Even though I'm immersed in the writing of my guidebook to New York City contemporary architecture, having put a kibosh on researching what buildings will be included, I still discover little gems that manage to work their way into the book. A good example of that is Peter Gluck and Partners' Urban Townhouse, which I found on the architect's web page yesterday and saw in person earlier today. (Like just about everything else to be found in my book, this house was featured on Curbed previously, though I'll admit it's hard to keep up with a site updated so frequently.) Similar to Gluck's other recent projects, the design is an exercise in random orthogonal patterning across the facade, in this case a small-scale pixelation clearly at odds with its old neighbors.
The townhouse is on East 51st Street, a pleasant street with three- and four-story buildings, steps from the towers of Midtown. Speaking with a man familiar with the area and its residents, when the house was slowly revealed with the removal of scaffolding reactions were polar: love it or hate it. This goes along with most contemporary architecture, especially when it is inserted in the historical fabric of the city.
Here the scale of the neighboring brick buildings is directly translated into the metal panels punctuated by openings about the size of a brick. The larger scale and rhythm of punched openings is eschewed in favor of a fairly monolithic reading for the facade. These metal panels, as can be seen below, sit in front of another wall with small rectangular openings.
What may appear to be merely a show by the architect is related to the townhouse's plan. With a small lot of 18' wide by 38' deep, the stairs are located along the front wall, instead of the usual location along a party wall. The stairs zig-zag up this face and act as a buffer between the public realm and the private areas of the house with more generous glazing towards the rear of the house. This zig-zag is subtly echoed by the rectangular openings and the clustering of small openings in the facade. A multi-level bookcase occupies the inside face of the street elevation.
This townhouse may look completely at odds with its surroundings, but it tries harder to relate to its neighbors than, say, Matthew Baird's Town House fronted by a single sheet of Cor-ten steel. The opposition in both is tangible, but the brick-size scale of the openings and the layered facade (something more apparent at night) are contemporary interpretations of historical precedents, be they historical or modern. Still, people will either love it or hate it regardless of its attempts (intentional or not) at finding ways to bridge old and new.