Two dark towers have risen over the skyline, glowering at each other across the East River. On the western bank, David Adjaye’s 130 William Street, a condo in the form of a castle keep, muscles its way into the Financial District’s lineup. A two-mile crow’s flight away in Brooklyn, SHoP’s 9 DeKalb Avenue has its stretch of the stratosphere all to itself, since at 1,066 feet, it makes the rest of the borough’s high-rises look squat. Tall buildings talk to each other across the city’s upper reaches, and this pair proclaims a new mood. We’ve gotten used to a skyline of glass splinters, glistening insouciantly as if all that mattered in architecture were the residents’ views. These newcomers are just as tailored for the wealthy as their silvery-white predecessors and no less concerned with the drama of being on the inside looking out, but they attract attention by absorbing light rather than reflecting it, gazing down on their separate zones with brooding seriousness. They could be auditioning to play Gotham City in the next Batman movie.
Both were designed years ago, before COVID, Musk, Ukraine, and Canadian wood smoke provided the latest justifications for gloom. Perhaps they were both prescient in their elegant menace, using overt displays of stability to advertise a teetering economic model. Just as banks once encoded the subliminal message trust us in architecture of neoclassical sobriety, these hulking half-siblings, armored in metal and stone, suggest that the fortunes they serve are solid and their values just. Neither is true, which would be a mere irony if these works weren’t by immensely distinguished architects. Since they are, the designs express not just an abundance of money, but a distinct architectural philosophy: The city can tolerate personality. As with all developer projects, their designs are trapped in a web of market, zoning, landmark, and urban constraints; they show that despite those limitations, they can still have an emotional, almost literary presence.
The Brooklyn Tower, as 9 DeKalb is called, is the more suave and confident partner. A pillar of black glass pinstriped in bronze, it spikes up above the borough as if challenging anyone to question its right to dominate. “Look at that,” SHoP’s co-founder Gregg Pasquarelli said, stroking the 3-D puzzle of interconnected elements that make up the façade. “Brunelleschi would envy that poché.” That’s a geeky joke about thick walls, but by using the line, Pasquarelli effectively put himself on a level with the great genius of the Italian Renaissance. You can tell where the tower gets its swagger. His point, though, was that the design deploys depth, shadow, and surface complexity to give it a character that’s unmistakable even from a mile away.
At street level, the façade’s geometric gamesmanship has a Baroque intensity. Fluted white marble columns sit on black granite pedestals, carrying the eye upward to where lines slide over, folds narrow, and concavities become convex. Above the podium, a bundle of metal tubes, variously ridged, rounded, squared off, streamlined, and half-piped, shoot up along the façade. Patterns and proportions shift along the way, creating a restless energy you can sense even from a distance. And not just on the surface: The structure consists of telescoping hexagonal shafts, slightly offset, so that every line is jagged, every facet broken down.
The new supertall gets its palette and sleekness from Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, its ornamental élan from Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building. But there’s a more immediate influence: the circle-in-a-hexagon-in-a-triangle play of the Dime Savings Bank, which sits at the Brooklyn Tower’s feet and was designed by Mowbray and Uffinger in 1908. The bank, a designated landmark inside and out, contains so much gratuitous sumptuousness that, in its heyday, it made saving a dime seem as elevated as anointing a king. The interior is still searching for a use, but even sitting graciously vacant, it’s sprouted a connected companion that translates one century’s sense of glamour for the next. Rarely has a fine old building’s airspace been used to such sympathetic effect.
My apologies, then, to the folks at SHoP, who may be dismayed to see their proud achievement paired with a work of Adjaye’s. The Financial Times weakened his intercontinental architectural empire with an investigation alleging serious sexual misdeeds. So many clients have since put as much distance as possible between themselves and the disgraced design-world darling that even sharing a page with him must feel like a smirch. Well before the news broke, however, 130 William’s version of high-end melancholy struck me as extreme. It’s so rough and lugubrious it appears to be in mourning.
To reach the entrance, you first have to pass through a dispiriting outdoor antechamber, a small plaza separating the lobby from narrow William Street. The four stories of blind arches, the black-and-gray speckled concrete, the deep walls and hefty spandrels, the dark-toned echoes of Trajan’s Market and the Fascist-era Palace of Italian Civilization in Rome — every detail of the building’s street-level presence adds to the atmosphere of weighty menace. You expect Praetorian Guards instead of doormen.
Above that podium, the structure rises in vertiginously stacked arches, the concrete-sided floors tilted slightly outward like plates on a suit of armor. Near the top, presumably beyond the reach of a besieger’s arrows, a loggia allows penthouse residents to enjoy a well-defended stroll in the open air. There, the arches, shallower than they are down below, have flipped upside down, as if to show off that they shoulder no loads, carry no burdens, and can permit themselves a little playfulness.
Adjaye’s architecture extends the fortified aesthetic of lower Manhattan in the early 20th century. At the dawn of New York’s transformation to capital of finance, architects fitted out the first generation of office skyscrapers in the attributes of medieval and Renaissance Europe: loggias, arches, and rusticated stone. Then, there was something comforting about wrapping the new structural technology, which was rapidly transforming city life, in an old aesthetic, however incongruous. The Metropolitan Life headquarters was an insurance factory, but its Venetian-style bell tower suggested it was also the seat of a belligerent religion. The (long-demolished) Singer Building housed a sewing-machine company, but its slender campanile might have served to ring tocsins or watch for approaching armies.
I’m not sure what Adjaye’s evocation of that long-ago evocation of a still earlier past signals today, other than general hostility. (Or perhaps an homage to another auteur of neo-medieval inclinations, Philip Johnson, whose 33 Maiden Lane is a dumbed-down version of the unbuilt moated castle he once designed for Donald Trump.) You might think that the ominousness would fall away inside — that within the perimeter, all would be blitheness and pleasure. Not quite. The pool and health club, with its low, black-painted vaults, black hardware, and walls covered in black mosaic tile, looks like it was designed for unspeakable, possibly painful activities. The apartments are cheery enough and flooded with light — but step from the dazzle into the crepuscular hallway and you feel like you’re staring into an elevator shaft. At the end of one dim corridor, I found a bonsai tree cowering beneath a spotlight as if it were being interrogated.
Until a few weeks ago, Adjaye was renowned for these celebrations of oppressiveness — that is, until he was accused of personally oppressing four former employees. It may be a stretch to read an architect’s character in a design that was produced by many hands at an international firm. But then he has dramatically personalized that firm’s style, which is why he was so much in demand. Hire Adjaye’s firm to design an Adjaye building and you’ll get an unmistakable Adjaye — for better or, as in this case, worse.
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