Mercedes House Adds A New Letter To New York's Architectural Alphabet

08/09/2011 08:14 am ET | Updated Oct 09, 2011

NEW YORK -- In 1980, when Steven Holl wrote "The Alphabetical City" in Pamphlet Architecture, he focused on how the shapes of nine letters -- T, I, U, O, H, E, B, L and X -- were represented in urban buildings.

If he were to update the essay in 2011, he'd have to add the letter S.

That's because the Mercedes House, the first phase of which is now complete here at 53rd Street and 11th Avenue, has added a new form to this city. The building, designed by Enrique Norten of TEN Arquitectos, occupies more than half of a large city block. Its two towers are connected by a diagonally-rising form that makes the building look, from the air, like an S.

The design responds, in a way so many rental apartment buildings do not, to the precise conditions of its location. It rises to its tallest point on the east side of the site, hiding the adjacent AT&T switching station and opening views to De Witt Clinton Park to the west. The diagonal connection separates two outdoor courtyards that each face outward to the city, at once connecting residents to New York and separating the large building's mass from the street. The building shrinks down to a low scale along 11th Avenue, highlighting Mercedes' new flagship dealership and visually connecting the building to its neighbors.

"This building couldn't happen anywhere else," Norten said in an interview. "In a city that's so tied up with rules, and where it's so hard to build anything, we're proud to show that you can still come up with a new something."

It's not just the massing of the building that's new; many of the details are equally thoughtful. Packaged terminal air conditioners are fixtures of many similar buildings here, but their grates are more often than not an eyesore. Here they are either hidden by louvers or a perforated aluminum rainscreen system that manages to give the facade additional texture.

From the courtyards, the building almost feels like a cruise ship. And yet, for the rents being charged, one wishes it felt more like the Queen Mary 2 than one you might see advertised at Liberty Travel. The artificial wood fencing and exposed equipment makes the patios here feel less extraordinary than they should, and the hallways on each floor are as bland as the building's facade is exciting.

None of these mistakes are Norten's fault. The interiors and construction management for the project were handled directly by the developer, Two Trees Management. Norten acknowledged that it was "a little bit hard" for him to see the spaces outfitted by someone else, but he insisted that he still has "huge respect" for Jed Walentas, who now largely runs the day-to-day operations of Two Trees, which his father founded.

After all, the Mercedes House will contain a whopping 1.3 million square feet of commercial and residential space when finished next year. The project began in 2007, required a significant zoning change and won the support of neighbors. Mercedes at one point pulled out of its deal to become the anchor retail tenant -- though Toyota and Lexus were ready to take its place -- and the NYPD still hasn't finalized a deal to place its horse unit in a 40,000-square-foot space on the ground floor. (If the police can't find the funding, Walentas said he hopes a grocery store will take the spot.)

And even with the economy melting this summer, there are almost no available apartments left in the first part of the building, and rents will likely be higher when the rest of the units open next year.

So perhaps, as Walentas said by phone, "good architecture really is a good investment."

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