The modern idea of a residence as a “machine for viewing” dates back at least to Le Corbusier, whose 1930 Beistegui penthouse along the Champs-Elysées had a periscope through which the client could look out over Paris. Eighty years later, French architect Jean Nouvel is using the term “vision machine” to describe the new high-rise condominium that his firm, in collaboration with executive architect Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners (BBB), has completed in New York City.
Just what kind of vision does 100 11th Avenue create? Sited on the western edge of Manhattan’s Chelsea district, the 21-story building provides suitably grand panoramas of the Hudson River. Yet its wraparound south and west façades are no ordinary glass curtain wall. To heighten the visual experience both from inside and outside, Ateliers Jean Nouvel designed a system of floor-to-ceiling “megapanels” containing different configurations of variously sized glass rectangles.
Each megapanel spans the full length of a room so that joint hardware doesn’t mar the view. Detailed by Front and fabricated by China Architectural Engineering, the unitized modules—the largest of which measures 12 feet by 37 feet—are mounted directly onto the structure. A stainless steel framework holds in place the puzzle of 32 window sizes while carving the vista into frames. (A slope in the ceiling shows where the slab, which is 9 inches thick at the building’s core, grows to 18 inches to encase perimeter band beams, which allow the ceiling and floor to extend column-free to the edge.)
Further upping the intricacy, every window is canted between 2 degrees and 5 degrees up, down, left, or right. Angled aluminum extrusions clad the frame exteriors, helping ensure that the nonaligned windows remain watertight. While the triple-layer glass is colorless from inside, three shades of low-E coating create an external patchwork of reflected hues. Nevertheless, a discerning eye perceives the grid layout of the megapanels among these jumbled lenses, as well as the occasional repetition of glazing patterns.
The semi-enclosed glass-and-metal screen that follows the street wall along the bottom five levels permits balconies and extra rooms for the lower apartments, plus light wells and a restaurant space on the ground floor. The screen and the curtain wall end at the building’s northwest and southeast corners, leaving cliffs of dull black brick to face the heart of Manhattan. This contextual material echoes the anonymous warehouses and tenements of Chelsea, but with a twist. The cut-out windows’ seemingly random proportions, heights, and tilt angles hint at the hyperarticulation lurking just around the corner. Sliced out of bedroom walls, these apertures offer more-elusive city views.
“The fundamental design ideas find their way into the most minute details,” notes John Beyer, partner at BBB. Behind its veneer of chance, 100 11th Avenue’s unitized façade is about ordered complexity. It becomes a vision machine not by virtue of its internal workings, but by reorienting its viewers to the site and the city.