Split Surface: Highline 23

Neil Denari + Andrew MacNair

Project Notes from Office of Neil Denari Architect

Developed by Alf Naman and currently in construction, HL23 is a 14 floor condominium tower that responds to a unique and challenging site directly adjacent to the High Line at 23rd street in New York’s West Chelsea Arts district. With the first phase opened from July 2009 (from 12th-20th street), the High Line will extend north until its terminus at 34th Street in its second phase to open in 2010. This new linear park, elevated above the street 25 feet on the existing rail infrastructure, offers people new chances to interact with the city’s rich architectural heritage and its vibrant future. Designed by Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the High Line Park advances a merger between various urban ecologies both found and implanted. HL23 is a structure precisely shaped by a confluence of these forces.

Partially impacted by a spur from the elevated tracks that make up the High Line superstructure, the site is 40’ x 99’ at the ground street floor. The site and the developer demanded a specific response yielding a project that is a natural merger between found and given parameters and architectural ambition. For the client, the question was how to expand the possible built floor area of a restricted zoning envelope. For the site, a supple geometry must be found to allow a larger building to stand in very close proximity to the elevated park of the High Line. Together, the demands produced a building with one unit per floor and three distinct yet coherent facades – a rarity in Manhattan’s block structure. Consisting of one condominium per floor, the main living areas and views are oriented toward the south, while the east faНade facing the high line is formed as a sculptural surface with smaller windows allowing privacy and framed views across Manhattan. A custom, spandrel-free curtain wall of glass and stainless steel mega-panels hang on a complex, cantilevered steel frame, generating expression within systematic economy. Since the building sits in the middle of the Chelsea Arts District, it attempts to deliver a commercially viable, highly crafted object that can take its place among the art shown in the nearby galleries.

One of the hardest aspects of architecture is to sustain idea from conceptual start to constructed finish.

The client does not really want to hear all about it. The contractor couldn’t care less. The city may like it but never understand. From early flash, first sketch, hunch, glimmer, the ideas, and the feelings for what a building can be is captured in the minds’ eye with intent to be built. The grueling part is to sustain that flicker – going from the unformed to the formed, from flash to construction to finished building. What usually happens is that as it goes along, we architects try to not only transform idea and feeling into built final form but also find we have to protect it – this is the Egg of Architecture: strong one way, delicate another.

As ideas enter construction, it is astounding to watch the idea grow to take form in what is still a raw, grubby day-to-day process of building. As building grows out of the ground, off the street, up into the sky its frame is the kinetic skeleton – both supportive of physicality and generative of idea energy. Idea being the being building building: ground up, inside out.

Over the past few years – watching the shifting tree-like frame in the new Highline 23 by Neil Denari – we saw a new building genre of a bio-mechanical kinesthesis evolve: Piece by piece the broken angular steel frame leapt up, over, across several floors defying the very gravity that steel tracks, trains and trestles and buildings must defy to hold physical loads of weight, wind, motion, snow up, across, under, around, and over.

The Highline 23 tower morphed from rational frame to abstract tree to human – from the norm to exception. As it rose, the building bent one way out over the Highline tracks and park, then stepped the other way out to the street without the usual gymnastics of the oujiboard push and pull that many architects blithely use to superficially twist and turn tower models with wet, whimsical finger tips.

What Denari has done is to build a vertical trestle, a vertical crossorards between street on groub, tracks on trestle. and a vertical zig-zag bridging – as its own dynamic XYZ intersection. It is both an adventuresome work of structural engineering as well a work of architecture second (donen in conjunction with DiSimone Enginneers.) Apartment dwellers live in the pressure, or the gaps between a vertical trestle at the pinch, the squeeze, the crunch, and rip of a charged urban intersection – thus we get a pinched, squeezed, crunched, and ripped totemic tower.

The final challenge of sustaining intended ideas and feelings in the building process of architecture is the excruciating moment when frame is finished and skin goes on and over frame. This is such a crucial and difficult moment of either making or breaking the manifestation of idea into building – most buildings are ruined when the outside material goes on. Someway this most important aspect is not discussed in schools of architecture, and somehow most architects ate pretty terrible in making the building come true. It, meaning the “It of It,” or the Architecture of the architecture, and architect, gets so radically changed by burying the kinetic energy of inside, structural construction that the outside goes flat and dead – the reason is not that the interior structure must be expressed, this is too easy and still goes flat and dead, but that volume of space within form is killed. There is no volume. There may be the resulting form but volume is missing. Skin usually is badly done; buildings then are mere cartoons of their original computer renderings.

Neil Denari seems to understand this. We see it, feel it. His taut metallic skin stretched over and between frame expresses the shrill of engineering forms exuded by pressure, the forces of mathematics calculating a quiet strength of what appears in the end as a flattened steel frame, and dynamical physics of human anatomical operations pressing, bulging emphatically outwards showing power via firm, bio-mechanical inner volume.

In an ancient Greek column volume was called entasis. In Frege’s philosophy it is called Farbung – volume as voice with color. Essentially, It is about energy not just matter. Most towers in Manhattan today are only about their form and skin as a decorators wall paper for a mere expressive surface – and they thus and then most new towers in New York do not matter – they have eliminate, or forget about number, math, physics and are just sweet, new cartoons without material, weight and – what Rupert Sheldrake calls – “morphic resonance“ – a connective field of waves of universal energy… Is Highline 23 the morphic locomotive off the tracks?

In the recent exhibition, curated by Sylvia Lavin with Hi-C at Ace Gallery in Los Angeles, the press release says:

The Artless Drawing” focuses on the graphic work of Neil Denari produced between 1982 and 1996 just before digital design became ubiquitous. Although painstakingly made by hand, the perfectly rendered drawings appear to have been generated by a machine rather than by an architect seeking artistic expression. The exhibition showcases the extraordinary range of manual techniques Denari used to create what is now his signature style and reveals that Denari made these drawings less in the manner of an artist or draughtsman than in that of a human computer.”

While this may be true, this statement bows to the holy god of the computer, when in fact we mere mortals can do drawings by hand that the computer does not and will never do. We are still superior in hand, mind, and spirit to the machine. What is more interesting and most relevant about the drawings of Neil Denari is the working out by hand of the tug-of-war between the biological and mechanical analogies – deeply engrained in the polemics of the Modern Movement – in a super realism where thinking and care for work and working out of ideas in architecture operate in a passionate and convincing cathexis, rigor and exactitude of study to be built down to the foot and at times even to the inch.

Highline 23 reflects this dual investigation into machine as living organism, Neil has taken on and sustained this dualism for decades and developed a syntactical taxonomy for building buildings within contextual planning at all scales in all environments. The Highline 23 Tower for example is mechanical machine and body of bones and skin with bulging muscle, plugged-in, and almost ready to roll down the tracks. One feels that if it could, it would.



This is a little independent tabloid magazine looking into three expanding fields of Architecture, Not Architecture, and Not Not Architecture between ancient and future time and space.
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