The story of New York architecture is, in many ways, the story of the city’s complex zoning laws and formidable market demands. Cooper Square Hotel, a new 145-room hotel designed by local architect Carlos Zapata and completed last year, is no exception. Klaus Ortlieb, the well-pedigreed hotelier whose résumé includes the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Mondrian, transitioned from a successful launch of his most recent project—the Hotel on Rivington, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—to this new hotel in the storied Cooper Square neighborhood.
Part of Manhattan’s East Village, the birthplace of punk rock and the famously gritty home of hippies, beatniks, and artists-on-the-edge, the neighborhood has, for decades, been decidedly counterculture. Now, however, this is beginning to change. The Cooper Union, one of the neighborhood’s incubators of cultural vanguards, continues to anchor the square, but with the recent Morphosis-designed academic building, a Gwathmey Siegel condominium tower, a planned Fumihiko Maki office tower, and the Zapata-designed hotel, the square is in the midst of a reinvention.
Ortlieb’s company, MK Hotels, originally acquired five lots, purchasing the corner lot and taking out a 150-year lease on four already built-up lots that flank it. He convinced the bar to the north to rebuild, but, to the south, two longtime residents of a four-story tenement building refused to leave (“They’re our hotel’s Eloise—only much older,” Ortlieb says).
So Zapata was tasked with negotiating not only the neighborhood’s cultural mosaic, but also a complex footprint involving an amalgam of existing buildings and their residual interstitial spaces. Zapata squeezed the glass-and-steel tower in between the bar and tenement, allowing it to bulge outward as it rises above neighboring volumes, giving it a dynamic sculptural form. He incorporated the tenement into the composition, which mitigates the impact of the tower as perceived from the street and creates a spirited tension between old and new from the hotel’s outdoor spaces.
“The hotel is like a tree,” says Zapata, “since we planted it at the base, and we allow it to grow as it goes higher.” On the penthouse level, a single suite features 360-degree views and a terrace that wraps around three of its four sides. This 1,600-square-foot outdoor space hangs over the bar and garden—and the elderly Eloises.
Zapata clad the building in an aluminum and fritted glass curtain wall. “The client didn’t want a dark building, so we looked first at glass,” he explains, “but I didn’t want any green tint in the glass because of the connotations [of] other commercial building types.” As a solution, the architect called for fritted glass, which gives the tower its milky white color. Unlike most frit patterns, Cooper Square’s runs vertically to accentuate the tower’s height and to manipulate the voyeurism/exhibitionism of the hotel’s guests and neighbors.
If the hotel’s volume is light and readable, the inside tells a different story. Antonio Citterio, the noted Milan-based designer, oversaw the hotel’s interiors and generated a warm atmosphere by coupling graphic patterns with traditional elements. A boldly abstracted foliage pattern covers the lobby and elevator walls, for example, and custom-designed furniture underscores the hotel’s contemporary aesthetic. Dark woods and slate subdue these moves. Corridors are narrow and dimly lit, and in the lower, public floors, they connect the different areas—lobby, restaurant, bar, terrace—in a series of byzantine circulations meant to encourage an interaction with the space. A garden, designed by Nathan Browning, stitches the spaces together.
“It is important to have the courtyard in the back,” Zapata says. He cites not only the opportunity to walk around the building to experience its different components, but also the relationship to the neighborhood’s architectural legacy. “It’s very common in the East Village to have a garden in the back. I recognize that we have a taller building, but the form—building and garden—is inspired by the East Village.”