West Side Peers

New York

Left: The crowd at the reception. Right: Ann Lamcombe and Richard Meier. (All photos: Jimi Celeste/PMc)

“I like the maid’s room, Richard” says a visitor, one half of a ballerina-and-polo-player-beautiful-couple whom architect Richard Meier is guiding around apartment 4B in his latest residential tower, 165 Charles Street, overlooking the West Side Highway. In a dark corner of the windowless little chamber is a video projection of shivering digital flowers. This turns out to be art by Jennifer Steinkamp, courtesy of Lehmann Maupin Gallery. There’s a faint whirr from the projector fan. “Well,” Meier says gently, “that’s a closet.”

Still, the closet is so well proportioned, with its frosty glass door, ebony-dark hardwood floor, and glinting hardware, that one could almost imagine living in there, domestically-employed or otherwise. (Especially with that digital projector for company.) That’s the point of this just-completed sixteen-story glass and white-steel edifice, the triplet of the pair of towers at the Hudson River end of Perry Street that Meier designed in 1999. While the apartments in those buildings were left as raw concrete and glass shells ready for customization by a brace of boldface names, 165 Charles has been designed down to the doorknobs by Meier, a consummate modernist known for his ability to create that fastidious calm attained only through exhaustively worked-out details. On a humid Wednesday evening, a party brings a hundred guests through the fourth floor model apartment, where halogen and sunset highlight the high-end touches in what is, according to the Vignelli Associates-designed pamphlet, “an environment that is truly a work of art … the first residence in Mahattan completely designed by internationally acclaimed architect Richard Meier.”

Left: The bedroom in apartment 4B. Right: Larry Gagosian and Richard Meier.

The designer is at this moment standing inside said work of art, surveying the good-looking crowd as it glides past the Miesian chaise in the living room. With his elegant black suit, luminous white shirt and hair, and black visor sunglasses, he evokes a convex Karl Lagerfeld. “The place looks bigger with furniture and people,” he muses, although the sublime floor-to-ceiling horizon views across the Hudson must help, too. Is it good to see another of his white towers bloom along the West Side Highway? “Three is better than two,” he says. How about even more towers, a miniature modern metropolis on the waterfront? The Modulor numerologist in Meier pauses to consider. “Maybe five. Not four.” Perhaps the fourth building in the story is already there: The Westbeth, that vast former industrial building just two blocks north, legendarily renovated by Meier into artists’ lofts in 1967-70, at the start of his career. In some ways it remains everything 165 Charles is not. In other ways, it is very much the same; both buildings feature erudite Corbusian forms brightly alighting on the grey surfaces of this dirty town. “Even Jane Jacobs liked it,” Meier says of the Westbeth. “You couldn’t do it today.” But today, of course, the idea of loft living has found its way from artists’ studios to the mainstream, even to apartment 4B. “These rooms have the same kind of scale and proportions,” Meier notes, “You don’t have to be an artist to need light and air.”

Back out on the sidewalk, in fading light and evening air, another apartment 4B visitor, an artist in a Bauhaus jacket who has lived in Westbeth since it opened, gazes up at 165 Charles’s new silvery facade, and out at the deepening claret sky over New Jersey. He won’t be drawn into the creaky topic of past versus present, art versus commerce. “The Westbeth was fine,” he says, “this building here is fine.” He looks over at the water and remembers, “There used to be the elevated highway here, three stories up. You couldn’t see the river. They had this corrugated metal fence between the piers. People used to curl up the corners of the metal and go through the dark to the water’s edge and have sex.”