree root gripping a rocky cliff. Lately, that move has become a trend, with neighbor-shading overhangs proliferating all over the city. ODA recently completed a rather OMA-ish apartment building on the Upper West Side, the Westly, which balloons northward as it rises. A few blocks farther uptown, Thomas Juul-Hansen’s 2551 Broadway leans over a little one-story McDonald’s as if to inhale the smell of bubbling oil.

Long, the leader of OMA’s design team on Eagle + West, insists that the multiple cantilevers have nothing to do with zoning or financial considerations: They’re there for the sake of sculpting form, commanding a site, and optimizing views. But in real estate, it’s never easy to separate art from what it costs or what will pay. Greenpoint’s new architectural “it” couple meets at the intersection of flamboyance and calculation.

Photo: Jason O’Rear
The Upside-Down Building Is No Longer Novel