Site Review: Selling the New Cool(haas)

Located in Manhattan’s fashion, design and gallery district Soho, the sales office for Rem Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s (OMA) new residential tower 23e22 stages itself as an artwork and luxury lifestyle space rather than a home. The choices of design, media and location for the sales office address several marketing and branding problems inherent in the high-rise condominium tower project, and build on Koolhaas’ previous projects in New York. 23e22 – still in the early stages of construction – is located in a relatively quiet area where office employees account for most of the foot traffic and daily activity. The choice of Soho for the sales office maximizes walk-in traffic and visibility. The neighborhood’s various associations with the cutting edge in fashion and design also lend the building a chic glamour that is reflected in the various advertising materials, renderings and related media that have accompanied the building’s marketing campaign. Additionally, the space’s design reflects Koolhaas and OMA’s typically adventurous promotional style and the building’s luxury branding and target demographic.

The 23e22 sales office at 27 Mercer Street (between Canal and Grand Streets) occupies the entire ground floor of a landmarked loft building near the southern edge of Soho. The space is organized in and around a scale model of 23e22 lying on its side. The building’s design starts from a narrow base (33 feet) and rises over the shorter structures to the East as it expands to nearly twice its width (63 feet) before narrowing again in its top floors. As a result, the horizontal model creates a slow staircase in the sales office. Within this grid-marked, sloping space, two models of the building offer details of its exterior surface and its location amid neighbors – including the nearly completed 60-story tower One Madison Park, with which it shares a ground floor multi-purpose space. Copies of Koolhaas’ S, M, L, XL are arranged throughout the space and certain windows give onto the hallway that snakes around the giant model. In some of these windows, small models of the conical ground floor lobby and screening room provide a sense of 23e22’s public entrance. The U-shaped hallway that leads around the outside of the model features a view of the skyline overlaid with 23e22’s metallic grid façade pattern on one side, a small lounge space and kitchen near the back, and a wall of information about the building, its design concept, its relationship to neighboring One Madison Park and the work of OMA.

The 23e22 sales office deploys a variety of media to support and heighten the condominium building’s visual and architectural appeal. Some of the mediated texts incorporated into the design are very traditional: the inclusion of Koolhaas’ famous book S, M, L, XL is a strong signifier of class, educational background and taste that addresses a very specific audience; the prevalence of architectural renderings and models assumes a certain level of literacy for such graphic representations; meanwhile these representations’ frequent repetition throughout the space elevate their status to art objects – another symptom of the sales office’s location in what used to be New York’s foremost art gallery district. The model of the ground floor screening room – a partnership with Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the entertainment industry’s foremost talent agencies – invokes another mediation structured around private screenings and exclusive film-related events.

The space’s construction also turns the building model itself into a medium, framing views of a wall-sized skyline photograph that simulates 23e22’s most exclusive views to the North (views only made available by the building’s spectacular 30 foot cantilever). The sales office itself also acts as a medium, representing the official marketing and information campaigns for a building still in the earliest stages of construction. The real building may not be finished yet, but its existence in so many other forms functions as a guarantee. The wall of digital renderings, charts, maps, cross-sections and texts explaining the design apply the language and presentational mode of museum displays, thereby implying the project’s value as art. The rhetoric that develops from the various media in use at the 23e22 sales office frames the building alternately as a luxury good for consumption and an art object for aesthetic appreciation.

That dialectic between art and commerce stems from and informs much more than 23e22’s overt media representations. It also issues from Koolhaas’ portfolio of work – especially in New York – the partnership with CAA, Soho’s fluctuating neighborhood identity and the previous role of the sales office’s building at 27 Mercer Street. 23e22 will be Koolhaas and OMA’s first new building in New York, but the architect and his studio have designed several interiors in the city, all of which are organized for the presentation and consumption of media. Most famously, the Prada store (pictured above) very near the 23e22 sales office in Soho was designed to incorporate a programmable public venue in its staircase-shaped performance venue. Predictably, this hybrid of public and private space and programming has been unsuccessful, and the Prada store maintains the brand’s exclusivity. This stair-shaped performance space is re-cast in 23e22 as a screening room that will be visible from the street, but exclusively for the use of residents and CAA events. Here again, Koolhaas/OMA strikes a tenuous balance between public space and accessibility, and one wonders who will receive priority the day 23e22 residents and CAA clients try to use the screening room at the same time.

