550 West 54th Street, Manhattan
Archtober-ites probably expected to enviously gawk at the views and wander through the wedge-shaped, amenity-filled, courtyards of Mercedes House, one of the recent luxury rental additions to Midtown West. What they probably didn’t expect was TEN Arquitectos partner Andrea Steele’s eloquent and educational lesson on the challenges and opportunities of zoning in New York.
Standing around a model of the finished project, she outlined the slightly tired and trite as-of-right development schemes that the site offered: a courtyard “donut” or a low podium base topped by two residential towers. Rather than settle for these stale alternatives, TEN Arquitectos, with the support from the client (and Heritage Ball honoree) Two Trees, embraced and questioned the zoning constraints to propose a solution that, in their eyes, better aligned with the original intention of the codes (and resulted 20 percent inclusionary housing to boot).
The result: a stepped, Z-shaped slope, rising first to 86 feet as it moves away from DeWitt Clinton Park at 11th Avenue and then to 328 feet as it reaches the heights of 10th Avenue.
The move, while dramatic, does not merely register as a formal gesture – it resolved problems. The incline reconciles the disparity of scales between the two avenues. And pulling the massing away from the street created a thinned-out floor plate “corridor” (the Z’s long diagonal) that maximizes light for tenants and pedestrians alike. A low base provides storefronts for micro-retail, allowing Mercedes House to grow roots in its neighborhood. Despite being a private residential project, creating civically-minded projects is paramount to TEN Arquitectos.
Nevertheless, luxury residential is luxury residential, and this means amenities: pools, bocce courts, and even an outdoor cinema grace the courtyards. But who needs giant projection screens when you have views like those at Mercedes House? Steele put it best: “Everything you do, juxtaposed with the skyline of New York, is just better.”
And speaking of views, what about the endless comparisons to its neighbor to the north, Bjarke Ingels’ VIA at West 57th Street? One participant was even bold enough to ask if Mercedes House is driving change in the zoning process. Steele responded by encouraging all architects to propose innovative solutions to enhance the public realm. But in the words of one participant, an Aspen-based, Brooklyn-born architect, “I like this one better. It’s a very liveable project.”
Camila Schaulsohn is communications director and editor-in-chief of e-Oculus.