by Urvi KothariSep 18, 2022
What is architecture if not an assembly of different building parts in a variety of interesting ways? I would add—ways that are identifiable, relevant, and, therefore, personal. Buildings define our territories, they help or obstruct the ways we navigate our daily lives, break us apart or bring us together. They produce meanings and readings that either enrich or oppress our built environments. They also send messages, tell stories, and even allow us to change perspectives and points of view quite literally. Buildings may also serve as iconic markers. New York may have more of them than any other city in the world. But we don’t seem to have enough.
You spot the Chrysler Building and you know where to head for the Grand Central Station, while the Empire State Building will orient you towards the crossing of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. Dozens of explicit iconic structures were added here in recent years—a whale of Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Jenga Tower in lower Broadway, a bird at the foot of the World Trade Center—itself shaped like an obelisk—and a trio of a turtle shell, a woodpecker, and a giant wastebasket in Hudson Yards. There are buildings that assume the likeness of a caterpillar, peacock, snake, shark’s fin, gills, battleship, stealth, hunchback, crutch, hourglass, guillotine, twist, wave, saddle, feather, flower, and icicle to name just a few examples. The just-completed two-tower residential complex Eagle + West in Brooklyn’s northernmost neighbourhood Greenpoint is such a building. There is a lot it tries to tell us—about its location, form, materiality, texture, and even its street address. All that information is coded into the building’s enigmatic presence, even though Jason Long, its designer, and partner at OMA New York, US, told me during a recent walkthrough that his project’s resemblance to whatever it may be is entirely coincidental.
There are at least three reasons that make this charismatic structure quite special. First, it fits proudly into what now feels like a wall of new and coming residential towers ranging from about 30 to 40 stories and some aiming at heights upwards of 700 feet and more than 60 stories. This instant linear city has been steadily in the making along the eastern edge of the East River, stretching from Long Island City in Queens down to Greenpoint and South Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Second, this building is not only an intriguing object on the city’s skyline but a part of what will eventually become a continuous waterfront green promenade, which already functions as a series of parks, popular with both immediate neighbours and those who make a special effort to come here from all over the region for a memorable stroll with expansive views of awe-inspiring Manhattan spires, animated by zipping water taxis and hydroplanes that routinely take off from and land on the East River. The waterfront’s amiable ribbon of parks is already supported by tony restaurants, vintage shopping, and art galleries that make these gentrified areas among the most desirable places in the city.
Finally, the third reason that makes this structure of special interest is what attracted me to it in the first place—its remarkable form. The complex is by far the most visible building built in New York City by OMA, the firm responsible for some of the most iconic structures around the world—from Seattle Central Library and Casa da Musica in Porto to the Interlace in Singapore and CCTV Headquarters in Beijing. There is a genuine belief in the profession that architecture’s iconic period, which arguably peaked with the completion of the CCTV building in 2012, is long gone. Other themes such as architecture’s engagement with landscape, focus on ecology and energy saving, the economy of means, adaptive reuse, regionalism, public access, mixing programs, and so on are the ones that preoccupy architects nowadays. Architecture is no longer form-driven, critics say. Undeniably, Eagle + West reflects many of these trends that, over the last decade, shifted the profession’s obsession with designing ego-centric works of art to delivering eco-conscious problem-solving buildings. However, this new complex rebuts quite blatantly any sentiment that the iconic period is over. But let’s learn more about the project.
Eagle + West is the central element of what is referred to as Greenpoint Landing, a 22-acre elongated site with 1,700 feet of public shoreline curved along the East River and its tributary, Newtown Creek, which runs eastward, splitting two boroughs apart—Brooklyn to the south and Queens to the north. This area around Greenpoint, nicknamed ‘Little Poland,’ is being revitalised and developed by Brookfield Properties and Park Tower Group. The mega-development is in the process of adding new streets, public parks, a school, retail, and 5,500 apartments, 1,400 of which will be affordable. The OMA’s complex rises from a trapezoidal footprint that sits with its short, diagonally cut side facing the East River. The site’s opposite eastern edge is formed by West Street which runs in a north-south direction. The complex faces a T-intersection defined by Eagle and West streets. It is after these two streets that the building is named, and its official address is 1 Eagle Street.
The waterfront site, which used to be off-limits open-ground storage for construction equipment, is a part of a sweeping rezoning from manufacturing to residential that the city initiated here in 2005. Developers were encouraged to create entirely new high-density residential areas in exchange for opening access to and along the East River and including in their schemes at least 30 per cent of affordable units.
