OMA’s New Tower Steps Out From the Crowd

Event: Helfand Spotlight Series: 23 E. 22nd Street by Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA)
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.06.09
Speaker: Shohei Shigematsu — Partner and Director, OMA NY
Organizer: Center for Architecture
Sponsor: Slazer Enterprises

23 E.22nd Street

Office for Metropolitan Architecture

In the 1978 book Delirious New York, a young Rem Koolhaas remarked that Manhattan “has fed, from its conception, on the splendors and miseries of the metropolitan condition — hyper-density — without once losing faith in it as the basis for a desirable modern culture. Manhattan’s architecture is a paradigm for the exploitation of congestion.” A new OMA tower epitomizes that impulse to exult in density and make the most of a congested air space, as a recent talk by Shohei Shigematsu and an accompanying exhibition about the building at the Center for Architecture showed.

Like a young kid peeking from behind a more straitlaced parent, a midrise tower at 23 E. 22nd Street will cantilever nearly 30 feet to the east to gain views of Madison Square Park, which otherwise would be blocked by the adjacent 60-story One Madison Park to the north. At the same time, the OMA-designed tower avoids blocking the light coming to the terrace of the next-door building, Shigematsu explained. The stair-like shapes of the new building also playfully allude to the traditional setbacks of the city’s architecture.

“Somehow, [in] New York we are a little bit either lucky or doomed to face a lot of interesting moments,” Shigematsu observed, citing past projects that never came to fruition, such as the hotel at Astor Place and the Whitney Museum extension. This latest project, though, seems on the luckier side: it’s nearly recession-proof, since it shares a base with One Madison Park, which is near completion, he added. The new tower — OMA’s first in the city — will include 18 residential units, a restaurant, and a Creative Artists Agency screening room, which will be prominently visible from the sidewalk.

Though the design received considerable publicity when it was unveiled last year, one of the joys of the talk and exhibition was getting a glimpse into OMA’s process. Some other potential designs, such as a tower shaped like a spiraling stairway, make the final choice look comparatively tame. In the end, the firm went with a design that’s largely guided by the limitations of the site and its zoning. Angling over to the east not only improves views, it also allows the tower to rise higher by skirting to the side of a 250-foot height limit, Shigematsu said. The strategy was made possible by obtaining air rights from neighboring buildings.

The tower gains the necessary structural strength through a form “like a corset that braces the building at the center,” he said. The middle of the building is denser, with smaller windows and lower ceilings, whereas the ceiling heights of the units towards the top and bottom of the tower are higher, creating loft-like spaces. In a move that somehow makes sense in the building’s topsy-turvy geometries, windows are placed on the floors of cantilevered spaces, creating a sense of connection to the bustling street life below. It’s a fitting flourish for a building that seems to defy gravity, in both meanings of the word.