New York's tallest apartment building, inside and out (and in between)
Most likely, if you've looked south from much of Midtown or from parts of Brooklyn in approximately the last year, you have seen the braided silver tower rising now at 8 Spruce Street, near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. It's very tall. And it's very shiny and silver, even on a day when the top is hooded in low-scudding clouds. And its surfaces seem to be striated and curving, like the shell of an armored animal or a deep-water sea creature.
Joe Rechichi, senior vice president for construction at Forest City Ratner, the developer of the tower, led Capital through the building on a bright and clear morning on which the building gave off the sort of light few buildings do.
From its 37th floor, you could clearly see the roofline of City Hall, and half of the World Trade Center memorial. You could look down at the roof-decks of the residential buildings on the next block, and on Pace University, which is not taking advantage of its sprawling flat roof. Though the Empire State building is actually taller, and three miles away, looking straight north it seemed as if it you were eye-level with it.
And that's from only a little more than halfway up the 76-story apartment building. Looking up at the building from its foot is, likewise, astonishing.
It's the skin of the building that is most impressive, and what Rechichi accurately called the "sexy part of the building."
It's made of stainless steel and it’s that part that looks, when you lean back on the roughly three-foot high glass railing of the balcony outside the seventh floor "amenities room" and look straight up, like a web of rollercoaster tracks stretching upward.
“If you walk around the building," Rechichi said, "and you stare up, what happens is—this is all his genius, all Frank’s genius—is that he takes a curve, and as it translates and goes up the building, it'll move in three dimensions. It'll move left, right, in and out."
The name "Frank" comes up a lot when Rechichi is showing the building. The developers formally call the building New York by Frank Gehry, after its world-famous architect, having let go of an earlier name, Beekman Tower. (Online, where the building has been a sensation in certain circles, the colloquial consensus name for the building is 8 Spruce.)
The structure of the upper floors has reached the top but construction continues on them, while the lower 50 floors are complete and already being leased to tenants, at monthly rents that begin at $2,705 for a studio.
"The finest skyscraper to rise in New York since Eero Saarinen's CBS building went up 46 years ago," 8 Spruce Street was called by former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff. In what has purportedly been a big decade for big-name-architect-driven residential building in New York (César Pelli and David Childs have each had a go), it's notable that New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger called it "the first New York high-rise apartment building in more than a generation that is worth talking about."
The bottom five floors that make up the building's podium do not glisten or luminesce or do anything much. These floors house a public school with an extraordinarily nice lunchroom that is visible from the small plaza between New York Downtown Hospital and the building. There is also retail space, which is currently occupied by Green Apple Cleaners, an operation that calls itself "the greener dry cleaner."
The podium has been somewhat justifiably singled out for criticism even by fans of the building, in part because it’s plain and in part because Gehry, who designed the interiors of the residential complex above, did not design the interiors here. That is in part because there were constraints on the design; it had to meet the requirements of the School Construction Authority, which means that classrooms had to be a certain size and that columns had to be arranged so that they did not come down through a classroom, or cafeteria, or auditorium. That is why there are several enormous columns crowding what might otherwise be a grand entranceway for the residents living above.
This is a dense neighborhood. The streets are not laid out in a grid, and the on– and off-ramps of the Brooklyn Bridge gnarl even what orderliness there might have been.
As a result, the podium is really only visible from directly in front of the building, unlike the podium at, say, the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. Since the building itself is visible from almost anywhere in the city, the approximately 600 schoolchildren and the residents are mainly the only ones who will ever see it.
Rechichi, who has been in charge of the project from its inception, emphasized that Forest City Ratner held the contracts for both the architect and the contractor. Of Gehry's involvement, Rechichi said, “just to emphasize, he was 100 percent in the design,” of the podium, too.
That part is made of pale orange brick that was imported from Alberta, Canada, on the insistence of Gehry himself, who Rechichi said has a fondness for this particular brick. This was, Rechichi said, “a little bit of a pain in the neck,” because the production cycle in Canada, due to the winters, is fairly brief.
Building in a city with as much infrastructure as New York is not easy. The bedrock under 8 Spruce is 110 feet below street level. Building it required negotiating with the disruptions the massive project on a small footprint would cause its cheek-by-jowl neighbors: The hospital as well as two historic buildings.
