Works in progress, or completed: a rendering of a Chelsea residential building designed by Annabelle Selldorf. More Photos >
After a Frantic Pace for Building, a Nervous Pause
The New Season | Architecture
STROLLING through Chelsea this season could be a disorienting experience.
A year ago it was hard to know whether to celebrate the neighborhood’s construction boom as part of a citywide architectural renaissance or condemn it as another example of vain excess.
In many ways Chelsea reflected how the convergence of money, fashion, art and architecture was transforming the city. For every serious project there were dozens of cheap knockoffs, their lobbies accented with fussy wood veneers and third-rate works of art. Flamboyant glass exteriors were a particularly aggressive form of exhibitionism — one that sometimes seemed to embody the narcissism that has been poisoning American culture for more than a decade.
Still, plenty of nice buildings came out of it. Frank Gehry’s IAC headquarters has settled into the neighborhood comfortably, at least from a distance. Jean Nouvel’s luxury apartment tower at 100 11th Avenue on the corner of 19th Street was eliciting oohs and aahs even before workers had finished assembling its glittering glass facade. Provocative designs — some finished, some not — also came from younger talents like Anabelle Selldorf, Neil Denari and the team of Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture of Asymptote.
And then there was the arrival of the High Line, whose low-key gardens and postindustrial aesthetic, hovering just above the city’s streets on a former elevated railway, have injected a note of civility into an area that too often seemed to be admiring its own reflection.
Now the boom times are gone, and walking along the neighborhood’s quiet streets one wonders who will be living here in the grim times ahead.
Though work continues to creep along on a handful of new projects, dozens of recently finished apartments are empty. Developers have postponed other projects or cut budgets back to a minimum; architects are quietly laying off staff. (Richard Meier, whose twin glass towers at Perry Street marked the beginning of the downtown boom, closed his office on Fridays last month because of lack of work for the first time in his 46-year career.)
In the past few months I’ve heard more than one critic suggest that the downturn will be good for the cultural world — imagining, I suppose, that it will spawn a more civic-minded vision of architecture as well as a grass-roots art movement. (Think of the John V. Lindsay administration, when pocket parks were touted as major civic accomplishments and subway graffiti was celebrated as an art form.) Others still hold out hope that a major government investment in new infrastructure will lead to a New Deal-type revival, one in which architects will play a central role.
Don’t hold your breath. It is not clear yet that the culture that spawned this collapse is over. Excess has always been part of the city’s character, and we shouldn’t be all that surprised if some day the now ghostly towers are filled up with Wall Street hipsters who bought in at bargain prices.
For the time being these empty carcasses are stranded in a kind of limbo — between the last gilded age and an uncertain, anxious future.