Another stair-shaped interior Koolhaas has designed in New York is the Second Stage Theatre at 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue in Midtown (pictured at right). Here the ongoing dialectic between art and commerce inherent to the Prada store and 23e22 sales office’s location in Soho recurs within the dual role of Midtown Manhattan as a business and theater district. Adding to this contrast, the Second Stage Theatre is housed in a landmarked bank building. Rather than refurbish the interior, Koolhaas kept the majority of the building’s details (the box office is inside the old bank vault). By inserting seating into the main bank space, areas behind and in front of the stair-like structure become a lobby and stage. This simple manipulation of negative space creates an incredibly effective space that is an excellent performance venue and highlights the architectural grandeur of the original bank building. A similar rhetorical strategy is at work in the 23e22 sales office, whose gradual stairs evoke both a stage and seating. Here, though, the spectacle on display is the multiplicity of representations of 23e22, shining under elaborately designed lighting. As much as a performance space, the sales office also evokes an art gallery.

Not surprisingly, Koolhaas/OMA’s most similar New York design to the 23e22 sales office is an art gallery in Chelsea – the neighborhood that displaced Soho as the city’s foremost gallery district. For Lehmann Maupin’s Chelsea space (at right), Koolhas/OMA inserted a plywood trapezoid into the ground-floor warehouse, creating a main room with adjoining offices, side galleries and reception. By inserting a new construction into the gallery, Koolhaas/OMA effectively turned Lehmann Maupin into a permanent display space for their structure. The distinction between the art and the architecture that organizes it becomes increasingly blurry, an ambiguity the 23e22 sales office takes a step further. At 27 Mercer the space is the artifact being displayed and it organizes the gallery to display itself. However, this paradigm of installation art and architectural modeling works as a sales mechanism, creating an immersive experiential space midway between a gallery and a boutique that doesn’t necessarily give any sense of the homes in 23e22, but mimics its structural daring.

This confluence of the architectural rhetorics of visual art and conspicuous consumption is all the more fitting given the sales office’s location in Soho – once the most vibrant gallery district in the world and now mostly an open-air luxury goods mall. A coincidental but no less telling symptom of Koolhas/OMA’s use of art display paradigms to sell 23e22, one of the previous tenants of 27 Mercer Street was the gift shop of the Guggenheim Museum before it moved to its Frank Lloyd Wright building Uptown. Turning iconic artifacts into objects for consumption is in the space’s walls, as it were. In addition to luxury housing and architectural spectacle, the sales office offers the cultural cachet of Koolhaas/OMA as part of its sales pitch. An entire section of the wall space is devoted to detailing the work and style of the international architectural office – referred to in one section as “a leading international partnership practicing contemporary architecture, urbanism and cultural analysis.” In addition to an exclusive, luxury item and limited edition art object, the 23e22 sales office is selling Koolhaas/OMA.

The sales pitch isn’t completely convincing though, and certain elements of the sales office don’t match the building’s veneer of spectacularly affluent exclusivity. The lack of a typical apartment interior image is striking – the only unit showcased in any detail is the top floor’s $45 million penthouse. The lounge at the back of the sales office (at right) presents a disjuncture between Koolhaas/OMA’s frequent use of neon colors (especially orange and green) and 23e22’s prevalent aesthetic of black, metallic silver and glass. Here, foam chairs in playful shapes and colors break with the self-serious luxury branding of the sales office and building – a mismatched effect furthered by a carpet made to resemble green lawn. The nearby kitchen nook is similarly incongruous, with its neon yellow walls and stack of cookbooks. While the rest of the sales office categorically excludes any details of daily life in its representations of 23e22, here suddenly the effect falls apart. Marketed as a space for looking (its very form is predicated on peeking past its tall neighbor to create views to the North) and being looked at, this slippage admits the very mundane activities like cooking and relaxing that go unmentioned throughout the rest of 23e22’s sales media.

With these various marketing strategies and media displays, the sales office for Rem Koolhaas/OMA’s 23e22 deploys visual and rhetorical strategies familiar from various other media to selling luxury housing. The space alternately recalls an art gallery, a museum, a luxury goods boutique and an art installation. These effects are heightened by the office’s location in Soho and Koolhaas/OMA’s previous projects in New York, all of which are straddled between the worlds of art and commerce, seeing and buying, contemplation and consumption. Despite this formidable marketing machine and spatial-visual experience, certain details bare testament to the very rudimentary functions this art building must fulfill as a functional home for its exclusive clientele.

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