The inside is impressive. The building is the tallest residential building in the country, with 903 apartments. All of the windows are floor-to-ceiling, which means they are typically nine feet, 10 inches tall, with a width of three-and-a-half feet to seven feet, depending on the apartment.
The attention to detail is extremely thorough, which is a signature of Gehry's buildings, but when seen is still remarkable. Almost all the interiors are lined with a wood from a green Douglas-fir variety—it is a soft wood, and it was chosen in part because of its consistent graining. It actually appears to be emanating light, which, when combined with the altitude of many of the apartments, well above the surrounding buildings, and their uniformly enormous windows facing many directions, provides so much light as to make one a little self-conscious, as if all the flaws on one's skin or clothing might be magnified; any area that does not have natural light is fitted with soothing incandescent features.
Including the windowless elevator, which is lined with very shiny metal in a quilted pattern and which has a ceiling made of translucent white panels that diffuse the electric light-source above them.
Though housed near the building's core the elevators induce their own sort of vertigo. The low-rise elevator, serving the lower floors, travels at 800 feet per minute; the high-rise at 1,400 feet per minute. Rechichi believes the second is the fastest in the city, which is believable. And though the ride affects the ears in the way that an airplane take-off does, it feels physically as though you are not moving at all.
ALL OF THE MATERIALS WERE CHOSEN BY GEHRY, WHO—LIKE many well-known architects—is well known for being particular.
That includes both the delicately shaped stainless steel skin and its more workmanlike inner aluminum core. The steel comes from Japan; Gehry is known for liking titanium for his buildings, but titanium is light. In an interview with The Guardian, Gehry said that in order for the titanium to be able to support the cleaning equipment that would have to scale its surface to maintain it, the titanium would have been so thick as to have been prohibitively expensive.
Stainless steel is an option he's taken before: It's the same Japanese steel that he used for the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. After it was hand-finished in Japan, it was shipped in sheets to a tooling shop in Michigan, where the steel was stamped into ribbon-like sheets. From there it went to Florida, where it was glazed and welded to the aluminum layer that forms the inside curtain wall; and then it was shipped, in pieces, to New York.
8 Spruce has been called an engineering wonder, and it looks like one, but Rechichi was not particularly emphatic about that element.
"The foundation is a foundation," he said. "Engineering is engineering."
The building is made of 280 million pounds of concrete, and supported using a now-familiar "core-and-outrigger" method. The building's core makes up the main structural support, but at each level of the building arms reach out from the core and "grab" pillars near the perimeter of each floorplate.
But there is an important variation in the core-and-outrigger construction method involved here, because the shapes of the floorplates are so jagged, and so different from each other, that there is no straight line near enough the perimeter of the building that can rise consistently for the building's entire height. As a result, the columns must be "stepped" in a process the engineers on the project this summer described to The Chicago Tribune's Blair Kamin as "walking the columns." One column rises for a span at one point in the perimeter; above it a second, wider column rises for a time, partially covering the column below; above that a third column rises in the part of the second column's footprint that isn't covering the footprint of the first. (You can see an enlarged version of the diagram drawn for Kamin here.)
The floorplates must be positioned pretty much perfectly to accept the curtain wall, already tooled piece by piece to fit very precisely against the building's skeleton. The engineering of the building allowed the concrete embedments—essentially what attaches the curtain wall to the building—to be off by only one inch, and, Rechichi said, of 12,000 embedments, only three or four were off by more than that.
"Every single face of this building was approved by Frank," Rechichi said said. "In order to make that work, these curves that go up, when you solve one piece of it, another piece would come out of equation, so to speak, and you’d have to solve that. There was a lot of that going on in the initial design. And you would think that, OK, we’re standing at the base of this building looking up. Who’s going to be able to tell if there’s a curve four inches off to the left or the right? But it mattered to him, and it mattered to us."
Rechichi said that no matter how precise the design technology, it is finally up to his crew to execute the extremely precise construction.
“You have the advanced technology and programming and designing—the 3-D that we did for the curtain wall—but at the end of the day it was just this: the hands-on concrete masons and carpenters who were literally here, with their hands, installing these embedments which drove everything else," he said. Then he added, somewhat modestly: "I think the dichotomy there is pretty interesting.”