Regulations for what could be built on the building’s site seem to be quite precise, but as exemplified by a variety of already completed towers, possibilities are in no way restrictive. The lot’s zoning allowed for a maximum of 860,000 square feet complex, which had to be shaped into a seven-storey 70-foot-tall podium with two towers, each with a maximum floor plate of 11,000 square feet and not exceeding 30 and 40 stories with respective heights of 300 and 400 feet. In 2017, the developer oversaw a closed architectural competition in which OMA emerged as the winner. The other two competitors were Foster + Partners and Handel Architects, the firm that not only designed several other towers in the area but also was responsible for developing Greenpoint Landing’s master plan.
According to Jason Long, the prescribed scale and setbacks would result in barely 40 feet of separation between the two towers, which would make it too uncomfortable for residents and turn the building into practically a solid wall, visually dividing the new neighbourhood. Alternatively, the architects reduced the towers’ footprints to allow for a 60-foot gap, resembling the scale of a typical street. After going through multiple schemes, the final solution represents two towers that rise out of a podium while simultaneously leaning toward and away from one another. The towers are made up of seven to eight storey blocks—they help to relate the overall mass of the new building to the much smaller scale of the existing neighbourhood—some slightly shifted, others cut at angles, to capture the favourable city and river views and to achieve more privacy. The taller tower is closer to the water. It is top-heavy and is defined by several cantilevers facing the lower tower to the east, which features traditional setbacks utilised as private terraces.
There are 745 units—half are one-bedrooms, studio apartments make up a quarter, another quarter consists of two-bedrooms; 24 three-bedrooms constitute just three per cent of all units. All apartments are rentals and 224, or exactly 30 per cent of all units are affordable. The building’s podium comprises underground parking, retail, three residential lobbies, amenities, and most of the affordable housing—some face outside and others overlook the internal decorative garden. The rest of the affordable apartments are situated in the lower tower. The west end of the podium is fronted with ground-floor loft-style apartments, each distinguished by a private garden and unobstructed river views.
The podium comprises 42,000 square feet of amenities, including a gym, yoga room, and lap pool with stunning panoramic city views—an apt backdrop in future Hollywood movies—all stylishly inserted into a glazed bridge that links the two towers. Among other amenities are an outdoor resort-style pool, barbeque grills, outdoor terraces, sunbathing areas, a playground, green roofs, a spectacular double-height event room at the southern end of the bridge, a communal living room with cosy window nooks and shared work and study spaces, a game room, conference rooms, and a woodshop for handy residents. Common spaces are all organised into a handsome loop with multiple see-through internal and external vistas. All amenity spaces as well as internal landscaping are designed by Marmol Radziner, a design-build practice based in Los Angeles. The designers selected a welcoming light palette using such materials as concrete, stone, upholstery, and natural wood. They also commissioned local artisans to build unique furniture pieces. There is an overall sense of warmth and domesticity despite the project’s very large scale. The complex is surrounded by a public park designed by James Corner Field Operations, the New York firm hired for the landscape design throughout Greenpoint Landing.
Formally, it is the taller tower that attracts particular attention to its unique appearance. The reversal of New York City skyscrapers’ traditional ‘wedding-cake’ setback typology is both familiar and novel. The resulting silhouette evokes a variety of images. Pixelated bodies by British sculptor Antony Gormley come to mind. Seeing the tower from many different vantage points recalls both abstract and figurative images, seemingly seen one moment from the front and another from the back. The stepped edges of the gap between the two buildings frame dramatic city views pointing to new perspectives and alignments. Throughout the complex various angles, shifts, and setbacks provide unexpected moments for unique unit layouts and terrace opportunities. The form comes from the architect’s imagination, which provokes an interesting space, and then the space suggests how it can be occupied. It is a loop—form follows imagination and function follows form.
Yet, the image that seems to come through the strongest, whether entirely incidental, as the architect insisted, or intentional, is a giant wing pointing towards the water. This sensation is reinforced when one looks up from under all the cantilevers that alternate with their diagonal feather-like outward cuts. The wing image seems fitting with the building’s curious cladding. The entire curtain wall with a regular grid of eight-foot-by-eight-foot punched windows is assembled out of precast concrete aggregate panels. The architect refers to their randomly rotated lined pattern as “shingles” or “fish scales.” But my imagination reads them as feathers. One of the apartments I was able to visit is situated directly under a deep cantilever; it made me feel like being inside a bird’s nest tacked under a building’s cornice, or under the wing of a giant eagle.