Architect lives on through his style

A view from an apartment at 70 Columbus (above) and the living room of a model apartment in the building.
A view from an apartment at 70 Columbus (above) and the living room of a model apartment in the building. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
A view from an apartment at 70 Columbus and the living room of a model apartment (above) in the building.
A view from an apartment at 70 Columbus and the living room of a model apartment (above) in the building. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Charles Gwathmey may have died in 2009, but leaves behind as a legacy his aesthetic sense of clean lines and grand geometries

JERSEY CITY, NEW JERSEY • When Charles Gwathmey died in the summer of 2009, New York City lost one of its most prolific and influential architects.

Adherents of the strict rationalism of Modernist design, Gwathmey and his partner, Robert Siegel, had still managed to infuse their clean lines and grand geometries with warmth and humanity in more than 400 projects spanning four decades, including the expansion of the Guggenheim Museum and a new building for the American Mission to the United Nations.

For Siegel, it was almost as if he had lost a part of himself.

"For 42 years, we sat across the desk from each other; we sketched, we drew, we talked, we argued, we worked," he said last week inside his Battery Park City apartment.

"It became difficult to pretend you're just going to continue as it was before."

Anyone looking at 70 Columbus, a 50-storey apartment tower that opened here in November, might think Gwathmey was still seated across from his old partner, swopping ideas for the building's unconventional trapezoidal layouts and its 545 apartments, the cascading courtyard, its doorknobs and countertops.

It is a continuation of what came before, but also a coda to the Gwathmey-Siegel legacy, one Siegel has had to maintain alone.

That legacy stretches back to Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer, designers who helped shape the modern era.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, when architects began to reject simple, form-follows-function boxes in favour of decorative ornaments once again, Gwathmey was among a group of architects known as The New York Five who found new ways to keep this design language alive and new.

"They knew how to create modern environments that were humanistic, not stark," said Mr Kenneth Frampton, a scholar of modern architecture at Columbia University.

With rents from US$2,300 (S$3,300) to US$7,000 a month, apartments at 70 Columbus might not seem affordable, but by the standards of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, they are a deal.

The firm's first commission was an apartment for actress Faye Dunaway in 1969 and in the years since, projects have included palatial spreads in Manhattan towers and Hamptons compounds for director Steven Spielberg, comedian Jerry Seinfeld and Stephen A. Cohen, a hedge fund manager (a penthouse in the Bloomberg Building once on the market for US$115 million).

Siegel, who is retired, believes one of the reasons the firm was so successful was because it never focused on a particular type of building or project.

"Specialising was the death of being alive and being creative," Siegel said.

It also helped the firm extend its idealistic modernism to places that might not otherwise have sought it: libraries in Akron, Ohio, and Fort Wayne, Indiana; museums in North Miami, Florida and Astoria, Queens, and several projects on college campuses. And a hotel in Hoboken.

After persuading the W Hotel chain to open an outpost across the Hudson River, the project's developer, Ironstate Development, hired Gwathmey Siegel.

"Their attention to detail is just remarkable," Mr David Barry, a third-generation Hoboken developer and president at Ironstate, said during a recent tour of 70 Columbus.

"They know how to solve any problem, whether it's with the planning board, how to put the units together, what finishes work where."

Though Gwathmey succumbed to esophageal cancer at 71 while the tower was still under construction, Mr Barry felt compelled to bring the firm on board for Ironstate's next project, the apartment complex in Jersey City, which began in 2011.

"We had a complicated site, at a crucial intersection in the city and we knew they could make the most of it," he said.

"Besides, we just wanted the experience of working with them again."

Among the dozens of towers that have blossomed along the Hudson opposite Manhattan, 70 Columbus stands out.

Even something as simple as the heating and air-conditioning units, which typically puncture the facades of less well-considered buildings, are here turned into a design element.

The grates encircle the building, adding rhythm to an otherwise highly vertical structure.

Window-bay columns project from the building at seemingly unusual angles.

A 15-storey hotel on the corner counters all these straight lines, with a curving prow that softens the approach to the tower, as well as a 50-storey twin, to be known as 90 Columbus, that is scheduled to begin rising in March and to be completed by 2018.

More than 40 per cent of the units are already spoken for.

As for Siegel, finishing up this project without his long-time collaborator was a challenge, but perhaps not as difficult as he anticipated.

After all those years of passing ideas and scraps of paper back and forth across the table with Gwathmey, "I think we rubbed off on each other," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2016, with the headline 'Architect lives on through his style'. Print Edition | Subscribe