News
10.31.2007
40/40 Vision
Stephen Treffinger reads the architectural fine print at two of the city's most touted new condos.

With star-powered, high-stakes condos sprouting up as quickly as bank branches in this city, it is ultimately the details that will inform the way the owners will live in them. After the hype has ebbed, residents will continue to come home tired, pad around the living room in their socks, and appreciate that the electrical outlets are strategically placed.

On paper, 40 Mercer and 40 Bond seem to share one common idea—a modern take on the loft buildings indigenous to the neighborhoods in which they are both located. Those original cast-iron structures may have been rugged, but they provided unprecedented open spaces with abundant natural light, qualities the two 40s deliver in spades. The hoteliers-turned-developers Ian Schrager and André Balazs both know the ropes when it comes to luxury product with flair, but each provides markedly different notions about the downtown living experience: Mercer delivers simplified luxury; Bond, idealized simplicity. Both visions cost more than $3,300 per square foot to realize.

40 Bond, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, is in some ways surprisingly traditional for the Swiss duo. The luminous, cast bottle-green glass grid (fitted to the structure with bolts concealed under an enamel frit behind the glass) that orders its large windows feels organic, as if utilizing some age-old technique that was related to cast iron but fell out of favor. The apartments themselves feel like, well, lofts—the floor-to-ceiling windows, the wide plank floors, white kitchen cabinets and countertops. But here the simplicity is idealized, the materials top-notch. Flooring is smoked Austrian oak, the windows cleverly operative (they tilt inward with a crank mechanism), the cabinets high-gloss lacquer, the counters intricately wrought Corian. Even the door handles are polished chrome designed by Konstantin Grcic for Colombo.

In the master baths, there is a sauna vibe with more smoked oak covering the walls and floors and double vanity sinks in an arched niche (more Corian) with theatrical, globe-shaped fixtures. The seamless “wet room,” a combination tub/shower area is a marvel of fabrication. The tub alone is made of 40 pieces of precisely cut Corian, and some of the shower surfaces feature a computer-routed graffiti pattern reiterating a main theme in the lobby. The bathrooms took nine months to fabricate, according to Chris Whitelaw, the senior engineer for Evans and Paul, the Queens-based company that did the work.

The lobby could easily exist in one of Schrager’s hip hotels. Twenty-foot high, graffiti-etched undulating panels of white Corian line a narrow corridor (under a gleaming punched steel ceiling) linking the reception area (an Alpine oak box, also graffiti-carved) with a back garden. The effect is a bit planet Krypton (or, if your Haldol dosage needs adjusting, a scene from The Shining). The walls are made up of more than 280 pieces of Corian, which was first etched, then heat curved, a process that can (and did) expand the panels slightly, causing problems with pattern matching. To compensate, pieces were made slightly larger than needed and later trimmed to make the designs realign; even then, hand shaping was sometimes necessary to create the seemingly seamless fit. “The lobby is awe-inspiring,” says Whitelaw, whose crew spent about three weeks gluing and polishing the seams on-site following two months building parts in the workshop.

The now-famous gate/fence, a graffiti-inspired, Gaudí-esque, cast-aluminum semibarrier between the gritty outside world and pristine white lobby within, will also guard private entrances to the five townhouses on the ground floor. The theme is repeated (and repeated) in the concrete out front, on embossed aluminum that wraps the entranceway, and even the interior walls of the elevators in oak.

Designed by Jean Nouvel, 40 Mercer is, from the outside at least, a simpler affair. From Mercer Street, the building reads like a discreet medium-scale residence or hotel. Upon rounding the corner, it takes on the look of a massive office with a large expanse of glass and steel. But the block-long structure has a mirrored alley or “cut” in the facade (ingeniously reflecting the brick building across the street) dividing the building into two less massive parts—one of its many, subtler charms. Some corner windows on the Mercer side are bright red; some larger ones on the Broadway side are blue. Not quite Boogie Woogie, but definitely Mondrian.

The lobby, lined on the downtown side with a double wall of glass printed with black trees, is at once moody and elegant. It is dark and night-crawler cool, punctuated here and there with red or blue armchairs. (It takes your eyes a moment to adjust before the trees emerge from the forest.) “It’s a nighttime building by design,” Balazs says. “Night is Jean Nouvel’s time of day.”

Upstairs, the apartment landings are signature Nouvel—perforated black steel grates suspended beneath dim lighting reflecting off welcome mats made of steel floor tiles. One half expects the apartments to be industrial minimal chic, but they are in fact rich, nuanced, and warm. The use of wood is exceptional—the kitchens alone feature custom Molteni cabinetry in wenge, Italian walnut, and tanganika. Countertops and shelves are laminated mixes of these woods, which warm the brushed stainless countertops, sinks, and backsplashes, lit with halogen lights hidden beneath the cabinets. Throughout the apartment, door handles are Nouvel-designed, wood-clad Valli & Valli.

Flooring is 3-inch-wide white oak with a clear finish, save the master bedroom (and some secondary bedrooms) where walnut is used. Giant moving walls, also walnut and with steel and cable shelving units, can close off a section of the main space creating an office or guest room. But these are child’s play compared to 12 units that have 17- or 20-foot-wide windows that, with a touch of a remote, can slide open, turning the living room into a virtual outdoor space.

Bathrooms are decidedly swank and busy with more wood (walnut, white oak, and mahogany) cabinets, plus floors and showers in Calacatta Gold marble, painstakingly matched with mirror grain patterns to form Rorschach-like effects. Counters are back-painted glass, in white; flattering lighting is vertical, wall-mounted fluorescent tubes. “People spend an inordinate amount of time in bathrooms,” says Balazs.

Asked about the overall attention to detail at 40 Mercer, Balazs’ response could just as well apply to his arch-rival’s 40 Bond: “You can’t take the hotelier out of our company’s psyche. A typical developer builds it, sells it, and gets out of there. When we build something, we have to live with it forever and sell it over and over, every night.”

Stephen Treffinger

Stephen Treffinger writes for Domino, The New York Times, and other publications.