Swinging off the broad shoulders of 14th Street onto narrow, cobbled Washington Street in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District still feels like slipping behind a magic curtain. As much as it has changed, you still might catch an unstaged glimpse of white-smocked butchers hoisting prime cuts of beef alongside long-haunched models posing for photo shoots. Life here throngs with urban street theater, a quality irresistible to hotel impresario André Balazs, past master of public exposure, whose latest hotel venture has set necks craning and tongues wagging.
Making a public scene was very much part of the plan for the nearly complete Standard Hotel at 848 Washington Street.A crooked plaza and Lamborghini-yellow doors barely hint that an 18-story broken slab straddles the High Line, the elevated-track-turned-promenade, on sturdily sculpted concrete legs. The structural brazenness of the tower astride the elevated park has already been likened to an architectural lap-dance. “The conventional approach would have been to build out a huge box and put all available square footage on the ground, where it’s cheapest to build,” said Balazs during a tour of the hotel, where about 40 percent of the rooms are now open. “But we wanted to make big public spaces. Other than Paley Park, we have more actively-programmed outdoor square footage than just about anywhere else in the city.”
The site was already a standout with a 360-degree sculptural aspect that is rare in Manhattan. That Balazs took that high visibility in the air and translated it into public accessibility at the ground makes the Standard more noteworthy. Hotels have long had an important role in the public realm, and some of the city’s great rooms are hotel lobbies and bars, so the idea is not a new one. But Balazs knew he had to make his building appeal to locals to succeed. A 2004 plan from another developer, a 32-story corrugated steel condo tower designed by Jean Nouvel, had the neighborhood up in arms and was shot down.
Balazs took over the site and promised to be a better neighbor. ‘’A good hotel is an anchor of its community. Unless the community is on board, it won’t work,’’ he told The New York Times. More recently he told AN, “The goal was to stay away from any regulatory process and anything requiring approvals.”
“It was very important to me to work with someone local,” he added. “As a developer, I couldn’t sustain the political pressure of working with someone who couldn’t run over here and deal with problems.” He hired Polshek Partnership, whose principal Todd Schliemann he had known from their school days at Cornell. “André is very thoughtful about the making of space,” said Schliemann. “While he was thinking how it should feel from the inside out, we were imagining the bulk and wondering how to connect to the High Line.”
At that early stage, however, the High Line as promenade was just an idea. The abandoned track was still owned by rail company CSX, and this allowed Schliemann a free hand in designing how the building would relate to the viaduct. (The Parks Department began to draw up public access regulations after it became city property in November 2005.) “In fact, we were the ones defining all the issues,” he said. “You could hear this great sucking sound behind us as everyone tried to keep up.” While two other warehouses are also over the High Line, the Standard is and will remain the only new construction to straddle it.
For the architects, the main challenge was to make a building that wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the High Line. “We wanted a building to exist separately and not be subservient,” said Schliemann. “So we lifted it up to be a little more heroic.” Structurally a hybrid, the building has over five-foot-thick concrete feet and steel piloti that support two massive trusses and a steel plate 38 feet over the High Line. The rest of the structure is a concrete slab slipped diagonally into a rectilinear zoning envelope. At 20 stories, it could have been taller and still within permissible limits; its 50-foot depth was dictated by the size of the rooms off a corridor. Its distinctive crank came about when the architects and Balazs realized they could capture better views looking north; it also will help to preserve those views in the face of future development. Positioned just where the island of Manhattan cinches in, the hotel presents incomparable views through water-white glass walls in two directions: north, toward the Empire State Building, and south, out over the river to the Statue of Liberty.
There’s a toughness to the structure, reinforced by the choice of materials. Money was spared: Although it’s the first to be built ground up, this is the fourth Standard in the chain that Balazs developed as an economy-class hotel operation. “Because it had to be mid-priced,” Schliemann said, “there would be no architectural concrete, just board concrete. But the rougher material complements the cobblestones; it’s tough but sophisticated, and we thought that was completely right for this Standard in Manhattan.”
The work of Morris Lapidus—particularly his 1960 Sheraton Motor Inn, now the Chinese Consulate on 12th Avenue at 42nd Street— was an inspiration for both the shape of the building and its interior finishes, which are equal parts retro, seductive, and trend-setting. “I like to use modernist pieces, but ones that have been around,” Balazs said. “Even if you don’t know exactly what they are, there’s a familiarity that feels comfortable. It’s very different from a Herzog & de Meuron approach, where it’s like, ‘This is a new vocabulary, get used to it’.” In some cases, the vaguely familiar bits are quite specific take-offs, including a glass facade straight from Arne Jacobsen’s SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen; upside-down champagne flute light fixtures à la Warren Platner; and an assortment of sleek moves from 1960s-era buildings in Brazil. Balazs worked on the interiors with designer Shawn Hausman, with whom he frequently collaborates, and New York–based Roman & Williams. They developed a three-volume look book for the job loaded with vintage 1960s images of work by Lapidus, Arne Jacobsen, Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, and Erwin Hauer.
The rooms themselves, though intentionally small at 250 to 460 square feet, feel capacious enough thanks to the distractions of the view and a simple palette: unadorned white walls, upholstered booth-style seating, and honey-toned lacquered wood trim. While some rooms on most floors are now open, the rest of the hotel, including restaurants and a rooftop bar (guaranteed to be so rocking that the floor will be raised on springs to insulate it from the rooms below) won’t be completed until June. Another more publicly accessible bar is suspended alongside the High Line. Balazs is negotiating with the city to connect both this bar and a fire-escape stair directly to the promenade, perhaps with drawbridges. At street level, a steakhouse and an outdoor beer garden right under the High Line will be open to the public directly from Washington Street when they open in June.
Hospitality lore says that design trends in the hotel business shift about every seven years, compared with every two years for cars and every season for fashion. In that case, and if the Standard achieves its promise of opening up to the neighborhood, then perhaps the age of the intimate boutique hotel is about to give way to the more generous charms of the public hotel.